Most of the process of becoming an experienced genealogical researcher involves the realization that there are more sources than you will ever have time to research. From diaries and journals locked in trunks in attics and basements, to new digitized databases on the large online websites, there seems to be an unlimited supply of resource material. I have been online now since the Internet had a total of six websites and have had a front row seat to the explosion of information available online. But that is only the tip of the iceberg of information waiting to be put online. I think one of the major steps in the transition from being a passively interested genealogist to becoming experienced, is taking that first physical trip to find records.
That first trip may be a simple as a visit to a cemetery to find a grave marker or as complicated as a visit to a major research library, but it is this step that begins the transformation of a novice into an expert. My journey began with visits to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Going to the Family History Library can be an overwhelming experience because of the huge number of microfilms and other resources for searching. But even a visit to the Family History Library is not the same as searching for individual records in cemeteries, local historical societies and other place where records are kept. If you feel either economic or time restraints in planning a visit to a remote location, try the alternatives; phone calls, email, physical letters (yes, you can still send a letter), contacting friends or relatives or other genealogists in the area and many other options.
Here we go with the five steps.
Step One -- Make sure you are looking in the right place.
I write about this point and teach about it continually. Most of the problems I encounter with researchers' inability to find an ancestor originate from looking in the wrong place for records. I might also add that knowing how to follow where the records may have moved over the years helps also. You absolutely must make sure you have positively identified a location where your ancestor lived. This is necessary for each ancestor. I don't mean the general area, I mean exactly where the ancestor lived as close as possible. For example, finding a grave, confirmed to be the right ancestor, is finding an exact location. You may have to use maps, gazetteers, online place lists and other resources, but it is absolutely necessary to identify an exact location. Without an exact location, you are guessing that you have found the correct ancestor.
Why is this necessary? Because genealogically relevant sources are created at or near the place where the event occurred. This rule implies that you can also identify the appropriate jurisdiction where the event occurred. This means, you have the right county or country in existence at the time of the event and that you have the name of the place at the time also.
Step Two -- Begin your search for records, not for people.
Too many inexperienced genealogical researchers start immediately looking for names and dates rather than understanding what kinds of records might be the most useful given the times and places where events may have occurred in an ancestor's life. For example, the most common method of approach is to search for the person, by name, in an online website. One of the first experiences of a newly minted researcher is the realization that a whole lot of people had the same name as the target ancestor. Because of the huge amount of information online and because most beginners are looking for recently living ancestors, it is common to immediately begin finding records for an ancestor. Unfortunately, these early successes lead many researchers to think that searching in Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org is all there is to doing genealogical research. Nothing could be further from the truth. To continue being successful in finding records about your ancestors, at some point you need to begin looking for records and put searching for names into the background.
Step Three -- Find out about the records.
It is interesting how many genealogical researchers never use probate or land and property records because they don't understand them and don't take the time to learn how they work. Every class of records has its own unique jargon. In addition, all records are limited to specific time periods and places. Without knowledge of the record, what they do and do not contain, you can waste a lot of time looking at records that cannot possibly contain information about your ancestor. Take the time to understand how any particular type of record was recorded, what information was and was not included and how your ancestor may have been recorded.
Step Four -- Milk the records you do find for all they are worth.
Records pile up like pancakes in different jurisdictions. For example, there are local records, county records, state records and national records. You need to be aware of all the records that exist at every level of jurisdiction in place at the time of an event in your ancestor's life. This may become a real challenge, especially if you are searching in "Germany" in the mid- to early 1800s. You will soon find out that during most of the time, Germany as such, did not exist. You will need to understand what records were or could be generated at each jurisdictional level from the local church parishes to the national governments as they changed frequently.
Step Five -- Carefully examine and evaluate each record found.
I see too many researchers who, upon finding a record such as a U.S. Census record, just file it away or attach it to their ancestor's file and then forget the record. You need to look at every record for clues as to where additional records may be found. The new researcher thinks their work is done once they find the record, now they can move on to the next ancestor. It is not that simple. Every record found suggests additional records that may also be available. Once you grasp this concept, you will be on your way to packing your bags for your first genealogical research trip. Most people think genealogists find people. To some extent that is true, but it is more accurate to say that genealogists find records about people.