Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What are beginner's impressions of genealogy?

I have been helping three ladies just starting out in genealogy this past week and they had some interesting and consistent comments. In each case their knowledge about what they were getting into was extremely limited. They had no prior experience in doing research and had fair computer skills. In each case, I spent more than the normal few minutes helping a patron at the Mesa Regional Family History Center. One of the ladies spent 2 and 1/2 hours, the others were similar time frames. In each case we were starting out from zero, no names in the computer, except two of the ladies had Personal Ancestral File files from other family members. So what were their initial impressions?

The first impression that they all expressed was frustration with the amount of inaccurate information online. They were surprised that U.S. Census records had the family names spelled wrong and were even more appalled at the mistakes and bad information in One of the ladies was surprised that her relatives had submitted obviously wrong information to which she readily detected as wrong. In every case, each of the ladies were concerned about how they were going to be able to correct the wrong information. They were not happy when I told them that the program had no accommodation for making corrections to the existing files.

In each case, the ladies were concerned about the accuracy of the online information. Once they saw inaccurate information, they were skeptical that the rest of the information they found about their ancestors was accurate.  I was repeatedly asked how they could verify the information they saw on their computer screens. Their perception of unreliability was not helped at all by the variations in spelling in various records. Of course, if you have been doing research for years you come to expect spelling variations, but the ladies all started doubting that was they were finding was at all useful.

Obviously, the time I spent was not enough to give them an idea about genealogical proof. So they went away wondering how they were going to proceed. After an hour of so, each of the ladies said the same thing, they had no idea how complicated genealogy could be. Their impression was that far from being simple, the longer they spent, the more complicated it appeared. None of the three were ready to give up, but they remarked that they had a lot of homework to do before they went any further. In each case the reaction was entirely different than that portrayed in TV commercials or 5 minute instructional videos. There are those, I am sure, that would fault me for showing them too much too soon. Perhaps I should have just looked up a name in the U.S. Census and left it at that with them having no idea either what I had found or how to duplicate the search. Instead I opted for getting them started entering names into a popular software program so that they could see for themselves the process of entering new information into the program.

I believe the experience for each was positive. They all were very happy at the end of the sessions and felt that they had actually accomplished something and had files they could now use to start for themselves.

Here is my summary of what I see from those who are just getting started in genealogy:

Genealogy is not easy. It is difficult and complicated.
There are a lot of different skills used in genealogical research including the basic computer skills.
Online information is not always very reliable.
You cannot just push a button and come up with a full-blown pedigree.
Genealogy could take all your time if you let it do so.
Some of the online databases are not easy to deal with because of the errors and duplications.
Genealogy is worth the effort and is a real challenge.

It was very interesting to see these similar expressions from three very different people.


  1. Sounds like you had an interesting experience. I will admit when I hear the Ancestry ad on TV that says something like, "You don't need to know what you are looking for, you just need to start looking..." I cringe. Huh? They make it sound like it's so easy anyone can do it. Genealogy is complicated and may not be for everyone. I know it has been a learning experience for me. I'm glad the ladies you were working with had such great instruction and went home happy at the end.

  2. I thought the first step starting out was to "start with what you know", that is, your own and your parents' info -- birth and marriage certificates, education records, interview notes, etc, which are are likely to be hard copy and have inconsistent name spelling and contradictory details. Dealing with these issues are part of proper research skills and should make on-line inconsistencies and contradictions unsurprising.

  3. Cynthia, I agree with your thoughts about that commercial. Of course, you need to know what you are looking for. I hope new genealogists don't get discouraged by thinking it will be a snap.

  4. That's a great set of conclusions from your experiences.

    I would say that only if you are a sibling of an experienced genealogist with a well-populated family tree could you press a button and obtain a full-blown pedigree. If you could download it - Rootsweb WorldConnect lets you capture an entire GEDCOM (if the submitter permitted that). Ancestry trees are more difficult - you have to do it one person at a time.

  5. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. For (ahem) many years I have started beginners with a paper ancestor chart, as bgwiehle said,
    > I thought the first step starting out was > to "start with what you know", that is, your own > and your parents' info
    ...James, it sounds as if you started these women on computer sites, including new.familysearch. How did you decide what they should look for first? Without the paper chart, I wouldn't know how to guide them. When do we introduce websites, and software programs, to beginners -- and not overwhelm them? I'd appreciate your thoughts. Dolly in Maryland

  6. James, I have a question, as a user of Legacy database, Geoff had said early last year that all users of Legacy would have full access to LDS records, even those who aren't members of the church. Has there been any movement on that, that you know of?

    As for research, my sister started the family research years ago the hard way before computers. When she passed away I got all of her hand-written records to add to what I had already done so I had a decent start. Most of our ancestors immigrated here early 1800s and late 1700s, so records are sparse. I just keep looking though