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

Friday, April 27, 2012

Not as easy as you make it sound...

This is one of the saddest comments I have ever seen. It came in today to the FamilySearch Research Wiki Support Team:
Your course in research wiki states that if I click on "Learn" I will be able to type in my location or subject. All's I am getting is the message 'getting started' and I have done all your courses. I am discouraged at this point. I am not able to find my great grandfather in any of your records. Not as easy as you make it sound.
My heart goes out this person. Yes, unfortunately, it is not as easy as we can make it sound. I wish I could sit down with this person and help them find their great grandfather. I am not sure what the reference is to "your records." But, although this is an extreme example, it is not uncommon for people to somehow have the idea that we have a file with all their relatives and all they have to do is look at that file to get the information. There is part of the common misconception that genealogy is nothing more than looking at a list.

This is the kind of request that can only be really addressed through a one-on-one question and answer period. My recommendation to this person would have been to seek out someone to help him (or her) find what he (or she) is looking for.

I realize that it is highly unlikely that anyone who has a question like the one quoted above will ever read my blog posts, but I do have several basic rules or principles about getting started in genealogy:

Rule One
Don't build bridges in the air.
Start from what you know and look for information about known ancestors before you begin to look for information about a remote ancestor. In other words, this person needs to be looking for records about his grandfather, not his great-grandfather. Too many new researchers dive right in and start looking for a remote ancestor without ever taking the time or making the effort to "get to know" all of the ancestors in between. My most common suggestion is to step back a generation or more and find out about the family before you start trying to identify the next generation back.

Rule Two
Always look in more than one source
Failing to find your ancestor on the website or any other website merely means that either you are looking for the wrong person or have some wrong information or the person is not on any of the records on that particular website. No one website has anything close to all of the records that can exist for an individual.

Rule Three
Information about your ancestor may not yet be on the Internet
Although this particular person is asking about a great grandparent, it is not unusual for me to have younger patrons whose grandparents are still living or were alive within the last 50 years. Information about such individuals may still be subject to basic privacy laws and not yet on the Internet in other than special websites dedicated to lawyers, banks and other such businesses. On the other hand, there may be records about your ancestor in some specific location that have not made their way to the Internet as yet.

Rule Four
Don't give up if you don't find information immediately
Genealogy is not a pursuit for those who want instant gratification. Sometimes a search for an ancestor will take months or even years before the crucial records are found. Don't give up.

Rule Five
Ask for help
There are whole lists of ways to get help, mainly from other genealogists. There are online forums such as and others. There are Family History Centers. There are genealogical societies. There are genealogy clubs. Ask around, it is very likely that someone in your community will help you and usually, for free. Remember, you can always hire a professional to help you with your research.

What I would say to this person, I would say to all: There is help. There are resources. You are not alone and there is no reason to be discouraged.


  1. I volunteer for a Diocese of the Catholic Church and we search for clients for their ancestors Sacramental records.
    It is the same thing, some of them give us the name (ie John Brown) and ask for the information.

    There are hundreds of church record books and a half million people in the Diocese. Really, researchers need more information and a name.

    It is the same at the local library, they call and ask to have their information collected when they come to pick it up.

    I love the Genealogy shows, but it gives no indication of how many hundreds of hours it takes to collect and the impression is the work is done for free.

  2. Good post on some real basics. I plan to teach a beginners' class this summer and I wonder what assumptions they'll have.