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

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What would you tell a budding genealogist first?

I deal with a lot of people who are interested in learning about genealogy but have absolutely no background or understanding of what it is about. Although you might say that about many people in the general public, the people I refer to are those who show up in my classes or during the times I am helping patrons at the Mesa Family History Center. So if you were in my shoes and talking to someone who was a very first time genealogical neophyte, what would you say?

One of the worst things you can do is to dump the whole load. In other words, try to explain everything at once. So if that is true, what do you say?

May I suggest asking some questions. These are questions I have asked potential legal clients for years and I find them to be very useful in the area of genealogy.

The first question is, What do you want to accomplish here today?
This is an important question because you may assume they want to learn all about genealogy and all they really want to know is how to find their mother's death certificate. They really aren't interested in the rest of your long explanation about how wonderful it is to find your ancestors. They might not even care about ancestors. If they say something, such as, I am interested in learning about genealogy. Then you might have an opening.

Other questions depending on the reaction you get from the first question.

What do you already know about your family?
We commonly sit the person down with a copy of a blank pedigree form and ask them to fill in everything they know. This is very important because you may be faced with someone who already has done an extensive amount of research about their family and doesn't know that what they are doing could be called genealogy. I have found people who could fill in two and three generations for memory, including dates and places. I also find people who do not know their own parents. Don't assume people are ignorant until they prove it themselves.

What is your skill level with a computer?
You have to be tactful about how you ask this question, but it is important that before you start clicking all over the screen you understand the level of competence of the person with computers. I see a lot of people in the family history center who are highly skilled computer operators, some with advanced degrees in information management. On the other hand, I see people who don't know how to type and cannot use a mouse. Where you go with doing genealogy may depend on this skill level. Why show them a record on if they cannot understand how to open a program. How about showing them how to fill out a paper pedigree chart and family group records before you start dazzling them with your own computer skills.

Where did your family come from?
This is a good question to ask before you get going too far into an explanation about genealogy. I have talked to people from Tonga to South Africa and almost everywhere else you can imagine. You just might want to know what you are getting into before discovering the really doesn't have every genealogical record.

One side issue I often see is with the volunteers, as soon as the person says they are from some country outside of the U.S. or Europe, the volunteer assumes they they (the volunteer) knows nothing about South Africa and therefore the person can't be helped and our South African expert is out for the day. Genealogy is genealogy and you might want to spend a few minutes with the FamilySearch Research Wiki and Cyndi's List before you give up.

Don't assume because the person comes in without anything in their hands, that they are not serious about learning more. I have had patrons who didn't know a name or date, start calling relatives from their cell phone and writing down information. Don't assume an attitude that will discourage this person from searching further.

You might have other strategies, but what I see with a lot of people is that they want to show the new genealogist all that they know and how much they newbie doesn't know. This is a really bad tactic.


  1. Great advice and as a budding genealogist, I'm pleased to say this is how I was treated at my local family history library. My volunteer asked me lots of questions to establish where I was at, then made a number of useful suggestions.

  2. First thing I always tell a newbie is drop the stilted title of genealogist if you want most family members to help and support your work. Call yourself the family historian and you will have much greater success.

    Keep the genealogy title for when your ego gets too inflated .....