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

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Where do I start? -- Talking to beginners

There are a number of considerations I worry about when I talk to beginning genealogical researchers; primarily, I don't want to discourage them before they even get started. Additionally, I would like to make sure that I have given them a place to go to start their research. Over the years, I have noticed that most of the volunteers at the Mesa FamilySearch Library, automatically start by taking the person to a large online database, usually, to show the researcher a U.S. Census record. I would submit that this is done more for the benefit of the volunteer than it is to help the researcher.

Very frequently, the budding researcher will find a U.S. Census record for their family on and they will be dutifully impressed. But then, when they get home on their own computer, they find out that is a subscription website that they don't have access to. They are also at a loss as to what to do next. It is nice to give new researchers a taste of success, but I suggest this might be more useful if the newcomer is given records that are free online. I find that the most difficult initial concept that has to be learned is the connection between different types of records and finding ancestors. Most people (and many genealogists) are just totally ignorant of the huge spectrum of records available.

Another hurdle to overcome is the newcomer's expectation that they will find there "genealogy" all in one place. This may actually happen if the researcher has had genealogically inclined ancestors or other family members, but in most cases, the information about a family has to be accumulated from a variety of sources, many of which may not be immediately available. I often wonder how many potential genealogists get discouraged when they find out that they have to send away for a record or travel to another location. One common occurrence at the Mesa FamilySearch Library is people coming in to find an obituary. I am sure they are discouraged when I tell them that the local newspaper is on microfilm at the City of Mesa Public Library. Although the library is only a short distance from the Mesa FamilySearch Center, the person has to travel to the library to find the current newspaper films.

Most of the beginning researchers come in with a goal to find a particular ancestor. They expect that simply because they have a blank space on a fan chart or pedigree chart, they can come in and find that ancestor. This is most common among researchers who have inherited a pedigree file from someone else and have done none of the work to accumulate the file in the first instance. They fail to recognize that if there is a blank space, it probably means that the previous researcher could not find anything about that particular ancestor. Depending on how long the pedigree has been circulating, what has happened is that the previous researcher or researchers have simply passed their "brick walls" on to the unsuspecting descendent. It can be very discouraging for a new researcher to start with a known brick wall.

Here's what I suggest as a starting place for someone doing genealogy for the first time:

1. Examine the entire amount of information available in the documents, records and files available to the new researcher. This is roughly equivalent to the survey step in the Research Cycle. What I usually do is look at the person's pedigree and ask some questions about who the people are. When I reach the first person on the file who either has no sources listed or who the researcher does not know, I tell the person to start there. This is usually a disappointment to the researcher who thinks they need to start with the unknown person, but it is a basic tenet of research to start with the known and move to the unknown. If the research finds something they do not know, they move back a step and that is where they start. For example, as I go through a pedigree chart, I ask how much the person knows about each entry. When they start saying that they don't know this or that person, we start the research with that person's children. Until the entries on the pedigree chart become more than names, any researcher is spinning their wheels looking further back in time.

So, the simple answer to the question in the title to this post is to start with the children of the first person you do not know about on your pedigree. This tactic may not be as immediately satisfying as starting with the remote ancestor, but it helps to put all the research on a firm footing. Additionally, take the time to document the places you look and help the person to understand the relationship between finding records and finding people.

1 comment:

  1. I also have seen that people will call to the library, tell them the name, and expect to be handed a neat file with all their information.

    I suppose this expectation comes from watching genealogy programs on TV.