Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Genealogy Do-Over - My Thoughts

A Genealogy Do-Over – on the one hand the idea sounds delightful; on the other hand it sounds more than a bit intimidating. Thomas MacEntee's restart button post and program have caused quite a stir in the genealogy and family history community (was it only published 17 days ago?). So if you know what I'm writing about - are you (a) all in, (b) thinking about it joining the restart genealogists in some fashion, or (3) wondering if everyone else is crazy because your family file is in pristine shape? I have been giving this restart discussion a bit of thought over the past week and decided to weigh in and resurrect my poor neglected blog while I was at it!

How long ago did you start working on your family history? Did you begin as a name gatherer? Did you move - more than a few times - among genealogy database software? Did you take the time early on to cite your sources? Do you have a consistent method of data entry? Do you review and spring-clean your master lists (event, location and source - just to name a few)?  Have you taken the time to learn about the history and locations that your family history research takes you? Do you have a workflow that works for you? Could another genealogist pick up your research where you left off and proceed confidently to research the story? Your answers to those questions will probably determine whether you plan to hit the restart button come January 1, 2015.

For my part, I am lucky enough to have had some excellent teachers early on in my adventures in genealogy. I attended four SLIG weeks – three of which were excellent and provided me with a wonderful grounding in methodology for American Records (Paula Stuart-Warren), Technology/Internet (Barbara Renick & Debbi Horton) and Irish Records & Resources (David Ouimette & David Rencher). We won’t discuss the unnamed week which was terrible but did provide me with an entire week to research at the Family History Library. 

While at the Family History Library, I heard a voice calling me to work on my Scandinavian ancestors. Actually it was the FHL mic system informing patrons that the Scandinavian methodology classes were starting. Since I was not having much luck with whatever I was working on, I decided to take a break and attend. In hindsight this was a terrific decision and that set of classes taught me how to carry my Norwegian and Swedish families backward and forward (Liv Anderson, Anka Haslam, Wilma Larson & Ruth Maness – who will always be the Fabulous 4 FHL Scandinavian Consultants - were excellent teachers and translators). 

I was also in the right place at the right time (visiting family in Oregon) when I saw a notice for the annual weekend genealogy fair put on by the Oregon Genealogical Forum, with Elizabeth Shown Mills as the keynote speaker and an instructor. Of course a road trip to Eugene, Oregon and genealogical nirvana ensued. Early on I found Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems website and listened and learned from Family History Made Easy as well as her long-running Genealogy Gems podcast.  

I have also had the good fortune to be part of a group of Legacy Family Tree users in the Legacy Virtual Users' Group Community on Google+ (almost 800 members strong). We share tips and suggestions, best practices and help each other learn how to get the most out of our genealogy database software of choice. Finally I have learned so much from my fellow members in the Guild of One-Name Studies and the Society for One-Place Studies who share their knowledge and enthusiasm on a daily basis as I engage in surname research and location research (two of those specialized family history projects I enjoy). As you can see my first eight years of family history research has coincided with great learning opportunities from some of the best genealogy teachers out there. 

So what lessons did I take away from these teachers and do I follow on a regular basis?
  1. DO YOUR OWN WORK – as tempting as it might be DO NOT IMPORT A GEDCOM into your database (sorry cousin, I made a point to research everything you provided with fresh eyes and a doubting mind).
  2. CHOOSE YOUR OWN GENEALOGY DATABASE PROGRAM – read the reviews, ask questions, but most importantly play around with the free versions and determine which is most intuitive, will fit your needs best today and in the future, and then LEARN YOUR PROGRAM. For those of you who are familiar with the Harry Potter series, I tend to think that your genealogy database program chooses you (but I digress).
  3. WEAR YOUR THINKING CAP - family history does not occur in a vacuum so we need to bring to bear everything we know and be open to continuing education. Spend the time to learn about the history, geography, economics, language, culture, important events and religion of any place where your ancestors lived. Taking the time to learn now will pay huge dividends in the future when you are trying to understand your ancestors’ lives and their choices.
  4. CITE YOUR SOURCES – take the time to learn not only how to cite your sources, but also why you cite your sources. If your genealogy database program has templates, spend some time working through them so your master sources are ready and waiting for your research finds. You cannot do any better than Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills. Those of us who were required to learn about source citations for our undergraduate or graduate work or employment understand that there is an art and a science to source citations. Learning the reasoning and methodology gives you the ability to craft your own source citations, which is an excellent skill (and Evidence Explained is there for you every step of the way).
  5. HAVE A GOAL (OR A FEW) – what do you want to do with your family history? Once you answer that question you are in a good place to determine your plan and figure out the steps to take to achieve your goals. If you know why you are doing something and have made a plan or have a strategy, you can proceed with confidence.
  6. DETERMINE YOUR WORK FLOW - give your current work flow some thought (or take a look at someone else's workflow), be willing to tweak it, and then follow it until it becomes habit (one of those good habits). If you can make the process easy and predictable, you will be able to focus on the substance of what you are doing. It is always substance over form but there is no reason why you can’t have both.
  7. BE A STUDENT – think of genealogy as a continuing education program - whether that is through podcasts, webinars, hangouts, online forums and groups, seminars, courses, reading, society or association meetings, presentations, or research as part of a group or on your own – be willing to learn something new on a regular basis. 
  8. HAVE FUN – genealogy is, for most of us, a hobby that has turned into a passion. Just remember to enjoy the process and the people you meet along the way. Be willing to help others simply because it is the right thing to do. Don’t think that you know it all or that you are “all that.” The genealogy world is a small one and it is welcoming and inclusive, but no one wants to be used or abused. Word gets out quickly about those who are selfish, destructive or mean-spirited just as quickly as it gets out about those who are helpful, supportive and kind. Be the latter not the former.
Are my Legacy family files perfect? No! Are they in pretty good shape because I follow my own rules? Yes! Will I continue to improve my knowledge base and skill-set in 2015 by following along with the Genealogy Do-Over? YES. I am going to use the Genealogy Do-Over to tweak my system but I don’t intend to hit the restart button because I had the good fortune to start working on my family history within the past eight years and had some excellent teachers. But my process can always be improved upon and that is why I will follow along and am willing to learn.

I encourage all genealogists to take a look at the planned topics for the Genealogy Do-Over. Think about where you and your family history research fit in on the Do-Over continuum and what lessons and changes to your process (genealogy-wise) might benefit you in 2015.
  • Are you a beginner, have you simply gathered names and/or failed to cite your sources, have you taken everything you have seen or been told as unquestioned truth and entered it into your software (or worse, online)? Then the full-fledged Do-Over might be just the thing for you.
  • Perhaps you started out with little direction or focus but through the years you have learned your software, educated yourself through in-person or online opportunities, gone back and put your sources, locations and/or events in good shape. Then perhaps you should follow along (listening and confirming the areas that you have set to rights) and joining in on the areas that still need work.
  • Are you an intermediate or advanced genealogist who has already been through this process – maybe you started this same type of project a few years ago when you switched genealogy database programs or started using additional programs (GenSmarts, Evidentia, Custodian or Clooz to name a few). Perhaps you engage in specialized family history research (one-name studies, one-place studies, or special projects) and have already been through this exercise to improve your skill-set. Then perhaps you should follow along and provide an assist to those who are just starting or continuing on this project.
The Genealogy Do-Over really does have something for everyone, whether you are a beginner, an intermediate, or an advanced genealogist. None of us is perfect (this may come as a shock to some out there!) and we should always strive to learn and share best practices while we do our best possible work every day.   

Thanks to all the teachers, instructors and presenters that I have had the pleasure of learning from over the past eight years. Because of you, I will be following along with the Genealogy Do-Over (but not hitting that restart button).

Happy New Year and All the Best in 2015.

The image used is from Thomas MacEntee's blog dated December 15, 2014 (link above)


  1. Well said Tessa! That's kind of the approach I am taking. I will review each of my lines and make note of what is missing and will also look again at paper files to make sure I have gleaned all the information that they hold.

  2. Not for me Tessa. I often go back and improve my work -- yes -- but a "restart" is a genealogy over-do-it (IMHO)

  3. Excellent post, Tessa. I'm in the beginner-intermediate genealogist, with some things done extremely well, and others quite - not! I want to leave my kids/cousins/others with a family tree that has real value - not just in the names/dates/places, but also with any stories and photos I can find. This do-over is my chance to add real quality to my work to date. And one day, maybe, I'll be able to get down to Salt Lake for one of their week-long Institutes. Age, money, and health issues are making it somewhat challenging for now, but I'm ever hopeful. Thanks for this helpful and thoughtful post today.

  4. Great post Tessa. I’m in much the same boat having started my research fairly recently and commenced with ‘how to’ classes, plus, after much research I have less than 1,000 people in my extended Irish family. I feel like I ‘do over’ every time I look at a lineage. I’ll certainly be following along though, to see how I can improve my methodology... By the way, my GG-grandmother was a Keogh, I also have a Cavanagh GGG-granny and some Tucker in-laws - all in Dublin ;)


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