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If I had to start again, this is what I would do.

This winter, I’ve been teaching a serious of family history classes at my local archives. The audience is all beginners with less than six months of experience in searching their ancestors. There is a great deal of information to impart on them and I take my role as their teacher very seriously. I wanted to give them the best possible advice. They are inspiration behind today's post.

In preparing for the classes, I took a long look at my research and genealogy journey to decide what I wish someone had told me back in the beginning. I asked myself, if I had to start again, what would I do differently.

If I had to start again,

I would create an organization system, from the start and be consistent.

We are so excited for the hunt for our ancestors, we don’t take the time to save our discoveries adequately in the beginning. By the time we realize we need a sound organization system, we are knee deep in genealogy stuff. Creating an organization system in both paper and digital is critical. Create a workflow, and cheat sheets for your file systems and file naming systems. File your documents as you find them. That catch-all folder, whether, it's for paper or digital, it is just an excuse to put off what you should be doing immediately, keeping your research in an organized fashion. Create systems, make cheat sheets, be consistent.

I would interview family members, immediately.

I asked this question of the 25 members of the class, how many had interviewed their family members. Not one person raised their hand. Do not dismiss what others may know about your family history. At some point, you will regret not carrying out those interviews. I did get to those interviews, and what I learned is that they contained a wealth of information that could have saved me much work if I just asked my relatives around me first. It can be a little scary starting those first interviews, but they are worth your time. 

I would learn and follow the principles of GPS.

The best foundation to begin your research is to understand Genealogical Proof Standard, an excellent foundation for guiding your research and decision-making process. I learned GPS, eventually, but had I taken the time upfront, I would have saved myself a great deal of time in the beginning if I had applied the 5 Steps to Proving Your Family History

I would cite my sources from day one. 

Again, I wish I had taken the time to cite all of my sources, not the willy-nilly approach I took 15 years ago. I also wish I had invested in Evidence Explained as a reference manual from the beginning. I know now, I don’t have to commit citations to memory. Now I have a lot of work in getting my sources and citations under control.  

Learn and understand what information you need to capture for a citation, and take the time to record that information. Give yourself the ability to retrace your steps, allow others to retrace your  steps and prepare yourself for writing your family history, even if it is years from now.

I would be very careful with family trees.

When I started my family tree online, they were new and all the rage. I certainly didn’t foresee what a problem they could become. Today, family trees need to have a warning label attached to them, “For clues only, not to be used as a source.”  Today, it is especially important for beginners to understand the pros and cons of information found in family trees and to proceed carefully.  

I would invest money in my genealogy education.

I wish I had invested some money in my knowledge and education. I would have been much further along than I am today. Conferences, webinars, local workshops at archives all provide opportunities to advance your knowledge of research methods and available resources. You can waste much time searching for information to advance your research. A little monetary investment can go a long way in making workshops and webinars work for you.  

I would visit an archive in the early days of my research. 

I started my family history research online.  I found and began my research. While I was familiar with local archives, it was years into my research before I ventured into one. I wish I had made that step earlier and stepped out of my comfort zone.  I wish I had overcome my trepidation of archives earlier in my journey. Today, I volunteer as a researcher in my local Archives, and I don’t know what took me so long. Visit your local archives today.

That’s my list. You might have a few of your own to add to this list.

Go ahead, finish this sentence,  or tweet your answer

If I had to start again, I would......

Happy to hear your comments.


Colleen G. Brown Pasquale said...

Yes! I agree with all your items. I would also take and LABEL more photographs of the family.

Ann Hinds said...

I am doing a start from scratch Do-Over with the Facebook group. From 2500 people to currently 83, completely sourced people. So, starting again, I transcribed all the information on the census reports on blank forms. What a learning experience that has been. My grandfather didn't die in Billings, Montana and they moved four times before landing at the place I know. My great grandmother is probably 10 years younger than originally thought. In my haste to gather the information, I missed all the small details that bring them to life.

Jackie Corrigan said...

If I had to start again, I would realize how very useful it is to note the names of godparents, witnesses at marriages, and neighbours on the census! Helps break down a lot of brick walls.

Lynn Palermo said...

Absolutely, Colleen, I'm still working on those photographs.

Lynn Palermo said...

Good for you Ann. Great lesson, Family trees, it's about quality not quantity.

Lynn Palermo said...

So true Jackie. I always believed my 5th great-grandfather was alone in Canada, until I found a relative listed as a godparent in a baptism.

Devon Lee said...

If I had to start over, I would focus more on the heart of family history... the photos, memorabilia, and the memories. There is time to do the research, but capturing and preserving the family photos and 'stuff' and the stories behind or in addition to these is so fleeting. I thought I'd have my grandparents and parents around so I could ask them questions as time in my personal life became available. There is more time now, then in my early child rearing days, but those who know are deceased. I champion the idea of starting family history/genealogy by preserving what can not be accessed after the person who knows dies. Then I seek out the records that will 'be around' later.

Kristin said...

I would talk to my grandparents about their lives. Interview more people in a more systematic way. And get them to tell me who all these strangers are in the photos. I still haven't visited the archive that is not too far from me, I should do it soon. And I would meet more 2nd cousins earlier.

Lynn Palermo said...

I agree Kristin. Talking to our grandparents is the biggest missed opportunity. However, when my grandparents were alive, I was young and didn't think I cared about my ancestors. We all come to that realization a little too late. I applaud those who figured it out early enough to have those conversations.

Jacquie Schattner said...

I TOTALLY agree on the interviewing. I treasure the information I have from the interviews I do have. As for what I'd do differently, is something that was not available when I started but if I was starting now, I'd keep much more files and paperwork electronically. I have two file cabinets - 4 drawers each of neatly filed birth, marriage, death, and land records. I would have scanned those instead of printing out thousands of documents. So much easier now.

Salli Rice said...

Where were you Lynn nearly 20 years ago! Thank you for this blog entry and to your previous entries that you linked to. I would like your permission to print this blog plus the ones you referred to. I recently met a young professional woman who is interested in starting her family genealogy and I believe your information would be most helpful to her. Last fall I decided to step back and start researching differently... step one was to try to figure out where all my information had come from... sure wish I had written down those sources! Step two was to choose only one family line with the goal to eventually prove back to my great grandparents on both sides. My trip to SLC this year will focus only on my maternal grandmother's line. I have a long way to go but at least this is a start.

Trish Funderburg Walls said...

I also started my family history research online with about 15/16 years ago and if I started over, I would start with your first suggestion, an organization system. The Family Roots Organizer Color-Code System by Mary E. V. Hill has a great system that I love. I also wish that in the beginning, I would have separated my family trees as opposed to trying to do it at a later date. Ann Hinds, I also just joined the Do-Over Facebook group, just haven't started my work yet.

Jana Last said...


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Have a wonderful weekend!