The following was received in an email from Don Thompson :


The following suggestions and recommendations will be helpful to beginners and hopefully will prevent misfortune when learning how to do genealogical research. Many of these tips are "old hat" to experienced genealogists, but it is always worthwhile to remind ourselves of the basics of sound research.

1. ALWAYS note the source of any material you photocopy. If the information is from a library book, note the name, author, date, publisher and also the library where you found the book, or photocopy the title page. Occasionally you will find that you need to refer to the book again, or photocopy more information from it.

2. Make photocopies or carbon copies of ALL letters you write. This will save you from wondering which of your correspondents' questions you answered already, and which of your questions they have or haven't answered.

3. Don't procrastinate in responding to letters or messages you receive. If you don't have time to write a detailed reply, send your correspondent a quick reply or postcard to acknowledge receipt and give him/her a rough idea of when a reply will be forthcoming. Then be sure to write back as you've promised to.

4. When searching for relatives in records, don't pass over the entries that are almost but not quite right. For example, if you are searching for the marriage of John Brown and Mary Jones in 1850, make a note of the marriage of John Brown and Nancy Smith in 1847: this could be a previous marriage in which the wife died shortly after.

5. When writing to libraries or genealogical/historical societies in your areas of interest, ask them for the names and addresses of out-of-print booksellers in the area. Write to the booksellers and ask if they have any old local histories or family histories pertaining to the area.

6. Don't forget to make frequent backups of your computer disks.

7. Store backup copies of your computer disks and photocopies of your irreplaceable documents in your safety deposit box or someone else's home.

8. Remember that "if it's in print, it ain't necessarily fact." Information in recently published local and family histories is often based on that from older published works. If the older books are incorrect, the erroneous information is simply repeated and further disseminated.

9. The earlier the time period in which you are researching, the less consistent our ancestors were about the spelling of their surnames. Also, many of them were illiterate and could not tell a record keeper how their names should be spelled.

10. Family traditions of close connections to famous figures are usually false, but there may be a more obscure relationship involved. Perhaps the famous person spent a night at your ancestor's country estate instead of (as the legend goes) marrying into the family.

11. Try not to let your research get behind. Establish a filing system for your papers (using file folders or 3-ring binders) and file each page of notes, document, photocopy, etc. as you acquire it. There are few things more disheartening than contemplating a foot-high stack of unfiled papers, wondering if the birth certificate you desperately need to refer to is somewhere in it.

12. Double-check all dates to make sure they are possible, for example, a woman born in 1790 could not be a mother in 1800.
13. Be on the lookout for nicknames. A request for a birth record for Sadie White may be rejected if the name on file is Sarah White.

14. Beware of mail-order promotions offering personalized genealogies of your surname with titles such as "The Amazing Story of the BLANK Family" or "The BLANK Family New World Registry." These are usually little more than computer-assembled lists of names from telephone directories. Notify the Better Business Bureau, postal authorities and consumers advocate agencies if you receive one of these.

15. Don't assume modern meanings for terms used to describe relationships. For example, in the 17th century a step-child was often called a "son-in-law" or "daughter-in-law," and a "cousin" could refer to almost any relative except a sibling or child.

16. Remember that indexes to books rarely include the names of ALL persons mentioned in the book and, in addition, occasionally contain errors. If it appears that a book is likely to have valuable information, spend some time skimming its contents rather than returning it to the shelf after a quick glance at the index.

17. Be precise when making notes and especially when sharing information with others. Write dates using an unambiguous format: Americans interpret 5/6/1881 as 6 May 1881, but in many other countries it would be read as 5 June 1881. Always capitalize or underline surnames, some of which can be mistaken for given names, e.g., HENRY, HOWARD. Note place names in full, including parish or township, county, state or province, and country.

18. You will often encounter conflicting information and you will have to weigh it against other evidence to try to determine which is the most likely to be true. Periodically review and verify the conclusions you have reached concerning each of your ancestors' lives: this will help to prevent you from wasting time following blind alleys.

19. Place names and boundaries have changed constantly over the years. Always verify them in historical atlases or genealogical texts pertaining to the area. For example, the boundaries of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania have changed four times since it was first settled.

20. Whenever and wherever possible, advertise the surnames you are researching by submitting them to genealogical directories and surname lists published by genealogical societies that you belong to. This will put you in touch with others who are researching the same surnames, possibly for a much longer time. After all, the most rewarding genealogical research is that which no-one else has already done!

This was an article I wrote for The British Columbia Genealogist, vol. 17 #1, Mar/88. It was reprinted with some changes by the Florida Genealogical Society in their Journal, vol. 24 #2, Oct/88, and in the Canadian Federation of Genealogical and Family History Societies Newsletter, vol. 6 #2, Oct/93. If you redistribute or reprint this file, please credit the British Columbia Genealogical Society and send them a copy of your publication containing it. Their address is: BCGS, PO Box 88054, Richmond BC Canada V6X 3T6 -<>-<>-<>-<>- Margaret M. Sharon, Academic Computing Services, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby B.C. Canada V5A 1S6 604-291-4633 -<>- FAX: 604-291-4242 .