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Become a Better Researcher in Just 6 Steps

Become a Better Researcher in Just 6 Steps

Sometimes it seems like the leap from a hobbyist to a professional genealogist is too big. First there is getting a degree, and then possibly a credential, and then working as a professional. However, just by knowing a few tricks and resources, you can easily know how to research your family history like a professional!

1. Get offline. This is perhaps one of the hardest things for hobbyists to do. Online research is so convenient, and it's much easier to give up by declaring that the records for your ancestor just don't exist, or they're too hard to find. However, there are TONS of available records that are not yet online! It is important to research some documents in person, as this is the only way they can be found. Another mistake is that some people don't realize that the information online may not be complete. By having the original record, you can be sure you're not missing some vital pieces of information. Make sure to find out what records are kept at the state archives, the county archives, the local libraries, the county courthouse, and the local genealogical and historical societies. The availability of the records, and the record types, will vary by location. It will take several phone calls, maybe some money, and either travel or hiring someone to find what you're looking for. But in the end, the information you find will be well worth the time and money!

2. Learn about the area. Professional genealogists don't always know how to find things in every area off the top of their head. They have to do some pre-research about the area. Make sure to find resources that can help you research a specific area. If you are researching in the United States, a great little-known resource is found at the National Genealogical Society website. They have booklets for about half of the states (at the time of this writing), and more are added as they are completed. These booklets are invaluable for researching in a specific state. The booklet contains a list of the major repositories along with their website/address, the record types that are useful for research there, popular religions along with contact information for their headquarters, and much more. You can either order a paper copy, or a pdf copy. The printed copies are more expensive than pdf, and if you are a member, they are discounted. Go here to learn more: Another resource is the FamilySearch Wiki, which has information on several countries as well as each state in the United States. They have videos about different topics for each area. It's worth checking out:

3. Perform a "thoroughly exhaustive search." In the professional circle, it is expected that when researching information, a thoroughly exhaustive search will be performed. This doesn't mean that you can be sure of a birth date after finding two documents. It is important to find all of the documents that could possibly exist with the information in question. Different documents will have more or less reliability, and it is important to search out all of the documents to come to a conclusion on the most correct answer. (See "Why Records Have Conflicting Information" below, for more about the reliability of records. And click HERE for a free reliability guide!)

4. Sometimes the answers are not spelled out in any document. This can also be a tough one for hobbyists. You are looking for concrete proof of the parents of your ancestor, but there are no documents that declare the names of the parents! This is very common. Professionals use several documents to prove things indirectly, and come to a sound conclusion once there is enough evidence to suggest a likely answer. They will also research all of the other possibilities to rule them out, narrowing down the likely answer. This makes many hobbyists uncomfortable, but in most cases, this is the only way. Professionals know that the answer may change if new information comes to light after they make a conclusion. Give it a try! Start researching all of the possibilities, and narrow down and research some more, until you can come up with a likely answer to your research question.

5. Write it down. Professionals don't come up with conclusions based on their genius. They keep research logs, create timelines, create family trees with dates, and transcribe written documents. By keeping track of the information you find, you will notice patterns or details you didn't notice before. Timelines can help you visually conclude that a child couldn't have been born in that family, or that there could be a missing child. Timelines can help you organize the details of relocating, epidemics, severe weather, etc. and how those events impacted the family. Transcribing written documents can help you filter the information much easier. You can objectively look at the information and come to conclusions.

6. Research the FAN club. Many times professionals need to research a person's "FAN club" in order to break down brick walls. FAN is an acronym for Family, Associates, and Neighbors. It sounds time consuming, and it is. But by researching the people that interacted and lived near an ancestor, more information can be obtained. Perhaps a neighbor married the daughter of your ancestor's family and moved to a new state. The possibilities are endless, and this is a step that is important not to look over.

By using these tricks and resources, you will find yourself feeling more comfortable and confident about your genealogical research. So, what are you waiting for? Now you know how to research your family history like a professional! 

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