Monday, July 14, 2014

3 mistakes to help rookie genealogists to fix (and avoid heartache later)

With the exception of Homer here (courtesy of the Simpsons art archive), most of us have to live with our rookie mistakes whether at work, at home, in knitting, or in genealogy. I was having a long email conversation with a friend over the weekend, and it occurred to me that others might benefit from the same conversation.

Her question (used with permission, thanks Helen!) All I did was correct her spelling to make it easier to read:

How does one teach a beginner the basics of how not to screw up without boring them to tears, scaring them off the hobby, or driving them into the arms of Ancestry.com and their commercial proclaiming them the loving guide to their families' genealogy?

My answer? Great question! Here are three foolproof techniques to use with beginners to capitalize on their excitement in genealogy but give them necessary tools to help them later on so these rookie mistakes don't haunt them for the rest of their genealogy life, in the context of the usual conversation I have with people.

The conversation starts: Answer their immediate question. Usually its "how do I read this?" or something of the ilk. Gain their trust. Then ask them how they know its their person. Usually this provokes a conversation about how they got their information.

Mistake 1 - Lack of documentation - Fix. Tell them to write down how they got there and save it with their person. It doesn't have to be fancy, it doesn't even need to be paragraphs. Even a bulleted list can save them years of work later. The idea is that they start to document their work, so they realize later what they did and can save hours of re-finding effort. Later on, these documents can serve as the start of their research logs and help them in future research.

They're intrigued, and the conversation continues. If they complain about common family names, ask them if they have made a family chart. This is easy with most family tree programs and can be created. If you can, help them print it out, put it in the cover of their binder, put it on the wall, or even make it into a picture to use as the background on their computer desktop.

Mistake 2 - Mixing up generations with the same names - Fix. Getting that family chart is still the best way to keep different members of the family straight, especially when you get into the generations of the Daniels, Joshuas, Jacobs, and Matthews, where all names are Biblically based and repeat each generation. Sometimes the things that they told us to do at the beginning in 1980 are still current and valid techniques!

Basic family charts are the one thing that I still recommend printing, not only because they are pretty :-) but because they can help out in so many situations. "When was grandpa's birthday?" "What was Bill's father's name again?" "Which Daniel Graves are you talking about?" etc.

Moving beyond the basics but not quite to intermediate. At this point, people normally start telling me how they ran out of information to find online and that they're looking for more. If they get to this point, that's great! That means they are out of what I call the "beginner identity" and are starting to look for more. Start talking to them about the great events coming up in the area, or the neat new library.

Mistake 3 - Realizing Ancestry may not have the entire guide to their family history - Fix. For the love of all that is holy, do not utter the words "Oh, you can't find everything online" and start ranting about inaccuracies in family trees online. The beginner is just starting to learn and move beyond this, and you've just dismissed all their work.

What you want to do is get them excited about the things that are out there offline. Pictures! Documents! Newspapers! There's all kinds of fun in reading about their ancestor, and they can find them at libraries, document centers, etc. Genealogy is a hobby, not a lifestyle for the majority of folks, and you want to keep the message on the positive, motivating things that got yourself involved in the conversation.

Conclusion - I know this seems simple. But over and over, I've had the same conversation with people and seen the same mistakes made every time. I often stop people at meetings and at the library and say "Hey, I overheard you say ..." and launch into this after they've had someone berate them for not keeping their sources or using online sources. The relief that they feel and the thanks they have for someone helping them (but at the same time, giving them some tools to launch them into the genealogy techniques) is well worth the effort to overcome and actually talk to them. 
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