Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tips For the Beginner

[This was originally posted by me on Facebook in the Nova Scotia Roots group and has been edited to be a little more generic.]

Any time you are starting with a tree (yours or someone else) you need to start with what you know and go from there. Here are some tips I've learned from my 15 years of messing up my tree and subsequently making things right.

Ask family members if they have saved copies of obituaries of family members. Do they have birth, death or marriage certificates squirrelled away in a desk or safety deposit box? Ask for copies of those documents and use them as the starting point. Ask family members questions about events they remember, especially if you might have photos or documents to jog their memories. Have a recorder handy and just let them talk. Save the recording as a sound file to your computer (if you don't know how, check with your nearest teenager). Besides have the recording handy you will also have their voice retained for posterity.

If you can get back to the 1910s and 1920s in Canada (1930s and 1940s in the US) then the census records really come into play. In those documents you may find additional ancestors. However, remember that the birth dates in the census records are possibly lies. Always taken them with a grain of salt, especially if consulting the 1901 and 1911 census of Canada records.

See if there are web sites that have indexes or images of birth, marriage, and death records. Some provinces and states, like New Brunswick, do an amazing job in digitizing and placing online those records for free. Others only provide an index and you will need to pay for the records to find those nuggets not recorded in the index. Yet don't forget that if your ancestors lived near a border, the life event may have taken place in another province, state or country other than where you thought they were living.

Make use of and if you have a subscription or a library near by with access to use that site. If you are researching ancestors in the England, Ireland, or Australia then is another great resource. There are also several sites with newspaper archives like the Google Newspaper Archive,, and But learn how to do searches on those sites. Some of the transcriptions are horrible and manipulating the search to find those records that apply to you will be rewarding. Also remember that indexes are just that, pointers to the records. Always try to view the record itself and not the transcription.

Find and join your local historical and genealogy societies. They are there to educate, share experiences, tips, frustrations and joy. This brings up another important aspect of learning about your family's history, take the time to learn how to do genealogy research correctly, use the various software and web-based tools, and history in general.

Finally, like many other hobbies, this one does incur some expenses. Sometimes it is a few dollars for a copy of a record all the way up to a flight across the country to visit a museum or archive to look at the one document that could answer the all important question ... "who really are my ancestors?" Set a budget as to how much you are willing to spend in a month on research. Otherwise you just might be shocked at how much you have spent last night when you were on ScotlandsPeople and just needed to get one more record.

But most of all, enjoy this hobby/vocation/avocation and spend time with the living.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Take a Break From Research to Learn About Researching

Genealogy is an interesting field in that we touch upon so many areas of history. Unlike coin or baseball card collecting we just can't quickly look up all the information about an ancestor in a catalogue.

So what can we do? 

We can educate ourselves!

First of all, learn about the standards that are out there. The best known is The BSG Genealogical Standards Manual published by the Board for Certification of Genealogists. It has been recently updated and is a must have for any serious or even semi-serious researcher to have on their bookshelf.

Next, start attending meetings of your local historical or genealogical societies. Even if they aren't talking about an area of personal interest you may learn about different ways to research and new sources of information. Plus you can commiserate with other like minded souls and share your own happy finds and brick wall problems.

Look into attending courses and seminar at your local schools. Many school districts are now providing evening and weekend adult education courses on doing genealogy research.

Then there are the online webinars and videos from the various companies that create the software used to document your trees. Here a just a few I've made use of:
Don't forget about genealogy blogs and groups on Facebook. Katherine R. Willson has created an amazing list of over 3,600 related genealogy pages found on Facebook. It can be found at You will never know what tips will be talked about and lessons about history as other people write about their family history or research projects.

Finally, there are the university styled course from organizations like the National Institute for Genealogical Studies1. Their online courses cover many aspects of research from the very beginning stages of where to look for records to the all important methodologies of research. Even when I took the most basic of their courses I learned something new. There are also online course from the New England Historical Genealogical Society.

Tip for the day: take some time away from your research to learn more about researching!

1In order to be above board I do have to disclose that I am a student of the National Institute for Genealogical Studies but I do not receive any compensation for mentioning them.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Record Sources and Keeping an Open Mind

Recently while helping out another researcher I pointed out that a microfilm available through the Family History Centers might have the very answers the person was looking for. The reaction to the suggestion of requesting that film was surprising to say the least. Once I explained that the Family History Center were under the auspices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I ran into a very interesting prejudice. I won't repeat what the researcher said but it was clear the researcher considered The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not to be a religion and wouldn't have anything to do with them.

Instead of arguing with the researcher and as this work I was doing was pro-bono I decided not to continue the relationship with this person. However, it did leave me thinking about the impact of our own prejudices and our research.

In my research into my own relatives and also when doing work for others I've used resources from all kinds of places. The most obvious are those that have been gathered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and made available either through or at the Ottawa Stake Family History Center. As they state at

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the primary benefactor for FamilySearch services. Our commitment to helping people connect with their ancestors is rooted in our beliefs—that families are meant to be central to our lives and that family relationships are intended to continue beyond this life."

Now I'm not a follower of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but I can certainly understand where they are coming from both as a religious organization and also as a collector of documents to support their missions.

I've also used records generated by the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei when they were the government of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. If you don't recognize that name they are also known as Nazis. For me I've used both the military service records of an officer and also the records concerning those that survived the Holocaust. As much as I personally abhor what was done in Germany at the time I do appreciate the comprehensive record keeping by the government. Those records have shed a light into the personal histories of the people I've been researching.

I've always tried to keep my personal viewpoints out of my research and have tried to keep an open mind as to the attitudes and social beliefs of my ancestors. I am not here to judge their actions through the eyes of my own ethics and morals. I am only here to record their lives. As The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual published in 2000 states on page 3:

7. Information is collected dispassionately by
  • setting aside any bias, preference, or preconception that might color what is collected from the record; and
  • suspending judgment about the information's effect on the research question until after it has been collected from the record, analyzed, and correlated with other findings.

So I pose the question to you ... does it really matter to you, as a researcher, where the records you need come from?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Have You Googled Your Ancestor?

Many new genealogy and family history researchers often get stuck when looking for information on their ancestors. Many times it is because they develop tunnel vision and only look on the web site that their on-line tree resides whether it be on Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch or the various other sites that exist. The advantage to using on-line trees is that many of those places can do the searching even when you are asleep. But if you don't look elsewhere you may be missing out on many other sources of information.

How about starting with the obvious place to search on the Internet for your relatives ... an Internet search engine like Google or Microsoft Bing.

Start with searching for your ancestor's name. If it is a common name you will be overwhelmed with search results for everyone but the person you are looking for. This is where you need to know something about the person you want to find. I will be using a distant relative of mine, Evelyn Starr, as an example. In my first search just for her name I came across the web page for a company, a Facebook page, someone on LinkedIn, White Pages listing, and an author. All fairly recent people all still living. Doesn't help me since I know she is dead.

So is there anything that might distinguish my Evelyn Starr from others with the same name?

Well, in reading through the various census records I noticed she listed her occupation at one time as a violinist. That is definitely a fairly unique occupation. So I added the word "violinist" to the search query along with her name. Now what shows up first are old newspaper concert reviews from the New York Times in the early 1910s and also from newspapers images in the Google Newspaper Archives from the same period. There is even a link to another researcher with her in an on-line family tree. She just wasn't a violinist, she was a concert violinist of some renown. There is even a clue as to whom she studied under (Leopold Auer) and fellow students like Efrem Zimbalist and Jascha Heifetz. For me, as a lover of music, that was an amazing find.

Even if your ancestor is someone without a distinguished career like Evelyn there is always something in their lives to set them apart from others. Try adding the name of the town they lived in or the name of their spouse or children.

So when you think you have exhausted all the records on your favourite genealogy web site try going back to basics and do an Internet search for your ancestors. You just might be surprised as to what you will find!