Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Advice for Beginners - Part II

If you have followed the steps in the previous post, by now, you should have a basic familiarity with pedigree charts and family group records, your genealogy software should be installed, and you should have started your genealogy file with as much information as you have on yourself and your living relatives. Now it's time to really get into the nitty-gritty of research.

1) - Create an organized research plan. Far too many beginning genealogists make the mistake of haphazardly searching for anything and everything at once. Especially with the internet, it seems so easy to type a surname into Google and sort through the many results that come up. However, you will save yourself a lot of time and energy by being more organized and focused in your research.

The steps in the research process are: decide what information you need to learn, choose a source to look for the information, record what you find (including the sources searched), and repeat.

2) - Before I discuss very briefly the research resources available to you, I want to emphasize something that too many beginners fail to do: record everything. Of course, if you find the birthdate of your great-grandfather in a vital record, you will naturally add the birthdate to your genealogy files. However, what if the information you were researching led you through several different sources before you found what you were looking for? It is very important that you keep track of all of the sources you have searched, even if you found nothing. If you don't, you might find yourself searching those sources over and over again later, not remembering that the first search was unsuccessful.

This is where a research log comes in handy. You can find samples of research logs and research forms on the internet, or you can create your own simple one. Write down the ancestor's name and the information you are looking for. Then, as you search a source, write down the name of the source, what day you researched it, page numbers and any other details you'd need to find the source again, and finally, write down what you discovered, if anything. For example, let's say I am looking for my great-grandfather's children. I might search a census record in the area I know they lived in 1880. I would record that I searched the Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, 1880 census, enumeration district #12. If I didn't find anything, I would record that the search turned up no results. If I did find him in that census, I would record the information from the census sheet, as well as the page number of the census he was on. If possible, I would even save a copy of the census image on my computer in my Genealogy folder.

3) - Understand what resources are available to you in researching the information you are missing. Birth dates, marriage dates and death dates can be found in vital records, such as birth and death certificates. Obituaries, birth or wedding announcements in newspapers might also contain this information. Certain census years even record birth year, age, and in some census years, month of birth. Census mortality schedules might record the death date and place of an ancestor. Cemeteries might record not only burial information but death details, as well. Military draft cards or land records might record vital record information. In addition to these sources, you may find a family record on a distant cousin's website that contains a date and place you are missing.

Now is a good time to interject another recommendation. It is important to learn early on that some resources are better than others. For example, let's say I need to find the birthdate of my great aunt. I might find it on a personal genealogy website, but where did that person find the information? If you can find an actual birth certificate or birth announcement, or even government record like a social security application or a military draft card, you have a source that is much more likely to be accurate. In addition, someone else can see that you have a reliable source for your information. If all you can find is a birthdate listed on a family website with no source information, you can go ahead and record it as a source with the birthdate as potential information. Ultimately, however, you will want to track down a source that is more reliable and likely to be accurate.

4) - You can research several different pieces of information on different ancestors simultaneously. Just remember that you'll save yourself loads of time and spare yourself from duplicate research if you keep good records of what you are looking for and the sources you've searched.

In future posts, I will discuss different websites and resources available online and how best to utilize these resources, focusing your time and energy to get the most benefit out of your online research. If you have specific questions or want more information on a particular topic, feel free to contact me or leave a comment to a post. I check the comments often. In the meantime, happy researching!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Advice for Beginners - Part I

There are literally hundreds of articles out there on the web about how to get started doing genealogy research if you are a beginner. There are even free web courses (see previous post on free BYU courses) that offer good information for getting started. As a 30-year-old genealogist with over a decade of research experience, I wanted to offer some advice for beginners who want to learn the basics while immediately utilizing the technology available. Along with the standard information for getting started, I hope that I offer here some unique ideas that might help you save time and frustration in the long run. For purposes of brevity, this information will be in two different blog posts so you don't have to scroll for pages to read it all.

1 - Decide your motivation and reasons behind doing your genealogy. Many how-to articles skip this critical piece. Your reasons behind your desire to do family history might change what software programs you use, how much detailed information you keep on family members, and even what websites might be most helpful to you. It may seem obvious that genealogists do research because they enjoy it and they want to learn about their ancestry. However, LDS genealogists will usually find that their most important information is the critical vital records information and LDS ordinance data. While they may want to gather other information, it may not be as important to them. Their genealogy software will need to specifically handle LDS data. Some researchers may decide that they want to gather direct ancestors as far back as possible to share with other family members. Others will want to also include children of ancestors' siblings (commonly referred to as down lines research) in order to collaborate with distant cousins and others on family details. Just defining in your own mind what your ultimate goals are will help you know what information will be most vital to you and what you want to do with that information once you find it.

2 - Learn the basics of the traditional paper genealogy forms. With so many software programs available today for genealogy, it is easy for many of us starting out (particularly those of younger generations) to download a program and start using it. However, before we get that far, we really should decide on what information we will gather. Understanding the traditional paper forms that were used before the advent of computer software helps us to understand what we are trying to record. The two genealogy forms most commonly used for recording family history are pedigree charts and family group records. Pedigree charts are tree-like diagrams that show the direct ancestors of a single person. For example, your first pedigree chart would show yourself, your parents, your grandparents, and your great-grandparents. Usually, the pedigree charts include full names, birth, marriage and death dates and places. A family group record shows a couple along with their children. For example, your grandparents family group record would include each of them and basic vital information at the top along with each of their children and children's information. Most software programs are based on these two types of genealogy forms. Of course, depending on your answers to step #1, you may also want to record extra information, including military service, occupations, education levels, emigration and immigration information, residences, biographical stories, religion, and more.

3 - Many "getting started" articles at this point include the instruction to write down everything you know. Unless you want to use the paper forms, this step really should be preceded by selecting and downloading a software program. If you are a Windows user, I highly recommend starting out with Personal Ancestral File, or PAF. This is a free program offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has good functionality and an easy user interface. As you progress in your research efforts, you may decide down the road to switch genealogy programs to get more features. Since all genealogy software uses a standard file format (known as GEDCOM), you can always move your data from one program to another without too much hassle. If you are a Mac user, I suggest PAF if you have a virtual Windows desktop or are running Bootcamp. Otherwise, you'll just want to research Mac genealogy software online. Most of these programs have demos available for download so you can try it before you purchase anything. Take advantage of those demos.

4 - When you first start entering information in your chosen software, you'll need to decide where you are going to save the genealogy file that the program creates. I like to keep it simple. I recommend creating a new folder called Genealogy on your desktop or in your Documents folder. Keep your main genealogy file in this folder. Eventually, you can add other folders to this Genealogy folder for things like pictures, census images, scanned documents, etc.

5 - Once you have a genealogy program installed, you can now proceed to record everything you already know. This is easier than it sounds. Start with yourself. Enter in your name, birthdate and place, marriage information, etc. If you are married, you can add a spouse. Add your children and as much information as you know off the top of your head. Repeat this process for your parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents.

6 - Now look through any information you might have in your home. Look for records like birth, marriage and death certificates; obituaries or other newspaper articles; wedding or funeral programs; family diaries, journals or letters; family bibles; scrapbooks or baby books; school records; military records; family histories; and legal papers. You might be surprised at how much you already have at your fingertips.

7 - See what information you are missing on any living relatives and make phone calls to get the information. For example, you might have your grandfather's birth year but not the month and day. If you know your grandma has this information, give her a call. Information on the living is much more difficult to find through traditional research channels than information on deceased family members. This is why the recommendation is to get this information through phone calls or visits with other family.

Now that you have a great start to your genealogy file, the next steps will include getting familiar with the resources you can use, steps in the basic research process, and then moving on to actually finding information on deceased ancestors. I will discuss these things in my next blog post.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Free BYU web courses in family history...

There are so many great resources and articles currently available on how to begin family history research for the first time. I will soon add a short post giving my own insights on that topic, particularly as it pertains to starting your family history research in an internet-driven world. For today, however, I just wanted to share a great resource for the genealogist just getting started.

Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, offers free personal enrichment courses on its website. There are several courses on family history research. There are courses from Introduction to Family History Research and Writing Family History to learning the basics about Family, Vital or Military Records. In addition, they have a large section of family history courses that focus on research in particular regions or ethnic areas. This section currently includes learning about researching various types of French, German and Scandinavian records, as well as a class on Huguenot Research. I highly recommend going through some of the introductory family history courses if you are just starting out. The current personal enrichment course list can be reached here.

You can always find countless articles all over the internet about various family history research techniques and tips. However, before overwhelming yourself with pages and pages of Google results to sift through, I would suggest a simpler approach in the beginning:

1) - Take the BYU Introduction to Family History Research course online.

2) - Go through the courses on Family, Vital and Military Records, so you can understand these basic record types and how to use them in your research.

3) - Finally, go to your local library or online bookstore and search for a book on using land records in genealogy research.

If you understand the basics about family, vital, military and land records, you'll be well on your way to being able to track down your ancestors without having to re-invent the wheel. Remember, we are not just collecting names for our family tree; we are attempting to put the pieces of someone's life puzzle together. To get a more complete picture, we need to use various types of records. Understanding these basics is a great way to really get going in your genealogical work!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

New Family Search and Your Software

For the LDS genealogists out there, a lot of questions are popping up about the new Family Search (nFS) program and how that will (or won't) integrate well with the most popular genealogy software programs for individual users. Hopefully, this post will help break down the issues you might face transitioning to nFS, and specifically, how that will affect the desktop software you use for your family history work.

First, let me make clear that nFS does not allow users to directly download gedcom file formats like the old Family Search. To add information to nFS, you can enter individuals one at a time or upload gedcom files, just as you used to be able to do. However, if you find a group of individuals that link into your family tree on nFS and you want to get them into your genealogy program on your computer, you cannot download those names as a batch directly from nFS. This is where the software you are using becomes key. Batches of names can be downloaded from nFS if you use a desktop software program that is a Certified Affiliate for nFS. A certified affiliate is a third-party software provider that has gone through the process of applying and being approved to offer software that is compatible with nFS.

One more point to keep in mind. PAF does not integrate with nFS. If you want to continue to use PAF as your genealogy software, you'll need a separate piece of software from one of the certified affiliates called a PAF add-in. Basically, this extends the functionality of PAF to work with nFS.

The LDS church lists the current certified affiliates on their developer website, which is difficult for the normal internet user to find. The list is still small at this point, but I will include it here so you can see your current options.

Windows users: You have many more options at this point than us Mac users. Ancestral Quest, Charting Companion, Family lnsight, Generation Maps, Get My Ancestors, and Roots Magic 4 are all certified affiliates for nFS. These software programs are already available and integrate with nFS. As with all software programs, each of these have very different features. Ancestral Quest and Family Insight are PAF add-ins, meaning you can use those to integrate with PAF if that is the current software you use. Ancestral Quest has the most features available that integrate with nFS, including the ability to search and read nFS, print reports using data from nFS, full syncing capabilities (syncing into and from nFS), and the ability to update nFS directly from your software. Pricing on these software programs runs from free (for Get My Ancestors) to $35.00 for CD-Rom versions.

Mac users: I wish I had more helpful information for you at this point, as I'm in this group, too. As you all probably know, PAF stopped supporting its old Mac version several years ago. PAF is an option if you have a virtual Windows desktop on your Mac or if you have Leopard and can run BootCamp. I tried this for a while. I had the virtual Windows software, Parallels. It is a pain to run each time, it frequently would shut down in the middle of working on PAF, and let's face it -- I don't like Windows. There's a reason I'm a Mac user. I currently use the Mac software Reunion but I really don't recommend it for LDS genealogists as its handling of LDS ordinance data is skeleton at best. I still can't get it to run slim reports on missing ordinances. In addition, Reunion is not currently planning to become a Certified Affiliate for nFS, which means no syncing with nFS. The current certified affiliates that are available for Macs are Family Insight, Get My Ancestors and Grow Branch. Get My Ancestors is a free utility that can sync with fNS, but then you have two software programs. I haven't tried this one, yet. Family Insight is a $25 software option that is more of a full program, not just a small utility with few functions. However, I can't seem to find reviews or information on it, and I don't like purchasing programs that I'm not sure are what I really need. Grow Branch is an online software to build your family tree. However, this software requires that you pay for this company to assist you in your research, and it isn't cheap. For now, we Mac users have very few options for nFS integration: 1) keep using PAF on a virtual machine or BootCamp and get a PAF add-in; 2) use a great Mac software program and keep writing letters to the software company to urge them to become nFS certified; or 3) try one of these small utility programs or the more expensive online research program.

Remember, new Family Search is still in its beta stage. I trust that the developers and architects of this program at LDS headquarters will continue to try and make it easier to use and integrate with. In addition, as nFS moves out of the beta version, I am certain that other genealogy software providers will be encouraged to become certified affiliates to continue to cash in on the LDS portion of the genealogy software market share. As this happens, more options for software and integration with nFS will become available.