5 Genealogy Mistakes to Avoid

I contemplated smashing my computer, but really I was angry with myself. I scanned the files in the My Documents folder a fourth time just to be sure, but my genealogy research was not on the list. Things only got worse. All the family photographs I had borrowed from relatives and carefully digitized were gone as well – victims of my toddler’s quest to pound as many keys as possible before daddy could stop him. I had no backups; my work was a total loss. I learned the hard way that genealogy is an unforgiving hobby. If you are not careful, your work can be wiped out in an instant.. In my work as a librarian, I have interacted with many other family historians, and I have found that I’m not the only one with a genealogical regret. From major data losses to missed research opportunities, every genealogist encounters problems on their quest to record their family history. In my experience, the most serious regrets a genealogist can face come in five categories. With care, patience, and a methodical approach, you can avoid these regrets as you uncover your family history.

Not Starting Quickly
As soon as you decide to research your family’s history, you should begin collecting information from your older relatives. Your time with them is limited. Sometimes disease ravages a relative’s memory, as was the case with my grandfather. Sometimes an accident incapacitates them. Eventually everyone passes away. The most common regret I hear from genealogists is, “I wished I had asked my parents more when they were alive.” Don’t wait, ask your questions now. It is a great way to preserve a treasure trove of family history, and a fun way to spend time with the people you love.

Not Writing It Down
You cannot use information that you cannot remember. As a genealogist, your mantra should be, “Write it down.” As you make discoveries, write them down carefully and methodically. If you stumble across a record that may be useful but isn’t related to your current search, write it down anyway. When you find a terrific family history source in the library, write it down. You may think that if a fact is truly arresting, you will remember it. You won’t. Save yourself regret, and put your pen to paper.

Not Being Critical
As a librarian, I sometimes watch people pour over a census record, find someone with the same name as their relative, and completely ignore any information that suggest this person is not who they are looking for. The result is that they completely pollute their research with false information. Many hours of research later, some of them will discover their mistake. Some of them won’t. Avoid this regret, be critical in your research. Make sure records actually say what you think they say. Make sure dates line up. Ask yourself how trustworthy the record is. Your careful approach will pay off in a collection of truly relevant and reliable information about your ancestors.

Not Backing Research Up

I already told you about my experience with this genealogical regret. I failed to make a backup copy of my research, and my son deleted it in an instant. This is a regret that you can avoid easily. Learn how to backup your computer files, copy them regularly, and store them in a safe place, preferably at another location or in a fire safe. If you do your work with a pencil and paper, you still need to backup your work. Take your binder down to the copy shop on a regular basis and make copies of everything in it.

Not Sharing Your Work
Nothing is more tragic than the thought of a lifetime’s work wasted through selfishness. A lot of genealogists fall into this trap. They feel that they took the time to look things up and answer their questions, so everyone else in their family should too. This is foolish and mean spirited. Your research is one of the greatest gifts you could ever give another family member interested in genealogy. Remember, genealogy is not about individuals, it’s about families. Your interest in family started you on this quest. Honor your ancestors by passing their stories on.

Every genealogist will make mistakes. Without doubt, you will overlook a fact that you will never find again, and you will forget where you got a critical piece of information. Nonetheless, if you avoid the regrets discussed above, you will find genealogy a much more rewarding hobby, and you will spend your time making new discoveries, not recovering knowledge you’ve lost.

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