101 Genealogy Tips for Self-Improvement

101 Genealogy Tips for Self-Improvement

Become a better researcher with these 101 ways to a new genealogy you.

 It’s a new year—a time to set goals and make plans. Genealogically speaking, is this the year you’ll finally scale that brick wall and find a new branch on your family tree? Sharpening your family history skills will set you on the path to success. Check out these 101 tips to help you bring your A game to your genealogy research.
1. Identify your genea-niche.

Some genealogists excel at digging up the dirt. Others are master storytellers or genea-geeks who love the latest gadgets and tech tools. Note what you enjoy most about family history research and use that passion to propel your search.
2. Interview our living kin now, before it’s too late.

They’re often your best link to the past. If possible, use audio or video to record the interview. Find helpful interviewing tips at Family Tree Magazine’s Interview Tips.
3. Keep an Open Mind.
Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to our ancestors: We shake our heads in disbelief when DNA tests indicate a surprising haplotype or disprove a relationship that’s become family legend. When you start digging into your past, you must be prepared for anything.
4. Make a Research Plan.
Think about the goals you want to accomplish and write them down, with the steps you’ll take to accomplish them.

5. Mine the Resources at FamilySearch.org.
The site offers research outlines, foreign-language genealogy word lists, and letter writing guides at wiki.familysearch.org (run a search for the country you’re interested in). The best part: The site is free!

6. Motivate Yourself by Giving Your Research a Theme.
For example, research marriage records on Valentine’s Day, military records on Veterans’ or Memorial Day, Revolutionary War Records on July 4th, occupational records on Labor Day, and so on. Bonus: Subscription sites, such as Ancestry.com and Fold3, often make related collections free on these holidays. Follow these sites in social media to catch these deals.
7. Document Your Research Findings.
“Keep calm and cite your sources” is more than just a genealogy bumper sticker. Adhering to this mantra ensures you’re learning the true stories of your ancestors’ lives. Get help in Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd edition by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Co.).
8. Stay Organized and Research Efficiently.
Do this by tracking your searches, correspondence and family information. Find free worksheets and logs at familytreemagazine.com/freeforms.
9. Take Better Research Notes.
This task is easier with Evernote, a dynamic, easy-to use web-based application with a free component that lets you take notes while researching and capture information you find on the internet. For an excellent tutorial, watch Thomas MacEntee’s free Evernote “explorinar” at hidefgen.com/recorded-explorinar-evernote.
10. Take Stock of Your Genealogy Library.
Catalog it with a utility such as LibraryThing, Good Reads or Shelfari. And don’t forget about Google Books, where you can build a personal library of digital books you discover there.
11. Take Control of Your Family History Clutter.
Set up a filing system that works for you. Do the same for your electronic files. Get guidance in the Family Tree University Organize Your Genealogy course (our free podcast has tips from the course).
12. Arm Yourself With an Arsenal of Awesome “How-To” Information.
Arm yourself with information from Joe Beine’s websites, including his Online Searchable Death Indexes & Records and Genealogy Research Guides, Tips and Online Records.
13. Try Before You Buy.
Many subscription sites, such as Ancestry.com and Archives.com, offer free trials, and some run free-access promotions for limited time periods. Stay up-to-date with these offers by reading the Genealogy Insider blog.
14. Find Freebies.

Not everything on subscription sites is behind the pay wall. See 10 free things to do on Ancestry.com at and search free documents on Fold3. And of course, Family­Search’s historical records are free.

15. Record Your Own Life for Future Generations.
Write your stories and include all the documents and information you wish you knew about your ancestors.
16. Break Down Brick Walls With a “Reasonably Exhaustive Search.”
Simply put, search all available records with information relevant to your problem. Learn more about this concept at www.bcgcertification.org/resources/standard.html and in Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case by Christine Rose (CR Publications).
17. Find Elusive Ancestors by Tracing Their FANS (Friends, Associates, Neighbors).
This phrase, coined by genealogical author Elizabeth Shown Mills, reminds you to research others who may have known or interacted with your ancestors. You’ll find these people named in your ancestors’ records as neighbors, witnesses, informants and heirs.
18. Try Reverse Genealogy to Overcome Dead Ends.
This strategy has you work forward in time to find living relatives who might have information about common family lines. You can get guidance in our free Family Tree Magazine podcast and in the July 2010 issue.
19. Create a Timeline of Your Ancestor’s Life.
Creating a timeline provides insight into migrations, job changes and more. Use your genealogy program, special software such as Genelines, or a free resource such as OurTimelines or TimeToast.
20. Create a Family Health History.
A family health history can help you track hereditary health problems and causes of death. Death records, coroner reports, obituaries and family lore are good resources for this project.

21. Fully Explore Your Surname.

Do you know its origin and meaning, and locations where it’s commonly found? Have you looked for others researching the name? Get started with the complete guide to surnames in the May 2008 Family Tree Magazine.
22. Create a List of Alternate Spellings for Your Ancestors’ Names.

Do this for both first and last names, and always search for them. Spelling of names wasn’t uniform in the past, even on official records, and online databases may contain transcription errors.

23. Turn the Negatives into Positives.
Review past negative search results to find new avenues for your research. For example, if you can’t find Grandpa in the 1910 census, try looking in another county, or check to see if he’s listed as T.J. instead of “Thomas John.”
24. Repeat Past Searches in Online Databases.
Websites regularly update and add to collections, so go back to your favorite sites and search them again.
25. Find New Favorites, Too.
Sign up for free trials, or see if you can access databases through a library or FamilySearch Center if you’re unsure the site will be helpful. Besides well-known sites such as Ancestry.com and GenealogyBank, consider other sites such as Genealogy Today and PaperofRecord.com.
26. Learn About a New Record Set.

Your ancestors created a trail of paperwork, from census records to land records to vital records to probate records to criminal records. Our record checklist will show just how many types of genealogy records there are to explore.
27. Scour Censuses Records.
Make sure you’ve looked for every relative in every census available during his or her lifetime. Track your results using the census worksheets at familytreemagazine.com/info/researchforms.
28. Don’t Put Off Looking for Land Records.
They can be complicated to find and use, but don’t be deterred: These records contain a wealth of information. The Bureau of Land Management General Land Office website can help you figure out your ancestors’ federal land records. For locations of county land records, often kept in the court clerk’s or recorder’s office, see the Family Tree Sourcebook: Your Essential Directory of American County and Town Records (Family Tree Books).

29. Explore Steve Morse’s One-Step Webpages.
Steve Morse’s webpages will help you search genealogy databases on other sites. Start with the About this Website and How to Use it section, then try the search tools for the Ellis Island Database, Social Security Death Index and more.
30. Rethink Your Immigration Research.
If you can’t find an ancestor on a passenger list, you could have the wrong name. Many immigrants changed their names after arriving in America. The name could have been transcribed incorrectly in an online database, or perhaps you’re searching the wrong port based on family folklore.
31. Re-examine Your Ancestor’s Records.
for notations, comments and other “hidden” information. For example, you can often spot notes (dates, phrases, etc.) handwritten near an immigrant’s name on passenger arrival lists. Learn to interpret these marks with Marian L. Smith’s guide to passenger list annotations at www.jewishgen.org/infofiles/manifests.
32. Dissect Your Relatives’ Obituaries.
Check for key clues such as parents’ names, places of birth, surviving kin, churches, places of burial and organizations the deceased belonged to. Get some great tips for locating obituaries from Joe Beine’s Obituaries Research Guide.
33. March to Military Records.
Almost everyone has at least one ancestor who served in the military, or had to register for the World War I or II draft. If any male ancestors’ birth dates fall into the ranges on the chart at familytreemagazine.com/article/at-your-service, it’s likely you’ll find military records for those folks.
34. Explore the Websites for the State Archives Where Your Ancestors Lived. 
These repositories often have state censuses, newspapers, old vital records, records of state institutions and more. 
35. Get Ready for the 1940 U.S. Census Release.
You won’t be able to search the records by name when they open to the public April 2, 2012—indexing won’t be complete. So find your ancestors’ enumeration district (ED) with Steve Morse’s “How to Access the 1940 Census in One Step” quiz stevemorse.org/census/quiz.php. For more about EDs, see familytreemagazine.com/article/

36. Order Copies of Your Ancestor’s Naturalization Papers.
 You can order copies from the US Citizenship and Immigration Service Genealogy Program. For a fee, you can request photocopies of a Naturalization Certificate File (C-file) dated Sept. 27, 1906, to April 1, 1956; Alien Registration Forms from Aug. 1, 1940, to March 31, 1944; and other naturalization documents.
37. See Where Basic Records Can Lead You.
 If a death certificate, for example, indicates your ancestor died from an unexplained cause or under suspicious circumstances, look for a coroner’s or medical examiner’s records from the place where your ancestor died. 
38. Embrace Your Clan’s Black Sheep.
Outlaw ancestors created a lot of records. Find resources at familytreemagazine.com/article/criminalresources, through the International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists and in Wanted! US Criminal Records by Ron Arons (Criminal Research Press). 
39. Focus on Your Female Ancestors.
 Women can be harder to research because they usually changed their names upon marriage, and they generated fewer official records than men did. But give your female ancestors equal research time. See our five tips for learning women’s maiden names.
40. Mine University and College Libraries.
Explore the library catalog of the school your ancestor attended or check one near his hometown for special collections and archives.
41. Take Advantage of National Archives.
National archives are great sources of federal records and historical information. Both the US National Archives and Records Administration and the Library and Archives Canada have a wealth of genealogy information and even free databases you can search.
42. Search for Family Names, Places and Organizations in Published Genealogies.
 You’ll find free digitized versions in Google Books and the Family History Archive, or use WorldCat to search for titles in libraries located around the world.
43. Flip Through Yearbooks.
 These underused resources can give you details about an ancestor along with a photograph, description and hints to his or her friends and interests or activities at school. Find yearbooks on websites including Ancestry.com, by visiting a local library or historical society, or through eBay.
44. Seek a Fresh Set of Eyes.
Ask someone else to review your brick wall problems, and return the favor later. A genealogy pal can help you spot a missed detail and suggest new solutions.
45. Consider DNA Testing.
Not only have prices come down, but more tests are available (such as autosomal DNA tests, which you can read about in the December 2011 Family Tree Magazine). See familytreemagazine.com/article/dna-testing-companies for resources.
46. Search Historical Newspapers.
Use newspapers to search for obituaries, social columns, legal notices and other articles naming your kin. Even ordinary folks sometimes made the news. Sites such as Ancestry.com, Fold3.com and GenealogyBank have searchable newspaper collections. Also see the free papers at Google News Archive and Chronicling America.
47. Cull Clues from Your Ancestors’ Occupations.
Employment opportunities have always been one of the main factors determining where and how people lived. Run web searches and read social history books to learn more about your ancestors’ jobs (farmer, coal miner, seamstress, lumberjack, steelworker, storekeeper, etc.). Also check the Cyndi’s List occupation category.
48. Follow Disasters to Find Scattered Ancestors.
Bad things did happen to good ancestors. Learn about the diseases, natural disasters and distress that may have impacted members of your family at GenDisasters.com and see the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine for tips on researching disasters.
49. Immerse Yourself in Your Ethnic Heritage.
Check the articles in Family Tree Magazine’s Heritage Toolkits, or treat yourself to a Family Tree University class on German, Irish or Hungarian research to learn how to get to the good stuff hidden back in the old country.
50. Share Around the Dinner Table.
Celebrate the everyday lives of your ancestors by researching their food traditions. Local histories and social histories can tell you what people of their ethnic background and socioeconomic status would have eaten. Ask relatives about special family recipes, too.
51. Know Your Ancestors’ Locations.
Tools such as Ancestral Atlas, Google Earth and HistoryGeo let you plot where key events happened in your ancestors’ lives (sort of like virtual pushpins), and connect with other genealogists who are researching the same locations.
52. Grab a Gazetteer.
Gazetteers are geographical dictionaries that can help you find your ancestral village and the parish it was part of when your ancestors lived there. That in turn can lead you to church records. The Family History Library has an impressive collection of gazetteers; also check large public and university libraries.
53. Download Smartphone Apps that Will Help You with Genealogy.
For example, TripJournal lets you document research trips, Google Voice Search makes searching easier and Ancestry.com’s app lets you take your Ancestry.com family tree with you.
54. Study Your Ancestors’ Hometown Histories.
Learning about the places your ancestors lived tells you what their lives were like and helps you find new resources.
55. See What’s Out There.
Run a place search of the Family History Library catalog for your ancestor’s hometown or county to discover what records are available.
56. Look Up Ancestors in City Directories.
These resources are available through many public libraries and online for some towns. Find links to online versions at onlinedirectorysite.blogspot.com.
57. Find Out the History of an Ancestor’s House.
You never know what the walls will tell you. Visit a local courthouse or county recorder to look for deeds and other paperwork. Get more tips at genealogy.about.com/od/basics/a/house_history.htm.
58. Store Your Photos Properly in Archival Containers.
You can purchase archival storage boxes from Gaylord Bros., and get more guidance in our Organize Your Family Archive on-demand webinar.
59. Share Your Old Photos by Scanning Them.
Consider participating in the monthly “Scanfest” hosted by the AnceStories Blog. Set up a free Flickr account or Picasa Web Album to store copies of your photos for anytime, anywhere access.
60. Get Help Identifying People in Old Photos.
Upload your mystery pictures to photo-reunion sites such as AncientFaces and DeadFred.
61. Narrate Your Favorite Family Photographs.
Write descriptions that includes who’s in them, where they were taken and what the subjects are doing.
62. Write Your Family Stories.
Start small, with a profile or character sketch about an ancestor.
63. Plot Out a Longer Family History Manuscript.
Use software to organize your thoughts. I like Scrivener, a program that lets you create a storyboard to order your ideas and materials. It costs $45, but you can try it free for 30 days. It’s made for the Mac, but Windows users can try a free public beta version.
64. Commit to Backing Up Your Data Regularly.
Losing years of family tree information, photos and documents is a genealogist’s worst nightmare. Many family history bloggers have designated the first of every month as data backup day.
65. Keep Your Files in the “Cloud” so You can Access Them Anywhere.
Free apps such as Google Docs and Dropbox provide a convenient way to store key family history files, documents and images online, so you can access them from any computer connected to the internet. 
66. Train Yourself to Look for More.
Whenever you look at a genealogy record, ask “What other records does this tell me to go look for?” Then seek those records.  Family Tree Magazine’s records checklist (see Tip 26) lists possibilities.
67. Build a Research Toolbox That Includes Online Resources You Use Most Often.
I downloaded the free RelativelyCurious Community toolbar for a quick and easy way to link to sites, apps and more.
68. Bookmark Valuable Websites.
Online bookmarking tools such as Diigo, Delicious and Xmarks can help you organize your favorite sites so you can find them on any computer connected to the internet.  
69. Stay Connected with Website Portals.
These identify genealogy websites and post categorized links so you can explore them. My favorite portals for genealogy are Cyndi’s List, Linkpendium, and for Canadian resources, CanGenealogy.

70. Save Time with a Blog Aggregator.
Instead of visiting all your favorite blogs every week, use an aggregator to send new posts to you so you can read them in one place. Try Google Reader or BottomFeeder. Get help using aggregators at familytreemagazine.com/article/feeding-frenzy-RSS-feeds.

71. Try Different Search Engines.
Google may have the most name recognition, but other search engines can give you different results for the same keywords. Try Yahoo!, Bing, Dogpile, Clusty, or the genealogy-specific search engines LiveRoots and Mocavo.com.

72. Get More from Google.
Use the power of Google to find ancestors in its Books, Patents, News and other searches. Also get to know tools such as Google Earth and Picasa. (Family Tree University’s Google Master Class can help.)
73. Set Google Alerts.
By setting up Google Alerts, you’ll automatically be notified when a site adds information about your ancestor. Log into your Google account, go to google.com/alerts and enter your favorite genealogy search terms. Google will regularly run the search, delivering the results as often as you chose. 

74. Organize Your Online Research With iGoogle.
Add news, notepads, your calendar and other gadgets (including the Google reader mentioned in Tip 70) to your page.

75. Untangle Foreign Tongues.
If you’re researching records or using websites in another language, school yourself in free online translation tools such as Google Translate. This tool opens up countless websites for your research. Also check the FamilySearch genealogy word lists (see Tip 5 for access instructions).

76. Look Beyond the Websites You Normally Use to Find New Resources.
Work your way through the world wide web of genealogy with Family Tree Magazine’s 101 Best Websites list.

77. Assess Your Genealogy Software.
Is it working for you? If not, a new program that suits your needs can make you a more efficient, organized researcher. You’ll find reviews at familytreemagazine.com/researchtoolkit/softwareguide and www.gensoftreviews.com.

78. Use Skype.
Visit with far-flung cousins and conduct long-distance interviews by downloading Skype. This free program enables you to make free computer-to-computer calls to anywhere in the world. (You will need to find third- party software to record interviews.)

79. Set Up a Family History Website to Share Your Research With Relatives.
You don’t have to be a tech genius. Weebly offers a free, easy way to create websites, or start a blog with Blogger or WordPress.

80. Connect With Other Researchers Tracing Your Lines by Posting Your Tree Online.
You can do this free with services such as Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, Tribal Pages and others. Have concerns about what information and how much to share? See the March 2011 Family Tree Magazine for tips.

81. Get Savvy With Social Media.
You can connect with cousins you didn’t know you had, network with family history enthusiasts and be first to hear about new resources. Start finding folks through Family Tree Magazine’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

82. Meet Like-Minded Genealogists in Person, Too.
Use Facebook and web searches to seek out groups related to the places, surnames and heritage groups you’re researching.

83. Reach Out and Ask Questions.
Social networking sites are great for this. For example, you could start a genea-hangout on Google+ to discuss how to use a particular record or collaborate on a research problem.

84. Visit Genealogy Message Boards Regularly.
Visit genealogy message boards often to look for posts about your surnames and other research interests. The FamilyTreeMagazine.com Forum and the boards at RootsWeb are good ones.

85. Boost Your Skills With a Class.
Even if you’ve been researching genealogy for decades, there’s always something new to learn when you go back another generation or start on a new branch. Family Tree University offers dozens of online courses to help you learn new research skills.

86. Learn by Watching.
See demos of websites and online tools in webinars and video classes. Learn about upcoming webinars (both free and fee-based) through GeneaWebinars and Family Tree University.

87. Stay Current while You’re Doing Something Else.
You can listen to podcasts while you’re doing yard work or eating lunch. Two free podcasts I like are the Family Tree Magazine podcast and Genealogy Gems.

88. Get a “Second Life.”
The Second Life virtual world has genealogy societies and discussion groups, including Just Genealogy and the Association of Professional Genealogists. Get started creating a Second Life persona at secondlife.com; see the June 2011 Family Tree Magazine for more information.

89. Plan a Genea-cation.
Take a trip to a research destination such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind., or your ancestral stomping grounds. Get prepared by visiting repository websites to find materials you’ll want to use, and consulting the Research Trip Survival Guide in the July 2011 Family Tree Magazine.
 90. Have Fun with Your Genealogy.
Play the Life­Stories board game, the online Family Memory Game by MyHeritage.com, or the Family Village game on Facebook.

91. Stay Inspired to Find Your Roots.
A great way to do this is by watching genealogy shows including “Who Do You Think You Are?”, “Faces of America” and Bringham Young University’s “Generations Project”.

92. Fish for Family History Information at a Family Reunion.
If your clan doesn’t get together, consider planning a reunion. Recruit relatives to help and give yourselves plenty of time to iron out all the details. Check the list of resources at familytreemagazine.com/article/family-reunion-resources.

93. Join a Genealogical or Historical Society in Your Ancestor’s Hometown.
These groups have unique resources—including other members. Even if you can’t attend meetings, you’ll get the group’s newsletter and have access to researchers knowledgeable in local records. Find groups by searching the web and checking Cyndi’s List and Society Hill.  
 94. Attend a Genealogy Conference.
Build your skills in classes, try products and catch other researchers’ enthusiasm. Options include national events such as the National Genealogical Society’s, Federation of Genealogical Societies’ and RootsTech a state or local conference; or Family Tree University’s Virtual Conference (which you can attend in March and September from home).

95. Get Certified.
If you want to turn your genealogy passion into a profession, consider applying for certification through the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Not quite ready to take that big step? Joining a ProGen Study Group, which is mentored by a certified genealogist, will help you develop professional research skills in a collaborative environment.

96. Share Your Cemetery Discoveries.
Multiply the effort you put into your cemetery trips by posting photographs and data on sites such as Find A Grave or Billion Graves.

97. Volunteer.
Share the joy of making genealogical discoveries and improve access to information by indexing records or assisting at the library. Find opportunities at cyndislist.com/volunteer-projects.

98. Mentor a Newbie Genealogist.
Helping a beginning family historian get excited about researching their roots creates a thriving community. It’ll be as rewarding to you as it is to the newbie.

99. Catch Up on the Genealogy Guidance in Issues of Family Tree Magazine You Might’ve Missed.
Visit shopfamilytree.com to order back issues or get the 10 Years of Family Tree Magazine 2000-2009 DVD.

100. Dive into Your Ancestors’ World.
Visit a living history museum relevant to the times or places your ancestors lived. Descendants of early Ohio farmers, for example, could try the Johnston Farm & Indian Agency. If your ancestor was a Gold Rush pioneer, try California’s Mariposa Museum and History Center.

101. Keep at It.
Genealogy is one part skill, one part persistence and one part serendipity. You must know how to obtain the information you want, be persistent in your attempts to obtain it, and embrace serendipity—times when you discover an answer where you least expect to.


  • Ancestors missing from passenger lists may have changed their names after arriving in America. Search lists using their birth names.
  • Mark key events in your ancestors’ lives on a map. You may gain new insights on where to search for records or uncover a pattern to help your research.
  • Gain access to local researchers and records by joining a genealogy society in your ancestor’s hometown.

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From the February 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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