Even if you can squeeze in your family history search only on weekends, you can still make progress toward your past — if you know how to make the most of your time. These five time-saving tips can help you organize your research and get more done by tapping the Internet, plain old “snail mail,” research facilities and fellow genealogists. Approach your roots research with these tips up your sleeve, and you’ll discover just how much weekend genealogists can accomplish with their family trees.
1. Make the US Postal Service work for you.
Requesting information and records by mail can save you hours of research time. If documents can be delivered to your door, why spend precious time looking them up yourself? Preserve those hours for items that are not indexed or available by mail. Before hauling yourself somewhere, find out what copies will cost, whether documents can be photocopied and mailed to you, forms of payment and policies regarding faxed or e-mailed requests.
If you make a written request, keep it brief and include information regarding any spelling variations that may affect the search. Always include a self-addressed stamped envelope (“SASE”), as well as payment, your e-mail address and your phone and fax number.
Keep in mind that the less information you ask for in each request, the more likely the reply will be prompt. Using published indexes will enable you to request specific documents by volume, page number and so on. Once you’ve thoroughly looked at the indexes, decide if the number of documents warrants a trip to the facility. If there are more than a few, it might be more cost- and time-effective to obtain them yourself. In that case, write or call ahead and ask for the hours, restrictions and costs involved.
2. Recruit some help. Membership in the historical or genealogical society in your research area has its privileges. You may be able to “swap” research time with someone living in that area. Societies may send you newsletters with educational articles and upcoming events. Some organizations, such as the New England Historic Genealogical Society <www.nehgs.org> in Boston, have a circulating library that allows you to borrow books via mail that may not be available in your area. Also, if you have no local access to census records, ship passenger lists, military pension records and the like, you may be able to borrow them by mail from the National Archives and Records Administration <www.nara.gov> and use them at a local facility with a microfilm reader.
You can find a guide to genealogical societies across the country at the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ Web site <www.fgs.org>.
3. Leave no recorded “stone” unturned. Most researchers don’t fully utilize the records they acquire. Many types of records provide clues that are often overlooked. Take what I call the “Doberman” approach to your genealogy research: Latch on to a fact and don’t let go until you’ve gotten everything out of it. Squeezing every single scrap of information from a record as a clue to other research will pay big dividends. “Ask” every document you examine these questions before you let go:
• Why was the document created in the first place?
• Are you looking at the original or a copy?
• To whom does the document pertain?
• How close to the original event was the document created?
• Who are the witnesses, informants or other persons mentioned in the document?
• Are any relationships stated or implied?
• Did the person executing the document sign with a signature or mark?
• Is the information reliable, usable or simply clues to further research?
• What’s the full citation for the document?
Here’s where taking a few extra minutes upfront will save you time in the long run: Completely transcribe the document, don’t just abstract it. By transcribing, you’re less likely to miss an important detail. Human nature allows us to understand the basic document we’re reading, whether or not we read every word. Some of those words, when we’re forced to decipher them, turn out to be important facts.
Terminology has changed over the centuries, and you may not understand what a fairly common term means in an old document. For example, those of us over 30 or so are familiar with the expression, “you sound like a broken record.” Teenagers today — never mind 100 years from now! — have little or no knowledge of record albums or understanding of that phrase. Having a good genealogical, general or law dictionary — or several of them — to refer to while you transcribe documents will also be a valuable time-saving tool.
4. Make every minute of research trips count. After you’ve done as much advance preparation as possible, you’re ready to hit the road to a research facility. You should have your binder or folder containing the information about the facility and geographic area you’ll be visiting. Make a list of what you need to accomplish, highlighting “must-have” records. Read everything you can find on a particular subject, locality or research facility before you set out to research it. It won’t eliminate every problem, but will certainly give you a more realistic approach to the records. Two good places to start are Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources (Ancestry) and The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Ancestry). Keep in mind that your first trip to any facility is a reconnaissance mission. You need to actually use the facility before you truly know its advantages and disadvantages.
Before you put the key in the ignition, though, make sure you thoroughly understand the record types you’ll be using. Also, double-check that the facility has the records you need, that records actually exist for the time period in question, and that they aren’t available closer to home (on microfilm, online or by mail).
Once you’ve arrived, stake a claim at one of the designated research tables. Take a brief stroll around to see how things are set up. Then get down to your research business. Check your progress about halfway through and prioritize the remaining records to get the most important ones first. When you do find the records at the facility, make photocopies rather than taking valuable research time to transcribe or abstract the record while at the facility. I do that only if photocopies aren’t allowed or the print isn’t as readable as on the microfilm reader. Your time is worth more than the cost of a copy!
5. Tap others’ expertise. Networking with other genealogists, which has become a piece of cake thanks to the Internet, is one of the best time-saving tools you have available. Learning from others’ mistakes and successes can be rewarding. The knowledge that local societies and researchers will provide you with is almost endless. Locals know what records are available, how you can access them, and may even be able to provide you with information about relatives or descendants still living in the area.
If you take a few minutes to list the different “groups” your ancestors fit into, you’ll be amazed at the new research possibilities that arise. Classifying your ancestors by ethnic group, fraternal or religious association, residence locale (local, county and state), gender, occupation, military service, time frame or era, social class and any-other classification you can think of will give you ideas of additional records to look for and ways to network.
One way to beef up your own research expertise is by volunteering at a facility that houses records, such as the library or an archive facility. Another often-over-looked resource is the local Council on Aging or senior citizens group. Like the historical society, many members of these groups have extensive knowledge of the town and its early residents. This is especially useful when researching ancestors who lived in the 20th century.
On the bookshelf
The Genealogist’s Address Book, 4th edition, by Elizabeth Petty Bentley (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
County Courthouse Book, 2nd edition, by Elizabeth Petty Bentley (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
The International Vital Records Handbook by Thomas Jay Kemp (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources edited by Alice Eichholz (Ancestry)
The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy edited by Sandra H. Luebking and Loretto Dennis Szucs (Ancestry)
From the October 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine