Shaping Up

By Sunny McClellan Morton Premium
Every January, thousands of Americans resolve to become more physically fit. Health club membership skyrockets. Joggers crowd the sidewalks. Workout videos fly from library stacks.

By March, however, many of us are hanging wrinkled shirts on the treadmill and guiltily avoiding the gym.

This year, how about making a resolution you’ll keep?
That’s right—train to be a better genealogist. Whatever your skill level, there’s always room for improvement. Maybe you could use a refresher workout in basic research skills; targeted training in Scottish sources; or an intensive genealogical “boot camp.”
The best part? Your new “fitness” regime may be a lot cheaper than a gym membership. Free introductory courses and inexpensive workshops abound. Even professional-level genealogical education costs less than regular attention from a personal trainer.
So put on your running shoes—er, your research shoes—and get ready to pound some genealogical pavement in pursuit of these training opportunities, tailored to your level of experience and personal goals. Unless you take off running to the nearest family history conference, we can even guarantee you won’t get shin splints.

Fitness assessment

Anyone starting a new workout routine should get a fitness assessment. So how’s your research fitness? Do you sprint or saunter through internet searches? Are your finding skills flabby, your citations weak?
You’re not alone. Most of us start researching with no formal training or methodology. We just want to learn more about the past. By the time we realize we don’t (really) know what we’re doing, we’re so intent on discovery that we don’t want to stop to learn how to do it more effectively. But it’s never too late to become educated in a more structured way.
So first check your research fitness with our quiz (click to download the single-page quiz as a PDF file), which appraises 30 genealogical skills in four areas. If you score a perfect 30, you might think about becoming a genealogy personal trainer. Otherwise, you could benefit from some skill exercises.
What resources exist to help you achieve your research fitness goals? Training options abound for beginners to professionals. Just like the many avenues to physical fitness—from archery to Zumba—you can become a better genealogist with several types of workouts: online tutorials, conferences, local classes or lectures, and books.

Virtual exercise
Online classes best fit my own lifestyle, and plenty of options exist. From beginner tutorials to specialized courses, you can learn any time of day or night, with or without structured deadlines. There’s no commute if you’ve got internet access at home, and you don’t even have to wear business casual. Here’s a sampling of cyberclasses:

• The National Genealogy Society’s (NGS) six-lesson Family History Skills series, free with $60 annual membership, is strong on vital statistics and technical basics: the Genealogical Proof Standard, Ahnentafel charts (ancestor charts), notation methods, even degrees of consanguinity (how people are related). You can earn a certificate by completing census tutorials ($35 to $50 each) or take the excellent in-depth Home Study program (on CD), with self-grading or professional grading ($315 to $565).
• The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) offers free online video lectures, including a beginner series with classes on censuses, vital records, maps, local histories and other sources. Try tutorials covering online resources, maternal lineage research, Civil War pensions (Union), Newfoundland and Irish records. You can even learn how to apply to lineage societies or transcribe tombstones. Check out these freebies at <>.

Family Tree Magazine’s own Family Tree University offers a user-friendly series of one-hour webinars ($49.99) and—coming soon—classes that include four to six lessons each ($99.99, with discounts for taking multiple classes). Coursework includes quizzes and exercises that are reviewed by an instructor who provides additional guidance as needed. Students get a multimedia learning experience and a digital “packet” of articles and other reading. Topics include finding immigrant ancestors, using Google tools, finding living relatives and more.

• The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library  (FHL) in Salt Lake City has videotaped some of its classes. View videos on English, Italian, Russian and US records free.
• Brigham Young University’s Independent Study department offers several free online tutorials. Those under Record Type (focusing on vital, family, and military records) and Regional and Ethnic (covering German, French and Scandinavian sources) are easy to follow and informative. Access them at <>.
• Major genealogy subscription sites give free tutorials as well, particularly on how to use their own sites. For example, the free Learning Center walks users through the process of accessing data on the site, creating a family tree and collaborating with users. The page links to a searchable archive of informative articles that are less tied content. Under the Learning Center navigation menu, an Online Classes link lets you access archived webinars about Family Tree Maker software, genetic genealogy and other topics.
• Family history podcasts are online radio-style broadcasts you can listen to at your leisure. They cover genealogy news, reviews and how-tos. Internet researchers love the Genealogy Guys’ focus on databases and technology. Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcast includes topics such as census records. Read more about genealogy podcasts at <>.
• You even can get genealogy tv online. Roots Television offers free how-to videos. Use the tabs on top of the video player to choose a topic, or scroll down to the topics list at the bottom right and choose a subject (such as Jewish, Military or African-American). BYU’s Questions and Ancestors series also has a website where you can view or listen to half-hour segments.

Genealogy boot camp
Genealogy classes are the family history equivalents to boot camp—attendees are immersed in classes, resources and networking opportunities. The Southern California Genealogical Society’s annual Jamboree is famous for being fun and educational. “We marry the bricks-and-mortar with the high-tech,” explains event co-chair Paula Hinckel. “It’s a good mix of the kinds of things people want to learn.”

The Jamboree attracts attendees (1,500-plus last year) with well-known speakers, a new geographic or ethnic focus each year, advanced tracks for experienced genealogists, and research opportunities. Hinckel strives to offer courses for less-experienced genealogists, too. “It’s a little intimidating when you first start out. We try to get people comfortable—help beginners avoid the mistakes we made and get connected with the right networks.”
“Boot camp” offers a type of training you won’t get online. “There’s an exchange of information,” Hinckel says. “We encourage people to speak with their seat-mates, and give a lot of time between sessions. There are round-table groups for different ethnicities.”
Throughout the year and around the country, you can enjoy conferences that draw national, regional and local audiences. NGS, the Federation of Genealogical Societies and Family History Expos put on major events each year; also look for state, local and ethnic genealogical society seminars. Run a search on your county or state and genealogy society, and ask your library about workshops.

Team in training

Your local genealogical society offers even more than annual workshops. Many local societies organize monthly speakers and encourage nonmembers to attend. News travels quickly in these groups: who’s looking for what, who’s taking research trips (and could do lookups), and what’s new at the nearest records repository.
Deborah Abbott, president of the African-American Genealogical Society of Cleveland, has been teaching local residents how to discover their ancestors for 10 years. She’s found that a good genealogical society “works out” together much like a good sports team, with group instruction, exercises and encouragement.
“I think I probably started like everybody else: with an interest in my own family,” Abbott says. “As I researched my family, I quickly learned that I needed some help. I joined the African-American society. We have speakers almost every month, and then we break up into groups: beginner’s, intermediate and advanced. We spend most of our time teaching techniques.”
This type of community-based genealogical education gives you a regular, measured dose of the intense conference experience. “You meet local people who are interested in the same things you are,” Abbott says. “For me, it’s part of a sharing experience. People talk about their families, and places where they’ve come from. As you listen, a light bulb might go off.”
On the East Coast, NEHGS hosts more than 100 programs each year. The popular Come Home to New England happens twice in the summer; it offers a week of guided research with lectures, one-on-one consultations and extended library hours. A shorter “Weekend Getaway” version is held quarterly.
If you live near a repository with a large genealogy collection, you can probably attend classes there. For example, the FHL in Salt Lake City holds free daily classes and a Saturday series on a range of topics (you’ll find a schedule on the FamilySearch website under the Education tab). The Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center lists classes at <>. The same resource channels with information on conferences can help you find classes and workshops near you.

Individual sports

If your ideal workout includes the solitude of a long walk, the perfect genealogical exercise for you might be a good read. Perhaps you already own (or have at least consulted) how-to family history publications. Do you tend just to turn to a certain chapter when you need it? Instead, try working through a book from beginning to end.
A general guide to genealogy can be a go-to reference if it’s up to date, well-organized and easy to read. Even if you’ve been researching for years, you’ll find new resources (especially online) and tips for breaking through brick walls. Fantastic, recently published guides include How To Do Everything Genealogy, 2nd edition, by George G. Morgan (McGraw-Hill Osborne Media), The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls (Alpha), and Paths to Your Past (National Genealogy Society).
Specialized books abound, too. If you research mostly online, try The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy by Kimberly Powell (Adams Media) or Genealogy Online by Elizabeth Crowe (McGraw-Hill Osborne Media). Elizabeth Shown Mills’ QuickSheets (Genealogical Publishing Co.) are references for judging the reliability of sources and citing them correctly, with material cribbed from her authoritative book Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Genealogical Publishing Co.).
My favorite way to buy books is to first borrow several from the library (if your library doesn’t have what you want, try interlibrary loan). I buy only the books I don’t want to return. I often use, especially for used books or multiple purchases (shipping is free with $25 in qualifying purchases).
But it’s easy to get lost in’s huge inventory and imperfect keyword searching. When I’m shopping on a specific genealogy topic, I turn to retailers such as the well-organized RootsBooks. is another great resource. Many genealogy societies also sell books.
Family Tree Magazine also provides great do-it-yourself learning on everything to WWII records. Find articles you need in the Family Tree Magazine Article Index and order back issues or digital articles from <>.

Going with the pros

Professional athletes train intensely, and so do professional genealogists. There’s something to be said for learning with the big boys. The efficiency, accuracy, thoroughness and even readability of your family history research will dramatically improve if you invest in professional-level training.
The Seattle campus of the University of Washington offers a Genealogy and Family History Certificate Program. The $630 class meets weekly for one semester, and describes itself as appropriate for all skill levels. If you live on the opposite side of the country, you might be more interested in Boston University’s Certificate in Genealogical Research, a 14-week Saturday course (or intensive summer session) for $2,695 (NGS members get a 10 percent discount).
The Utah Genealogical Association’s annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy combines a week of classes with hands-on research at the FHL, for about $320.
Samford University’s Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research in Birmingham, Ala., offers a week of study with top genealogists. This annual program costs $435 if you register by March 15 and attracts professionals and serious hobbyists alike. Another intensive course is the National Institute on Genealogical Research at the National Archives in Washington, DC. It costs $350 if you register by May 15.
If you want serious training online, the National Institute for Genealogical Studies is a great option. Each web-based course is categorized as beginner, intermediate or advanced. You can choose a geographic specialty; Canadian offerings are especially strong. Take a single class for $89; a nine-class Basic Level American Certificate for $495; or a 40-course American Certificate in Genealogical Studies for $2,675.
The gold standard for genealogical certification is credentialing by one of two organizations: the Board for Certification of Genealogists and the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists. Though neither offers training, BCG’s skill builders make excellent advanced learning.

Eyes on the Prize

Every serious athlete trains for a purpose: the next marathon, an Iron Man competition, the Olympics. But even those who don’t compete usually have more motivation than the thrill of exertion. They want healthy, fit bodies. Similarly, if you embark on genealogy training, keep your eye on the goal: finding your family’s story. Don’t get so focused on learning that you quit doing. Just like a runner who’s prepared well for a race, you’ll feel the difference in your pace, technique and endurance. The result will be a winning family history.

From the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine