Seven Habits of Highly Effective Genealogists

UPDATE: For September, Elizabeth O’Neal is offering up It’s Back to School time at the Genealogy Blog Party, asking what we think students should learn.  I just happened to write this post this week and I think it fits the bill.

Everyone can research like a pro, even a newbie family historian just learning the ropes. How, you ask? By developing and practicing top notch habits right from the start.

  1. Set a research goal. Who, what, where, when, why or how? What exactly are you trying to find? While it might be fun to occasionally sit down and see what might turn up on an ancestor, looking for everything and anything online isn’t going to be the most productive avenue. Are you looking for: a birth record, newspaper article, probate file or ? Determine what your goal is and stick with it.
  2. Be a smart and thorough researcher. Yes, this is the step that has the most twists and turns. (If you are a newbie and haven’t already done so, interview your relatives first.) Use a variety of sites, including but not limited to, the big ones. is always a great starting point because it is free. However, don’t begin and end your search on this page:

Why? Because FamilySearch has many, MANY record collections that aren’t indexed at all or are only partially indexed. Be sure to click the search button again and check out the CATALOG, BOOKS and WIKI, as each might bring you success in attaining your research goal. This is true for many other sites, as well, and some sites have many collections, but very few that are indexed. (Example: ArkivDigital for Swedish records.) Be sure to check and RECHECK your findings.

3. NO, not everything is online. In fact, there is probably more that is NOT online. Be sure to check local government resources, courthouses, libraries, historical societies and genealogical societies in your search.

4. Don’t pay for what you can access for free. I am not one of those who believes that genealogy should be free, but I also don’t believe in paying for a record on one site when it is available for free on another. Few of us are lucky enough to have unlimited research budgets, so it is important to stretch the money as far as possible.

Ancestry, for example, has many collections that are free elsewhere, particularly on FamilySearch. Example: My dad’s family is all Slovak. I can pay $149 for six months’ access to the Slovak church registers or I can find the exact same record set in FamilySearch and read the registers for free.

Next, visit your local FamilySearch center at your neighborhood LDS church. These centers have subscriptions to an entire list of paid websites (both U.S. and international), which you can access for free in the library. Many local public libraries also have subscriptions to Ancestry and possibly other sites. My local library offers access to HeritageQuest online from my home.

Watch for notices, particularly around holidays, advertising free access for X period of time. Example: Fold3 might offer free access to military records around Memorial Day.

5. Keep a research log. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer paper or electronic, it just matters that you document where you have searched and what you have found – or not found. Negative searches are just as important as finding a record because you know not to return to that book, film or whatever unless you are seeking some other piece of information.

6. Organize the “stuff” that you will quickly begin to accumulate. Keep TWO types of records. The first should be a notebook (paper or electronic) that contains your current research goals, research logs and any notes/documents that you need to accomplish those goals. It is a working notebook and what it contains will and should change over time as you pursue various branches of your family tree.

The second “notebook” should be an archival quality album in which you file the documents and photos that will be saved for posterity. A HUGE WORD OF CAUTION HERE: There are no government regulations about the use of the term “acid free” or “archival quality.” I would never, ever put my treasured vintage items in an album from any of the chain stores that send out ads in the newspapers. (I am trying to be diplomatic and not name them.) I have used University Products in Holyoke, Massachusetts for years. I figured that if they were good enough for Harvard, Yale and the Library of Congress, they were more than good enough for me. I have seen mentions of a couple of other top notch companies, but their names escape me for the time being. Leave a comment if you can provide contact information for them.

Use a genealogy software program to organize your family tree and be sure to cite your sources. Others need to be able to duplicate your findings. Make sure that you have electronic back ups of all your computerized research. I am paranoid about losing 35+ years of work, so I use (1) my desktop computer (2) Dropbox (3) an external hard drive (4) Backblaze (5) IDrive and (6) a couple of flash drives with huge memory storage. Yes, ALL of my work is in ALL of those places, including digital scans of every page in my archival albums.

7. Don’t neglect your own genealogical education. There are many opportunities to build your skills to the professional level. Boston University, Brigham Young University, SLIG and others offer formal genealogical education programs and there are multiple national/international conferences providing opportunities to hear and learn from top notch speakers. Yes, these are often expensive propositions, but budget shouldn’t deter you from learning because there are also free opportunities available. One won’t finish with a title or the privilege of adding letters after your name to denote certification, but webinars are a fantastic way to learn at home and for free. DearMYRTLE, Legacy Family Tree Webinars, the Illinois State Genealogical Society, American Ancestors, FamilySearch, the Minnesota Genealogical Society, the Florida State Genealogical Society and others offer many free webinars on a full range of topics. GeneaWebinars is an electronic calendar that lists links to many, BUT NOT ALL, upcoming webinars. Some restrict free access to listening live without access to handouts, but I like to take my own notes anyway! With all of the resources available, budget doesn’t have to be a consideration when you want to develop those research skills unless you are looking at formal training.

You are now on your way to researching like a pro!


14 thoughts on “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Genealogists”

  1. Thanks for this list! Super handy and very inspirational. I can’t believe how well organised you are! Six digital backups is just amazing. I’m so far behind and you’ve given me a push in the right direction in terms of getting on top of it all! I also love the idea of a research log. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the free tips. Wish I had had them sooner. Made the mistake of not getting a software program and accumulated 14 large notebooks of data, over a 4 year period, which I am now finally imputing online.
    Could have saved myself a lot of time and duplication.


  3. Two other good sources for archival quality materials are Gaylord and Hollinger. Another is Talas. Sometimes you can get smaller quantities of what you want there.

  4. Excellent post and I especially endorse your idea of multiple backup methods. Our research is too precious to allow it to get lost if a computer crashes. Like you, I do a lot of digital backups. But I also print key documents and file them in my files. Paper is still a good way to “back up” IMHO.

  5. Really enjoyed your post! I echo the absolute need for a research plan and research log! I’ve learned the hard way what’s it’s like to try to research when I don’t have a plan or a log of where I’ve been and what I’ve found or not found! Thanks for these great tips!

  6. What a great list! After all this time, #1 is still hard for me – not so much setting the research goal as sticking to it and not going off on a tangent only to circle back around to the original goal 6 months later and wonder why it’s still unfinished!

  7. Such a wonderful list! I really need to do better about a research log, too -so many times I’m just doing random searching and it gets me nowhere and I’m likely searching the same databases twice (or more)! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Thanks for these reminders of good research habits. I’m good about some of them, less so with others, e.g., research logs. My tip is to turn on headers and footers in your browser so that the web address is applied to a paper or PDF version of downloaded documents.

  9. Great list, Linda! I especially like #4. So many people think One Certain Site “owns” all the records, and they’re afraid to look anywhere else. Thank you for participating in this month’s GBP! 🙂

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