Category Archives: Methodology

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Every once in a while, I read a post or web news item about how genealogy researching  was much better in the “old days,” which I take to mean anything before internet access. Of course, I also see stories and anecdotes about how much better life in general was in the old days or how much tougher life was in the old days – e.g. tales like “but I had to walk five miles to school barefoot in the snow.”

I don’t write many opinion posts, but this topic has crossed my path lately so I decided to share my thoughts.

Anyone who has done any original family research knows that the right answer to the question “better before or better now” is that it is a mixed bag, which is the same answer to the question about whether life was better then or better now. My great grandfather, who died from a strep infection in 1922, would certainly argue that life is better now because he probably wouldn’t have died from that infection had penicillin been invented by then.

As for genealogical research, I believe that there is the good, the bad and the ugly to be considered.

First, the GOOD –

1. Comparing past footwork to researching today is a no-brainer, for the most part. So many resources are at our fingertips online. Not sure where a family moved after 1870? Check the census. Think they died in Illinois, but in an unknown county? Check IRAD. Have an One Name Study surname? Google it. The list could go on and on. One vote for modern times.

2. Contacting other researchers yields another vote for modern research. I was very good friends with my mail lady because I waited with baited breath, hoping that the mail that day would include a response from someone somewhere. Sometimes the wait would not be days, but weeks or even months. While emails sometimes aren’t promptly answered, some replies arrive within a minute. I’ve had that happen more than once.

Do I miss all the letters? Sure, I do.  Daily visits to my mailbox today produce bills and ads. However, in an era of instant gratification, it is hard to beat a one minute reply to that query. Another vote for modern times.

Next, the BAD –

1. Books. I have to admit that I am very biased about this subject, being a retired language arts teacher. in the “old days,” everyone went to local libraries and societies to search in the book stacks. There is something special about retrieving a book off the shelves, opening it to just the right page and BINGO! There is your family record. Yes, I know digitized books can be found online, but it is just not the same thing as a real, “live” book. My vote here has to go for the past. I wish more family historians would consider visiting libraries, historical societies and genealogical societies in search of books. There are still millions of them out there that haven’t been scanned and one of them might break open a brick wall or two.

2. Speaking of libraries and genealogical/historical societies, aside from books, there is the issue of person-to-person, face-to-face human contact. Visiting libraries and attending society meetings provides the opportunity to meet other like-minded souls who love learning – learning about their families, learning to research and learning to think outside the box to make new discoveries. People have always been “busy,” but everyone seems to make time for things that are important to them. I think in the “olden days,” we were more likely to rank these visits as important. With the internet, it seems more are likely to say they have no time to attend meetings and “anyway, it can all be found online.” Wrong! Another vote for the past.

Finally, the UGLY

Some things never change.

1. Remember the warnings in the old days about published family histories that were either outright frauds or perpetuated “facts” that had long been disproved, but that were repeatedly cited in later works? Some tales never died, they just reappeared in new forms. Well, that problem is still a huge problem today, probably even more so than in the past because once it is on line, I don’t think it ever disappears. Errors in online family trees? Never happens. Utterly nonsensical stories about ancestors? Haven’t even seen one of those online either. Yeah, right.

This last item is a particular pet peeve of mine and it hasn’t changed much throughout the ages.

2. People who won’t share. I just don’t get it when people don’t or won’t share. Now, I can understand if there is a sensitive family event and there are living people associated with that story. That isn’t what I mean at all. I am referring to people who have researched those long dead, made some great discoveries and refuse to share “their” information, found in publicly accessible records, with anyone else. I have always freely shared any information I’ve found, only asking the recipient to share my contact information with others who they might later contact.

I believe that freely sharing with others will come back to me eventually and I have been on the receiving end of information that I might never have found on my own.

So, how do my votes stack up in terms of the “Good Old Days” versus he “Internet Age”? Like I said in the beginning, it’s a mixed bag and the final count is pretty much a wash.

What are your thoughts? Any issues I’ve overlooked? Please leave a comment.







My Top Genealogy Free Websites

When I moved to Tucson four years ago, one of the first things I did was look for a local genealogy society. Finding none, but having joined a ladies’ welcome club, I decided to organize one through the club. Four years later, I am proud to say that I have created new genealogy addicts. We meet regularly once a month and, while all except me were newbies when we organized, we now have a nice mix of somewhat seasoned researchers who have learned how to search for the next person in their family trees.

Aside from having lots of time to research together when we meet, I also teach a mini-lesson on a general genealogy topic each month. I am often asked about both websites and research books that I would recommend. Today’s post covers my top ten recommendations, in no particular order, for free research:

1. – It goes without saying that this should be a starting and continuing resource for any serious researcher.

2. Cyndi’s List – Cyndi’s List is a reference guide for finding websites of for any particular genealogical topic or area of interest.

3. US Gen Web – US Gen Web, organized by state and counties, has varying amounts of fabulous information contributed by volunteers. Some information is readily found elsewhere, while other tidbits are unique to the site. The categories of information vary widely from locale to locale because the site is volunteer-driven. However, a visit to places of interest is well worth the time.

4. Chronicling America – The Library of Congress project, Chronicling America, digitizing historical American newspapers, is worth frequent visits as more newspapers are added to the project. Newspapers have traditionally been underused as a genealogical resource because it if often difficult to access them. Chronicling America has removed that problem.

5. Olive Tree Genealogy – This website has tons of links, many of which go to free websites, covering many less easily found sources of information. The highlight, in my opinion, are all the sources for ships’ passenger lists for both the U.S. and Canada.

6. DAR Library – The DAR Library is one of the premier genealogy libraries in the United States. Even if you has no ancestor who gave service during the American Revolution, the library likely has records for places where your family lived. The GRS (Genealogical Research System) database is available on line. If you think you might have a patriot, the ancestor database can also be searched on line. If you are able to visit the library in person, DAR recently dropped the admission fee for non-DAR members, so entrance is now free.

7. Google Books – Google Books is a terrific way to read genealogical books whose copyright has ended or whose author/compiler has given permission to share the work digitally. Obscure volumes often found only in libraries might well be found on Google.

8. FindAGrave – FindAGrave is a terrific resource, particularly for finding family members who lived in the 20th century. Care should be taken to note whether a gravestone has been transcribed and a photo posted or whether someone has simply created a memorial to a person who may or may not be buried in a particular cemetery.

Two slots on this list should be reserved for topic- or place-specific information often used by the family historian. In my case, I would include:

9. PANB (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)- I have so many New Brunswick connections that I would be light years further behind in my Canadian research without this site.

10. Statens Arkiver (Danish National Archives) – The Danish National Archives is another site on which I have found so much information and which is free. It contains digital images of Danish parish registers covering time spans well into the 20th century, along with Danish census images. Probate files are currently being added. I would not have found my great grandmother’s family in Denmark without this website.

I have posted a number of articles covering free resources, including some spectacular state libraries and archives  and local government level sites. Check them out and please comment on your own Top Ten Favorite Free Websites.

Come back tomorrow for my recommendations of Top Ten Genealogy Books for a basic reference collection.