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The top ten sins of a genealogist


In his latest blog, Paul Chiddicks takes a look at the top ten sins a genealogist can commit…

Most of us have done it, got carried away researching several different lines of our family tree at once, or feeling tempted to click on an online match to add an ancestor to our tree without checking the facts.

So let’s begin with looking at all the pitfalls and mistakes that most of us will have made at least once in our research and look at ways in which we can avoid making those same mistakes again.

Sin 1: Assuming everything online is correct

The number one mistake for me was making the assumption that everything you find online “must be correct”. Unfortunately a lot of what you will find online will have some mistakes, from simple transcription errors, to completely uncorroborated trees.

So be warned! Never just “cut and paste” information into your tree. You need to confirm the information yourself, via various sources, before you include it in your tree. The genealogical proof standard (GPS) is the holy grail for all genealogists to prove a genealogical conclusion with as much certainty as possible.

Sin 2: not noting every search

My worst crime when I started tracing my family tree was to neglect to make notes of the negative searches that I made. Why would I need to, I initially thought? Of course now I know, with the benefit of hindsight, that it’s imperative to make as many notes on your failures as you do your successes. That way, when you return to a search several months or even years later you have a clear understanding of what you have searched for, where you have looked and whether you have any uncorroborated leads to follow up. Without this, you can waste so much valuable time duplicating failed searches.

Sin 3: not going beyond birth, marriage and death records

Family history isn't restricted only to lists of births, marriages and deaths. Initially I raced off, tracing every available line back to 1837 (the start of civil registration), but found myself looking at what was realistically just a list of bland names and dates. Enrich your tree by looking at the various ways in which you can go beyond the bare facts, using  information such as newspaper archives, your ancestor’s career, where they lived, local maps etc. There is so much more to discover beyond the basic birth, marriage and death records.

Sin 4: trying to do everything yourself

Don’t try to fly solo – you don’t have to do it all on your own. There are lots of ways to gain extra help or get specialised information in a specific area. Consider joining a local family history society in the area that your ancestors lived and “tap” into the local expertise of society members. Most family historians are extremely helpful, especially to a newcomer, and are only too pleased to help. So don’t be shy. If you need some help, ask for it!

Sin 5: adopting the scattergun approach

Having a goal and sticking to a plan is the key to maintaining focus. Many people, when they first start to trace their family tree, dive in with a “scattergun” approach and cast their net far and wide, in the hope of catching as much information and finding as many ancestors as they can. They are then swamped and overloaded with information, which leads to the cardinal sin that I made in point 1, they just take things at face value.

Before you know it, you are several generations back on completely the wrong tree and believe me, I have done that. So have a key set of goals before you fire up the laptop and make sure you make notes.

Sin 6: not checking your previous work

Review, review review.  As you become a more accomplished genealogist, make sure you go back over your previous work to check for errors and more importantly, to find out whether new information has become available since your original search. More and more documents are becoming available online, so keep going back and reusing those searches, to see if anything new has materialised. We often get caught in the trap of thinking that once an ancestor is “dead” on your tree that nothing new will ever become available. But search again and you may be surprised.

Sin 7: trying to achieve everything online

You can’t “do” your family tree solely from the comfort of your home. As wonderful as the internet has become for family historians, we can simply make the mistake of thinking that everything we need is at the end of the enter button on our laptop. So let’s get out and explore!

Plan and organise trip to a local archive office if you can, or maybe consider one of the major archives in London. Do your homework before you go, there are lots of great guides available online to plan an archive visit. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing your ancestor's name in print in an old document in person; that thrill will stay with you, trust me!

Sin 8: neglecting to explore

Another reason to shut the laptop down and get outside is to explore the town or village where your ancestor lived. To “walk in their footsteps” is a truly remarkable feeling. You can’t do everything from the armchair, so stop being an armchair genealogist if you can and become an adventurer and an explorer!

Sin 9: inflexibility on names

What’s in a name? I have at least 12 variations in the spelling of my own surname Chiddicks, so think outside the box with names and spellings. Make use of the wildcard searches on the various websites and again look for alternatives ways in which you can corroborate what you find. Did your ancestor have an unusual occupation that will help locate him on the various census returns?

Sin 10: me, me, me!

Why not consider “giving something back”? We are all guilty of making use of all the various transcriptions, monumental inscriptions etc available online but not contributing anything to genealogy ourselves. Yet without those tireless volunteers, we wouldn’t have the wonderful resources we use today. So why not make it a goal to also put something back into our hobby.

Follow Paul on Twitter and his blog.

Researching the names: Chiddicks in Essex; Daniels in Dublin; Keyes in Prittlewell; Wootton in Herefordshire and London; Jack in Scotland.


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