Helen Keller’s Advice for Genealogists

05 Mar 2013

“Columbus saw a new continent beyond uncharted seas. If he had only believed in its existence, and had spread no sail for the unknown shores, he would not have discovered this land we call America.” ~ Helen Keller



Helen Keller’s words remain very true today. And as genealogists, they are a fantastic beacon. You won’t find the answers that you don’t look for. It takes hard work and research to find your family.

Genealogical research often provides easy answers. Especially in today’s technological age, where there are so many opportunities to share information and obtain data at the speed of light. It can often take little or no effort to find ancestors. But simply believing you have found your ancestors is different from actually having found them.

People often tell me that they don’t have to verify anything because they  are “only doing it for the family.” This shocks me, because, to me, if I were doing something for my family I would be even more inclined to be certain that I had the correct information. Why would I want to provide my family with a whole bunch of ancestors that aren’t really our ancestors?

Not everyone needs to produce the definitive scholarly work containing every known relative. But if you want to be certain that you have found your family, it is important that you do more than just find a person with the right name at the right place at the right time. It is important to do the proper follow-up research.

Look for multiple records for the person. The odds are that they will provide conflicting clues. It is important to continue to collect more information. As you collect this information, it is equally important to track it properly. If you don’t include source information on the data you collect, you will inevitably run into problems. Because as you try to resolve your conflicting information, you won’t know where it came from, and, therefore, will have difficulty in determining the reliability of it.

As you collect information, you will also have to analyze it. Analysis requires looking at the data from multiple viewpoints. What information is there in the record itself? Who provided the information? When was it recorded in relation to the event it documents? Where was it recorded? How was it preserved? What is the provenance?

This may sound like a lot of work, but it can also be fun. As a rule, most genealogists I know enjoy mysteries. So enjoy getting to play detective. Ask the questions. Pursue the clues. Put together the information.

Listen to the words of Helen Keller. Don’t just sit back and assume you have the right person. Spread your sails and then you will have the pleasure of discovering your real family.