Five Things I Learned in School About Genealogy

22 Aug 2014


This is back to school time. I remember a special August more than thirty years ago when I arrived at the University of Massachusetts for my first band camp. Little did I know then how much college and the band would impact my life. And decades later, I still keep up with numerous friends from that time. And many of the lessons I learned in school are ones that I use in genealogy all the time. Here are a few of them.

1. Be an information sponge.

School is a time for learning. So many new opportunities open up to us to learn about subjects that mean something to us (as well as more than a few subjects that we probably don’t care about, but could use). We benefit most when we open up to the various opportunities available to us. As genealogists, we benefit from all kinds of learning. Working with experienced researchers; taking classes; attending seminars and workshops; reading blogs, magazines, and journals; and many other opportunities teach us how to become better at finding our ancestors.

2. If it doesn’t fit, change your tactics.

It continues to amaze me that in this country we ask 18-year-olds who are entering college to pick a major concentration that will be what they do for the rest of their life. Who knows at that age? It is one of the major ironies of my life that I wanted to be a history major in college, but thought I would never be able to find a job where a history major would come in handy. Instead, I changed my major numerous times. At various times in college my major was computer science, communication studies, and legal studies before settling into political science with a minor in history.  When I didn’t like the direction I was taking, I changed directions. The same thing should hold true for genealogical research. If a particular avenue isn’t working, switch to something different. A new approach may help you solve the problem.

3. If you make a mistake, learn and move on.

Lord knows I, like most college students, made my share of mistakes. We’re human. Everyone makes mistakes. Certainly most genealogists have had the experience of breaking out the chain saw and hacking a few limbs off the family tree. The important thing is to accept the mistake. Even the most experienced genealogists have had to do some pruning. Often it is through no fault of your own, but simply because new evidence has been uncovered and shed new light on existing facts that end up changing or eliminating relationships. Don’t cling to incorrect family members. You never know what exciting things you will find in the new banches.

4. The more you apply yourself, the better your results will be.

In this day of computers and technology, more and more genealogists are relying on the technology to do the research for them. If a system tells them that something is a possible match, they take it as gospel and graft it onto the family tree. While these things clues are important, they should be treated as what they are: clues for further research to prove that they are correct. The same goes for those who blindly download GEDCOM files from others and attach the data to their own tree. Roll up your sleeves and get to work verifying information before accepting it as true. It is the only way to be certain the people in your family tree are actually your ancestors.

5. Friends made here are friends for a lifetime.

Three decades later, I still count friends I made in high school and college as near and dear to my heart. We remain close even if we lose touch for periods of time. Facebook has helped dramatically, especially during times of shared loss. The same is true of genealogists. I remain friends with people I met when I first started researching my family back in the 1980s. Who else will put up with all of your stories other than genealogists? But we also help each other. We listen and offer feedback. We bounce ideas off of each other. And we share resources and opportunities with each other. Get out from behind the computer and get involved with your local genealogical and historical societies. You will be ever the richer for it.