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Genealogy: Learning begins with a question

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Feb. 25 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

What a researcher learns about family history depends on the questions they ask.

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Questions and answers are the foundation for exchanging genealogical information. We have many ways to learn, but by simply asking questions, we set the stage for learning and also for sharing what we know.

Narrow the focus of your questions. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the number of questions that need answers. It's been my experience with genealogy that the further back I go, the more questions I ask.

The key is to identify one person or a few individuals of the same family. Research efforts move forward faster if you focus on one individual and one question at a time. Use your pedigree charts and family group sheets to help identify questions. Make a research plan listing the questions you want to research.

Here are some examples of initial questions and follow-up questions I have created to guide my research plan development, personal skill development, and research process:

What information do I really want? It's not uncommon to read and hear questions from new genealogists that appear to be asking the responder to provide answers to every question the asker will ever need now or in the future about a given family line or individual. The questions you ask determine your research path. Know what you want to learn. Identify the information you are seeking.

How do I prepare for a library visit? What does the library have that will help me with my genealogy? What is a good book for beginners? How do I do research at a distance? What are some useful tips for successful genealogical research?

When searching for information I ask: What records do I search if I want to find birth records? Death records? Immigration records? Adoption records? Maiden name? City or parish of foreign country?

Concerning immigration I ask: How do I locate passenger lists? Where do I find information on immigration and naturalization? What is available on the Internet? Where was my ancestor born? His parents? What language did they speak in the home? What language was their newspaper printed in? What year did they immigrate? What language did they speak before they came to the United States? What is their status — AL (alien), PA (papered, or applied for citizenship), or NA (naturalized, or received citizenship)?

When developing an ancestor profile I ask: Where was my ancestor born? Was my ancestor married? Single? Widowed? Divorced? Married more than once? Where do I find vital records? Did my ancestors own a home or rent? Was it a farm or a house? Was it mortgaged or owned free and clear? Homesteaded? How much was the mortgage payment or the rent? What was their occupation, profession, or trade? Did they own their own business or employ others? Work for someone else? What was the type of business or trade?

Concerning record repositories I ask: What resources are available at the local library? The county or regional library? What about university libraries and archives? State archives? Local, county or state historical societies? Is there a local, county or state genealogy society? What is available in the homes of family members?

For census records I ask: Which census enumerations were taken during the life of my ancestor? What maps exist for the period my ancestor lived? Where can I find blank census forms to help me record the information I find?

And for ancestors in the community I ask: Were there relatives in the community where my ancestor resided? With whom did my ancestor do business? Where did his children find their spouses? Was it an ethnic community? If so, what language did they speak at home? When was the community founded? What records were available? What disasters had the community experienced? How had wars affected the community and its records? What churches were in the community? Are records available?

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips, and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.

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