As a genealogist/family historian, we are continually searching for the records our ancestors left behind. They come in all forms such as vital records (like birth, marriage and death certificates), census records, land records, military records and more. Oftentimes, however, we only look for the name of an ancestor, dates and places.
Do you know that every record you find, an additional search has the potential to give many clues that will lead to more documents, resources and family members than what you searching the document for?
The key to gaining the most from your research is learning about the records you are searching and understanding how you can use them. The more you know about the record type you are researching, the more successful you will be finding and using the information to extend your research success.
From my experience, once I have made a choice about the source I will search, I try to learn about the source and how to use the information I might find. For example, if I were going to be searching the 1880 United States Federal Census, I would search for a study guide to teach me how to research and use the information in the record. If my source were a person, I would contact him or her, make a list of questions, and conduct and record my interview. I would make sure that I record or make a copy of the information I have found. This provides the information necessary for citing and analyzing what is found from the source.
When researching a record or source, FamiySearch.org compiled a list of four common issues you will face:
- Name changes: It was common for immigrants to change or shorten their names after arriving in a new country. You may need to check for various possibilities.
- Spelling variations: Many ancestor names have variant spellings. Many recorders spelled names according to sound. A person may also be listed under a nickname or abbreviation.
- Handwriting: Most original documents you will search are handwritten. If you cannot read a letter, look at other names in the record to see how the writer made certain letters. Some handbooks illustrate the ways letters were written in earlier times.
- Dates: You may want to check a range of dates for an event. It may be recorded on a different date than you expect.
Editor's note: The original version of this story posted on June 15, 2013, failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 17, 2014, and attribution to original sources were added.
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.