Rookie Mistakes

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A list of rookie mistakes, their consequences, and how experience teaches you to do it better:  a self-improvement checklist.
We love new family history researchers. They add enthusiasm and idealism to our community. We offer this list to help them.

Rookies search individuals[edit | edit source]

Beginning researchers customarily focus on individuals to the exclusion of the family, the family dynamics, and locality or cultural influences. When working on research goals, they collect the typical base information for single individuals. They may overlook secondary information such as jobs listed, how many of their extended family are living with them, or how often the individual moved (possibly just to find work).

Consequences: Superficial information can be used to generate a beautiful pedigree chart. However, overlooking some of less obvious information can result in a book with very little on each page. Understanding an individual’s relationships with parents, spouses, children, friends, and extended relatives can unearth clues that lead to other ancestors or that could break down the inevitable brick wall in your research.

Experienced researchers know that most people are a part of a household and a social unit which could also be extended to include the surrounding community, their extended family, and even their religious or social affiliations. These individuals are part of their parents family group until they marry or create their own household. By collecting information regarding all individuals and all the relationship information associated with each other (such as siblings and others living in household), more data points are available as evidence or clues in uncovering other information.

Rookies are inclined to be poor note keepers 
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Rookie family group records have a tendency to have meager source citations, and are limited to births, marriages, and deaths. They are often so enthusiastic that collecting tons of information is their priority. They often start their family history project without learning how to get organized from the start.  This will create a snowball effect as more and more data is collected. Their research logs often consist of small slips of paper tucked into the pages of a spiral notebook. They have a tendency to make handwritten copies of sources. Their copies of sources are scattered and poorly organized. Finding a particular document may take hours if they can find them at all.

Consequences: Poor organization and note keeping often results in redundant searches, missed documents, overlooked clues, poor correlation and analysis, incorrect conclusions, dead ends, and false connections. One of the Research Wiki’s goals is to provide a knowledge base that will assist newcomers in the most effective methods to start their family history endeavors.

Experienced researchers document as they go. They keep up-to-date well-sourced and footnoted family group records, in addition to a detailed research logs. Veterans researchers make photocopies of sources whenever allowed by the repository. They add all events including things like census, military service, and family relocations to their family group records. One of their primary goals is to stay well organized. Thanks to their research log, they can have any document copy about the family in their hands in moments. They use their records, especially the family group record, as their best source of ideas about where to search next because of all the clues they have packed into it. They use their research logs to document their research strategies as well as all the sources searched so far.

Rookies can jump to conclusions which aren't supported by evidence
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Rookies are often too quick to draw conclusions without enough strong evidence. For example, when rookies find records for individuals with the same name, they may assume the records represent the same person when they do not. For instance, a census record showing William Bescoby born about 1811 in Lincolnshire, England, and a marriage record showing William Bescoby married in 1835 in Lincolnshire, England, can easily appear to be about the same person. Without doing additional research, a rookie may conclude these two records represent the same person. But further research in census and other records would have shown they do not.

Consequences: Incorrect family trees, incorrect relationships, incorrect merges in Family Tree, time spent researching incorrect lines.

Experienced researchers should realize that solid evidence from multiple sources is needed in order to draw valid conclusions about individuals and family relationships. Since all the needed information may not be available, this means that a tentative conclusion is put into their research logs indicating that more sources are needed. They look for multiple records for individuals, including birth, marriage, death, and census records. They use these records to create a complete picture of individuals and families so that the conclusions they draw are strongly supported by the evidence. The more sources you can cite, the less likely your conclusions will be over-turned later by yourself or someone else.

Rookies may assume an ancestor’s name has only one correct spelling[edit | edit source]

Rookies may reject sources that show the ancestor’s name spelled differently than expected. They often insist the family has always spelled the name just one way. They may be uncomfortable with variant spellings because they assume different spellings are a sign their ancestors were uneducated. They overlook the possibility that it was an immigration clerk not understanding a foreign language, a census taker writing down a nickname or spelling a surname incorrectly, or an indexer having difficulty deciphering someone’s hand writing or even making a typo error when entering the data. There are so many possibilities that it was not the family that spelled the name differently. Another possibility is that it could also have been the family itself that changed the surname. Spelling changes are also often the result of pronunciation differences in languages, the need of their ancestors to hide their national origin due to discrimination issues, or even something as simple as changing the spelling to conform to the way others spell the same name (like Schmidt instead of Schmid).

Consequences: Missed sources, missed opportunities, missed clues, incomplete and stunted genealogies as well as a missed opportunity in understanding the reason why such changes took place.

Experienced researchers would find it unusual if they found only one spelling in all of the records for a particular person. They expect and actively seek out as many variant spellings of the name as possible. Experienced researchers look for names under middle names, initials, abbreviations, and nicknames. They should actively use the International Genealogical Index to find alternate spellings to surnames. They often use spelling substitution tables to figure out even more possible alternates spellings of the surname.

Rookies frequently have vague research goals[edit | edit source]

Rookies often have little focus mainly because they rush or are rushed into doing their family history without having the proper training at their disposal. When questioned about the person and event they seek, a rookie may not have anyone specific in mind. They just want to find ancestors as quickly as possible. Furthermore, they are often without basic family group information when they start to ask their questions.

Consequences: A lack of focus means a rookie is unlikely to stay on task. They often don't know where to search. This lack of focus often results in a lack of progress.  They tend to be easily discouraged when not trained about what to expect.

Experienced researchers work on one specific event in one person’s life at a time. They can name the person and event, such as, “I want to document Katie Beller’s birth.” The nature of the event suggests a variety of sources that might have information about that event. Furthermore, research veterans carry with them a well-documented family group record, detailing that particular ancestor so the researcher can review the clues. If unrelated information pops up during their research, they would enter it in their research log and mark it for future investigations. They tend to continue to research that one event in one person’s life until they have exhausted all currently available options.   Unsuccessful or incomplete investigations should then be marked for future exploration in their research log.

Rookie researchers jump between families too often[edit | edit source]

Rookies move to a different family too quickly before finishing most of the research on the family they started. This is often the result of collecting the low-hanging fruit, which in and of itself is not bad as long good recordkeeping techniques are pursued and follow-through on each item is anticipated.

Consequences: Clues about individuals are embedded in their connections to their family and associates. Failure to understand the family and community results in fewer clues and less evidence. Shallow research results in less correlation and analysis of records, which can then become a set-up for poor conclusions.

Experienced researchers understand the value of researching the members of one family until all the members are well-documented before switching to a new family. This becomes more and more relevant once the research starts to focus on finding missing information or when trying to extend the family lines further into the past. Research may skip around a bit among members of the same family.  However, staying within a specific family tends to be an easier way to focus a variety of clues that could lead to answers.

Rookies occasionally “start” their research on ancestors in the distant past[edit | edit source]

The farther back in history you go, the less documentation you will find. Records were not always kept. Over time it is common for what records there were to be destroyed or misplaced. By starting with more recent ancestors, the researcher is more likely to find well-kept records. Rookies make the mistake of starting on ancestors with the least amount of records. This is often done in an effort to prove relationship to a famous ancestor or event.

Consequences: The lack of data and clues is often made worse by the lack of sources for earlier ancestors. A rookie may not have learned the research skills needed to research ancient ancestors. These skills develop over time by learning from the easier-to-study recent ancestors with more available sources. Trying to connect to famous ancestors may cause a researcher to make poorly reasoned connections or to depend on the poorly reasoned conclusion of others that fell into this same trap.

Experienced researchers want to first verify information about the most recent ancestor with the most data and source citations. The more recent and the better documented that an event is the easier it is to verify. Besides building confidence in a rookie researcher, the success with recent records often provides clues that make older events a little easier to find. Pedigree research (building from a recent date toward the past) is usually easier than descendent research that will usually involve thousands of descendants and family lines from a famous person. All these lineages would have to be investigated to find the right lineage that you are a part of. If a famous person is found in your lineage it should be thoroughly verified and documented.  One should not rely on the research of others. On occasion, you could find that the data had been fudged just because some people want such a connection to a famous person, even if there is none.

Rookies may assume no record of an event exists if not found in their first search[edit | edit source]

The lack of experience can make a researcher believe that their first search was exhaustive and nothing else is available. The impatience to find “something” is so strong that they tend to move onto greener pastures and forget about their original goal.

Consequences:  Without quick success and immediate gratification the inexperienced can give up too quickly and miss important sources and clues that may be hidden under mislabeled documents or misspelled names.

Experienced researchers stay focused on the original goal: one event in the life of one person. They continue with that goal and hunt it down relentlessly searching a variety of records, record types, jurisdictions, repositories, relatives, and associates to find the information if it exists. Experience with research has taught them to clamp on like a bulldog and don't let go until all avenues have been searched and double checked. Use the record selection tables to find alternative record types. Talk to local librarians and archivists to learn about alternative jurisdictions and repositories. Study neighbors in the census data and the land records to learn more about possible kin you could continue to research while learning about your main target ancestor.

Rookies overlook hidden relatives and neighbors[edit | edit source]

The novice researcher may notice someone else in the same household on the census and pay little attention. They also overlook neighbors with the same unusual first names, identical occupations, or places of origin on the census. They may fail to notice that the same neighbor may appear in a subsequent census with your ancestor even when they have moved to a different location or state.

Consequences: Rookies do not realize that neighbors are often relatives, nor do they recognize the value of relatives in finding clues about their family. These finds can be hidden in plain sight. The inexperienced do not realize that studying the neighbor will often reveal information about the ancestor.

Experienced researchers always make note of everyone in the census household, and any neighbors with similar surnames, given names that are identical to the children’s names, occupations, and places of origin. In the past when travel was much more restricted than it is today, it is imperative that the researcher realizes that proximity can imply a relationship. Experience tells veteran researchers to assume that they are possibly relatives or close friends. They may later research such neighbors when their current research on the main family doesn't work or hits another brick wall.

Rookies avoid discussing contradictory evidence[edit | edit source]

The inexperienced may reject sources that show the ancestor’s name spelled differently than expected. Even the use of a previously unknown nick name or a middle name may be rejected without adequate study to understand their usage. They may suppress sources that disagree with their point of view by not citing them. And if they do cite such sources, they may fail to acknowledge the contradictions which need further clarification.

Consequences: Overlooked sources, under used sources, or poor evaluation of sources. This can lead to conclusions based on less than all the best available evidence.

Experienced researchers embrace contradictions and discrepancies by openly acknowledging them, analyzing them, and explaining what accounts for them; it is all a part of the research process. They strive to expose these kinds of problems, understand them, and explain them in order to more fully understand all they can about a research problem. Knowing and admitting the weaknesses of a case leads to better analysis. It keeps one open to the discovery of future evidence that may invalidate or verify their existing conclusions.

Rookies don't think about sharing their research[edit | edit source]

With all their energies focused on just collecting names, it just hasn't occurred to them that their discoveries or conclusions might be useful to others.

Consequences: They can fail to think about making their research as useful as possible to others. They fail to get their work vetted.  They miss out on the chance to collaborate with distant relatives researching the same family.

Experienced researchers should have the overall goal of sharing their work. They want to be vetted. Having their work vetted is an important part of the process which can find flaws in their thinking, could reveal overlooked clues, or find areas which need more validation. They put their contact information in everything they share so they will hear from distant relatives and be able to improve their information.

Rookies don't sharpen the saw enough[edit | edit source]

Being focused on results, rookies often neglect their genealogical education. They don't take enough classes, read enough, or if possible, travel to the places where their ancestors where born and raised so they can to learn more about the culture.

Consequences: Cultural background of ancestors, and advanced research skills may go unlearned. The inexperienced researcher may be predisposed to fail to understand the individuals they are researching, their connections to their family, or the family in its community connections. Without an understanding of the cultural background, some important sources and clues may be overlooked.

Experienced researchers take and teach classes, read and write articles and books, and visit ancestral stomping grounds. They strive to understand the culture, the community, and the family they are researching. Experienced researchers continue to look for new and better ways to find ancestors without re-inventing what other have done before.

Rookies have a tendency to expect too much and give up too early[edit | edit source]

Those that are new to genealogical research can be too eager to 'finish their family'. So they tend to add information from the internet or copy the work of others without verifying the information, checking the sources, or making sure that the information and documents they collect represent a correct and cohesive picture of their ancestor.

Consequences:  The attempts to “finish” the research is actually a misnomer because the research should never be finished. Inexperience can lead to a final product that is nearly unusable. A rookie may be willing to share at first, but they quickly become overwhelmed with corrections that are needed or details that appear to be too difficult to correct. They may become confused or disoriented with the task of researching and redoing, since the end product is so full of information that is new to them.  They may say, "Everyone that sees my work finds fault with it or wants to correct it.  Why can't they just accept it and move on?" Unfortunately, it is easy to lose interest.  They often move on without completing the task. It is far better to learn the best research methods than to get discouraged and possibly never pick up their genealogical interests again.

Experienced researchers are aware that while they are not adding hundreds of names at a time, they are doing good work that is well documented and their work will not be difficult to correct or improve in the future. While they may not seem to make giant leaps, their progress is unhurried, cautious, deliberate and enduring. They are not discouraged by having to continually correct or rethink their work because they know that they should remain methodical and focused. In the long run they will accomplish much more than a rookie by simply doing things the right way the first time, bearing in mind that they too started out as rookies once upon a time.

Related Content[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

What to do with the genealogy and family history I collected