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.

This is a wiki-list. Feel free to add more ideas as you think of them. Please help us ALL improve our skills by explaining what experienced genealogists do better.

Rookies search individuals

Beginning researchers focus on themselves and their direct-line ancestry. When working on research goals, they look for single individuals.

Experienced researchers know that everyone is part of a household, so they are part of their parents family group until they marry or create their own own household. By collecting information regarding all individuals (siblings and others living in household) more data points are available as evidence.

Rookies are poor note keepers 

Rookie family group records have meager source citations, and are limited to births, marriages, and deaths. 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 5 minutes or more.

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.

Experienced researchers document as they go, keeping up-to-date, well-sourced and footnoted family group records, along with research logs. Veterans make photocopies of sources whenever allowed by the repository. They add all events including things like each census, military service, and family moves to their family group records. They are well organized. Thanks to their research log they can have any document copy about the family in their hand 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 onto it. They use their research logs to document their research strategies as well as the sources searched.

Rookies jump to conclusions which aren't supported by evidence

Rookies are often too quick to draw conclusions without enough 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 realize that solid evidence from multiple sources is needed in order to draw valid conclusions about individuals and family relationships. They look for mulitple 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.

Rookies assume an ancestor’s name has only one correct spelling

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 a clerk (not family) that spelled the name differently.

Consequences: Missed sources, missed opportunities, missed clues, incomplete and stunted genealogies.

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 use the International Genealogical Index to find alternate spellings to surnames. And they use spelling substitution tables to figure out even more possible alternates spellings of the surname.

Rookies often have vague research goals

Rookies often have little focus. 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. Further, they are often without a family group when they ask questions.

Consequences: Lack of focus means a rookie is unlikely to stay on task. They often don't know where to search. Their lack of focus often results in a lack of progress and they are easily discouraged.

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. Further, veterans carry with them a well-documented family group record showing that individual ancestor so the researcher can review the clues. They tend to continue to research that one event in one person’s life until they find it.

Rookie researchers jump between families too often

Rookies move to a different family before finishing most of the research on the family they started.

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--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. Research may skip around a bit among members of the same family, but stay within the family until it is done.

Rookies start research on the farthest back ancestor with the least data

The farther back in history you go, the less documentation you will find. Records were not always kept and 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. The rookie may not have learned the research skills needed to research earlier ancestors 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.

Experienced researchers want to first verify information about the most recent ancestor with the most data and source citations. The more recent and better documented and event the easier it is to verify. Success in recent records often provides clues that makes earlier events a little easier to find. Pedigree research is usually easier than descendancy research, so veterans concentrate on more recent ancestors before moving to the possible discovery of famous ones.

Rookies assume no record of an event exists if they fail to find it on the first search

Consequences:  Without quick success and immediate gratification they give up too quickly and miss important sources.

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. Experience with research teaches them to clamp on like a bulldog and don't let go until the information is found. Use record selection tables to find alternative record types. Talk to local librarians and archivists to learn about alternative jurisdictions and repositories. Study neighbors in census and land records to learn about possible kin you could research to learn about your main target ancestor.

Rookies overlook relatives and neighbors

They 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, occupations, or place 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 state.  

Consequences: Rookies do not realize that neighbors are often relatives, nor do they recognize the value of relatives in finding clues about the family. They 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 neighbors with similar surnames, given names, occupations, and places of origin. Proximity implies relationship. They assume they are probably relatives or close friends and may research such neighbors when research on the main family doesn't work.

Rookies avoid discussing contradictory evidence

Rookies 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 useage. 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. 

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. 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 and conclusions.

Rookies don't think about sharing their research

It just hasn't occurred to them this might be useful.

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

Experienced researchers have the overall goal of sharing their work. They want it vetted. 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

Rookies neglect their genealogical education. They don't take enough classes, read enough, or travel to the places where their ancestor's lived to learn more.

Consequences: Cultural background of ancestors, and advanced research skills may go unlearned. Rookies 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 sources 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.

Rookies expect too much and give up too early

Rookies are too eager to 'finish their family' and 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 present a correct and cohesive picture of their ancestor.

Consequences:  They end up with a final product that is nearly unusable. They 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 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 that is what often happens to them. They lose interest and they move on without completing the task..

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. 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 deliberate and enduring.  They are not discouraged by having to continually correct or rethink their work because they are methodical and focused.  In the long run they will accomplish much more than the rookie by simply doing things the right way one time, rather than over and over trying to get it right.

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