Rookie Mistakes

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A list of rookie mistakes, their consequences, and what experienced genealogists DO 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 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-source-footnoted family group records, and 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 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 and act scatterbrained. When questioned about the person and event they seek, a rookie may not have anyone specific in mind. They just want to find ancestors and have no one in particular. 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 cannot figure out sources to search. Therefore their general focus often results in general lack of progress.
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.

It is also fairly common to see rookies trying to prove they are a descendant of some famous ancestor.
Consequences: The lack of data and clues is often made worse by the comparative lack of sources for earlier ancestors. The rookie may not have learned the research skills to research earlier ancestors by learning from the easier-to-study recent ancestors with more available sources. And 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 famous ones.

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

Consequences: They give up too soon and miss important sources.
Experienced researchers stay focused on the original goal (one event in one person's life). They continue with that goal and hunt it down relentlessly searching a variety of records, record types, jurisdictions, repositories, kin and associates to find the information. Clamp on like a bulldog and don't let go until you find the answer to the question. Use record selection tables (in national research outlines) 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.
Consequences: Rookies do not realize that neighbors are often relatives, or the value of relatives in finding clues about the family.
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 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.

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