Saturday, January 14, 2006

Is Genealogy your Hobby? Learn the Basics!

Over the last few decades, family history has become increasingly important to Americans. Thus the hobby of genealogy is now one of the major hobbies practiced throughout the country. You can be driven by curiosity, wondering where your ancestors were born, what prompted them to come to America, and what they looked like, or simply want a legacy of family information to leave your descendants. It seems like a simple enough hobby, writing down the dates of yourself, your family, parents, grandparents . . . but after that it quickly spirals into a time-consuming venture! The key is to not do it alone; talk to other die-hard enthusiasts who are just as thrilled with the project as you are and can help you gather information.

There are tips to help you become a better genealogist. It doesn't matter if you're a beginner or if you have been documenting family information for years. Anyone can use these tips to become better at what they do.

Books. Make sure to have at least one bookshelf in your home to devote to your new hobby! This includes not only the notebooks, blank books or binders you'll be using to catalog your information (remember to note your sources!), but books on different branches of your family tree. Many books catalog families of European origin from the first known ancestor to modern descendants, and can be very helpful if you can link your "mystery relative" to the people mentioned in the book.

As for the sort of book you'll be keeping your information in, it's up to you. There are books specifically set up with places for names, dates, information, etc., but if you want to do it all on your own, buy a few blank books. Have the first book for generations one through ten, the second for eleven through twenty, etc. Binders could also be used but aren't as protected as hard-cover books, and papers can still bend.

A helping hand. It may seem hard doing all the research yourself, and that's where relatives come in! This can be aunts, uncles, grandparents, or cousins, or it can be distant cousins you've met via the Internet. Older relatives are often a treasure trove of stories concerning ancestors, and you can either interview them by tape recorder or write down their precious memories.

Genealogy message boards are a great place to meet relatives, and often they might have information about a shared family that you may not have access to. For instance, if your third-great grandfather was from Germany, a German relative might have better access to church and land records than you do. If you're stuck at a particular person, message boards can often hold the information you need.

You might have older relatives who don't seem to like the idea of talking about the past, or are not sure which memories would be of interest to you. Writing letters is a great idea to get around awkward interviews. Write a letter to an older relative, asking a few specific questions. The kind of questions you ask might determine what sort of answer you receive. If you ask "tell me what you remember about your teenage years," it may put the relative at a loss because he or she won't know exactly which things to write. It is too broad of a question. If you ask "What did Uncle Roy do on his tenth birthday?" it's often easier to remember a specific event.

Reunions. Another great way to find out which relatives are also "genealogy lovers" is to go to family reunions. Sometimes relatives will bring old family pictures or stories to reunions. Bringing pictures of your own may prompt memories. If you have a picture of a young child, show it and say "I wonder what my mother looked like when she was five." This might be all an elderly relative needs to "open up."

The Internet is good for more than message boards. Many people store their entire genealogy database on their computer. I wouldn't personally recommend that the only place you have your information is your computer, however. Machines tend to have a nasty habit of losing or corrupting files. Print out what you have on the computer and keep it in a binder; that way, if you ever lose files, you'll have the precious information in a safe place.