How You Know You Are Past the Introductory Stage in Genealogy Research

Some indicators that you are no longer a beginner

How many basic classes do you need to learn to do genealogical research? How do you move past the introductory stage? When do you begin to do real research? I have thought about this for some time and I think that there are some concrete indicators of when a researcher moves out of the introductory stage and begins to do real research. Here are a few suggestions that indicate when that change occurs:

When you stop merely copying and begin evaluating

This suggestion works both ways. Not only do we start real research when we stop merely copying records but we regress from research when we begin copying records again. What do I mean by copying records? It means that you copy the information in the record without evaluating the following:

  • Who created the record?
  • When was the record created?
  • What was the original purpose of the record?
  • How did the record get preserved in the repository or online?
  • Why is the individual record included where it was found?

There are more questions that can and should be asked depending on the individual record but it is this activity of inquiry that moves the researcher beyond the introductory stage.

When you change your attitude towards spelling variations

I often talk to many beginning researchers who are really bothered by name variations in the records. They have a preconceived idea of the "correct" spelling of the family name and can't understand why the names are found with variant spellings. One indication that you have moved past the copy stage is understanding and appreciating variations in the records and begin to understand the difference between significant variations and those caused by other factors such as no standardized spelling.

When you visit your first record repository to look at paper records

I am convinced, of course, that you can do real research online but there comes a time when you need to recognize that there are many more records out there waiting to be digitized than there are already available online. Turning the corner in your research is when you finally figure out that you need to go the library or court house to get additional records. I am not saying that the researcher has to physically go to to the location; turning the corner may be as simple as ordering a book using interlibrary loan. But the act of breaking out of the single-minded online search is what makes the difference.

When you realize that family trees do not have all the answers

Online family trees are a great genealogical innovation but real research starts when the prospective researcher finally figures out that the information on the family trees is highly questionable when it lacks sources supporting the people and relationships in the tree. This is one of the major reasons I have been adding source citations to every person in my online family trees. But I do have a long way to go before that phase is complete.

When you make a connection between source records and information missing or incorrect in your family tree

Some of the first things that any real researcher encounter are the apparent contradictions in different family trees and even in sources. Understanding that these differences exist is one of the hallmarks of beginning to do real research. As long as the prospective researcher depends on the records handed down by some family member who did the genealogy, they have not progressed to the stage of doing real research.

When you recognize that there are records beyond the U.S. census and vital records

The existence of more than census and vital records comes as a shock to some and a revelation to others. For this reason, I enjoy showing people how you can prove marriages, births and deaths from land records and I am equally amazed at how few people recognize the value of local newspapers. A real researcher recognizes that there are whole categories of records that are almost never considered by researchers.

I am sure there are other indicators of researcher status but these are some of the most obvious.

Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.

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