Golden Rules of Genealogy

If you are familiar with the world of Social Media, then you know there are various avenues in which to share ideas with the world.  One of these venues is Pintrest.  Simply speaking, it is a virtual bulletin board that you can pin recipes, ideas, quotes, and pictures to for a later date.  While perusing my account the other night, I came across this “Pin”, which was posted by a friend of mine.  It is from a website called: gotgenealogy.com, based out of Oakland, California.  My additions are italicized.  Just a little rules to remember.

Golden Rules of Genealogy

In no particular order

1.  Spelling Doesn’t Count – Back in the day folks couldn’t spell and many could barely write, so how a name sounds is more important than how it’s spelled.  Use wild card or Soundex Searches to help find variant spellings of names.  Remember…when researching in Berks County there is the added variant of multiple spellings of an ancestor’s name in German and how English speakers heard and spelled those German names.

 2.  Assume Nothing – Check all your facts, don’t assume that any particular document is right or wrong, and always try to find other independent sources to corroborate your facts as much as possible.  Verify, verify, verify.  For instance don’t assume that:

  1. your ancestors were married
  2. census information is accurate
  3. vital (or other) records were correct
  4. your ancestor’s life events were recorded
  5. ancestors had the same name as their enslaver
  6. that official documents (i.e. birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates) have always been in existence
  7. that our ancestors recorded the same kind of information we do today
  8. that life events and customs we celebrate today, were as important to our ancestors

3.  Use Discretion – NEVER LIE in your genealogy reports, but use discretion when reporting family information, especially when it involves living relatives.

4.  Always Document Your Sources, No Matter How Much They Contradict One Another – Over time, you will compile more data and those once seemingly contradictory pieces of evidence may prove to be just the pieces of the puzzle you need to prove or disprove your theory.  Be consistent as you cite your sources.  There are standard citation formats, but even if you just make up your own format for listing your sources, be consistent with it.  You want your descendants to be able to retrace your steps, so you always cite your sources.

5.  Most Dates Are Approximate – It’s okay to state that someone was born “abt. 1845,” or died “May 1915” if you don’t have an exact date or where various documents have different dates.  Which date is correct?”  They all are.

6.  If Unsure, Say So – Future researchers will thank you for being honest if you simply say that you cannot prove a specific fact, yet you “suspect” such and such is true.  Don’t fudge the facts.  EVER.

7.  You CANNOT Do it All Online – Yes, we love doing research online and there’s nothing better than using the computer to find new sources, view digital images of original documents and even connect with relatives.  For genealogists, the internet will never replace the wonderful work of libraries, county courthouses, archives, and historical societies.  Do as much as you can online, then turn off your computer and hit the bricks!  And, if you think it is so cool seeing that digital image of an original document, imagine what it would be like to hold it in your hands!

8.  Just Because It’s Online Doesn’t Mean It’s True – The internet is a wonderful thing but it’s filled with oodles of bad information.  Don’t make the mistake of believing anything you find online at face value.  Verify against other sources, even if you paid for the information you found online.  Consult the original source whenever possible.  This includes Ancestry.com.  They are an excellent place to start, but there is a lot of bad information floating around.  Never trust a source that doesn’t provide their citations.  If you can’t go back to the original, don’t believe the information.

9.  Pass Along Your Research – No matter how many decades you spend researching your family, your research will never be done.  Plan on passing along your research to the next generation of researchers.  Leave excellent notes, cite all your sources, explain your shorthand…in essence, leave your research the way you’d have liked to have found it.  Try not to abbreviate.  If you do abbreviate, write down the code and leave it where it can be found by researchers.  Abbreviations used today, did not mean the same today as they did in the past and vice versa; and they will not mean the same in 50 years.  Taking the time to write something completely, than abbreviating, will save future generations time in trying to decipher your work.

10.  Don’t Die With Your Stories Still In You – Diving credit to Dr. Wayne Dyer for his “Don’t die with your music still in you,” we want to remind you to tell the stories as completely and as accurately as possible.  Genealogy isn’t about just doing research.  Genealogy is about telling the stories and ensuring that your ancestor’s legacies live on for generations to come.  Without the stories, the research won’t do anyone much good.  The legacy of your ancestors rests in your capable hands.  Doing the research is fine, but always remember that you have been chosen to tell their stories.

11.  DNA Is Not A Trump Card – DNA is just one of many possible sources of information you can use to verify of deny a relationship.  Human error occurs when the results are transcribed, thereby providing false information.  DNA results should always be used in concert with other sources.

12.  Anything You Post Online Will Be “Borrowed” – You need to accept the fact that any family information you post online will be “borrowed” or outright stolen, and you will probably not get credit for all your hard work.  This is the nature of the beast…the internet.  Get over it.

13.  Don’t Assume Research is Free – Research takes time and money.  It is an investment, just like any hobby.  When contacting research institutions, don’t assume they will provide you with all the information you want for free.  These institutions have research fees.  These fees are used to keep the collections safe, the lights on and the doors open.  If you don’t want to pay the fees, visit the institution.  Most institutions have websites and research fees will be posted.  DO NOT mail in a request, without appropriate fees.

14.  Be As Specific As Possible – Know what you are searching for before calling or visiting a research institution.  Libraries, courthouses, archives and historical societies are keepers of original documents.  They provide these documents to assist with your research.  If your questions are too vague, information cannot be found or will be overlooked.  Also, remember to provide the research institution with the variation of spellings your ancestors used to help locate all appropriate information.

Introduction

I am going to attempt to keep a blog of the behind the scenes at the Henry Janssen Library, in addition to other things I find interesting.  The Henry Janssen Library, the research library for the Historical Society of Berks County, is on Facebook, which I do not update as often as I would like.  You can also learn more about our services at www.berkshistory.org/library.  I am still getting my feet wet, so to speak, so please bear with me.

First and foremost…yes, I am an outsider.  I am not from Berks County; was not born or raised here.  I am actually from Lockport, NY, known as having the most locks on the Erie Canal, among other things, located around Buffalo and Niagara Falls.  For the first year and a half I lived here, I thought I was on another planet.  It takes a while to adjust to moving, which I did to take the Archivists position at the HSBC.  Each new place has a different rhythm and pace.  Reading reminds me of a city, plopped down in the middle of a field, which gives it a unique character that is actually peaceful.  No major city traffic, no city noise and if you travel 10 minutes down the road, you are in the country.  Berks County is the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country (Lancaster, PA just has better publicists) and that heritage is old, strong and interesting.  One does not have to grow up in a location to appreciate the history of where they are living.  In fact, one of my favorite pre-wedding gifts from my soon-to-be hubby is his grandmother’s handwritten PA Dutch Cookbook; of, course, I have to preserve it first.

As stated in the About Me section, I am the HSBC’s first officially trained archivist.  What exactly does that mean?  Answer: A LOT OF WORK.  Since October of 2008, we have started inventorying the entire collection, mostly because we really do not know what we have.  Hidden, literally, in this facility is a wealth of information, which has been buried in boxes and hidden from the light of day.  The library was run for years by retired librarians, who did what they could based on what they knew and to make it easier on them to find things.  There is no consistency in how they cataloged a book, let alone a document, or why some donations received more care than others did.  The bigger the collection, the better the chances there is no finding guide, nor did that collection receive the proper care.  Archives are all about arrangement and access; and unfortunately, sometimes the best way to start organizing is to start from scratch.  In the two and a half years since starting the inventory, we have located and identified manuscripts, deeds, maps and other documents that no one knew we had; and it is only the beginning.

I will try my best to inform and educate not just on preservation, arrangement and access, but on the history as well.  I am not an expert on Berks County History, nor will I ever be, but my main job is to educate and inform.  Archives and history are not boring and static and if you have ever visited us, you know we like to have fun and learn.  I hope you will come to appreciate this history as I have and find this interesting and informative.  Please feel free to comment or add your own information.  History does not exist in a vacuum everyone has knowledge to contribute.