There are lots of skills associated with genealogical research. Some of these include locating evidence, analyzing it, translating language, reading old handwriting, understanding archaic words, and most of all reading between the lines to locate informational sources that can further your research.
There are three exercises that I use for honing my research skills, and they have nothing to do with my personal genealogical research. However, they contribute to my skills, make me look outside the confines of my own family research, and cause me to sharpen my knowledge of different record types, ethnic and religious origins, and much more. Let me share these with you.
I present a popular seminar titled “Bits about Obits: Reading Between the Lines.” I usually read the obituaries in the local newspapers on a regular basis. No, I’m not morbid; I simply want to see what information is included. I’ll usually pick two or three at random; the names and sizes of the obituaries don’t matter. You may recall in school having to diagram sentences. For some of us, it was enlightening and greatly enjoyable; and for others it was torture. What I do is similar–I “dissect” the obituary.
First, I read the obituary in full. Next, I use a pencil to underscore individual pieces of information in the obituary that point to some resource that may or will be of genealogical value. The obvious items are name, gender, age, residence, life events, place where a funeral or memorial service is scheduled, names of officiating clergy, place of interment, and names of any survivors. Other information may include occupation, name of spouse(s), sibling(s), place of birth, life events, military service, church affiliation, occupation, and more.
I prepare a list that includes each and every one of these underlined clues. Underneath each one, I notate 1) what information that clue can provide; 2) what records might exist of the fact or clue; and 3) where the record(s) would be held. A typical short obituary usually has at least a dozen such clues to records. I then use telephone and city directories, the Internet, and other resources to determine the location that I would contact for more information. The exercise takes about thirty minutes or less for each obituary. However, it hones my skills for working objectively with my own family and ancestral obituaries.
Mailing List and Message Board Queries
I actively read a number of mailing lists and message boards. When I see a posting that relates to an area where my ancestors lived or to a surname I am researching, I read it and print it. I almost immediately get into my genealogical database and check for any information I have on individuals. If I read a posting related to a geographical area, a church, a school, or other institution or organization, and I have a reference book or documents relating to the subject, I will craft a private response to the person.
This exercise allows me to re-read and re-focus on content that I perhaps have not examined in some time. It also forces me to look at my own knowledge and determine if I have more information to apply to my own research. In the meantime, if I can help someone else with their research–and even connect with a cousin–this is another great benefit.
The Tombstone Game
I spend lots of time in cemeteries, as do most genealogists. Occasionally I will simply select one tombstone, copy the name and dates down, and take it home. Later, I will start checking Ancestry.com and other databases to see what I can learn about the person. Can I locate the person in a census? Is there an electronic version of an obituary? Are there military records? Are there other vital records? In other words, I try to practice my research skills in electronic databases to see what I can learn. This often forces me to look at different records and/or different locations. This makes me a better researcher and helps be stay abreast of new materials online. Sometimes the facts are sparse, and other times there is a vast amount of information to be discovered about an otherwise forgotten, once-famous, or notable person.
These three little exercises take a comparatively small amount of time. While I maintain a very busy schedule, I make the time to do these exercises. They are the equivalent of crossword or Sudoku puzzles for the genealogist. I hope you’ll try one or all of these exercises. They are educational, interesting, and fun.
George G. Morgan is the best-selling author of The Official Guide to Ancestry.com and How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy, both of which are available in the Ancestry Store. George and partner Drew Smith produce The Genealogy Guys Podcast each week. It is the longest-running, most popular genealogy podcast in the world! George is also now teaching online genealogical workshops for Pharos Tutors and for the Continuing Education Division of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Visit his companyâ€™s website to view his schedule of upcoming conference events.