Wow, have things changed! Ancestry.com had a few hundred databases online when I started in 1998, but there were no censuses or record images online at that point. To search those records we would have to travel to repositories that held the microfilm and we were thankful for the head-of-household indexes that were available. Of course they werenâ€™t online yet either–we didnâ€™t get head-of-household census indexes online until early March 1999. Census images began being posted in 2000 along with Civil War Pension Index Cards. There was no MyFamily.com, although RootsWeb.com was a popular and fast-growing online resource. And DNA testing? Whatâ€™s that about?
When I first took the job, I had a young toddler in the house. Now my beautiful daughter is proud to tell people sheâ€™s almost as tall as I am and will soon pass me up! Over the years I had to learn to find a balance between work and family, although I still occasionally burn dinner when I get caught up in my work. Fortunately my office is next to the kitchen so I can smell the damage before flames erupt.
As Iâ€™m in a reminiscent mood today, I thought Iâ€™d share some of the lessons Iâ€™ve learned over the years here at Ancestry.
If I ever want to find a hole in an area of my research, I should plan an article around that very topic. Never fails. As soon as I start writing about how I made this amazing find, Iâ€™ll find holes in my logic. But itâ€™s a good way to keep my research on track. Try it. Write up a brief summary of the research steps youâ€™ve taken and keep it with your research log. Not only does putting it in writing help you to better analyze your research, but years from now when youâ€™re wondering how the heck you came to that conclusion, it will be right there for you.
Trial by Fire
If you want to learn about something, try to write about it. I guess thatâ€™s why they made us write reports in school. The best history class of my life has come in the past couple years by writing The Year Was… columns for the newsletter. Try it with one of your ancestors. Research the year they were born, immigrated, married, etc. As you learn about the events of the time, you may find that you better understand what prompted their decisions.
When I was researching The Year was 1902,Â I found that a huge coal mining strike occurred in the United States. My great-grandfather immigrated to the U.S. in 1902. He even went back home and came back again with more family members. He was a coal miner, as were the other family members, and itâ€™sÂ possible they were recruited to fill in for striking miners.
I reviewed some of my earliest articles this past week and one thought struck me. Bo-ring! I was working so hard to be professional in this serious business of writing, that I was leaving no room for fun. I remember wishing I could get some kind of response from our readers. But one day I decided to do a funny piece on those virus hoaxes that were circulating and I was amazed at what a little levity did. It also made it much easier to write because I felt like I could be myself and still do a good job (hopefully) of sharing information.
If youâ€™ve been having a hard time writing your family story, donâ€™t try to make it sound like youâ€™re writing an encyclopedia. Insert some of the passion you have for your ancestors when you tell their story. When you are writing what you feel, youâ€™ll find the words come more easily and the story will be much more interesting to your family.
Donâ€™t be afraid to take chances. Mistakes are the best way to learn something new. Explore new resources. Experiment with new tools. (Just create a backup first.) Everyone is a newbie when new technologies appear or when our research takes us into uncharted waters. Dive in! The worst that can happen is that youâ€™ll learn what doesnâ€™t work.
Simple Can Be Best
Sometimes the old fashioned way is the best way. While technology is great, sometimes itâ€™s good to go back to â€œsimple.â€ When Iâ€™m in a writing rut, Iâ€™ll take a pad of paper and a pen and abandon e-mail and the Internet for a sanctuary away from technology. It can be a comfy chair in another room, my garden, or even in the car waiting for my daughter. Brainstorming and writing outlines on a simple pad of paper has broken me through research brick walls and writersâ€™ block countless times. Try it the next time one of your ancestors has you stuck. Step away from the distractions and write down notes, theories, steps youâ€™ve taken, and steps you want to take. Then with your notes in hand and a clearer head, youâ€™ll be better prepared to attack that brick wall again.
No matter how many articles I write on staying organized, Iâ€™ve learned that it will remain an ongoing challenge. Donâ€™t get down on yourself if your office gets cluttered once in a while, or if youâ€™re behind in filing. Stuff happens. Schedule a few minutes a day to do a little grunt work and youâ€™ll find that soon youâ€™ll be back on track.
If your current filing system isnâ€™t working for you, consider revising it. Break down large files into smaller more manageable ones. And the best part? Reorganizing is a great way to review your files and you may end out making progress in your research, which will of course lead to more filing, which can lead to more finds. And so the circle of life continues.
One other thing Iâ€™ve learned is that genealogists are generous to a fault. This is a community that gives selflessly to its members in the form of tips, moral support, preserved records, random acts of kindness, stories shared, recognition of accomplishments, a kind ear, and in countless other ways. Family historians revel in their fellow researchers successes and are thrilled to see photographs of your Great-aunt Madge or hear how you found Grandpa Henry. I am truly blessed to have been in the company of such people for the past ten years and hope to be in this family-oriented community for the rest of my life.
Thanks to all of you who have written to me and been supportive throughout the years. Special thanks to all of the columnists that have written for the newsletter throughout the years and have made my job easier, and also to all of my co-workers who make The Generations Network a great place to work. I count you all among my blessings, my friends, and my family. I hope to continue putting out newsletters for many years to come.
Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.