Ten Exercises to Jumpstart Your Research, by Juliana Smith

With the new school year fast approaching in just under three weeks, I’ve started prepping my daughter with some extra reading, math worksheets, and Internet research. Last week I had her investigate how garden pests keep finding my pine tree. I thought I was rid of them last year, but alas this year they’re back. Turns out the smaller larvae can be carried by the wind. Who knew?  Anyway, I’m hoping that these last-minute preparations will help her get off to a good start this year.

I’ve found that similarly, when we’ve been away from our research for a time, there are some exercises we can do to regain our momentum and jumpstart our research. Here are ten ideas you can try:

1.) Tackle Someone Else’s Problem.
Every so often I volunteer to do some work for friends and neighbors on their family history. This fine tunes my skills and gives me experience in new areas. Often while I’m solving other people’s problems, I get ideas for solving my own. If your friends aren’t open to the idea, check message boards or mailing lists for posts in which people are looking for assistance. In addition to honing your research skills, you’ll build up some karma points!

2.) Volunteer on an Indexing Project
A while back, we announced here on the blog that Ancestry was going to be launching a new volunteer indexing program. While it’s still not available to the public, at the time employees were asked to try out the tool. I spent several nights working with it and it was really interesting trying to decipher unfamiliar names and places as they were written. Check out volunteer indexing projects through societies, FamilySearch, and soon, through Ancestry and give them a try. In addition to the knowledge that you’re helping to preserve history, you really get a feel for the records you’re working with, and the skills you acquire are bound to help in your own research.

3.) Read History
In these dog days of summer when it’s too hot to be playing outdoors, curl up in front of a fan or next to the pool with a good historical read. Check for sales and in used book stores for good deals. Getting a closer look at historical events and social conditions of your ancestor’s era give you a better glimpse into what their lives were like, and the knowledge you gain will help you create a much more interesting family history. You may even find reasons for a sudden migration, economic downturn in the family fortunes, or some other unexplained event.

4.) Get Religion
Sometimes we tend to see our ancestral families with an isolated view–living and moving around in a new world full of strangers. But just as we interact with our neighbors and in our communities, our ancestors were part of a larger world of people who weren’t necessarily related to them. Many times these communities centered around religion. How much do you know about your ancestor’s place of worship? Have you looked into the history of the congregation? Checked for minutes of meetings in which your ancestor may have taken part? Were other members of the congregation mostly from a particular ethnic background? Learning about your ancestor’s religious community could open some new avenues for research.

5.) Check for New Resources
When’s the last time you inventoried what resources are available—online and off—for the areas in which your ancestor lived. Check websites like Cyndi’s List, Joe Beine’s Research Guides or the USGenWeb for new resources that have become available online. Search online bookstores for new publications that have become available for your area of interest. And check library catalogs and local societies to see if they have any new collections that could benefit your research. Pay them a visit and browse the shelves. With budgets being slashed across the country, it’s important to patronize these facilities. Libraries with significant traffic will have a better chance than those with fewer patrons. If we don’t use them, we may lose them.

6.) Transcribe a Document
Whether it’s transcribing a census record onto a pre-printed form, or transcribing a vital record or legal document into your genealogical software or word processor, this is an exercise that is very helpful when it comes to pulling each and every clue out of a record. In this day and age, when we can scan, photograph, photocopy, or print records so quickly and easily, we may overlook this step. As a result we may not look closely enough at a record. Keep a notepad handy for all the ideas you get as you go along.

7.) Create Timelines – for Everyone
My longtime readers probably knew that this one was coming, but for any new readers, this is probably the most powerful weapon in a genealogist’s arsenal. For those of you who have already created timelines for direct ancestors, try creating them for collateral relatives as well. It will give you the “big picture” of how the family interacted, stayed together, or perhaps moved apart. (If you aren’t sure how to create one, here’s a how-to article.)

8.) Read Between the Lines
Whether we’re creating timelines or just reviewing what we have, look for conclusions you can draw based on the information you’ve gathered. For example, if all the records you have show that sibling #1 was born in England in 1842, and sibling #2 was born in Pennsylvania in 1845, we can conclude that the family immigrated sometime between 1842 and 1845. Be sure you note your rationale for each conclusion or a few years from now you’ll be racking your brain trying to figure out how you came to that conclusion.

9.) Tidy Up Your Workspace
If your workspace looks anything like mine these days, it may be time to do a little filing and tidying up. Not only does a clean workspace inspire me to spend some time working in it, I often run across items that I had forgotten about–a perk which inevitably sends me into a researching frenzy. Like Winnie-the-Pooh author, A.A. Milne said, “One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.”

Just as my desk gets cluttered, sometimes I find that my computer desktop needs a bit of tidying too. Are there messages in my inbox that need to be saved as text and filed with my family history? This is an exercise that should be done regularly so that important tidbits that come in as email don’t end up forgotten in your email archives. Put it in your calendar and set a reminder to do it monthly.

10.) Get Some Exercise
One of my favorite things to do when I have a problem is walk away from it. That may sound counter-productive, but before I walk away, I sit and review what I know. Then I go off and walk the dogs, work in the garden, or even mow the lawn. I have found that my brain works best during these “quiet” activities. More than one “Aha!” moment has struck me while I was pulling dandelions or doing dishes!

What About You?
What do you do to keep the momentum going in your family history? Please share your ideas with us in the comments section below!

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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.

5 thoughts on “Ten Exercises to Jumpstart Your Research, by Juliana Smith

  1. As a recent member of Ancestry.com, I am very happy to find so many records “proving” the work I did years ago. I am American born, moved to France at age 27, and soon became aware of my need to know more about my American ancestors. I have not yet made my tree “public”, as I hope to authenticate as many facts as possible before doing so. Also, I will be 69 this coming October and, as the eldest of my generation still living on both my maternal and paternal sides of the family, I am rather pressed for time to prepare and make available an easily read and well document and illustrated family genealogy (the American side), even though no other direct members of the family have shown much interest in my project, except for a “finished” genealogy. Your site is helping me put this together much more quickly than when I first assembled my information in 1980. Barbara Hard Allemand

  2. Rosemary,
    Thanks for the heads up! I have corrected the link here on the blog and the newsletter links seems to be working fine. Just a ) that snuck in when I wasn’t looking. 😉

    Have a great day!

  3. Great tips! I have only been researching my family for 5 years but have volunteered with my local genealogy society and have learned alot for my own research.

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