As we enter a new year, there’s always a degree of uncertainty as to what lies ahead. Resolutions really give you a chance to grab the wheel and chart a course that can help you for the better. When you take control and set goals, good things happen.
Here are a few of the family history-related resolutions I’m making this year that I hope will turn into progress and many new discoveries. I’m hoping they’ll give your research a boost this year as well.
1. Make it a Priority
With work transitions and some challenges on the home front this year, I haven’t had as much time as I’d like for family history. Because of that I feel like my research is just drifting. I need to form a plan and put it into action. Take some positive control. My family history is important to me and my biggest resolution this year is to carve out time every single week for my research. I’m making a detailed list of goals for each family that I can form research plans around.
2. Meet with My Ancestors
No séance or cemetery visit required for this meeting. I’m just going to sit down with my research and choose one ancestor to focus on. I’ll review and inventory everything I’ve gathered on him or her and take a fresh look at each and every record. During this process, it will help to take notes on everything I find and start a list of possible next steps. This is where it can get hard. No jumping off track every time I get a new idea, and going off on wild goose chases. This is a time for observing and planning, poking and prodding at any conclusions that have been drawn, and looking for ways to prove (or disprove) theories.
Then I’ll form a plan. What do we need to learn about that family member? What records and resources might include that information? This makes it possible to formulate a research plan that will move my research forward. For example, “Break down the Dennis brick wall” isn’t going to be much help, but if I set defined goals, like, “Identify William Dennis, the father of William H. Dennis, in Brooklyn, N.Y. records around the time of William H.’s birth in 1834,” I have a much better shot of success. From there I can compile a list of records that will help me break down that brick wall.
3. Learn, Learn, Learn
The wonderful thing about family history is that there is always something else to learn. Each step and every discovery takes us to a new place on the path of history and the more we learn about each stop, the clearer the picture we’ll have of our ancestors’ lives. Plus, as we move back in time, we need to evolve our research skills and learn how bring together clues from a diverse array of records to assemble the proof we need. Through this continual growth, we find our best chance at success.
I’m off to a good start on this one this year. In a little over a week I’ll be attending the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy in Salt Lake City. One week of in-depth family history study and I cannot wait!
If an institute isn’t an option for you, there are many other possibilities for learning, even from the comfort of home. Seek out online videos and tutorials like those you can find in the Ancestry Academy and on the Ancestry.com YouTube channel. And if there is a national or local conference near you that you can attend, take advantage of the opportunity to network with and learn from people who share our passion.
4. Organize Files—Electronic and Otherwise
One of my biggest struggles in family history is organization. My organizational schemes have matured, and new details and records have come in from my mother and other sources. I have to admit, I don’t always have time to keep up. Every so often, it’s time to do a complete overhaul to get everything in sync. I cleaned out a lot of old files over the holidays and am going through and doing a major purge, getting rid of duplicate copies and prints of records for people I now know aren’t related, not to mention the piles of periodicals that are taking up space in my office. While some of my favorite periodicals will stay intact, I’m pulling just relevant articles from others. I’ve made it a kind of game to see how many recycle bags I can fill each week.
5. Read History
I don’t know a family historian who doesn’t love to read—especially things that relate to our ancestors—so this one is an easy resolution to keep. Seek out books about the places where your ancestors lived that will help you put their lives in context. Ancestry has a ton of local history books online in the Stories, Memories & Histories category.
Through the Card Catalog, it’s easy to see what local histories are available geographically. Use the filters on the left to select “Stories, Memories & Histories,” then “Social and Place Histories,” and narrow your search to those collections. Next in “Filter by Location” select a country, state, and county to see what’s available for the area.
Once you’ve identified a publication of interest, start your search with just a surname. Exploring all of the matches for your surname in a local publication can lead you to other related families in the area.
Use the keyword search to find topics of interest.
Use search terms like types of crops your ancestor grew or occupation they followed, names of churches and schools, epidemic, drought, fire, flood, a neighborhood name, or any other topic you’re interested in learning more about. Also, use the keyword field for a particular year of interest—for example, the year your ancestor moved away. You may find reference to an event that precipitated his departure.
6. Preserve Stories and Share Them
We spend an awful lot of time with our ancestors, coaxing clues from their records and learning their stories. But are we preserving the stories? Perhaps this last resolution is the most important one of all. I have several taped interviews with my grandma, and although I’ve transcribed them, they could use a little polishing and organizing. There are stories of dance contests, skating on soap flakes to wash the floor (and an ensuing broken window), and the family’s reaction to their upcoming move to Cleveland. This is the stuff we don’t find in the records and if we don’t take steps to preserve the stories, they’ll be lost forever.
And once you get those stories down, don’t forget to share. The photo at the top of this post just had its 100th birthday. For my mom and I, it’s a reminder of the good that comes with sharing your research online. A distant relative found some information on my mother’s online tree that included a branch of their family that had married into ours. Although they are not related by blood, they did share this photograph of my mother’s aunt, who helped her get started with her family history research. We never met Aunt Olive in person, but the letters she sent gave us details that helped start our family history quest. The image our online connection shared gave us our first glimpse of Aunt Olive, who is on the right.
What are your family history resolutions for the new year?