Six Ways to Shrink Your Chances for Success, by Juliana Smith

This past week my washing machine went on to that big laundry room in the sky. Its early death was likely brought on by comforters and my husband’s martial arts uniform, which weighs somewhere between two to three tons when it’s wet. In the interest of energy and water savings, we decided it was important to go with a larger, more efficient front-loading machine.

The new washing machine arrived yesterday, and I stood there staring at it with its neat buttons, user guide in hand. I couldn’t wait to use it. How hard could it be? It’s just another washing machine, right? Cold for dark colors, don’t mix towels with delicates, and don’t mix that new red t-shirt with your husband’s white shirt.

I fought back the urge to immediately throw in some clothes so that I could watch them being tossed around through the neat window on the front. (What can I say? It can get dull trapped in the house on a cold January day!)

I knew low-sudsing detergent was a must, but I was worried there might be other things about the machine I didn’t know. Not wanting to ruin my shiny new washer, I heard my dad’s voice echoing in my head, “If all else fails, follow directions.” I sat down and did the unthinkable. I read the users guide. (Gasp!)

To my surprise, there were great tips that will give my washer and my clothes a longer life, and I learned about other features that I wasn’t even aware of when I bought it.

It really made me think. What am I missing by just tucking all those other manuals away in drawers? And how can I turn this experience into a family history article?

How many of us have read the manuals or Help files for the family history tools we use? That is a misstep I have to admit, and I’m betting that there are a few of you out there who are guilty as well. Let’s take a look at this and other mistakes that may be hindering our research.

Misstep #1. Not learning how to use the tools we have.
In some cases, we don’t have to dig through that box of user guides; help may be available online. Check the websites of the genealogical tools and online sources that you use. Look for newsletters, online FAQs, user guides, and online support forums that can help you get the most from your product.

Ancestry members can learn more about products by subscribing to this newsletter, checking out tutorials in the newly updated Learning Center, checking out the Knowledge Base (click the “Help” link in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage), and reading about new enhancements on the Ancestry blog.

Misstep #2. Not questioning enough.
Family historians are typically inquisitive by nature, but we need to extend that curiosity to the sources we utilize in our research. More experienced researchers have learned that when analyzing records, those created nearest an event, and recorded by actual witnesses, are more likely to be correct. But, after we discover a record or a link, do we take the time to question which aspects of that records are most likely to be correct, and which aspects are prone to error? When we find an ancestor in an online tree that goes back generations, are we quick to add the information, no questions asked? While it’s great to connect with a new cousin, you can’t assume that everyone has the same level of expertise or standards as you do.

Misstep #3. Not recording enough information.
I beat myself up for this all the time. I work hard at recording source citations for all of my finds, but too often when I go back to look at a source again, I forgot one piece of information–perhaps a page number, an image number, or even the name of the repository where I found the item. When you finish recording a source, take a moment and look at it objectively. With only the information you’ve noted, would you be able to locate this item again? Don’t count on your memory because after a few years of research this research venture will have blended with many similar experiences, and you’ll have no clue where you found it. Record key points by creating a form that you can include in a plastic sleeve with the record; just make sure you place them both in the sleeve immediately so they don’t get separated. Some people have rubber stamps with fill-in-the-blank forms that can be stamped on the back of photocopies or prints. A search for “custom rubber stamp” turned up quite a few companies that allow you to design a stamp online.

Misstep #4. Avoiding unfamiliar records.
Nobody likes to feel lost, but our research often leads us into uncharted waters. We can anchor ourselves down to the familiar records, or we can set sail for new resources. Newsletters, reference books, and genealogical blogs are a few ways you can learn more about unfamiliar records and how to locate your ancestors in them. There are also a growing number of online classes available to genealogists seeking to expand their horizons. offers classes by a number of well-known instructors, including Ancestry Weekly Journal columnists, George G. Morgan and Sherry Irvine. Courses include a variety of topics.

Misstep #5. Overlooking your local library and society.
Too often we focus on resources in the areas in which our ancestors lived, but overlook resources in our own backyard. Check local and county libraries, and if there are universities in your area, don’t overlook them either. We’ve found some links to Brooklyn, New York, politics in our family and in the search for background information, I turned to WorldCat and entering the search terms “brooklyn politics” and including my zip code, I found several publications of interest. One caught my eye since it covered the time period I am interested in, and I found that it is available at a university library three miles from my house. Local conferences or genealogical society meetings may offer lectures that can help with research in any location.

Misstep #6. Organizational issues.
This one is probably the most common misstep, but it also has its perks. I realize by now that it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever have enough time to be that perfectly organized family historian. I try, but life keeps interrupting. And that’s fine. My first passion is for family present, and that should be a priority.

But, it does get complicated when you constantly have to search for this record or that. Be forgiving. Don’t stress over it. Look at every day as a new beginning. By making small changes as you go along, you’ll get there. I take comfort from the A.A. Milne quote–“One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.”

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine 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, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

6 thoughts on “Six Ways to Shrink Your Chances for Success, by Juliana Smith

  1. Great article. Learning to use your tools doesn’t just include the genealogy-specific ones. Knowing how to search the files stored on your hard drive makes organizational issues (#6) much easier to manage. Spotlight on the Mac is this girl’s best friend!

  2. I love these ‘short’ tips, somehow thay stick in the mind better. I always find that i use at least 1 tip.


  3. I tried using the plastic sleeves for my information but found that the ink on the paper stuck to the plastic. Has anyone found a solution for this?

  4. You’re using vinyl in the ink sticks. Always use mylar or polypropylene. This is also true for photos. You can find these sleeves at local office supply. If they don’t say polypropylene look for something that refers to no transfer.

  5. Wouldn’t these tips “increase” your chances for success — I wouldn’t want to do anything that would “shrink” my chances of success.

  6. I love the way you used the washing machine to show the tip.s I do have one thing to tell you, use liquid laundry detergent for your front loader, and take the tray out 1 time a month to clean it as well…I love my front loader as well….

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