It’s Not What You Find, It’s What You Do With It, by Juliana Smith

We’ve come a long way technologically with family history research tools. Years ago locating a record sometimes meant many hours cranking away at a microfilm reader and often transcribing the record because there was no machine to print it out. Now, with many records, we can sit in the comfort of our homes and locate our ancestors with the click of a mouse. Another click prints a copy, and with another click we can attach it to our electronic family tree. Voila! We’re done.

Ah, not so fast. While I love the advances that technology has brought us, sometimes we’re a little too quick to attach the record to our tree and move on. That wonderful find is relegated to a kind of electronic purgatory where we never fully explore it.

Here are some steps you can take to ensure that you’re getting the most from every find:

1. Transcribe it.
While this might seem a bit tedious, the act of transcribing a record forces you to read and think about every element of the record. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can glean from a find when you examine it closely.

2. Put it in context.
Create a chronology or timeline for all the records you’ve found on your ancestor and copy your transcription into that timeline. Seeing the information in the context of other information you have found can help you to estimate important dates and learn more about your ancestor.

3. Create an action or to-do list.
While you’re plucking clues from your new find, ideas will pop into your head for follow-ups. Keep a to-do list open on your desktop and add these ideas as they come to you. That way you don’t risk forgetting about them, and the next time you get a chance to return to your research, you know exactly where to start.

4. Add it to your tree.
O.K., if you haven’t already done it, now is a good time to click and add that record to your online tree and/or genealogical software. You may have to do this in more than one place if you maintain an online tree and another in a genealogical software program.

5. File a paper copy.
I like to keep a paper copy of what I’ve found. When I’m looking for a new angle, I find that browsing through paper copies is helpful. Plus, when it comes to showing family what I’ve found, most people seem to respond better to browsing through a binder than clicking through electronic files on a computer.

6. Pat yourself on the back.
With every record you find, you’re adding a piece to your family history puzzle. Take some time to appreciate each find and know that you’re doing your part to preserve your family’s place in history.

Have you perhaps been too hasty in dismissing a recent find? During these cold winter months venturing outdoors on slippery roads to do research isn’t quite appealing. Winter is an ideal time to revisit what you’ve found and search for clues you may have missed the first time around and pursue new leads online. 

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, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

4 thoughts on “It’s Not What You Find, It’s What You Do With It, by Juliana Smith

  1. Very good advice! The computer and the Internet are TOOLS and not the source (and probably never will be) all the genealogy materials that we need. I have read that only about 10%(+/-) of all information is on the Internet! I find that there is no subsitute for “crawling around” in the basement of the court house among the long-forgotten records. Some of my best “finds” have been buried there!

    And a periodic review of our old files often reveals new angles and clues.

    Happy New Year and happpy hunting.

  2. Excellent. I love lists as they help me organise my thoughts and I can check off the accomplishments. (Sort of like mini-pats on the back for the impatient who strive for step 6.)

    You alluded to it in step 5, but I would reinforce the admonition given elsewhere in this issue to SHARE WITH OTHERS. What you do with the information is to use it to find more information and confirm or dispute that which you have already. And sharing the information helps others do the same, no?

    Happy Dae.

  3. I can attest to the timeline idea….I had some data on one of my ancestors that when I displayed the time line I found out she was buried two years before she died! (Back to the drawing board.)

  4. it would be nice if, would take monthy payments insted of wanting a full year at a time.

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