How often has each of us “accidentally” spent multiple hours researching various online sites, only to have zero firm results? How often have we packed the dogs and the kids off to family, made a day’s journey to a county or state office to find a document we are sure will be there, only to find that it isn’t?
If this is your experience, then you are not alone. 95% of professional and amateur genealogists have experienced these discouraging hours wasted at some point in their work. Below you will find my own list of The Top Seven Time Hacks of Professional Genealogists, ideas I have gleaned from my own ‘hit and miss’, from other kind genealogists, from conferences, or from librarians taking pity on me!
1. Write it down the first time!
The most important piece of advice I was ever given is that a research log is critical. If you are the kind of researcher who bounces from one category or document to another, certain you are just about to happen on the primary source document you have been seeking for a decade, and you bounce about without noting where you have been, you are probably visiting sites and documents many times over without even realizing it. Or worse yet, you are realizing it and are even more frustrated.
The research log is your map to where you have been and where you might go next. It is the physical manifestation of your research plan. You don’t need a fancy excel spreadsheet or Research Log Table (although they exist), but you do need to stop at each site or document you visit, take a breath, take sixty seconds to note down the url, the citation information, the physical address of the building, or the name/phone number of the person you spoke to. This is particularly important if you have ‘negative findings’; that is, you have followed a logical path that led to nothing, because you really don’t want to go there again!
2. Don’t be afraid of human beings
Those of us who conduct genealogical research for hours every day often get used to discussing our work with our cats, instead of other people. Sometimes we find that online research is quicker than engaging in conversations, or travelling to libraries or county document repositories. Yet this is frequently a false economy of your time. For me, a snail mail letter to a small town librarian will yield enthusiastic results to a question I might have pursued for hours online, yet how many of us actually take the time to write a letter these days? Picking up the phone and calling a church office will get you first-hand information about their on-site records and their graveyards. And most importantly, I cannot emphasize enough that spending an afternoon with an elderly relative might ‘cost’ you four hours of precious time, but it will reap you information rewards you had not dreamt of, as well as connecting you to family who are probably wondering why you never asked for their stories.
3. Don’t ignore Google
Many many years ago I remember sitting in a venture capitalist’s office and he had a second line investment proposal on his desk. “What do you think of this Google?” he asked. “It’s pretty good, right?” Well, it’s not only pretty good, it has become the standard search engine that we often take for granted when we are needing more specialized information. However, searching through the database using specific search terms can result far more quickly in the results you want than searching through various genealogy databases.
Also, if you have brick walls, people or dates or places you want to crack open, you can set up Google Alerts so that Google will send the information to you whenever it appears on the internet. And if you are doing cluster or FAN research, did you know that you can use Google maps to drop pins where the ancestors and families lived, thereby displaying a genealogical route map?
4. Learn how to search like a pro
There is a reason professional researchers, be they genealogists or other types, are good at their jobs. They know how to sift through the internet using appropriate limiting symbols so the results come back in the thousands instead of the millions. This is a huge time-saver. Know what a Boolean search is, using + or – or OR or NEAR: Boolean searches are standard on most databases. Know the tricks to searching through Google using “ __” around a series of terms to receive hits with only those terms, or the *, wildcard symbol, within a phrase when you are not sure of a specific word. Limit your search to ‘images’ or to ‘books’ rather than searching the entirety of Google.com. (and thank your mentors, like one of mine, Tina Sansone, for your breakthroughs!)
When you are on genealogy websites, most have a ‘card catalog’ area where you can limit your search before you begin. I know very few professional genealogists who simply enter a name and hope for the best in Family Search or Ancestry. This is the whole point of cyndislist.com, giving us every kind of database available, cross-referenced. These sites make it much quicker for us, if only we would all take advantage.
5. Have a plan
As genealogists, we all love wandering around the internet repositories for hours at a time for fun. However, this is a very different endeavor from a targeted research project. If you have an hour to spare and you don’t play golf, by all means, poke away to see what you can find! But if you are looking for a specific piece of information or member of your family tree, make sure that you have a goal, write it down, write down the search steps to reaching that goal, and delve into only one branch of your family at a time.
One of my favorite genealogists, Thomas MacEntee, announced at a seminar I attended that sharing is one of the most important elements to doing good genealogy. Nothing could be truer. Join Facebook groups for your family or geography, let people know what you have found, and ask when you need help.
7. Keep learning and training
Most professionals in any field attend regular, continued education courses, and genealogy is no different. Break-throughs and new databases are made available all the time. New techniques and new software are developed.
We are a funny group: we delve into the distant past, learning what we can about dead people and long ago cultures, but we must do so by using the most sophisticated tools available. Have you employed the Internet Archive Wayback Machine that allows you to find the entire internet on a specific day in the past? Or whatwasthere.com, that shows you a pictorial view of certain buildings throughout their history? These are just two sites I learned about in training. Don’t lock yourself out of the future of genealogy by avoiding regular training conferences.