Twenty Ways to Avoid Grief When Researching by Margaret M. Sharon

Twenty Ways to Avoid Grief When Researching by Margaret M. Sharon

Note: The tips in this article are as valid today as ever for genealogical and family history research.  This article has been reprinted many times, often without credit, but was originally written by Margaret M. Sharon, and published in The British Columbia Genealogist, March 1988, Volume 17, No. 1,  pp. 4-6. ©BCGS.

The following suggestions and recommendations will be helpful to novice genealogists and will hopefully prevent misfortune when beginning research. Many of the items are “old hat” to experienced genealogists, but it is always worthwhile to remind ourselves of the basics of sound research.

1.  Always note the source of any material you photocopy. If the information is from a library book, note the name, author, date, publisher and also the library where you found the book. Occasionally you will find that you want to refer to the book again later, or have forgotten to photocopy some information you needed from it.

2.  Make photocopies or carbon copies of all letters you write. This will save you from wondering “Did I ask Aunt Mary in my last letter when she thought that photo of great-grandmother might have been taken?”

3.  Don’t procrastinate in responding to letters you receive. If you don’t have time to write a long letter, send your correspondent a postcard: for example, “Dear Mr. Brown –received your letter yesterday. Unfortunately I won’t be able to respond for a few weeks (I’ll be on vacation) but will send you the information I’ve collected on our mutual Brown ancestors at the end of the month. Yours truly, Mary Smith.” Then be sure to write the letter you’ve promised.

4.  When searching for relatives in parish registers, censuses and the like, don’t pass over the entries that are almost but not quite right. For example, if you are searching for the marriage of John Brown and Mary Jones in 1850, make a note of the marriage of John Brown and Nancy Smith in 1848 (this could be a previous marriage wherein the wife died shortly after, possibly in childbirth).

5.  When writing to libraries or genealogical or historical societies in your areas of interest, ask them for the names and addresses of out-of-print booksellers in the area. Write to the booksellers and ask if they have any old local histories or family histories pertaining to the area.

6.  Don’t forget to make frequent backups of your computer disks.

7.  Store backup copies of your computer disks and photocopies of your irreplaceable documents in someone else’s home.

8.  Remember that “if it’s in print, it ain’t necessarily fact.” Information in recently published local and family histories are often based on that from older published works. If the older books are incorrect, the erroneous information is simply repeated and disseminated.

9. The older the time period in which you are researching, the less consistent our ancestors were about the spelling of their surnames. Many of them were of course illiterate, and could not tell the record keeper how their names were spelled.

10. Family traditions of close connections to famous figures are usually false, but there may be a more obscure relationship. Perhaps the famous person spent a night at your ancestor’s inn, instead of (as the story goes) marrying into the family.

11. Try not to let your research get behind. Establish a filing system for your papers (using file folders or 3-ring binders, etc.) and file each page of notes, photocopy, etc. as you acquire it. There are few things more disheartening than gazing upon a foot-high stack of unfiled papers, wondering if that birth certificate you desperately need to refer to is in it.

12. Double-check all dates to make sure they are possible: for example, a woman born in 1790 could not be a mother in 1801.

13. Be on the lookout for nicknames. A request for a birth record for Sadie White may be rejected by a vital statistics office if the name on file is Sarah White.

14. Beware of mass-produced mail order promotions offering personalized genealogies of your surname. These are usually little more than computer printed lists of names from telephone directories. A $9,000 fine for misleading advertising levied two years ago has apparently not prevented one such firm, known as Halbert’s, from continuing their solicitations.

15. Don’t assume modern meanings for terms used to describe relationships. For example, in the 17th century a step-child was often called a “son-in-law” or “daughter-in-law”, and a “cousin” could refer to almost any relative except a sibling or child.

16. Remember that indexes to books rarely include the names of all persons mentioned in the book and, moreover, occasionally contain errors. If it appears that a book is likely to have valuable information, spend some time skimming its contents rather than returning it immediately to the shelf after a quick look at the index.

17. Be particular when making notes and especially when sharing information with fellow genealogists. Always capitalize or underline surnames—many of them can be mistaken for given names, e.g., HENRY, HOWARD. Write dates in an unambiguous manner—an American would interpret “5/6/1881” as May 6, 1881 but someone from England would read it as June 5, 1881. Note place names in full, including parish or township, county, state or province, and country.

18. You will often encounter conflicting information and you will have to weigh it against other evidence you have, to try to determine which is the most likely to be true. Periodically review and verify the conclusions you have reached concerning each of your ancestor’s lives: this will help to prevent you from wasting time following blind alleys.

19. Place names and boundaries have changed constantly over the years. Always verify them in historical atlases or genealogical texts pertaining to the area. For example, the boundaries of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, have changed four times since it was first settled.

20. Whenever and wherever possible, advertise the surnames you are researching by submitting them to genealogical directories and surname lists published by genealogical societies that you belong to. This will put you in touch with others who are researching the same surnames.

© BCGS 1988, 2011. For permission to reprint this article or excerpts from it, please contact the British Columbia Genealogical Society’s Editor by e-mail at: or by letter to the Society’s mailing address below in Richmond, BC..