Sunday, May 17, 2020

Answers to Beginner Questions

I've recently been hearing that we shouldn't forget what it was like to be beginners in genealogy...that we should patiently try to help people who aren't as far along as we are in the pursuit. I agree. I've also been seeing the same beginner questions asked over and over at various places. I thought it might be helpful to post some of the most common questions here with my answers. It takes time and effort to develop good genealogical habits and instincts. Here's a well-intended effort to speed up the process a bit.

Question 1: What is the best genealogy subscription service? (Which one should I subscribe to?)

Answer: The short response is that the best service is the service that has the records you need. But there are more factors than just records, especially considering that all of the services will have overlapping offerings and multiple record sets that you can use in your research. Do you want to keep a tree online? How much effort do you want to put into it? Do you also want to test your DNA with this service? Which online features are important to you? How much money are you willing to spend? Already you begin to see that there is no one-size-fits-all "BEST" service for everyone. As you get more serious about your research, you'll likely want access to multiple services. You simply have to determine your needs/wants/circumstances and make some informed decisions based upon them.

Question 2: What is the best genealogy software? (Which one should I buy?)

Answer: Again, you must STUDY the different offerings carefully and determine which program and its features most meets your needs. Then you have to decide if the price is right. The genealogy community is quite split on who uses which program. Here's a little hint, though: if you're a raw beginner you're probably not going to immediately understand everything that you'll need in a software program, nor will you initially grasp the nuanced differences between your choices. Your first program will undoubtedly be aesthetic-determined, if it's not wholly decided by your budget. And that's okay. Any major program will more than do the job for you at the start. (Another hint: if you stick with genealogy, you're almost certainly going to begin your tree over again at least once somewhere down the road. It's all part of the learning curve.)

Question 3: Is this person in one photo the same person as this other other person in this other photo?

This question is best addressed to people who are in any position to know the answer. For all other circumstances, let me ask you this: why would you trust a complete stranger's "yes" guess? I've already posted about this here.

Question 4: How far back can I trace my ancestry?

This wholly depends upon the records you can find and interpret. Genealogy is 100% about the RECORDS. You should not be in a hurry to trace far back, though, until you have been able to support your more recent relations with strong (primary) sources. You're not limited by your imagination; you're limited by your skills and knowledge. Increase them to extend your lines with confidence. One badly-supported "fact" can throw whole sides of your tree into doubt. Quality beats quantity every single time.

Question 5: Can't I just find all of the information I need online?

Absolutely, positively not. Here, read this post. And this one.

Question 6: How many sources for one fact or person is enough?

There is no set number. In fact, it's unhelpful to think of this in terms of a quota. You should seek ALL the available evidence for a given fact, wherever it might reside. The more strong, primary evidence you can amass, the greater the historical witness you have to support your facts. Gather and do all that you can. Don't worry about meeting some arbitrary number of sources.

Question 7: Why do people keep changing my tree at FamilySearch?

The FamilySearch Family Tree is a collaborative tree that anyone with a free FS account can edit. Read this carefully: this means that it is not "your" tree. It is not "my" tree either. All branches of this big tree are part of a collective effort, including the branches that contain your relations (which happen to be other people's relations, too). When you work on a Big Collaborative Tree online, anyone can change things there. The idea is that these many changes over time will gradually lead to a more accurate tree, as more people add their records and knowledge. You can debate this ideal all day long (and I still have a few doubts myself), but if you find this setup objectionable you might want to work on your own personal tree...where no one else can alter what you enter into it. But consider that collaborative trees at their best might allow you to benefit from others' research, and show you that you don't have the right answers all the time. 

Question 8: What do I do when records contradict each other?

This is why setting source quotas for each fact or person is a bad idea. The answer to source contradictions almost always involves looking for more sources to gain a better picture of which records are the most credible. Typically, records made by direct witnesses of an event at the time in which it happened are to be preferred over other records when dealing with specific facts. Even so, sometimes errors creep in and your answers won't be certain. Sometimes the body of evidence is inconclusive. In these cases, you duly record divergences in your notes and wait until further research can lead to sounder conclusions. Living with uncertainty, as opposed to making stuff up or willy-nilly settling upon a solution, is something to which experienced researchers have become accustomed. 

Question 9: Should I get my DNA tested? How will it help my genealogy?

I'm all for interested parties testing their DNA. It will help both your research and the research of your cousins. What you get out of DNA testing will be in direct proportion to how much sound traditional research you've done on your family lines. You can test your DNA at any time, but it will yield its rewards more as you flesh out the branches of your tree and support your facts with strong sources. DNA testing does not supersede traditional research. Rather, traditional research feeds DNA testing. I encourage you to learn as much as you can about this useful new genealogical tool. In the meantime, work diligently on your family tree. You'll recognize more names of your DNA test matches if you do. 

Conclusion: How much both you and others get out of your genealogy will depend upon your ability/willingness to learn and grow. Looking beyond easy solutions is an important mindset to adopt early. If genealogy feels like a giant, ongoing puzzle, that's because it is. There's always another challenge, and always another way to look at old, seemingly settled information. That's the fun of it, really. For me, genealogy is a continuing effort to rescue my ancestors and their records from oblivion, and to assure them a place (however modest) in the march of human knowledge. Perhaps I can't leave behind a Bezos- or Gates-like fortune for my relatives when I die. But I can give them this gift. Maybe a few will even appreciate it. 


  1. Great post! I'm bookmarking it so I can direct newcomers this way rather than having to write an almost identical one myself!

  2. Great beginner questions and even better answers.