It’s the New Year, and that means time for reflecting on the past, and also time for setting our family history goals for the year ahead. The world seems to spin by faster each season, and while this may be frustrating at times, each year also brings some new and positive changes for genealogists.
It didn’t seem all that long ago that my own genealogy involved a great deal of letter writing in order to make connections with long lost cousins and fellow researchers, some as far away as England. Weeks would pass by as we exchanged photos and family histories by ‘snail-mail’. It definitely wasn’t a very speedy process, but in many instances, it was all we had.
Long days were spent at libraries and archives, hunched over dusty old documents, and sitting in dimly lit rooms, scanning reel after reel of sometimes out-of-focus microfilms, only to find after a day’s work that nothing pertained to our own family research.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and now we have access to countless genealogical resources at our fingertips; including the ability to connect with our fellow researchers at a distance through Facebook and email. What once took weeks, even months of letter writing, is now reduced to a few quick strokes on a keyboard. The next generation may look back on our era and the incredible advancements in our ability to communicate, and say that in the late 1990s we entered the ‘space age’ of genealogical research.
Setting Genealogical Goals & Using New Tools
- Write down your genealogical goals
- Choose your top 3 goals, and set a definite time frame for yourself to accomplish these
- Look at your tree, and evaluate what you’ve already found. Which area of the tree needs the most work?
- Once you’ve chosen a branch to work on, focus on one aspect at a time – like digitizing all the photos you have from this branch of the family, then move to the next.
- Set a specific date for a research trip – perhaps a visit to a cemetery where you’d like to take some photographs
- Make a list of ancestors that you’d like to research, and specific records that you’re looking for, like birth, or marriage, and stroke them off the list once you’ve finished
- Review your DNA matches. If you’ve uploaded your DNA, check on the site once a month for new cousin matches, contact them, and add them to your tree
- Spend 15 minutes each week organizing papers and records
- Share at least one story about your parents or grandparents with your nieces and nephews
- Learn how to use one new research tool this year
With technology evolving so quickly as the years pass by, one of our most important genealogical goals should be to take advantage of some of these new research tools.
Family History Online Databases
While online family history databases like http://www.ancestry.ca and familysearch.org are by no means perfect, they do offer us access to a tremendous number of records from all over the world. They provide us with the ability not only to view digitized images of documents like original census records, but to print them as well, or save them for future use.
Now, instead of sitting for hours documenting our research in pencil as we did in the past, we can use our smart phones to instantly capture and store images from archives, libraries and field trips to cemeteries.
Another research technique that has evolved is the essential task of preserving family stories. Interviewing older relatives used to be a bit awkward, and involved either hastily scribbling notes or using a bulky cassette recorder. We can use a smart-phone or tablet to record our conversations, and provide instant playback. This is ideal for recording family stories, or memories from people who may have been put off by the presence of a tape recorder.
Lugging around heavy books and stacks of binders has also become a thing of the past. Laptops are becoming lighter, easy to carry, and have increasingly large storage capacities, perfect for replacing all of those bulky binders.
Perhaps one of the most exciting new enhancements to genealogical research is the way science can now compare our DNA to thousands of other samples in the database to determine kinship. The Wall Street Journal says “DNA Testing, the hottest tool in genealogy, is helping more people open doors to their past.” DNA Test Kits may be obtained from many DNA Testing companies like ’23 and Me’, ‘Ancestry’, ‘Living Heritage’, or ‘My Heritage’ to name a few. Many will provide a free analysis, so that you can find out the percentages of ethnicity that you have from each country. Others will even match you from a database, and connect you with cousins around the world. Perhaps you’ll trace your roots back to an interesting historical figure, a Hollywood star, or even British royalty!
Online Learning Sites
Yet another way that people are able to share their knowledge and experience with millions are through sites on the internet like http://www.youtube.com. While the younger folks tend to use this site to listen to the music or watch movies, genealogists can use the site to educate themselves and enhance their research skills. There are some fantastic instructional videos on estimating the dates of old photographs, or researching ancestors in other parts of the world, or new records and resources that are available to Canadian researchers.
There are many sites available where you can post a message that will be seen by thousands of other genealogists, and also view some interesting discussions among people researching the same family surname, like Genforum – https://www.genealogy.com/forum/
Researching Cemeteries and Memorials
You can search, browse, and find cemetery records of your ancestors, and many have photos as well. There are millions of records from all over the world. Just type in your ancestor’s surname to begin the search: https://www.findagrave.com/ , another similar site is Billion Graves – https://billiongraves.com/
Clearing the Genealogical Roadblocks
As time goes by, more and more genealogical roadblocks have been removed, and some types of research that once seemed almost impossible are now within our grasp. For those of us who remember Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots’ which documented the search for Haley’s African ancestors, we learned that many records were either destroyed or non-existent. The Mormon Church has released a database of 72,000 bank accounts opened by former slaves, after the Civil War, and these records could potentially help millions of their descendants trace their families back to Africa. These particular sets of bank records are significant not just because they date back to 1865, but because of the scarcity of detailed records of black families that are available from that era. To begin your search of these records: http://www.familysearch.org.
There are several sites available where vintage family photos may be uploaded and enhanced. One of these is MyHeritage:
Some of the photo-enhancing sites, like MyHeritage require a paid subscription, but there are many others that are free of charge: Fotor – https://www.fotor.com/features/one-tap-enhance and PicMonkey – https://www.picmonkey.com/blog/photo-restoration-with-picmonkey
Ireland Reaching Out
Of all the new research tools available to genealogists, I must admit that the one that I find the most exciting is a project called Ireland Reaching Out. It was founded in south-east Galway by tech entrepreneur Mike Feerick. The idea is that instead of waiting for people to trace their roots back to Ireland, local communities, largely through volunteer efforts, are trying to find descendants of those who emigrated. Ireland Reaching Out, also called Ireland XO has promised to help with genealogical research at no cost. Volunteer community teams, who are trained in local genealogy, are also prepared to meet with you and guide returning migrants to places of genealogical interest specific to their family. To contact Ireland Reaching Out with your queries: http://www.irelandxo.com
Did your ancestor come from a non-English-speaking country? You’ll likely need to research some foreign-language records and websites, and may even need to communicate in that language with library or archive staff. In the past it was necessary to learn at least the basics of the language and spend time looking up phrases in a foreign-language dictionary or if the budget allowed, hire someone to translate for you.
Now, you can get a basic translation instantly with free online tools. These automated translations aren’t perfect, but most are good enough to provide basic communication. Type ‘Google Translate’ into your web browser, and then enter the phrase you’d like to translate.
Some New Tools in the New Year
So, now that the New Year is upon us, perhaps we can kick our research up a notch and take it to the next level with some of the cutting edge tools available today. With all of the technology on hand, surely we can streamline some of our old fact-finding techniques, and expedite our research a bit.
As for myself, I may not have tried all of the new gadgets yet, but I’d sure like to see if the Ireland XO project can help me with my research. I’ve been trying to locate my ancestor Tobias Stafford’s family in County Wexford for longer than I’d care to admit. Tobias traveled to Canada in 1816, and settled in Lanark County; but who did he leave behind in the old country?
With the help of Ireland Reaching Out, and a few new high tech gadgets – maybe THIS will be the year that I make that connection!
Good luck with your family history research and Happy New Year!
Association of Professional Genealogists
Lanark County Genealogical Society, member since 1998