The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Genealogy, the Internet, and Your Genealogy Computer Program: a review of the updated edition

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Media exposure has fostered an interest in genealogy among many Americans beginning with the 1976 publication of Alex Haley’s Roots. That interest has grown exponentially in the intervening years and now, thirty-five years later, the television program, Who Do You Think You Are, carries on the tradition, inviting new individuals into the ranks of those already embracing what can easily become a life-time avocation.

This past fall, I taught a four-session beginning genealogy course in Staunton, Virginia, as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Virginia and was delighted to have a full complement of students. In asking each student to identify his or her interest in and experience with genealogy, I quickly recognized that my students, regardless of age, fell into a variety of groups. There were those with genealogical experience, but no computer knowledge; those with computer knowledge, but no genealogical experience; and those with neither. All expressed a keen interest to learn with the exception of a gentleman who, after the first lecture on the importance of bringing best practices and methodology to the work, fled and was never seen again!

While I believe that each student concluded the course with new quality genealogical research skills, as well as an appreciation for available resources, I wonder now what questions or research problems have arisen since October that might benefit from follow-up discussion and instruction. As I will be teaching a version of this course in Fall 2011, I plan to add Karen Clifford’s updated edition of The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Genealogy, the Internet, and Your Genealogy Computer Program (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2011) as a requisite title for the class, joining the previous recommendation of Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007).

Ms. Clifford’s book is a step-by-step genealogical workbook whose purpose is to “demystify genealogy and its supportive tools – genealogy computer programs and the Internet.” Moreover, it lends itself equally to use by a classroom instructor or by you, the individual researcher.

Divided into sixteen chapters, the book leads you through such topics as Principles of Success for the Family Historian; Organizing Family Information; Becoming Acquainted with Your Genealogy Program; Why Document?; Printing Your Records; Your Family History Notebook; Developing a Sense of Our Ancestors’ Environment; Resolving Conflict; State Vital Record Offices, Public Libraries, Courthouses and Local Repositories; Resources of the Family History Library; Major Databases of the Family History Library; Using Local Family History Centers; National Archives and Regional Records Services Facilities; Census Records Between 1850 and 1930; Analysis and Goal Setting; and Sharing Your Family History Research. Each chapter includes illustrations, charts and examples to support instruction, as well as “Your Turn” activities which encourage you to apply the instructional content of the chapter to your own research. Web site addresses link you to related online sites, while bibliographies provide access to other related materials. Even if you are a more experienced researcher, you will be able to gain new skills or insights after you complete the assignments at the end of the chapters. One caveat: I find that the pages are somewhat “busy” from a layout perspective, but the information provided makes it worth your time to study each box and illustration, despite the overall sense of visual clutter. (I personally was delighted to discover an illustration of how to fold legal-sized documents for placement in an 8½ x 11 ring binder.) Of particular interest to new researchers are the “terms to understand” boxes included in the margins.

Here’s a look into the content of several chapters:

Chapter One, Principles of Success for the Family Historian, provides a good example of the value of Ms. Clifford’s book. A discussion centered on “fact vs. tradition” describes why it is important to identify what is fact and what is tradition concerning your family’s history and to keep them separate. The exercise following that discussion offers you the opportunity to apply your analytical skills in identifying the facts and the fiction in the example provided. (I certainly wish more of the individuals who share family line information online would read this discussion!) A sixteen-step research flow chart clearly defines the key elements of the research process. If you are a new researcher, by referring to this chart frequently, you will be able to keep your research project organized and on track more easily. Recommendations, exercises and forms provide a variety of opportunities to accomplish these sixteen steps, and include how to develop a clearly-defined research goal (something that many library and archive customers have not done before arrival at the institution) and how to analyze information discovered through the research process. A Genealogical Source Overview and Checklist form allows you to monitor which resources you’ve already consulted during research, and therefore, which resources remain for further work. At the end of the chapter, the first assignment focuses on sorting family materials. Answers are provided for the “Your Turn” exercises, as well as a Computer Checklist which prompts you to define your perception of your computer skills and the operating system you use. The website for Genealogy Research Associates (GRA) provides “supplemental materials which complement this book by allowing information to be included that requires frequent updating. For instance, comparisons of various genealogy computer programs can be found in these supplemental Web materials.” Other information available at the GRA site may include free genealogy classes, additional web sites, and fee-based record look-up services.

You will ignore at your peril the information provided in Chapter Two, Organizing Family Information.. Organization is essential and this chapter offers practical skills, such as those involved in completing basic forms (pedigree charts and family group sheets, etc.). Mastering such skills, including how to enter names, dates and locations appropriately, will allow you get it right the first time, thus working effectively and efficiently. Blank charts and forms are provided, although if you are one of the more computer-savvy individuals, you may want to print such forms from the Internet, or purchase packages of printed forms rather than tear pages out of the book or write in the book itself. This chapter’s Computer Checklist asks you to check the preferences option of your computer genealogy program, then list all the options available and explain why you have made specific selections from that list.

Chapter Three discusses one of the most frequently asked questions in many introductory genealogy classes: “What genealogy software should I buy?” As there are many programs available, the answer may depend on your operating system, your goal, your experience level, or other such criteria. This chapter assumes that you already own genealogical software, and then invites you on a guided tour of that software by asking you to search for specific features. You will look for where to capture wrong or missing data, perhaps in notes; where to enter migration clues; where to enter a to do list; assignment of ID numbers; how to share data with other programs; how to find the index to surnames or localities; how to make corrections to previously entered data, etc. As many of us do not explore the features of our software thoroughly (because we just want to get started), we may use only a few features. The exercises in this chapter are essential if you want to gain the most value from your software. Supplementary information on the value of systematic data backups and the proper insertion of flash drives will make even the newest computer user more comfortable. A list of genealogy programs that will work on the MAC operating system and on Windows is very useful.

Later chapters deal with more specialized topics. For instance, Chapter 9, which discusses state vital records offices, public libraries, courthouses and local repositories, includes a useful table outlining specific types of records, where to go to access those records in person, how to access information from those records through correspondence, and how to borrow those records, when possible. In addition, the chapter assignment helps you to identify the best repository for your specific research problem. Chapters 10-12, taken together, will provide you with an excellent overview of the Family History Library or your local Family History Center. In Chapter 11, the discussion of the major databases provided by the Family History Library, offers a detailed look at those used most frequently (International Genealogical Index/IGI, Ancestral File, Pedigree Resource File and Social Security Death Index), but also features those that you may have used less frequently depending on your research focus (Vital Record Index, Scottish Old Parochial Index, and Military Records Index, etc.).

If you are a researcher (new or otherwise) looking for a self-guided workbook on genealogical research, including the use of the Internet and genealogical computer programs in your research, or if you are an instructor searching for an effective plan for teaching genealogical research methods to your students, Karen Clifford’s The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Genealogy, the Internet, and Your Genealogy Computer Program (updated ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2011) will prove highly useful.

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