Friday, March 5, 2010

Five Genealogy Things to Do Before I Become an Ancestor

Our culture seems obsessed by life lists. Here's my list of 5 things every family researcher must do before he or she becomes an ancestor. If you think of additional "must do" items, please add your comments.
  1. Label all family photos. Start early--in fact, start now! How many family photos have you puzzled over during your research, trying to tease out a clue to which relative or what year or what place they depict? I'm easing into this by putting a label on the back of every family group photo from Xmas, birthdays, etc. "Xmas 2009, at ___'s house in ____ city. Front row, L -> R: Janey, Joey, Jan, Jen, Grandpa Joseph holding baby Jock." If we don't label our own photos and the old photos we found in the closet, our descendants may never figure out who's who. And don't forget to explain strange things in photos (such as unusual outfits on adults that, in the future, might not be recognized as Halloween costumes).
  2. Document key dates. Birthdays are easy, but what about wedding anniversaries, death dates, and other key milestones? Even if I don't get to updating my Family Tree Maker for a while, I need to jot down the dates of newly-found ancestors and put the notes into the appropriate file for later. Also I'm writing down recent family dates. The next generation will have an easier time continuing our research if we get the dates right. Don't fudge--even if Aunt Gertie wants outsiders to think her age is 49.95 plus shipping and handling, our family deserves the truth.
  3. Tell the stories. Genealogy is about more than names and dates--it's about the lives our ancestors lived. Who were they? Why did they do what they did? Those stories bring our heritage alive. I'm making a conscious effort to tell the snippets I remember about my grandparents and parents and their siblings. Like the fateful time Grandpa's horse ran away and made him late to his wedding to Grandma (supposedly true story from a century ago). Ultimately, I'll write down as many of the stories as I can remember and circulate them to siblings and cousins, asking for any additional memories they can insert.
  4. Stay in touch. This is one of the joys of genealogy: Getting to know cousins and other relatives I hadn't met or even knew existed. Not a one-time deal, staying in touch means e-mailing or calling or even putting pen to paper every once in a while to say "how are you?" and pass along some family news of my own. I also stay in touch with family researchers who aren't, strictly speaking, part of my family but who're fun and who share the "genealogy gene" for solving ancestor mysteries. Who else cares about our battles with stubborn town clerks or recalcitrant health department authorities over getting birth and death certificates for our late, great relatives?
  5. Think long term. Genealogy is our passion now, but we need other family members to carry on the tradition and keep the search and the documentation going into the future. One of my nieces is interested in being the next generation's genealogist. It's up to me to be sure she knows where the files are kept, where the photo boxes are, what I've been researching, who's missing, who's found, and so on. Otherwise, she'll reinvent the wheel again and again. To make it easy for those who come after me, I will (1) label all photos, (2) document key dates, (3) tell the stories, (4) stay in touch with relatives and put the next generation in touch, and (5) think long term!


  1. How nice to meet you, Marian.
    I'm a retired Management Professor, myself! Great list you have here!!

    Keep these ancestor stories coming!

    Bill ;-)
    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

  2. Great list! I was lucky on my maternal side. My grandmother was a family historian and my grandfather kept a diary for 60 years! And they wrote on the back of their photos.

    Now, if only the other side of the family had been such diligent ancestors! :)

  3. Excellent! I realized the importance of labeling my own photos when I couldn't remember who acquaintances were 10-20 years later!

  4. Thanks to Bill, Joan, and Donna for reading and commenting! Your thoughts are much appreciated. I guess identifying people in photos is the number one good thing we can do for our descendants.

  5. Use an archival quality, non bleeding, pen with safe ink, Zig is one. Google it, they are widely available.

  6. GrannyPam, great idea to use an archival quality pen. I've been putting sticky notes on the back or writing in pencil, lightly, on "modern" photos. But your suggestion is much better, especially when I think about the long-term consequences of writing on photos. Thank you!

  7. Thank you, Marian. All wonderful suggestions!

  8. Terrific suggestions, Marian. I wish my ancestors had done the same!

  9. Great post! I especially like the suggestion about photos and stories - 2 topics near and dear to my heart!

    I found your blog from Dr. Bill's shout out today.

  10. Greta list and practical ideas. Your list of things to do is a must for people who follow genealogy

  11. Thank you all for stopping by and taking the time to comment. One of the genealogists in my extended family suggests that I avoid writing on anywhere on old photos.

    Instead, he recommends storing them in archival quality plastic sheet protectors, then putting a label on the protector. He also *loves* to scan the photos so he can digitally organize everything. Makes sense.

  12. Thanks to Dr.Bill,
    I found this posts. Great suggestions!
    Kathleen, a3Genealogy