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Getting Started Offline

With the advent of electronic technology, software, and shiny new gadgets for data storage, genealogists everywhere always have something to look forward to. But for somebody new to the hobby, easily overwhelmed by this multitude of options, where do you start? I recently had this conversation with my cousin Teresa. She married into the family almost six years ago and heard countless stories about “the weird cousin who dances in cemeteries.”

“Which website is better?” she asked. “What software program should I buy?”

Before she opened her purse and dropped in front of the computer and got pulled into this contagious and addicting disease called “genealogy” (of which there is no known cure), I asked her if she liked coffee talk—the art of sharing coffee or tea while talking with family. Her answer was positive, so I then gave her some insight:

1. Get a good notebook, write down what you know about your family history, and then talk to your parents. Next, locate your oldest relatives and speak with them, because when they are gone, you will never again have access to their knowledge of the generations before them. Write down everything! The dates might be off by a few years or the names backwards, but this is rough work—it is an estimate to get you pointed in the right direction. Once you’ve written stuff down, then it will be time to prove it; as they say, without proof you have mythology.

2. Shoot everything—with a camera, silly! If you can borrow it (or have a portable scanner), scan it. Things like WWII love letters, obituaries clipped from unknown newspapers that are stashed in the family Bible in Great Aunt Bertha’s possession, and school yearbooks and report cards (if your family members are brave enough to share). And what about Gram’s photo albums?

3. Look through old photo albums. As you enjoy your coffee talk with relatives, make note of identities of family members and any memories that the photos might spark. Get prepared to shoot (or scan) away!

4. Don’t be afraid of cemeteries. In my experience, it was very commonplace as recently as fifty years ago for neighboring cemetery plots to belong to members of the same family. I have seen a row of four plots belonging to four siblings. The first sibling laid with his spouse to his immediate right, then in the next plot was his brother and sister-in-law, followed by his sisters and their husbands, respectively. In old pioneer graveyards, you might still find stones clustered together. The tallest stone could be considered equivalent to our modern-day celebrity or rockstar (head of the family), where their groupies (other family members) would be gathered around them. The black sheep or least favored in the family might be buried the furthest from the “celebrity” relative.

5. Check out your local library and genealogy society! The former may have online subscriptions to genealogy websites and databases, local newspapers on microfilm, and local history books that you probably won’t find (yet) online. The latter may or may not have online subscriptions, but they will have volunteers who can help you find your puzzle pieces. If your family is local, they might even introduce you to a society member or two who is a distant relative!

Online genealogy is popular for good reason, but there some very priceless pieces to your family story that you can only find rummaging locally and through the homes and possessions of family, like Dad’s Army footlocker in the attic or Great-Gramma’s recipe books in the microwave stand. What has been your best family find?

K. Liam Hobbes of Alberta, Canada, began his genealogical journey at a young age. Active in his local and online community, he’s been involved in several societies and has had many articles published. He keeps two entertaining blogs, is a regular participant in #genchat, and plays on many venues of social media as “Sir Leprechaunrabbit.”


Faces of NextGen: Meet Eric Wells

Eric Wells, 38, Missouri

What five words would you use to describe yourself? Three instead: Just plain awesome.

Why genealogy? Genealogy was the unintended result of trying to assemble a photo book for my grandmother. She wanted to pass on hundreds of old original photographs to her five children, but ran into a problem when one or more photos needed to be given to more than one of her children. I had no idea this was a big desire for her, nor did I know she had been stuck for decades with this roadblock. At the time I had no idea that taking on this project would inevitably lead me to make connections between the people in the photographs. Diving headlong into my own family’s genealogy was enough to make me love the work.

What’s the coolest discovery you’ve made? On my wife’s side of the family, I discovered the parents of her great grandfather. It took hours upon hours browsing through early twentieth century records from Alabama and Georgia to build up enough circumstantial evidence to create a plausible theory. It took locating her distant relatives and running DNA tests to confirm the connections, the result of which deepened her family tree back to the early nineteenth century as well as widened it by discovering that her great grandfather actually had a half brother and a half sister.

What are you working on this week? I am researching a client’s family tree in an effort to produce heritage books and family tree posters for an upcoming family reunion.

What’s the number one secret to your success in genealogy? Thinking outside the box. Following the trail of census and vital records is the backbone of the research, but the real fun starts when those sources don’t have the info one needs to solve the problem. Thinking outside the box has helped solve more problems than I can count. It often requires having to take the time to learn and understand the time period, culture and geographical area to discover new resources and records which are not normally used.

What superpower would you want to help you uncover your family history? Easy, time travel (with a camera and spare batteries). Burned counties could be saved, ancestors could be seen for the first time, and thanks could be given to those who prevailed through the tough times. I’d like to get to know the deadbeats and the black sheep to understand why they did what they did. Unfortunately I am not (yet) endowed with that superpower, so I’ll just have to live with my own impressions and use my imagination to re-animate our ancestors.

What are we most likely to find you doing when you’re not researching family history? Fixing and remodeling houses (especially my own), some social activism, listening to podcasts, catching up on the latest discoveries in science and archeology, and working my way through a list of the top one hundred greatest books.

Anything else you’d like to share? This is may be a bit macabre, but genealogy is a way to bring people back from the dead. Not in the Frankenstein way, but instead it brings the people back to life within the memory and the minds of those exposed to the work I do. One of my favorite quotes is a recent one from the artist Bansky. He said. “…they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” As odd as it may sound, genealogy is currently the best shot at immortality.

The NextGen Genealogy Network is made up of young genealogists with diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences. Faces of NextGen showcases a different member of our community each month. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming feature, simply complete our questionnaire and submit a selfie.


Education Hangout: All About RootsTech

Whether you made it to RootsTech 2016 or are thinking about making plans for next year, catch up on the experiences of Education Co-Coodinators Shannon Combs Bennett and Eric Wells in their latest Education Hangout:

Don’t forget to bookmark our YouTube Channel and listen in for fantastic, friendly advice on a variety of topics relevant to the young genealogist!


Exploring the Obsolete: The Need for Adaptation in Genealogy

To be a young and savvy genealogist means to embrace change. These are the stories that motivate and excite us in our own histories: the exact moments when new paths begin, when the ships set sail, when boots touch down on soil for the first time. Because we try to become catalysts for our own possibilities in our personal and professional lives, these are the stories we most want to discover in our families.

Adaptation—fearlessness in the face of change—is inseparable to who we are as the rising generation of family historians, researchers, and archivists. It’s the commodity our generation has to offer in abundance, an asset that is frequently underutilized and unappreciated. And at no point is that more apparent than when something in the genealogical community goes obsolete.

So in order to help all of us in our journey to discovery, I want to talk about what it means for something to be obsolete, and how we can recognize and embrace these changes when they come.

What makes something in genealogy obsolete?
As I’ve reflected on my own experiences in adaptation, these are some examples that come to mind as a working definition:

  • When the number of users of a product, project, or service has demonstrably been in decline for a prolonged period of time. Especially true when the majority of its users no longer use the service.
  • The product, project, or service in question has been replaced by one of equal or superior functionality, or one that is free or reduces costs to the user.
  • The product, project, or service is no longer financially sustainable without significant reduction or expansion to its implementation.
  • The technology on which the product, project, or service depends is obsolete. Especially true when more effort must be exerted in adapting the old systems to new technology than would be exerted in replacing it.
  • The needs of new/current users are not being met by the current design of a product, project, or service.

Obsolescence: The Death of PAF
When I first began getting serious about genealogy early in my teenage years, I used Personal Ancestral File, or PAF. At the time, I didn’t understand the importance of citing sources or collaboration with other researchers. I wasn’t trying to wrestle with DNA related questions, or categorize a large collection of photos or original documents. For me, research was using as many free resources as possible—no matter how poor or questionably accurate they may have been. For my lack of experience, I didn’t know any better. For my needs at the time, PAF was ideal because it was free and easy to use.

If you’ve never heard of PAF or seen it in action, that’s because it’s obsolete now. All support for it was discontinued several years ago, for many of the reasons listed above. PAF software has been replaced—twice—in favor of websites superior in functionality. With the significant advances in technology and digitization, the needs of users had expanded to such a degree that PAF could no longer keep up. As computer operating systems continued to progress beyond Windows XP, the program could only be run in compatibility mode by those who insisted upon using it. With the introduction of Windows 8, compatibility mode for many programs disappeared. The problem was compounded further with Windows 8.1, and the technology on which PAF was based was gone.

How do we cope with the obsolete?
Why was PAF’s disappearance not the end of my world? Because I had long since outgrown the software. I moved on to RootsMagic Essentials 4 and 5, and embraced all of the features they had to offer. Many of the features they provided, including one of the earliest alliances with FamilySearch, made their software invaluable to me.

As I learned what it meant to do quality research with source citations, and became increasingly transient as a college student, my needs changed again. For someone like me who has lived in five states and gone through six computers (and at least as many phones) in the past ten years, anything less than seamless cross-platform synchronization does not meet my needs. As a result, I’ve since done away with desktop genealogy software altogether, in favor of the website/app combination provided by Ancestry.

Reaching a place where obsolete technologies no longer affect me has been an exercise of continual experimentation. Rather than being dragged into a new experience, I am willing try most of the tools available on the market. I develop a keen sense of what I require, and use anything and everything to accomplish the task. When something no longer functions according to my needs, I dump it without hesitation or sentimentality. I live under the assumption that there is always something better coming, or may already exist, that will ultimately make what I do easier and more enjoyable.

The Best is Yet to Come

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that some of the best work that has ever happened in the genealogical community is happening right now. Digitization and greater records access demand to make better researchers of us all. DNA analysis presents us with unprecedented answers to burning questions—not to mention more honest connections with family members than we’ve ever had before, at a time when those connections are more important than ever.

But we cannot fully take advantage of these opportunities without adapting to changing online presences, redefinitions of organizational goals, an increased need and reliance on volunteerism, and the disposal of obsolete technologies.

To refuse to adapt, to give up on outgrowing our current approaches, is to sacrifice our own potential for the sake of comfort. And what we stand to lose, now and going forward, is of too great a value to pass up.


Heather Collins scribbled her first pedigree chart in the back of her journal at fourteen. Her research has since taken her deep into the American South, Canada, and the Caribbean. She blogs at Of Trees & Ink, and is a founder/contributor at Young & Savvy Genealogists. A native of Maryland, she now lives in Idaho with her husband and very spoiled cat.