The Golden Rules for Genealogy
1. Always work from what you know. Start with your parents, and move back in time. Don't pick someone you'd like to be related to and look for what you want to find. It doesn't work like that. Speak to older members of your family, hunt down some cousins and share photos and stories.
2. Verify everything, particularly family stories. There are many mistakes, including in official records, and people often forgot, got things wrong, or lied for various reasons (protection, embarrassment, fear, wrong-doing, scams).
You need certificates (birth, death, marriage), wills and more, but remember that not every official record that you read may be correct. Sometimes the relative supplying information at a death was so distressed they didn't know what they were talking about, or perhaps they simply mis-remembered, were deaf or didn't know. One of my ancestors was Thomas John Griffith. His death certificate is under William John Griffiths. Another instance is that my father's uncle listed my father under his nickname on my grandfather's death certificate. His name wasn't anything like Reggie, but that's what it says ...
3. Organise your research carefully. Date your work, and file records clearly. The better you do this, the better your family history will be. It also saves embarrassment when someone asks you in ten years time where you got that information from.
Using a computer with family history software is the easiest, but if you only use written records, you need to be very careful to document and organise everything meticulously. Cross-reference your work. Make lists of where you've been and when so that if you come back to them in a year's time you can check what you've done. If your memory isn't as good as it used to be and you feel a bit disorganised, then get another family member to help you or check your work.
4. Keep a backup or three. Imagine if you lost years of valuable research, so share your work with your family so that if there’s a catastrophe, you can recover at least some of your work. This applies to both written and computer records, including precious family photos and mementos. Make sure you scan or photocopy certificates and give them to relatives. Each certificate costs quite a bit of money to replace. List your genealogy collection on your home insurance policy. Your genealogy is only as good as your last backup.
5. There can be many people with the same name born at the same time in the same parish. Don’t assume that because you find a name you want, it’s the right one. It might be, but it might not. Many people fall into this trap and their family tree is quite wrong. This is a danger when using a database like the IGI. The information may be correct, but you still might have the wrong person for your tree. I've looked through many parish registers and found fashions for names at particular eras. People often copied names, not thinking of genealogists in future centuries.
Over time you really see fashions for names. In the German registers I've worked on, the 18th century names for girls rarely differed from: Anna, Maria, Margaretha, Catharina and Elisabetha. I must have seen hundreds of girls christened Anna Maria Elisabetha. In the 19th century, those names were replaced with Justina, Sophia, Carolina, Bernardina, Antonetta and Francisca. To find an Anna Maria Elisabetha in registers of those times is like the proverbial needle in the haystack. And yes, all in the same parishes of Peckelsheim and Eissen.
6. Take advantage of free trials offered by some subscription websites such as findmypast or ancestry. See the site reviews (on the menu above). Read the conditions carefully, and make diary notes to cancel when the free trial ends if you don't wish to continue, or you may find you have a year's sub. Cancel the day before and ask them to confirm this has been done.
7. Look online for people with the same surname interests and see if you can find some new relatives who are also interested in genealogy. Share your information with them. You may find conflicting information, so always be sensitive when discussing this. The other person just may be right, even if you're sure you are.
8. Bear in mind that records have been lost (particularly Irish records in a huge fire in 1922), to fire, flood, war and carelessness, not to mention insect damage. It simply may not be possible to find some information. For example, the parish registers for one of my Cheshire ancestral lines simply have not survived. An earlier register exists, but I can't do more than speculate about the connections between families in the earlier and later registers. It's a permanent brick wall unless you have very rich families who have left an alternative paper trail.
9. Remember that spelling changed radically over the years, and your ancestors' surnames may have changed too. Sometimes people changed their name in order to fulfil the requirements of an inheritance. Others found their name distasteful and simply changed it. Some people couldn't spell and a change was perpetuated. Others may have changed their name to escape detection for religious or legal reasons, eg. after being released from jail, or having major debts.
My Belford ancestors were previously Balfourd and earlier still Balfour. In Germany, one family started out as Schlotthagen, then became Schlotthane, and later Schlosshane. Think of all of the variations of the surname you're looking for and look under ALL of them. You may well find a lot more than you think.
10. Be sensitive. Not everyone wants family stories shared (with notable exceptions such as royalty, and major public figures whose data is in the public domain anyway). By posting private or wrong information on the web or giving it to others, you can cause great hurt and family splits. Don't put details of living people up on the web without their express permission. How would you feel if identity theft was caused by your carelessness? By making an enemy of someone, you could also lose access to valuable information in the future. Please don't do it!
If you do happen to have done this, I suggest you remove the information right now, apologise profusely, and/or ask permission properly. Abide by what the other person says. They may still be angry, but it goes a good way towards healing an unnecessary family problem.
11. When anybody dies, all of their memories die with them unless recorded beforehand. Find your older relatives, preferably before dementia sets in, and ask them about their earlier life. Often people will only talk of a sensitive or very painful story just before they die. Be kind and sensitive, as it will work much better than haranguing someone for information. If you do that they'll probably hide it from you. Record their memories with their permission - in writing, on tape or on video. Respect what they tell you in strict confidence, even after they've passed on.
Ask if they have any documents like birth or marriage certificates in their possessions and respectfully request their permission to make a copy. That could save a lot of money later if someone else deals with their estate and doesn't care about family history. Also ask if they have any old postcards that you can look at. They might even give them to you. I have my grandmother's postcard collection from the 1890s and early 1900s. It's fascinating and priceless. They were the emails of their time.
12. Give back to the genealogy community. You can donate money, books or records to a family history society, volunteer to host an online bulletin board, help out at the local family history society, or do some typing of parish registers for sites like FreeREG, FreeCEN or FreeBMD. There are many other genealogy projects to work on. So much of what you receive in the way of information would not have come to you without the help of volunteers, so reap the rewards, but do your bit to help too. I volunteer for FreeREG, and type for the London/Middlesex and Lancashire counties.