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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 6/25/2003

What I've Learned Writing for the Ancestry Daily News

In my four years of writing for the Ancestry Daily News, I have gained a great deal of knowledge, most of which has some bearing on genealogy. (We will forgo grammar lessons that have crossed my desk, however.) This week we look at the lessons that have been brought to my attention in ways ranging from the suggestively subtle to the overtly blatant.

People Cannot Read Your Mind.
Express yourself clearly, especially when composing e-mail messages. Write something and let it sit a while before sending it. What was crystal clear at 3:00 a.m. is sometimes as clear as mud eight hours later. Wait even longer and think it over at least three times if you are e-mailing out of frustration or irritation.

There Are Always Things You Do Not Know.
The careful genealogist makes himself open to new methods, new sources, and new ideas. The clever writer applies this new information as topics for future articles or columns.

Spell Check Does Not Always Work.
The computer thinks Calvary and cavalry are spelled correctly and they are, but the computer typically does not look in context. If your ancestor was in the cavalry at Calvary you've probably overextended your pedigree and need to get a little more sleep before doing any more research or writing.

We Live in a Global World.

Receiving e-mail from Daily News readers has made me blatantly aware of the increasing "smallness" of the world we live in. Family historians are advised to keep this in mind when composing their own communications for the masses. Anyone from virtually anywhere may read your posting to a message board or listserve. One never knows where other relatives may live, so keep your posting clear, to the point, and as free from abbreviations and local vernacular as possible.

Some People Never Sleep.
Regardless of how long your computer is on and how infrequently it is off, there will always be e-mail coming in. Set yourself a time to shut down and go to sleep. Research is better done when you have some rest. What you write in the wee hours of the morning may need massive rewriting the next morning. You don't need to answer e-mail immediately, and you shouldn't expect immediate answers from others.

Readers Are Everywhere.
I have recently learned some distant (and more importantly, some not so distant) relatives read the Ancestry Daily News on a regular basis. Consequently I have to watch what I write because people who knew me when I was a toddler are actually reading what I write. Consequently, I have to rewrite the entire set of columns I had ready for July unless I want to quit going to family reunions for the next ten years. The same can be said for message boards and mailing lists.

I Don't Have All the Answers.
I have been asked for everything from English records (which I apparently have in my basement) to e-mail addresses from 1910. I do not have either.

Everyone Has Interesting Ancestors.

Daily News readers have some extremely colorful ancestors. Some of their stories make the ones I share in my columns seem mundane by comparison. Family historians locate these colorful stories in many places, but family tradition, newspaper and court records are frequently cited as sources. So if you're missing out on all the family scandals, consider these sources.

But Not Everyone Wants to Hear About Them.
You may think that your ancestor's 1880 agricultural census enumeration is scintillating and mind-boggling. There is a remote chance others do not. Other family members might not be overly impressed if you mention that their (and your) third great-grandmother went through three husbands (or four if you count the two marriages to and divorces from the same man).

There Is Always More Research To Be Done.
Just when I think I've written on one topic or family so much that I've pretty much maxed out the editor's patience, I learn of a new source or technique that brings a fresh research angle. Keep looking and keep searching for your own new techniques and sources. Family history is literally the hobby that never ends. I've had brick walls for years that have come tumbling down overnight, frequently when I least expected it. And personally, I'm hoping the new 1870 every name census index breaks down a few more.

Why Do We Do Genealogy?
I have had readers give me an inordinate number of reasons why they research their family history, ranging from the academic to the spiritual and from the medical emergency to simply being "interested." One workshop attendee told me her husband was always giving her grief about her doing genealogy research. He told her that after she was gone it would probably be pitched in with the trash. She retorted that the flowers and gardens he tends so carefully in the front yard are not going to last forever either and that the kids were just as likely to dig them up and plant grass where flowers had once been. They have agreed to tolerate each other's hobbies.

There Is Always an Exception.
Readers are always sending me exceptions to virtually everything. Laws and customs necessarily guide us through a significant part of our research. In genealogy, everyone is born and everyone dies. Everything else is up for grabs (getting married, paying taxes, having children). Keep this in mind. While people frequently do behave according to certain societal norms, there is an exception to virtually every rule and custom. Just when I think I've seen about every flaky family history story one can imagine, another one crosses my e-mail inbox. There is always that one person or family who just can't seem to color within the lines. Some can't find the lines and others do not use crayons.

Someone Will Always Disagree.
I'm frequently asked, "What do I do if cousin Gert disagrees with my research?" There will always be at least one family member who does not agree with some conclusion you have reached. Some people also do not believe the sky is blue or rain is wet. What you should do is simple. State your sources and reasoning clearly, and review your research periodically. Continue to learn about the area and the available resources. And if cousin Gert insists on believing something else and you've looked at her evidence (or lack thereof) and are still not convinced, state your case and move on.

I will end with two regrets that frequently appear in my mailbox. I could write a long list of people who regret:

Not identifying individuals in family pictures.
Not interviewing family members while they are alive.

Please avoid adding yourself to the list!

Copyright 2003, Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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