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What Are the Traits of a First-Class Genealogist? title image

By Phyllis J. Hughes, HFA Genealogist

Appeared as an editorial in the Autumn 1987 issue of the HFA Journal

What makes an effective genealogist? Quite often I think about this question. What are the traits and characteristics of a first-class genealogist? Perhaps you have your own list of what these might be. I would like to share with you the distinguishing qualities which I feel are characteristic of an effective genealogist. These attributes are not necessarily in the order of their importance, but I do feel that possessing the first two interlocking features are vital if one is to earn the genealogists’ “seal of approval.”

  • Intellectual curiosity: One has to have an intense desire to want to know everything—the good as well as the disparaging details—about one’s ancestors. Lacking this, the outcome may be incomplete
  • After one has gleaned a certain amount of information on an ancestor, then the real test comes.

  • A desire to find the truth: This relates directly to the above trait and cannot be overly-emphasized or ignored. One has to want to find and have a reverence for the truth and to settle for nothing less than the true facts
  • Attention to details: If one finds the correct ancestor but does not care about the details of that person’s life, then something is lacking. The picture is missing some of its important elements. If, in recording information on that ancestor, one omits important data on that person either because it is too time-consuming or because some of these details are not easy to research, then one cannot be called an effective genealogist. Attention to other details such as dates, spelling, and names are important!
  • Ability and willingness to analyze data critically; organizational skills: After one has gleaned a certain amount of information on an ancestor, then the real test comes, for it has to be thoroughly organized and analyzed critically to determine whether it is correct
  • Sharing data with others, either by correspondence or publication, is both desirable and commendable.

  • Ability to document data: This may be one of the most vital earmarks of an effective genealogist, for if information is given without the accompanying citations, then it may be useless to both the compiler and others researching that same family. One must verify and document data, preferably using primary sources
  • Capability of compiling data accurately and willingness to share research: If one is successful in finally discovering the correct data, then it is also necessary to record this data properly and accurately, carefully proofing every entry. Sharing this data with others, either by correspondence or publication, is both desirable and commendable
  • An open mind: We tend to believe what we first read or learn about any individual person or event. Yet this can be a dangerous trap, for frequently our early information on an individual can be wrong. We need to be alert for discrepancies and conflicting information, and to be willing to alter our opinions and theories
  • Family stories, while usually having an element of truth, can be the sources of much incorrect information and need to be carefully examined. Even published records can be and often are wrong.

  • A skeptical mind: Theories have to be tested and re-tested constantly. This is perhaps best accomplished by asking whether a theory is reasonable and logical and can stand the test of intense scrutiny and questioning, much as a lawyer does when questioning a witness. Documenting and verifying all data will reveal whether theories can be accepted as facts. Family stories, while usually having an element of truth, can be the sources of much incorrect information and need to be carefully examined. Even published records can be and often are wrong
  • Knowledge of both history and geography: Studying these related subjects, as applicable to one’s own individual ancestral families, will do much to enhance an understanding of the people, the areas, and the times in which they lived. This knowledge can lead to the discovery of important additional information
  • Capacity to see the big picture: An effective genealogist surveys all people with the same surname, living in the same area during the same time period, in order to separate and identify family groupings. It is important to study all siblings and extended families, as well as non-related families with that same surname. It is also vital to study and keep abreast of new publications and research tools which can enhance our knowledge and perspective of the latest opinions, developments, and technology in this field

Finally, when all of the various elements have been studied and conclusions made, an effective genealogist would once again ask that all-important question: “Have I succeeded in finding the truth?”