Thursday, May 27, 2010

From the E-Mail Bag: Help a Reader Out

Earlier this week, I received an email from a blog reader named Marjorie. She was asking for advice. I was going to email her privately, then thought a blog reply would help others in the same boat. Also, I don’t have very good answers for her location questions, so I’m hoping you readers will provide your input in the comment section. Thanks Marjorie for letting me publish your question, which is below:

For a few years I have just been collection names and filling my tree. Now I want to get serious, so I am going back and basically starting over and doing it properly. My question is what would be a reasonable budget for one doing their personal family history and where should I invest and what should I avoid. My research is primarily in Mass., Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and Oregon. What books, societies and publications should I invest in? I am learning much from your blog and others. Thank you for your time.

I must admit, I could write a book-length answer to them without even blinking.

The “reasonable budget” will depend on your definition of getting serious. What are your goals? A basic family genealogy for your relatives? A well-sourced personal family history? Publication? Education? Professional pursuits? Each goal varies, so will the price. Whatever you choose, you’re going to have to pay for some vital records and the cost and access vary by state/county/jurisdiction.

As for societies: do you want local interaction and face-to-face how-to instruction, or national publications? The societies you choose will depend on what you want out of the experience. I belong to a local society for social interaction (I have no ancestors in this area) and distant societies where I have an ancestral interest. I can’t attend meetings at the distant societies, but I enjoy and value their publications.

Personally, I wouldn’t run out and buy a bunch of books just yet. Get a feel for your research interests and weaknesses. Consult Cyndi’s List page for beginners. If you have access to a public library, ask a librarian for some genealogy books at their location or others. Sample the books that way, then buy the ones you can’t live without.

Now let’s talk fee-based websites. is the biggie. I’m a subscriber and use it often. Many libraries have a special version that card holders can access for free, so check on that. I pay for a subscription because I do so much at home and the fee-based version has all the bells and whistles. Before paying for any genealogy site, read some reviews and opinions. Also, don’t forget the great (currently) free resource I like the FamilySearch Pilot page. Some societies give members free access to certain fee-based databases. I know occasionally offers free access to some of their collections for a limited time so check there often. When you sample the freebies, it will help you figure out what you need in your genealogy tool box and what you can live without.

The states of interest to you: MA, IL, MO, IA, OR are not states in which I have significant research interest, so I am hoping some readers and friends leave comments that may help you. One great resource is at Miriam Midkiff's AnceStories blog. Each week, she publishes a set of online resources for a particular state. She's doing it in alphabetical order, so MA, MO, and OR are just around the corner. Click Iowa and Illinois for great online resources.

I realize I didn’t answer a lot of your questions, but much of it depends on your interests, goals and location. Also, I wasn't kidding when I said I could write a book on this. At some point, I just have to hit "publish." 

By reading genealogy blogs, you’ll learn a lot about what is essential and what's just luxury. Ask lots of questions because bloggers are really friendly and helpful. At the very least you’ll get enough information to lead you to the offline resources that may hold the answers.

So what do you think, readers? Have anything to add to this giant question with lots of possible answers? Help Marjorie out!


  1. I'm working on some Oregon folks, and has been a great resource because of their collection of The Oregonian (the Portland newspaper). If your people were in Portland (or the nearby coast...mine were in Clatsop county as well) it's well worth it.

    I always tell beginners that their first purchase should be an NGS membership. It's really the starting point for learning how to be a genealogist. The NGSQ alone is worth the membership fee.

  2. Marjorie, you have made a major step to move forward from just "collecting names." Assuming that "doing it properly" means to document sources and fill in the blanks, you could spend anywhere from zero to a zillion to accomplish your goal. You may not need to spend much money at all if you live near the libraries and courthouses you need. On the other hand, if you have to travel, you could spend quite a bit.

    I'm researching in Missouri and Illinois and have found the Kansas State Library and Missouri ARchives to be good resources, and they are free.

    When you work on your budget, figure in the cost of a good genealogy software program. You may be able to use the free version for a while, but the added features are well worth the cost. I would also add the cost of buying or borrowing any training materials so you can take full advantage of the program.

    Blogs are free too... and have lots of great info.

  3. What Amy said about identifying goals. I also started out with just the names, but now with my personal research it's as much about collecting the stories and making the folks more "real". I have subscriptions to footnote(dot)com and newspaperarchive(dot)com to help with the 'details'. I've had more success with newspaperarchive, but check the list of holdings before making a long-term commitment (for any fee site). I've also had success with archive(dot)org/details/texts which is free (has books like Google Books, but most folks already know about that one).

    Before you head off to the library in person, check to see if you can access the databases they have via their website with your library card as a login. That's a nice option to have with libraries cutting back on hours.

    Before you subscribe to any fee-based websites/databases, also check out the perks of any organization you are looking to join. Some might offer free or discounted access (ie: received mail yesterday that NGS members are getting access to for free).

    I actually made myself a way-too-long list of organizations I'd like to join, and maybe someday I'll get to them all. But I like having the list so that I don't have to keep researching it. I agree with Kerry about NGS; it was my first membership.


  4. hey Amy - when you are ready to hit "publish" let me know if you don't have a publisher and are thinking of going the self-pub route. That's my other hat I wear.


  5. For memberships, I have to agree with the others who mentioned the NGS membership. It has been a huge help.

    I would also encourage you to check out some of the societies in the areas you are researching. I have a membership to the Boulder Genealogical Society because I have ancestors there. It has been worth it's weight in gold just for the articles in their quarterly that have led me to sources that I can use in my Boulder, Colorado research. Even though you may never go to a meeting some of these local societies will be able to significantly further your research. You just have to check out what they have to offer and evaluate each one on it's merits.

    Also, when I finally got serious, like you have, I broke down and paid for an Ancestry membership rather than just using my local library. I use it all the time and can't even begin to describe how much of a help it has been. Many of the other online fee based sites have been extremely helpful as well. You just have to slowly take the time to evaluate which ones have the resources that will be most helpful to you.

    Good luck!

  6. My first suggestion is a research plan.

    Secondly, cite your sources from day one. Evidence Explained is the one book I'd suggest.

    Then, a library card from your local library. I can't live without mine. So many genealogy resources I can use at home. I personally like Heritage Quest. Free!

    Missouri has some of the most fantastic resources and I have found them to be fast and efficient. MO archives have been a treasure trove for me. And they're free.

    And never underestimate Google Books. Another free resource that has provided a tremendous amount of information concerning my family.

    Good luck! And remember the online community of GeneaBloggers is always here to help.


  7. I am working on the New England branch of my family which includes Massachusetts. I belong to NEHGS or New England Historic Genealogical Society. ( They have an excellent database of the Mass Vital records, MVR, and are indexing and scanning in more. I had 3 family bibles to start with and have created folders for each family surname I have come across. Good luck and enjoy!

  8. There are a couple of fantastic sources for Illinois and Missouri.

    In Illinois, I would check out the Illinois State Archive databases located at:

    They contain marriage information up to 1900, deaths to 1950 and a plethora of other different databases.

    For Missouri, I would look at the Missouri Secretary of State website which has digitized many collections. It is located at:

    Digitized death certificates from 1910-1959 are available on the same site at the page for the Missouri State Archives:

    Hope this helps some.

  9. None of your states are states where I do research and I don't think I've anything to add to the wonderful comments that have already been provided. My suggestions is to spend money on activities that as far as your research will give you the most bang for your buck. For example, I would spend money on obtaining vital records and other documentation, which can provide leads in your research, before spending money on big ticket items such as DNA testing.

  10. What great responses, and I agree with them all. Just wish I could add something too. Maybe, use a free site, one of the earliest genealogy sites, and it is huge.

    Around here, libraries and the Senior Centers often teach genealogy for free.

    My blog covers a lot of Massachusetts information, tips and reference books, which might be usseful. I would like to help for that state,

    Good luck.

  11. Amy, thanks for mentioning my State Archives and Databases series!

  12. I'm glad someone mentioned IRAD (Illinois Regional Archives Database); they beat me to it, but it is an important research source for Marjorie to use. She also might want to seek out the websites of the state genealogical societies (and see if they have blogs -- the Indiana Genealogical Society does at She also might look for websites for local genealogical societies in the specific cities and counties she will be investigating.

    I recommend also that she find local histories for each locality, and Google Books is a good place to start looking for those. She might find that many of them are in the public domain and have been digitized. She also should familiarize herself with the pitfalls inherent in local histories -- that they are not always accurate, that they can be "puffed up" by the individuals who submitted their bios, if they were done by subscription, etc.)

    And as someone has indicated, she should go to her local public library's genealogy section and get to know the librarians and let them get to know her.

    As for "getting serious," she should get herself a copy of Elizabeth Shown Mills's Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian.

    I wish her the best of luck, and applaud her for taking the next step.

  13. I really apprecite all the responses. They have helped a lot.
    It is true genealogist are friendly and helpful. I am going through each response and making a list of all the resources.
    Thanks everyone.

  14. One more suggestion. For Illinois research, be sure to check out the free databases at the Illinois Archives:
    I love Jesse White. He's done a wonderful for us genealogist!

  15. One thing no one has mentioned (too obvious maybe), is to start with what you know - working backwards from yourself and immediate family. Get as much of this intimately known information down first, documented with records already in family hands. This will be relatively :) inexpensive (depending on how cooperative your hopefully pack-rat inclined family is) and will point you in the right directions when moving to older or more geographically distant information. You might not need access to the pay-sites until this stage is complete. Also, Ancestry lets you search for free - bookmark promising leads for follow-up at a library with access or for when you do get a subscription. Finally, don't get discouraged if YOUR family's information isn't easily available yet. The amount of information online has been growing amazingly in the last couple of years. Good luck!

  16. Another terrific on-line resource is Its vast collection of links often includes some you might not find any other way and it includes access to all the genealogy projects for a county. There is a page for every US county.

  17. Let your biggest expense be online subscriptions or ordering records.

    Before you buy a subscription to a website, do the free trial first or ask another geneablogger if they would be willing to do a quick lookup for you. This gives you a feel of whether or not the website will really be worth the money.

    I highly recommend buying EE - mainly because this should be a huge reference for you. Like everyone else said, also get a library book (in my opinion, to as many library systems as possible). This will enable you to read the genealogy books, make notes on your own, and then return them.

    If you join your local genealogy society, sometimes to raise money they sell their old, duplicate copies of books and magazines for super cheap. Buy these up and read them because there are some great treasure troves of information in there.

    Read lots and lots of blogs to get feedback on different resources available and ways to save money.

    As a college student - I know how to stretch my dollar.

  18. How did I miss this discussion? It all sounds like excellent advice, including some of which I had not considered. Mainly joining the NGS, I guess I will look in to that today.

    Also, the post by Elyse Doerflinger, what is EE? She suggests buying it..I love these group solving discussions.

  19. I'm another person who doesn't know what EE is. Can somebody clarify please. Thanks.

  20. Claudia, Barbara and others. "EE" is short for Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills. It is *the* book for proper genealogical citations. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with citations, but EE gets us through the pain.

  21. I agree with Kerry, for Massachusetts research a membership at NEHGS is a MUST! Not only will you get the databases online, and the journals, but you can ask the NEHGS library staff questions on line! You don't have to be at the library on Newbury Street in Boston to reap loads of benefits!

  22. Thank you Amy, guess I will have to request that books from my library. On the surface it sounds like the genealogical equivalent of Rules Of Order.....