I’m starting off this year filled with gratitude, and hope all of you enjoyed the holiday season with your friends and family! I’ve got several genealogy research goals I’m excited to start work on this year.

As reviewed my own plans, I thought I’d share five ideas and thoughts for all researchers looking to upgrade their genealogical skills in the coming year.

1. Start using Chat GPT.

Chat GPT is a game-changer for genealogists, full stop. I’m still learning about its capabilities and limitations but I am on fire about this tool.

My favorite way to utilize it now is asking it to write a narrative based only upon facts that I provide.

For those of you having a hard time writing up your research (something I always encourage) Chat GPT can provide just the jump start you need.

I signed up for a free account and I gave the tool this prompt:

Write a short biography of my great grandmother Beatrice Prather, who was born in Laytonsville, Montgomery County, Maryland on 18 July 1888 and died on 26 December 1974 in Manhattan, New York. She married the Reverend Daniel G. Waters on 28 February 1914 in Chestertown, Maryland and they had six children together.

To reiterate: you have to provide the facts that you want the tool to use.

Look what it created from the prompt above:

Beatrice Prather was born on July 18, 1888, in Laytonsville, Montgomery County, Maryland, marking the beginning of a life that would span significant historical events and personal milestones. She grew up in a time when the world was undergoing rapid changes, from the turn of the century to the challenges of two World Wars and beyond.

On February 28, 1914, Beatrice embarked on a new chapter of her life when she married the Reverend Daniel G. Waters in Chestertown, Maryland. This union would become a foundation for a family that would grow and thrive over the years. The couple settled into a life filled with faith, community, and the joys and trials that come with raising a family.

Beatrice and Reverend Daniel G. Waters welcomed six children into their home, creating a close-knit and loving family. Together, they navigated the challenges of parenthood, instilling values and creating lasting memories for their children. Beatrice’s role as a mother and partner was integral to the well-being and happiness of their household.

Throughout her life, Beatrice Prather witnessed the evolving landscape of American society, from the rural setting of Laytonsville, Maryland, to the bustling streets of Manhattan, New York, where she would spend her later years. The family’s journey likely involved adapting to new environments, meeting diverse people, and facing the triumphs and tribulations that shaped their experiences.

Beatrice Prather departed this world on December 26, 1974, leaving behind a legacy of love, strength, and resilience. Her life was a testament to the enduring power of family, faith, and the human spirit. As her descendants reflect on her life, they carry forward the lessons she imparted and the values she cherished, ensuring that Beatrice Prather’s legacy lives on in the hearts and stories of generations to come.

Pretty doggone cool, right? Game changer.

There are several caveats to using this tool, but I promise you will be amazed at all it can do in genealogy. When I first saw what it could do, I thought to myself, “No one is going to have a job!”

But the technology train stops for no one, so I just get on and try to enjoy the ride. Take a listen to Blaine Bettinger’s You Tube video for more ideas on how to use Chat GPT for genealogy.

You can also use Microsoft Bing or Google Bard, which are both powered by AI (Artificial Intelligence).

2. How are you documenting your research?

What do your research notes look like?

Do you use a word processor like Word or GoogleDocs, an Excel spreadsheet, or a simple pen and three-ring notebook?

Maybe you’ve hit the big leagues and are using AirTable.

Whatever your preference, lean in hard this year, and create even more detailed notes that include what terms you searched, where you searched, what you found, and importantly—what you searched and didn’t find.

As I’ve grown in skills, my research notes have gotten richer and richer. The little nugget of information you record now could be the key to a breaking a brick wall later.

Pro Tip: Try hard not to go off on a tangent, which is hard for genealogists! If you find yourself being pulled away, record that idea as Follow-Up for later.

3. What does your home genealogy library look like? Do you have one?

Here’s one of my genealogy bookshelves:

One bookshelf

I admit, I was already a serious book-lover and my house is filled with books at every turn.

When I need to understand new ways to research a certain record type (such as court and deed records) I go first to my library shelf.

If you believe you will be researching for decades (or already have), a book collection is an investment that will continually pay rewards. If you don’t know where to start, a list of my most recommended genealogy books can be found here.

I’m constantly on the lookout for new genealogical books to add to my collection and I try to support my friends in genealogy as they publish their own books.

Pro Tip: I almost always buy used books either on Amazon or Abebooks.com if one is available.

I also read a lot of non-fiction books on various aspects of American history which aids my genealogical research enormously.

I’ll mention two recent reads: Up Home: One Girl’s Journey is a memoir by Ruth Simmons about growing up as the 12th child of struggling sharecroppers in East Texas. Her descriptions of a hard life are evocative and detailed, and she is painfully honest about her abusive father.

How she came from that background to be the first African American to serve as President of an Ivy League university is inspiring.

Secondly, I recently finished I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land by Alaina E. Roberts.

She tells the story of Indigenous Nations’ removal to Indian Territory, but includes the different experiences of Indian Freedpeople, African Americans, and other white settlers. This was such an interesting read and I learned so much I didn’t know.

What have you been reading lately?

4. How are you doing with citing your sources? What are you using and what are your challenges?

This topic often draws a groan among genealogists, but without citations, you might as well be writing a fiction novel. And yes, I’ve covered this topic here before.

Everyone has a slightly different style, but as long as all the necessary components are included in a way that is clear, complete and accurate (in the words of genealogist Thomas Jones) then you’ve got a good citation.

What you don’t want to do is copy and paste, especially from websites like Ancestry.com. Their “citations” are almost anything but.

Like anything else, with practice it gets much easier.

The books Evidence Explained and Mastering Source Documentation (from your home library) are must-haves for creating citations. There are also tools such as Cite-Builder.com, that can automate the process.

If you haven’t already, doubling down on learning source citations is a  good goal for 2024.

Pro Tip: Create a table of templates for commonly used source types. I have one that covers censuses, deeds, death certificates, obituaries, etc.

5. Have you started getting back into repositories since COVID? Have you visited the local courthouse, archives, or genealogical society, etc?

After the first two years of COVID, I couldn’t wait to get back into the archives. Put me in a room filled with books, manuscripts and microfilm, and I am truly in MY BLISS.

This is from my visit to the new Tennessee State Library and Archives in 2022. I was in pure heaven!

In my bliss

The internet has exploded with genealogical records in the past two decades, and it has enabled me to find things I may not have found otherwise.

But.

Most records will never be available online. We’ll have to go to where the records are. I have highlighted my finds from these archives many times over the years.

Use the internet to prepare for your trip. Find the online catalog and record exactly what you want to view in order of importance. You do not want to waste time onsite searching the catalog.

Pro Tip: Bring a thumb drive to download images and ask ahead of time if you can take digital pictures. Both of these practices enable me to work much faster. Don’t forget to record information for the source citation.

So make this the year you hit the road and make a visit to a new repository. I’m already trying to plan a day this year to explore the DAR Library in Washington, D.C.

With these five suggestions, I’m ready and you are too.

2024, Let’s Go!

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