Copywriter Q&A: Jennifer Rizzo Shares Tips for Genealogy Research
COPYWRITER Q&A: JENNIFER RIZZO SHARES TIPS FOR GENEALOGY RESEARCH
Jennifer Rizzo has always been fascinated by genealogy. At The Writers For Hire (TWFH), she puts this lifelong interest to use, helping clients fill out branches in their family trees and answer big, important questions about who they are and where they came from.
In this installment of Copywriter Q&A, Jennifer shares some of her suggestions for aspiring genealogists and anyone interested in taking a deep dive in to their family history. Here’s a hint: It takes patience, time, and some outside-the-box research skills.
TWFH: You’ve been our resident genealogy expert for years now. How did you start learning about genealogy research?
JR: I’ve always been fascinated by genealogy. When I was a little girl, my grandparents would tell me about where my family came from. My 2nd great-grandma came from Germany; she was part of a royal family and she was born in a castle in Cologne. She fell in love with a commoner and she wanted to marry him. Her family gave her an ultimatum: she could leave him and remain part of royal family, or she could marry him and be disowned and excommunicated from church. She chose him. Her family made it impossible for him to get work, so they emigrated to America and eventually settled in Colorado. Our family still lives here.
TWFH: That’s an amazing story! No wonder you were fascinated by your family’s history.
JR: It really has been a lifelong interest. When I was 19, I went on a backpacking trip to Europe, and I went to Cologne, and got in touch with some of my relatives that were still living there. Some speak a little English, some not at all. I was thousands of miles from home, but meeting them gave me a sense of identity that I’ve never felt before, and it cemented my love of genealogy and family history. It made me want to learn more about other branches of family history, explore where the rest of family came from. So, that’s when I started taking classes and learning about genealogical research.
TWFH: Genealogy can be overwhelming for the inexperienced. Do you have any tips for people who are just starting to research their family history?
JR: The first step is to figure out where you’re going to keep all of the information you find. There are so many pieces, and you need to keep them in a centralized place. Find a site that allows you to build a family tree. Ancestry.com is my personal favorite, but there are a lot out there. Start by plugging in whatever you already know: Your name, your parents’ and grandparents’ names and birthdates. Put that in, and you’ll see where there are gaps of missing information. Then, ask family members. It’s amazing what you can find out by asking the right questions.
TWFH: What are the “right” questions to ask? How can you get family members talking?
JR: A lot of times, the best thing to ask is for family stories. A lot of facts are tied into stories. Your relative might not think they know a lot about family history. But try asking when their parents came to this country or what challenges they faced. Then, listen for little clues. That’s the best way to get started.
TWFH: What are your favorite resources for genealogy research?
JR: The Mormon church now has a large portion of their expansive archives available in an online database. They’ve always kept immaculate records, but originally, you’d have to go to a Mormon church or family center and physically search for information. Now it’s all online. Their website is called Familysearch.org. It’s not as user-friendly as Ancestry.com, but you can sign up for free membership. You can do research, and they do have a place where you can build family tree. It’s a good place to keep organized and it’s free. It’s a really good database to look through.
TWFH: You mentioned that Familysearch is free, but a lot of genealogy sites require a paid membership. In your opinion, are paid memberships worth it?
JR: Yes, I think if you’re beginning your research, they are worth it. Give yourself a month’s worth of paid memberships and plow through as much information as you can. But you want to be choosy about which memberships you pay for; some are not worth it. Obviously, Ancestry is one I’d recommend because it’s very intuitive and it has a lot of information.
TWFH: Are there any surprising places to find information? Anything that most people might not think of right away?
JR: Try looking through old census records, state or federal. They have a lot of valuable information. Ship manifests are good, too, if you know when your ancestors came to this country. A ship manifest will tell a person’s name, age, occupation, and where they came from. You have to be careful with these types of sources, though: They’re notorious for having misspellings of names or wrong birth years. These records were handwritten at a time when people didn’t always have a set spelling for their names. Things were just spelled phonetically by whoever was doing the writing. Also, when records were transcribed, the names were recorded in whatever way they were understood by the person recording them. So, if the person who originally wrote the record had horrible handwriting, the recorded name might be very different from the actual name.
TWFH: That has to make things more difficult. Does that change how you approach research? How do you make sure you’re finding the right people?
JR: Just keep those things in mind and watch for other clues. Recently, I was doing research for a client and I was trying to find information about their family from the 1870 Census. I knew what area they were living in at the time, and I knew first names of the family members. I went page by page and found a family that had all of the correct dates of birth, ages, and first names — but the person who recorded it put in a wacky last name so when I did a search, the family’s name didn’t come up. That’s why you should make sure you’re looking for other clues in addition to the last name. And it’s not always clerical errors: Some families, depending on when they immigrated to America, may have changed their last name to assimilate. There are also a lot of cultures where people have multiple first and last names; in some cases, their names ended up being shortened.
TWFH: So how do you find out what other names might be used? Where are some other places to look for clues?
JR: Some people have old family bibles, and they use those to record when anyone is born or is baptized or gets married or dies. You can also try checking ship manifests: If you know name of the ship, you can Google it. Or, you can use the Mormon genealogy site or and Ancestry site, there’s a place where you can search for ship manifests or immigration. Another great resource is birth certificates, baptismal records, or death certificates. Those things frequently record a person’s full name.
TWFH: What’s the most interesting genealogy project you’ve worked on?
JR: That’s tough. Each of them has surprised and amazed me in some way; I’ve unraveled family mysteries and discovered family origins that were previously completely unknown. One of the most interesting projects took me to the UK and Germany to learn about the client’s ancestors, and the troubles they had to overcome during their lifetimes. Walking the streets where they lived hundreds of years ago was amazing; incredible. And spending hours upon hours in the National Archives, sorting through handwritten documents that are hundreds of years old, was surreal.
TWFH: What are some common challenges with genealogy? Are there any common roadblocks that can hinder research?
JR: Research takes a lot of time and patience. Frequently, you are looking for a needle in a haystack. You have to spend time going page by page, looking for facts, discerning facts from other clutter out there. The one negative to sites like Ancestry.com is that anyone can put information in there, so you need to be able to determine if this is the ancestor you’re looking for. That’s really time-consuming, and people get frustrated. There can also be a huge challenge with language barriers. For example, if your ancestors are from Germany, chances are, the records are going to be in handwritten in Old German Gothic. And another challenge is that some records are not available online, and some simply don’t exist anymore. For example, in England, a lot of records were destroyed during the British civil war.
TWFH: Is there any way to know ahead of time if the records you want actually exist?
JR: It helps to have a sense of the history where your ancestors came from. Depending on where they’re from, the records might have been kept in a state archive center or a church — is that church still there? Does that archive center still exist? What city did they live in? Does that city even exist anymore? Does that country even exist? Knowing these things can help point you in the right direction.
TWFH: What are some cool ways you can use your genealogy research? (Like, creating a family tree, a book, etc.) Have you seen anything especially cool?
JR: Most frequently, people are making family trees to pass down from generation to generation. They make diagrams to insert in books. One of the coolest things I’ve seen is one of our clients wrote a book about his own personal history and parts of his family history, starting with the earliest generation we found. He told their life story, with each chapter focusing on one generation.
TWFH: Genealogy research often results in lots of pieces of information from several sources. Do you have any tips for keeping information organized and accessible?
JR: This is old-school, but my favorite method is to keep a master folder on my computer desktop for each client. Within each folder I have sub-folder for each branch of tree. And then I have another sub-folder for each generation. Then, when I have a piece of new information, I can put it right in the folder. I scan things if I have a physical paper. When I visited the state archives in Germany, I ended up taking pictures with my phone and converting them to PDF, which was really helpful. Also, having a good file naming system is really important. If you stick with that, when you’re looking for a certain file later, it’s easy to find.
TWFH: In your opinion, what are the essential tools for genealogy research?
JR: Hokey as it sounds, patience, a good memory, and good research skills. Genealogical research is like searching for tiny pieces to a giant puzzle; you have to be able to remember clues and figure out how to put them together. You have to think outside of the box and look for answers in unlikely places.
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