The National Institute for Genealogical Studies


The National Institute for Genealogical Studies - LEADERS IN ONLINE GENEALOGY EDUCATION

How Far Back Can I Go?

Everyone’s Research is Different

One of the most frequently asked genealogy questions is “How far back can I go?” This is a very difficult question to answer. Everyone’s research is different. Accessibility and the availability of documents as well as the possible destruction of records means that the answer to the above question might be different even for the same person tracing two different families on their tree.

There are so many factors involved. Some will deal with your own family’s history and other factors may include the impact of local events. For example, if your ancestors were from the southern United States, the Civil War may have led to the destruction of some records. Fires have affected many records throughout history including the 1890 US Federal Census.

You will find that, as you get involved in your new hobby, your parameters may change. You should initially be concerned with documenting the generations closest to you such as your parents and grandparents which will eventually lead you to “jump the pond” and research an immigrant ancestor.

It won’t take long for you to notice that both the study of genealogy and the study of history are very closely related. Some find it to be a lifelong pursuit and the challenge is, no matter how far back you go, you can always attempt to go further.

Through our Methodology-Part 1: Getting Started” course you will discover more about this common question and how you can achieve your objective.


Why did you Trace Your Ancestors?

Why would you want to trace your ancestors?

Well, there are a number of good reasons, but let’s face it, most people trace their ancestors for curiosity’s sake. Others trace their ancestors because they want to know about their different ethnic backgrounds. Others want to trace their roots simply for an increased understanding of just who they are and where they came from. Someone else may need proof of their heritage to gain special benefits from their government.

Tracing your ancestors should not be considered a tedious task. Do not think it’s an overnight project either. It could be a worthwhile hobby that you find interesting and fulfilling. There are many reasons why you may want to research your roots, but whatever your reasons are you will find that, as time moves on, what started out as an interesting little hobby will become a  passion and you will enjoy every minute of it.

With our Methodology-Part 1: Getting Started course you will receive the knowledge and steps moving forward in your adventure. 

Family History Research

Before you start your family history research

What can be better than researching your family history?! While it is a fulfilling pursuit it is also a lot of work. You should expect to run into some problems along the way. It’s important though, that you not create your own frustrations by making mistakes in the initial stages of your research.

A couple of don’ts

  • Don’t make any assumptions.
  • Don’t believe anything you are told unless it can be confirmed by documentation.

Beware of stories suggesting royal or noble descent. Most of our first ancestors had occupations connected to agriculture and the land. The most important order of action is to always start with the known and find your way to the unknown.


Whose genealogy do you want to trace?

As early on as you can in your project, you should try to make this decision. You may want to trace just your father’s ancestor, or perhaps a maternal line, or all of your children’s ancestors. If you research all four grandparents’ families, then you are tracing your complete lineage, both female and male ancestors. The number of ancestors you will find will double for each generation completed. If you are successful in researching 10 generations, you will have 1022 ancestors.

Our course, Methodology-Part 1: Getting Started, will assist you in using correct research methodology as you trace your family tree.


What does Genealogy mean?

A definition found in the dictionary states that “genealogy is the science of tracing your family back through the centuries.” Genealogies record the descent of an individual or a family from a certain ancestor.  It is the study of your pedigree.


What the dictionary does not explain is the fun and the challenge you can have as you climb your family tree. Think of genealogy as a big, huge puzzle. And you are but one piece of that puzzle.

The mystery in this puzzle is that once you get started, you never know where you’re going or what you’ll find once you get there. With our Methodology-Part 1: Getting Started course you will learn more about these genealogy puzzle pieces. 


Recording Your Information

Recording your information

The Pedigree Chart (or Ancestral Chart) will record your direct line ancestors’ information. In other words, you will record the dates and locations of births, marriages, deaths and burials from one father and mother to the next father and mother. While the potential is there for an endless number of ancestors, most of us in the beginning only have knowledge of two or three generations.

Genealogical Numbering Systems

The Sosa-Stradonitz genealogical numbering system is very common. This system assigns a number to ancestors, beginning with the descendant. So your pedigree charts start with the first line, labeled number 1. Number 1 is the name of the person whose genealogy you are doing. So, if you’re doing your own genealogy, your name will be on line number 1. The abbreviations used on the form to record places and dates include:

  • B for date of birth
  • M for date of marriage
  • D for date of death
  • P for place or W for where (location of above events)

The number 2 person on your chart, if number one is yourself, will be your father’s name and his factual information. Number 3 will be your mother’s name and her information. Number 4 is your father’s father, in other words, your paternal grandfather and number 5 your paternal grandmother. Numbers 6 and 7 are your maternal grandparents. Numbers 8-15 are your great-grandparents.  Notice that all the even numbers indicate your male ancestors and all the odd numbers indicate your female ancestors.

Taking our course Methodology-Part 1: Getting Started will help with you learn more the charts and reports used in genealogical research.

The Business of Learning: Methodology 6

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

Well, I have finally reached it.  The last methodology course in the certificate program. Methodology Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice concentrates on professional development and further educational opportunities.  This is a topic  I am always looking into, so I was very excited to jump into the information provided.

Unlike many professions, there really is not a standard way a person becomes a professional genealogist.  Sure, you can take programs like the one from The National Institute for Genealogical Studies and others. You could go for certification or accreditation.  Maybe you decide after 30 years of researching your own family tree that you now want to try your hand at someone else’s. However, no matter your path, genealogists are left to learning about being a professional on their own.

Anytime I am offered insight from a course, webinar, lecture, etc. that gives me a clue to what it means to be a professional (or just bring myself up to that level) I am all ears. You know what? You should be too. Even if you never “hang your shingle” you should still strive to be as professional as possible in your research. It will make your descendants very, very happy.  Trust me.

Through the course I learned about:

  • Setting up a business
  • Managing clients
  • Writing reports
  • Teaching others

These are all things that I do, nearly every day, and I still was able to pick up new pointers. Especially in the aspect of working for others (aka client work).  Even if your “clients” are friends or family (and they  may or may not be paying you), the ideas and skills taught in this course were outstanding and will be beneficial.  In fact, I have already started to use them.

But, if you are like me, and have no business skills but want to make a living at your hobby then you will want to take this course purely for Module 2. It walks you through everything you need to consider when setting up your business.  I found the part on office planning (in the home or out of) to be very insightful.  Along with setting up your work area and marketing yourself.  There is so much that goes into creating a business from scratch!

Most importantly is the section on ethics. Being the best, and most ethical, genealogist is always my goal. I hope that it is yours too. The last module in the course covers the Association for Professional Genealogists code of ethics and a discussion of what we should all be doing to cover our bases.  It is a section that we should all take to heart.

Overall,  Methodology Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice had excellent information, even if you never take money for genealogy work. It is good to know what is out there and how to stay on top of the game. Plus, if you are not a lecturer it will give you a lot of insight into all the preparation we go through to bring you our topics. Hours and hours of planning.

Well, off to the next course!  See you online!


Chat About Methodology With Shannon

Female Writing On Notebook  by adamr/Courtesy of

Female Writing On Notebook by adamr/Courtesy of

At the National Institute for Genealogical Studies we occasionally have virtual meetings where our students are the focus of the session.

Are you interested in taking either Methodology-Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology-Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, or Methodology-Part 5: How To Prove It but not sure what to expect? Shannon Bennett discusses with Gena Philibert-Ortega her experience with these courses. Join Gena and Shannon for a special student discussion on Monday, July 27th at 2:00 PM EDT. You will have the opportunity to ask Shannon Bennett about these courses.

Time zones:
Monday, July 27th – 2:00 PM Eastern; 1:00 PM Central; 11:00 AM Pacific; 7:00 PM in London, England;
Tuesday, July 28th – 4:00 AM in Sydney, Australia

(NOTE: No user name or password required. Please type in your first and last name; then click “Enter as a Guest”.)

Methodology-Part 3: More Strategies
The objective of this course is to teach you how to manage your genealogical project.

Methodology-Part 3: More Strategies consists of an intensive study of types of information and how to gather it. We shall look at how to organize the information, the research process, and even your genealogical office. Strategies for planning your project and for using original records complete the course.

Methodology – Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording
The objective of this course is to teach you how to effectively search and record your information.

Methodology-Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording deals with what to look for in the main sources and how to record it. We then discuss the many methods of synthesizing your research results for presentation and preservation.

Methodology – Part 5: How To Prove It
The objective of this course is to teach you how to make an effective research plan. It builds on the skills learned during the basic and intermediate level Methodology courses.

Methodology-Part 5: How to Prove considers in depth the many possibilities and pitfalls involved in proving your pedigree in a professional manner. The first two modules on Theory concentrates on the meaning of proof in genealogy, delves deeply into sources, information and evidence and concludes with construction of hypotheses and theories. The third and fourth modules are involved with Technique including pedigree analysis, family reconstruction, use and abuse of indexes, negative proof, documentation and the phenomena of serendipity and intuition. The final modules are devoted to Problem Solving where we learn how to deal with problems with starting information, assumptions, problems with records, conflicting evidence, name changes, finding the right parish, migration, age problems, illegitimacy, bigamy & other marital anomalies, female ancestors and the disappearance of paupers. This comprehensive treatment prepares the student exceptionally well for the research process.


If you have not attended a Virtual Meeting before, read the Instructions available at If this URL does not open, please go to, click on Information in the top menu bar, and then Virtual Learning Room in the drop down menu. The link to the Instructions (in PDF format) will be at the top right of the page (you may need to scroll over to the right side of the page).

Reading List for Telling a Story

Pile Of Books With A Black Background by Danilo Rizzuti/Courtesy of

Pile Of Books With A Black Background by Danilo Rizzuti/Courtesy of

By Gena Philibert-Ortega, Instructor

Do you want to tell your ancestor’s story? Not sure how to approach such a task? In the last Methodology Virtual Meeting hosted by Gena we discussed examples of family history storytelling. Take some time this summer to pick up a good book and get ideas for your own family history research at the same time. Here’s a list to help get you started:


Paper Love by Sara Wildman

Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt

Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

Cruel Irony and Write a Captivating Family History by Gary W Clark

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

A Secret Gift by Ted Gup

The Housekeepers Tale by Tessa Bosse

The Birth House by Ami McKay

Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

The Taste of War: WWII and the Battle for Food by Lizzie Collingham

Fever by Mary Beth Keane

Pioneer women. Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna L Stratton

Thee and Me: A Beginner’s Guide to Early Quaker Records by Lisa Parry Arnold

The Archaeology of Home by Katharine Greider


Missed the June Methodology Virtual Meeting? No problem! Join Brenda on July 21st at 1:00am EDT or Gena on July 29th at 11:00am EDT.

My Favorite Course: Methodology

By Lisa-Dawn Crawley, Student

Greetings from Nerdville and the geek who picks the Methodology series as her favourite offering (so far!) from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies!

It’s only logical, (said Mr. Spock, from Star Trek) that we start with the first course in the series, right? Right.

Reporter Table by koratmember/Courtesy of

Reporter Table by koratmember/Courtesy of

Methodology Part 1: Getting Started was my first peek into the world of practical genealogy study. In fact, it was only the second course I took through the Institute! I had been doing my own thing for a couple years at that point, climbing and pruning my trees in a consistent though haphazard manner. As such a typical beginner, I knew there must be better, more efficient ways to manage what I was doing and I was eager to begin learning Proper Techniques for researching and organization. I was not disappointed.

I get excited just going back to the outline for this course on the website and reading through my submitted assignments (which you can do by clicking the S beside any completed course in your Student Briefcase). I remember how new and wondrous it all was at the time. So much to wrap my little brain around! Fortunately, this course (and the series, for that matter) took it slow and steady. Not only did it give me a realistic idea of “how far back you can go” and of the caveats involved in most human interaction versus what is recorded and/or remembered, it introduced and explained frequently used and helpful forms (ie, pedigree charts, family group sheets) and provided the reasoning behind such things as the standards for recording abbreviations and dates. I have found that understanding the reason why a practice is considered standard often makes it easier to be consistent just as looking back at this course material and my notes was a great refresher — are you listening, More-Seasoned Researchers??

Methodology Part 1 is a solid overview of this Hobby-That-Is-Also-A-Skill. I believe it would serve as a good review for an experienced genealogist. It is most certainly a course for eager beginners to get their feet wet in all the areas of general research most interesting to them — from the many types of records and repositories available to interviewing living relatives and collecting clues closer to home — while developing a solid foundation of practical knowledge. In fact, it offers hands-on experience at working through a research problem and building a research plan. Confusing terms and situations which will likely arise are also discussed. Similarly, types of sources (original versus derivative) and information (primary versus secondary) are introduced — WITH EXAMPLES, thankfully!!

Indeed, this is the course series where you first really begin learning about those strange and sometimes scary but significant terms new genealogists stress over — numbering systems? proof? evidence? transcribe?? abstract?? extract?? CITATION???? But not to worry!! Your completion of The National Institute’s Methodology series will ensure any terror and trepidation subsides considerably, if not disappears completely!

Until next time – Happy Hunting!



Lisa-Dawn Crawley is a current student of The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. She is enrolled in four certificate programs (Methodology, Professional Development, Canadian Records and English Records) and hopes to graduate with honours in her hometown of Ottawa, Ontario at the 2017 OGS Conference, in the National Capital’s celebratory year of Canada’s 150th birthday. Her new blog LDC: The Zombie Genealogist chronicles her sleepless endeavours to bring the dead back to life, to interest her relatives and the younger generation in family history, to preserve some of her own thoughts, experiences and memories and, ultimately, to become a professional genealogist. Besides genealogy, LDC’s vices include books (so, so many books!), movies (and Netflix), boardgames and geekery (zombies, minions and Star Wars, oh my!), photography, contesting, bargain hunting, social media and privacy (yes, conflicting).


You can usually find LDC online at:

Twitter: @elle_dee_see


Personal Blog:

Methodology 5

Old Documents  by nuttakit/Courtesy of

Old Documents by nuttakit/Courtesy of

By Shannon Combs Bennett, Student

Proof, sources, information and evidence are crucial to genealogical work. Being able to prove a connection can be hindered by the validity of your source, the reliability of the information and the evidence at hand. Understanding how these elements work together is a skill that all genealogists must possess to be effective researchers and successful. Through the six modules of Methodology 5 you are taught these skills.

I don’t know about you, but I love case studies and other examples to demonstrate the lesson you are learning. Which is why I was very happy to see that there were many different types of examples to walk you through the process for solving advanced research problems. These examples highlighted the skill we were just learning about to show the student how to put to use the information they just learned.

The entirety of Module 5 is using the skills you learned in the course to work through various problems. I enjoyed reading through these case studies, several of which are similar to problems I have faced in my own research, and was able to learn new ways to approach problems and a different perspective to follow the leads in the future. The way the instructor presents the problems, walks you through the solutions and then shows you the proof is very informative and I feel that many people will get a lot of great information out of this section.

One thing that I did not find awkward was the large number of non-US document examples used in the course. This was actually  a question I was asked when I was working in The National Institute booth at RootsTech this year. Some students were worried they would not be able to understand lessons if they cover unfamiliar documents. I get that. It can be intimidating to see documents from other countries.

What I told them, and what I am telling you now, is seeing documents used as examples that you aren’t familiar with is great! There are no preconceived assumptions about what it may or may not contain. You can also focus in on the question at hand and learn to use your investigative instincts. Plus, you will constantly come into contact with documents you are not familiar with as you do research. No one can master everything, there will always be surprises.  So honestly, this is not be a big deal.

Overall I think this series of methodology courses for the intermediate level was a great foundation for future courses in this section and beyond. No matter your experience level this will give you a good grounding in the fundamental skills you need for excellent future research.

See you online!

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