Breaking Out of Comfort Zones

My mother knew someone who was so afraid of making a left turn in her car that she simply refused to do it. Rather than take the most direct route, she would make only right turns and circle around until she reached her destination. She’d get there eventually, but giving in to her fear added extra time and miles to her trip and prevented her from seeing some of the surrounding area.

As a teen, the image of this woman planning her trips based solely on right turns always made me giggle. Now I realize she was operating in her comfort zone, something that most people—including genealogists—do.

Genealogical comfort zones consist of places we enjoy visiting, records we commonly use, and methods we rely upon for success. Venturing out of those familiar territories may be unnerving. Some researchers are happiest working online. Others enjoy archives and courthouses but are intimidated at the thought of visiting somewhere new. Some researchers are set in their ways, hesitant to explore emerging technologies and tools, such as genetic genealogy. Many rely on tried-and-true methods that have served them well in the past.

Comfort zones are limiting. Without stepping outside of them, developing knowledge and skills is impossible. All genealogists—from newcomer to seasoned professional—must push themselves to learn about sources, repositories, techniques, and approaches that are new to them. What are some steps to stretch and grow?

  • Read books, magazines, journals, and blogs

Two of the best books that discuss commonly used records are Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy[1] and The Source, edited by Loretto “Lou” Dennis Szucs and the late Sandra Hargreaves Luebking.[2] To focus on records available for a specific place and time, check the Research in the States Series published by the National Genealogical Society (NGS). The series consists of introductory guides to state-specific sources and resources.

NGS Magazine, a quarterly publication, is a benefit of NGS membership. Articles cover a wide range of sources and methods; regular columns focus on technology, genetic genealogy, and the National Archives. NGS members may access the current and back issues online.[3]

Articles in peer-reviewed genealogical journals include case studies demonstrating solutions to difficult problems, compiled genealogies, record notes, transcribed sources, and much more.  By studying details of the articles, readers can strengthen their knowledge of source selection, evidence analysis, problem resolution, and other skills. NGS members have online access to the current issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ), as well as a strong collection of back issues.[4] Study groups meet online each month to discuss articles found in NGSQ. Other journals worth exploring include The American Genealogist, The Genealogist, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record.

Web-based publications known as blogs began as a way for individuals to journal their thoughts and experiences publicly. Today, many genealogical organizations publish blogs. Some consist of news or links to other interesting items online, but others are full of highly detailed entries about records, repositories, and research techniques. Upfront with NGS is the National Genealogical Society’s blog. Readers may search for other blogs of interest on the “Blogs for Genealogy” section of Cyndi’s List.

  • Listen to experts

Registration opens 1 December 2016 for NGS’s 2017 conference, to be held in Raleigh, North Carolina. The conference consists of four full days of lectures, workshops, and social events. Through technology, those who are unable to attend the conference can still benefit. Audio recordings of most talks will be available after the conference; and some sessions will be live-streamed.

Many organizations offer webinars—programs conducted over the Internet. Most are recorded and can be viewed at a later time. FamilySearch’s Learning Center hosts hundreds of online lessons, as does Legacy Family Tree, which recently added recordings of the Board for Certification of Genealogists® Skillbuilding Lectures presented in Salt Lake City in October 2016.

  • Attend a course

Courses are multi-session programs focused on a particular topic, therefore presenting more detail than a single lecture can. NGS provides several options for education, all of which are conducted online. Ranging from a basic skills course, to the American Genealogical Studies series, and on to Continuing Genealogical Studies about subjects such as genetic genealogy and Civil War research, NGS offers something for people at all levels of experience.

Researchers who can travel for week-long learning opportunities should consider the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG), the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP), the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR), and the Genealogical Institute on Federal Records (Gen-Fed).

  • Investigate a source or repository

Whether the goal is to learn about a type of record or a particular destination such as a library, archive, or courthouse, setting time aside for exploration is a valuable practice. Researchers who are accustomed to working online should challenge themselves to use sources that are not available on a home computer, as many valuable resources have not been digitized. People who are already experienced using records both on and offline should schedule time to visit somewhere that is off the usual path, perhaps to survey manuscript collections, browse published genealogies and local histories, or delve into subscription databases that are available only to onsite researchers.

Very often researchers know of potentially helpful record collections that are difficult to access. They may be at a distance, requiring travel. Some may be unindexed, demanding extensive time. Others may be so complex that newcomers to genealogy feel unsure about using them. While learning about sources and repositories, researchers can also consider access—in person, by mail, through an agent, or by some other means.

Reading, listening to lectures, enrolling in courses, and exploring new sources and repositories are just a few ways to expand one’s knowledge of genealogy. There is always something new to learn, and researchers occasionally need encouragement to step out of their comfort zones. When genealogists decide to make those “left turns,” they’ll not only discover new ground, but their skills and knowledge will grow.

[1] Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2000).

[2] Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, eds., The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, 3rd ed. (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006).

[3] National Genealogical Society, Magazine Archives (

[4] National Genealogical Society, NGSQ Archives ( The archives currently includes issues from 1960 through 1963, 1965 through 1974, and 1976 to the present.

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