Your Lifetime Genealogy Goals: Breadth or Depth?

I spent last week at IAJGS, where I had an eye-opening discussion with friends about our life-time genealogy goals.  I had always assumed that everyone, like me, wanted to take every branch of our families as far back as we could go, answering every question possible and solving every mystery.  But that turned out not to have been the case!

One genealogy friend focuses her work entirely on one branch of her family, particularly on two sisters.  Another friend, after succeeding in reuniting the parts of his family divided by WWII and the Iron Curtain, shifted his interest from traditional genealogy to the town that family came from.  And coincidentally, on the day I returned home James Tanner of Genealogy’s Star wrote about the same issue!  His goals include incorporating tens of thousands of documents, negatives, and digital images into his tree.  So:  here are three active genealogists with three very different approaches.  What can I learn from them?

Lately I’ve despaired that I’ve been staring at the same brick walls for a year with very little to show for my efforts (here’s one exception).  Is my problem that I haven’t focused on one area hard enough?  The first friend, who focuses on two sisters, learned details of their lives I thought it impossible to recover.  If I likewise limit myself, could I have the same success?


When I started out, I divided family by my great-grandparents, since that’s roughly the generation that immigrated, and aimed to:

  1. Trace each line back to a specific town in the Old Country (6 of 8 branches done)
  2. Find evidence from the Old Country to document their presence (3 of 8)
  3. Locate and visit all of the American graves of my direct immigrant ancestors (almost there, unless more people immigrated than I know)

But a ton of burning questions accompany these high-level goals, such as:

  1. What was the original last name of my Davis forebears?
  2. What happened to my maternal grandfather’s namesake?
  3. How are my Hungarian Hubsches related to this more illustrious line of Hungarian Hubsches?
  4. Is there any truth to my father’s claim that his great-grandparents were doctors to the czar?

The range of these questions require tracing every part of my family.  So, I tend to work round-robin style, focusing myself on a particular set of research tasks for a period of time.  If that bears fruit, I’ll keep pursuing each new lead, but if it doesn’t, I’m more likely to turn to a different part of the family than to try something new for the part I had just been working on.  So yes, I’m scattered.  Too scattered?


In short, dear readers, I’m curious to know what your lifetime genealogy goals are.  What are your burning questions?  How broad or narrow are your aims?  I’m looking for inspiration to focus my work in the coming months, since with Treelines in heavy development, I have much less research time than ever before.  I look forward to reading your responses in the comments section!

5 thoughts on “Your Lifetime Genealogy Goals: Breadth or Depth?

  1. I’ve been researching my family for almost 40 years, and my husband’s family for 30. Over the years, I have traced our families back as far as the 1500s. I, too, have varied my goals from time to time. My current main goals are two-fold – first, to be in contact with as many living descendants as possible (a very enjoyable and fulfilling pursuit), and second, to produce a family history book containing all my research that can be distributed broadly within each family so that the results of my labors will live beyond me. Creating the family history books (using requires that I review and organize all my documents, photos and other research. In the process, I am trying to prepare my information for donation to the appropriate libraries. I’m still “young”, but I doubt my son would have room for all my papers!

    • Janet, I love your goals! I always forget how worthwhile connecting with living relatives can be — thanks for the reminder.

    • Oh, you’re right! Good call! Well, as you can see, I like my TV shows as I do my research — the broadest possible understanding of people’s background. I really like to know how all of the crazy twists and turns of different lines produce US!

      If you did genealogy, would you focus on just one or two lines?

  2. Since I was 9 I was fiercely interested in knowing ALL of my immigrant ancestors. My father was an immigrant and I thought I’d totally cheated the odds and reached immediately halfway to my goal. My mother’s father had Irish immigrants and that side was fairly easy. THEN I found out my mom’s mother was German and English, not Irish as I was told….. and her German side was then pretty easy. And her mother’s colonial roots are strong and DEEP. I’m still finding the hundreds of immigrants. My husband’s dad was an immigrant, and his mother is a Mayflower Descendant. One extreme to another. I love to connect to all the living relatives! I plan to visit Nurnberg, where my dad is from one day!

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