15 Secrets of Genealogists

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Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States and a billion-dollar industry, but few people know what actually goes into tracking down ancestors—let alone putting information about them into any kind of context. Mental Floss talked to three professional genealogists to learn more about their increasingly in-demand profession, and discovered why they love weird last names, why they’re indebted to the Mormons and the Quakers, and how television is making their job more difficult.

1. MOST OF THEM DON’T HAVE DEGREES IN THE FIELD.

There’s only one accredited four-year genealogy degree program in the U.S.—a bachelors at Brigham Young University in Utah. Those who can't make it to Utah can enroll in certificate programs, such as the one offered at Boston University, where Melinde Byrne teaches. “A lot of people sign up [at certificate programs] thinking it’ll be simple,” she says. Unfortunately, lots of people then fail when they discover how much work the program really is. Learning how to use databases, evaluate evidence, document research, locate and search public records, and define genealogical terms is essential knowledge for genealogists-in-training. Other course offerings may teach about ethics in DNA testing, how to read historical documents in multiple languages, and the best methods for writing historical narratives.

But those who don't want to commit to a whole certificate can take advantage of other, less formal options, such as classes in conjunction with library science programs, lectures offered by historical and other societies, and week-long intensives at institutes around the country.

2. THEY'RE BOUND BY PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS TO CONDUCT "EXHAUSTIVE" RESEARCH.

Unlike, say, doctors or lawyers, genealogists don't need a specific qualification to practice. But they're still guided by professional standards—including the five Genealogical Proof Standards developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, a non-profit in D.C. The five standards are considered best practices for coming "as close as possible to what actually happened in history," and include 1) "reasonably exhaustive research," 2) "complete and accurate source citations," 3) "thorough analysis and correlation," 4) "resolution of conflicting evidence," and 5) a "soundly written conclusion based on the strongest evidence."

Professional researchers may have differing opinions about what constitutes “reasonably exhaustive” research, but most agree that it means visiting archives and making sure to cover all the bases—for example, looking at not just a death certificate to confirm a name and age, but census, birth, and burial records as well, to build a fuller picture and to corroborate it. "If you don’t do all the steps in the genealogical proof standard, then the conclusions aren’t convincing," Byrne says.

3. THEY OFTEN DISCOVER THEY HAVE A KNACK FOR GENEALOGY WHEN THEY'RE INVESTIGATING THEIR OWN FAMILIES FOR FUN.

Byrne, for example, looked into her family’s history and discovered that “my own father and mother would never have met if my great grandmother in Alsace-Lorraine hadn’t had a goiter.” This medical condition led her to circumvent Ellis Island’s rigorous physical exam in favor of entering the country via Boston, setting a whole new family history—and her parents’ eventual meeting—in motion.

Genealogists will often continue to use their research tools on their own families later in their careers, too. Lee Arnold, who oversees the collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), has used them to research his family’s past. “One of my ancestors fought with the South Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War,” he says, and service records indicated that he’d “lost his horse.” To Arnold, who grew up on a horse farm, “That meant, I fell off my horse and he beat me back to the barn.” He later learned that the phrase actually meant that a person’s horse had been shot out from under him. These are the kinds of details that get people hooked on genealogy, according to the experts—“how their lives compare to mine, how … the things they did and didn’t do helped to form me,” Byrne says.

4. SOME OF THEM CHARGE MORE THAN $100 AN HOUR.

Genealogists in archive examining archival materials
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Genealogists are often hired by families who are curious about their past or hoping to join lineage societies such as the Colonial Dames; by specific libraries or archives; or by companies such as ancestry.com, who have genealogists on staff. Fees generally vary by experience and project, although they tend to start around $20/hour (for simple record searches) and go over $100/hour, with a mid-range of around $55 per hour.

Arnold says there are three levels of genealogical research he’ll personally take on: research limited to HSP’s holdings; research that takes him anywhere in the Philadelphia area; and “our Cadillac version, where we’ll get nana to talk to us about her life in the shtetl.”

5. THEIR RESEARCH SOMETIMES UNCOVERS FAMILY SECRETS.

Be careful what you wish for when you decide to go deep: “I always tell prospective clients, ‘This can be life-changing,'" Byrne says. "'You may find half-siblings and other relatives you never imagined existed.’”

HSP’s director of research services, David Haugaard, says that clients can be stunned to learn about family members who were deliberately kept hidden. "Within so many families there are people who are written off ... somebody might have [had] a mentally ill sibling who was kept secret. It's less common today than it was, so when people are doing genealogy, it's not uncommon to learn about people in fairly recent history [who were ignored]. You start to learn that the family was more complex than realized."

6. BIBLES CAN BE UNEXPECTEDLY USEFUL.

Genealogists use plenty of sources you might not suspect would be helpful. Family bibles, in particular, can offer a wealth of relevant tidbits, since they were once often used to record births, deaths, and marriages. Scrapbooks, tax and church records, land deeds, and the 1870 Census (the first to list African Americans after emancipation) can also be goldmines. So can letters, whether provided by the family or found in manuscript collections, which might causally mention a family member’s birthday or offer snippets about day-to-day existence. “You can gather lots of information from them in a real-life kind of way," Byrne says.

7. THEY OFTEN FIND MISTAKES IN ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS.

List of 19th century births used for genealogy
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Genealogists know it’s key to consult paper sources—and to give a critical eye to the “facts” they offer. Arnold recalls a colleague becoming confused when an ancestry site listed her grandfather as white and from North Carolina, when she knew he was black and from Louisiana. “I was able to go into the original documents and see that they had been transcribed wrong,” Arnold says—a common occurrence for sites outsourcing work to other countries. (Another common transcription error: mistaking a florid handwritten 17th century S for an F.)

That doesn’t mean paper sources are error-free, of course. Sometimes mistakes were made in the original documents themselves: Census workers may have misspelled names or miscounted children; priests may have mis-marked birth dates on baptismal certificates. Pros know how to cross-reference all that, too … with more documents!

8. THE WEIRDER YOUR LAST NAME, THE MORE THEY LIKE IT.

“I often tell people we’re like private investigators looking for dead people—we know your ancestors have to be there; you didn’t just hatch from an egg,” Arnold says. “The problem is, it’s so labor-intensive for a common name; you could spend hours looking at the wrong Smith. It’s better if you have an obscure last name.” Names like Brown, White, Jones, and Johnson are especially tough—although matters can be made easier if family members had a distinctive first name ("Napoleon Jones" will be easier than "John Jones," for example).

9. THERE'S A WHOLE FIELD THAT DEALS WITH LEGAL CASES.

Forensic genealogists—like Byrne—apply genealogical tools and principles to cases with legal ramifications. In the process, they often solve mysteries. Byrne might track down a next of kin for someone seeking the heir to a family fortune, or to repatriate the remains of a soldier killed in action. One of Byrne’s colleagues helped a woman prove that the man who kidnapped her as a girl was not her father—and was in fact a grisly serial killer. Another forensic genealogist discredited a woman who claimed she was raised by wolves and that she killed Nazis while hiding out in the woods. Sometimes, Byrne says, the tip-off comes just from talking to relatives; in the wolf case, for example, “Her first cousin was still living and he basically said, ‘Misha always had such an incredible imagination.’”

The man thought to be the Golden State Killer and East Area Rapist was also caught using forensic genealogy strategies. Police compared DNA found at the killer's crime scenes with DNA test results from an unidentified genealogy site, and found a match with a user of the site. The user wasn't the killer himself, but by going through their family tree for potential suspect who matched clues in the case, police found their man. "The techniques used to find the Golden State Killer combined solid police work with genetic genealogists’ principles," Byrne says. "This is done routinely to reunite children and birth families, to identify the remains of KIA or MIA soldiers, and increasingly to identify John Does, Jane Does, and Baby Does."

10. THEY’RE GRATEFUL TO THE MORMONS …

Person with hand on marriage records
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A good number of online records exist thanks to the efforts of Mormons. For years, they’ve been sending missionaries to HSP and other archives to scan hundreds of thousands of family histories, usually in exchange for a royalty and free access to the scans for the society’s patrons. What’s their interest? Posthumous baptisms for the family members who weren't Mormon—so they can stay together in heaven. Genealogists agree the scans are a tremendous asset to researchers, with a caveat: Not even close to everything is scanned, and mistakes are also common. “You still need to use as many different paper sources as you can,” Haugaard advises.

11. … AND THE QUAKERS.

Some things make genealogical research a snap—for example, if your ancestors were Quakers. According to Haugaard, that’s because the Quakers were always issuing certificates; when someone moved, say, to use as an introduction at the Quaker Meeting in a new town, and also when they were kicked out of the community. “Lots of [mid-18th century] Quakers got in trouble for fighting, or drinking, or marrying out of unity, then were disowned,” Haugaard says. What that means is, “Basically, they kept great records.”

12. GENEALOGY SHOWS DRIVE THEM NUTS.

Producers and participants of "Genealogy Roadshow" speaking onstage during a panel discussion in 2013
Producers and participants of Genealogy Roadshow speaking onstage during a panel discussion in 2013
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Grudgingly, Arnold admits that TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Genealogy Roadshow have “introduced people to genealogy and made it really hot—I mean, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an ancestry.com commercial.” But the shows have also given people unreasonable expectations about what genealogy can and cannot do. Byrne says, “People don’t understand that [the history] is not all laid out in front of you" as it typically is on TV. Arnold says he fields requests from patrons who ask him to “‘Tell me about my ancestors, just like that guy on TV did.’ They think it’s easy and quick.” In fact, what Arnold calls those “ta-da” moments offered by hosts like Henry Louis Gates Jr. are actually made possible by professional genealogists hired to painstakingly research ancestry over the course of days, weeks, months.

13. IT'S EASIER FOR THEM TO RESEARCH YOUR ANCESTORS IF THEY WERE RICH.

Ancestors with less money—who maybe didn’t own property or pay taxes—can be less likely to leave a paper trail. But employment agency, almshouse, prison, and orphanage records can get the research ball rolling, as can advertisements offering rewards for runaway indentured servants. Haugaard explains that charity society records also frequently provide details: Society workers would visit families and “make records indicating the woman of the household’s name, how many people were in the household, what religion they were, and what charity they received, like coal or groceries.”

14. PERSECUTED GROUPS CAN BE A MAJOR CHALLENGE.

Research files being used for genealogy
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Three groups of people looking for their roots make Arnold steel himself for some rigorous research. If the case involves African Americans, Native Americans, or Jews, “I know this is going to be a tough one,” he says. That’s because their records are often scant or nonexistent. Slaves often weren't allowed to marry (or their marriages were never recorded); Native Americans didn’t traditionally write their histories down; and Jews fleeing Europe during World War II often had all family records destroyed as synagogues and villages were torched. Sometimes, their papers were falsified in order for people to survive.

These factors make picking up someone’s trail difficult, if not impossible. “I had one woman come in to a talk I was giving and say, ‘How do I start? All my ancestors were killed in the Holocaust,’” Arnold remembers. “And I said, ‘Alright, then your ancestry starts with you. Document your life for your [descendants].”

15. THEY MIGHT ENCOURAGE YOU TO THINK TWICE ABOUT DNA TESTING.

According to Arnold, DNA test results can be sketchy. His own experience with DNA tests from seven companies yielded seven different results, some of them “bizarre”: “One said my family was from Tuscany, but I’m paler than a Presbyterian. Another said I was 5 percent African American. Another said I was Swedish—and that probably means that they found a gene from some randy Viking pillaging the Scots Irish 1000 years ago.”

Part of the problem is that DNA test kits are dependent on data from other people who have taken the tests, which means they are more accurate for some well-represented groups than others. (For example, an American with Irish background taking the test may get a more reliable result than someone whose ancestors were of Middle Eastern descent, since people from the Middle East tend be less represented in the database.) Also, different companies are working with different data sets, and using different algorithms—which can produce different results.

Haugaard also says that DNA testing may tell you some things you don’t want to know. He recounts a story about a man who connected deeply with his Irish heritage, yet DNA testing undertaken by his family showed he was Jewish, switched at birth with an Irish-American baby. “He passed away before he could learn that,” Haugaard says.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

11 Secrets of Aldi Employees

Aldi is known for its unique cost-cutting measures that allow the chain to have some of the lowest prices for groceries.
Aldi is known for its unique cost-cutting measures that allow the chain to have some of the lowest prices for groceries.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Since opening its very first store in Germany in 1961 and then coming to America in 1976, discount grocery chain Aldi has grown to over 1900 stores in 36 states. Using inventive cost-cutting measures—customers are responsible for returning their own carts and the store charges for bags unless you bring your own—the brand has become synonymous with quality at an affordable price.

Tasked with overseeing the long hours of daily operations are the company’s 25,000-plus store employees, who are typically part of a small team of 20 or fewer people per location. Aldi workers are expected to be proficient in everything from unloading pallets and stocking shelves to checking out customers at a speed that meets or exceeds standards—employees are even timed on how fast a customer pulls out their credit card.

To find out more about this challenging line of work, Mental Floss reached out to several current and former Aldi employees. Here’s what they had to say about memorizing barcode numbers, how many miles they walk during a typical shift, and why sitting down at the register is actually more efficient than standing.

1. Working at Aldi means walking. A lot.

At Aldi, employees aren’t given set roles when it comes to unloading, stocking, cleaning, or working the register. Everyone is expected to be able to do everything, which means a lot of physical effort. “Our job is considered physically demanding, because Aldi has very few employees running per shift, meaning there are more expectations placed on each of us,” Jonah, an Aldi employee in Pennsylvania, tells Mental Floss. “If you aren't ringing, you are expected to be cleaning, stocking, re-stocking, or organizing the shelves. There is no ‘down time.’”

That suits many employees just fine. “I don’t like to sit around and do nothing, and this job is the complete opposite,” Kyle, an Aldi employee in Virginia, tells Mental Floss. “I actually wear a Fitbit when I work, because I have been curious about how many steps I take. I average about 127,000 steps every [five-day] work week. I’d say an estimate is 25,400 steps a shift.”

2. Aldi employees sit down at the register for a very good reason.

An Aldi employee is pictured ringing out a customer in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
Aldi employees are expected to ring customers out as quickly as possible.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Employees can sit on stools while ringing guests up at a register, but getting a little rest isn't the sole reason for the seat. “While [resting] is true, Aldi says that cashiers sit at the register because, according to their testing, it allows us to ring up items faster,” Jonah says.

3. Aldi employees are monitored for their ringing speed.

Part of the reason Aldi can get away with as few as three to five employees in a store at any one time is because customers can be processed quickly. Aldi typically sets performance standards for employees at the checkout, who might be expected to process as many as 1200 items per hour. “We are given reports at the end of each day for our ringing statistics,” Jonah says.

And that’s not the only performance metric used to evaluate workers. “Ringing is the only part where we get an actual report, but managers will tell us that we are expected to knock out two pallets per hour, or one pallet every half hour," Jonah says.

4. Aldi employees “train” customers to move quickly.

Part of an employee’s register performance review depends on how quickly they can get a customer away from the register and toward an area where they bag their own groceries. To do this, employees encourage customers to have their payment method ready and inserted into the card reader before their items are done being scanned. “Aldi is all about efficiency, and encouraging our customers to ‘pre-insert’ their card while we are ringing allows the payment process to be near instant, rather than having our customers wait for us to finish ringing and then pull out their card and insert it,” Jonah says.

5. Aldi employees need Tetris-type skills to load carts.

Aldi shopping carts are pictured in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
There's even a science behind how an Aldi cart is loaded.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

When an employee rings up a customer, items are loaded from the cart to the conveyor belt and then back into the cart. Because heavier items need to be placed first, employees need to be strategic when placing products. “[We put] light items like eggs, bread, chips, etc. at the top of the cart and everything else on the bottom,” Sara, an Aldi employee in Indiana, tells Mental Floss. “However, it really just depends on the order that customers put their items on the belt.” (They prefer you put heavy items like bottled water first.)

For maximum efficiency, Jonah prefers customers take products out of their display boxes and avoid trying to bag their groceries while cashiers are still ringing them out. “It slows us down and causes a longer wait for everyone,” Jonah says.

6. Aldi employees memorize barcode numbers.

An Aldi shopping basket is pictured in Cardiff, United Kingdom in August 2018
Aldi employees know the barcode numbers for several products by heart.
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Ringing speed is so crucial to Aldi’s success—and an employee’s job performance—that many workers memorize barcode numbers to keep the line moving. “Items like milk and water have codes that we memorize,” Sara says. “For example, someone could be buying six gallons of milk, and instead of having the customer put all of them on the belt for us to scan one by one, we tell them to leave them in their cart and we key in the codes, making the checkout process faster.”

7. Aldi employees may or may not give you a quarter if you forget one.

Because it would take time and money to collect shopping carts, Aldi has a system where customers insert a quarter to unlock a cart from the collection area. When they return it, they get the quarter back. But not all customers remember to bring a quarter, and first-time shoppers might not even know they need one. And if they ask an Aldi employee to borrow one, they may or may not get it.

“I try not to give them a quarter because the quarters we give come out of our own registers,” Kyle says. “So if we don't get them back, we end up losing money out of our own drawer. If it's a first-time shopper, I gladly give them a quarter and explain to them why we have this system in place, and pretty much every person is very understanding on why we do it.”

If you’re short a quarter, don’t try shoving anything else in the slot. “People will try to use foreign currency that are the same size as quarters,” Kyle says. “Doesn't hurt us; it's just annoying to deal with.”

8. Aldi has a store phone, but customers shouldn’t bother calling.

Customers are pictured in front of an Aldi store in Edgewood, Maryland in December 2017
Aldi employees are too busy in the store to answer the phone.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Aldi keeps the phone numbers for individual stores unlisted, preferring that employees deal with customers already in the store. Limits are placed on when the phone can be used. “We do technically have a store phone, but this phone is strictly used for receiving calls from the warehouse, global help desk, and to our security company we use,” Kyle says.

9. Aldi’s return policy is something employees can find a little too generous.

Aldi has a unique return policy for items purchased in their stores. Under their Twice as Nice Guarantee, customers can return a product and not only get a replacement item but a refund, as well. “Our Twice as Nice Guarantee is a very good system; I'd say one of the best in grocery,” Kyle says. “That doesn't mean it's perfect, though. I have seen people abuse this system. It's happened in my own store numerous times.”

Kyle declines to explain how it’s abused, though anecdotal reports are that perfectly good items are sometimes brought back to exchange for the benefit of a new item plus the refund. Serial returners are sometimes flagged and told to ease up. (The policy is currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic but is expected to return in the future.)

10. Aldi employees are required to wear steel-toed boots.

Work boots are pictured
Aldi employees need to protect their feet from inventory mishaps.
banjongseal324/iStock via Getty Images

Check out the footwear of an Aldi employee and you’ll notice they have on steel-toed boots normally seen on construction sites or warehouse jobs. That’s because workers are expected to unload the massive inventory pallets that arrive regularly. “All associates are required to wear steel-toed boots because of the equipment we use on the job,” Kyle says. “We use pallet jacks and it is just a safety precaution.” (Aldi does reimburse workers for the boots.)

11. Aldi employees appreciate you taking the survey.

Customers are pictured inside of an Aldi store in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
Aldi employees say that receipt surveys can make a real difference in stores.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The customer surveys that appear on Aldi receipts might go ignored by many, but they serve a real purpose. Employees are expected to meet a store quota of completed surveys, and customers can actually influence the selection inside the store. “We encourage customers to fill them out if they want a certain item brought in since the surveys go straight to corporate,” Sara says.

Regardless of how they offer their input, customers can often get what they want. “One thing that may surprise people is that you have a very strong voice on what items we should carry in our stores,” Kyle says. “A prime example of this is the [L’Oven Fresh] Zero Net Carb Bread. It was an Aldi Finds [a limited-time item] and people wanted this item to be a normal item so badly, and the company listened.”