As I write this, I've been a user of this site for about a year. This is what I've learned in that time.
The question-and-answer format on Stack Exchange has been a huge help to me in my research. Thinking about how to write a question that would be appropriate here -- a tightly-focused, answerable question -- makes me think about my research in a different way.
If you post a question here, people ask you to post a timeline of events for someone's life and a checklist of sources that you've found already. Here is why it's important to show research effort -- that is, the work you've already done:
- it helps you clarify your problem
- we can review what you've done, instead of just asking "have you seen this?" and getting responses of "yes, I already have that"
- it makes it easier for you, and for us, to spot gaps, like a missing census record, that could be the genesis of another question
When we are new to doing research, it's easy to say "I want to know everything about my grandfather!" because you may start knowing very little.
After we've been at it a while, we may still have the same feeling of wanting to know everything, but in the meantime, we've learned a few things, so our questions become more precise, like "How can I find out when my grandfather married?"
Later on, our questions may become even more precise, like "How can I find a copy of my grandfather's probate records?"
The more I can pinpoint exactly what I am looking for, the easier it is to find something that will answer my question. With experience, it is easier to spot information in a record and realize it is a prompt to ask other questions which will lead to other records. One good example of this is, in the US Census, sometimes there are questions about whether someone is a veteran. If the answer is YES then that's a pointer to military records somewhere. See the US National Archives (NARA) for some guides:
So -- now you have a precise question, but you don't know how to answer it. That's what Genealogy & Family History Stack Exchange is for.
No one person can keep up with everything, but if you post a question here, other people can tell you about websites you don't know about or records that you didn't know about. Sometimes you did know about the sites already, but you had forgotten to check there. Sometimes you had checked there, but the website has been updated since then, and you didn't remember to go back and check. It really helps to have someone look over what you've done so far with a fresh eye. That's why peer review is so great.
The other thing about G&FH.SE that has been a huge help to me is trying to answer questions that other people have. It's good for learning how to be more objective about research -- when you are investigating someone who is not in your family, you may not have the same eagerness to find something that fits, no matter what. It's a great skill-building exercise.
If you don't know how to make a checklist of sources, here's a video from Crista Cowen of Ancestry.com that shows how she designed one, and what it can do to help your research.
Think of these things -- the timelines, the source checklists -- not as 'homework' that you have to do because someone said so, but as powerful keys that can unlock the locked doors blocking your path to the information you want. Instead of chasing a bright shiny object and dashing off until you are stopped by a dead end, you are taking control, and making a Research Plan. Gathering your information, forming precise questions -- these are things that professional genealogists do. You can learn to do these things, too.
The really cool thing about Stack Exchange is that you can find the keys to unlock your own locked doors, AND you can discover you have the keys that unlock the door for other people.
So -- welcome! Have fun exploring the site, and if you have a question about how the site works, and you can't find an answer in the help sections, ask a question here on Meta.
Stack Exchange is different, and it takes a little getting used to, but it is worth it!