Genealogy for Beginners: Where to Start


So you think you want to research your family history? Great, but where to start?  Genealogy is nothing new. In fact, I would bet that people have been tracking and tracing their lineages since the beginning of our awareness and ability to do so.  Even in the darkest of our times, family has been the most important bond humans can have.  Unfortunately, before writing became a nearly universal skill, family records keeping was not a very high priority (Look for upcoming articles discussing [hopefully] the early history of genealogy, using DNA to determine geographical origins, etc.). Today, genealogy is an increasingly booming industry and there are more available resources than most people can count; it can be overwhelming.  My advice (pretty much in everything) is step back, take a breath and get back to basics.

It has been my experience that there is no library or database quite as amazing and fun to utilize as your family; so I think the best and most logical place to get started with researching your genealogy is by talking to the family* you have around you today- your parents, their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so forth- anyone who might know who came before.

I recommend taking a voice recorder (make sure you have plenty of memory/tapes); no matter how meticulous you are at note taking, details always get missed.   Talk with them about what they know; even if they only know bits and pieces, it gives you precious insight and crumbs to follow (and it’s a wonderful excuse to spend some time with your loved ones)!  Ask open ended questions- you know, the kind that lead to long answers.  You can get a good baseline by asking simple ‘yes/no’ questions, but the stories are going to pour out when you ask them things like, ‘What can you tell me about…..?’  Once you get them talking, more questions will come up naturally.  It’s best to write these questions down and save them for when the story is over so that the train of thought isn’t lost – it may be that the questions will answer themselves by listening all the way through.  It might also be the case that the questions will lead to more stories.

You may also want to take a digital camera with you. Digital cameras today are very easy to use, can be pretty inexpensive and still provide a decent quality picture which can be previewed and checked for clarity before you leave. If you don’t have a digital camera that’s not your phone- don’t worry!  Phone cameras are increasingly high quality, and since most phones these days have a built-in camera, you don’t have to spend extra money (just be mindful of your memory and data usage).  Whatever tech you prefer, you can use this to get images of old photographs, documentation, letters, etc…obviously a scanner would be best, but who can fit that in their knapsack?  The point here is to get reference materials and an image of existing documentation will give you a good way to get familiar with what some documents look like, where the pertinent data is, etc.

It might seem a little awkward for you to ‘interview’ your family like this- with equipment and all- but believe me, if they’re anything like my family, they will love to see you and enjoy imparting their memories onto you. Give them some advance notice of your agenda and plan a Saturday afternoon one on one. This will give them time to find any documents and pictures they might have, and it will get them thinking about the topic, helping them to remember things.

Things you want to find out about as many ancestors as you possibly can include: names, dates, siblings, parents, spouse(s), children, geography/ locations, occupations, military service, schools, illnesses/ medical history, nicknames, when they died and what from, and so on. The more info you can get, the easier it will be to locate the right records and piece the past together!

Creating a family tree really only requires the hard data: names, dates, nature of the relationships, etc- but it’s the peripheral data- like occupation, for example, that really make this journey fascinating.

Next:  Now that you have the preliminary information, what do you do with it? I’ll talk a bit about that in the next post.


*If you find yourself without a lot of living family to call upon, it’s still possible to get the preliminary info you need from the documentation they left behind.  Someone in your remaining family will likely have some of these through inheritance. Everyone has a paper trail- this blog is here to help you find them.

This post was originally written [by me] back in 2009 when we first started this blogging journey. It has been updated, added to and republished here.

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