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Genealogy - a popular pastime - but how do I start?

Updated on July 15, 2013

What is Genealogy?

Genealogy is the study of the history of a person's family, the collection of names and dates of people who are our ancestors. Parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to way back. If we want Family History we add where they lived, how they lived and the events that went on around them. All scraps of information are of interest.

Is it difficult

No, but you need patience and perseverance. A word of warning - it can get addictive!!

Is it expensive?

It can be, but it is up to you. There are many quite expensive databases online and there are a very large number of free resources. Join a local Genealogical Society or see if your local library has any online access to the main databases which will reduce the cost .

Birth and Marriage certificates are necessary at times and this expense can mount up over the years, but it is now and again and does not mean any large expense upfront.

How does one start?

How does one start? With yourself!!

Get a piece of paper, or a new page on the word processor. Write down your own name, date of birth and where that was. Any other information you may have about yourself. You are an important part of your research. If you have children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren, put them in too. They will like this!

Add your siblings and your parents. You probably know some things about your grandparents, add those. Great grandparents are often more difficult.

You are on your way!

Get more information from your own resources

Do you have any older relatives still living? Talk to them, they will probably enjoy telling you! Although sometimes you will meet with - "why do you want to know all about dead people" or some such remark which can be a bit off putting. It can mean that they do not want you to know.

The one thing that most family historians regret is that they did not talk to their parents, aunts and uncles before it was too late.

Photos and other media

Collect together all your old photos. On the back, lightly, with a very soft pencil, write all the names of the people in the photo. Dates too if possible. You know, but your descendants will not!

Get the older members of the family to show you their photos. They could have some lovely old ones. Ask if you can make a copy of some of them. Take great care of the those photos, they are precious. Make sure they tell you who the people are and make a note of it on your copy!

Is there any other media, like slides, videos, movies etc?

Are there any old scrapbooks, newspaper clippings etc?

It is all family history.

Family Archive

Start a family archive. Make a collection of all family documents, Birth and Marriage Certificates, all sorts of other Certificates, old documents, precious old family documents like apprenticeship indentures, Freedom of the City certificates, Deeds, etc. Make sure you keep all this precious material in acid free containers, This last is essential to make sure they do not deteriorate.

Include photos, slides, videos, tapes, movies. Keep all digital material updated, but keep the original.

Local Record Office

If you are living in the area your family has lived for a very long time, you are lucky. The local Records Office will be a great resource. This is very DIY!!! If you do not know where it is, look it up on the net or check the phone book. These Record Offices have records going back centuries, check what they have. You may need a reader's ticket, if so, get one. When in the Records Office or any Archive, write with a pencil, not a pen and use white gloves if you handle documents.

Be prepared

Now do not be misled by the television programmes like "Who do you Think You Are?" The programme organisers have researchers that do the work. In your case you are the researcher!

Do not be misled by advertisements from the large database companies, they make it look so simple, make it look as though you only need to type in your name and all is revealed. Not so, family history is a jigsaw puzzle.

Be prepared for some difficulties, brick walls (when it seems you cannot get any further) and family stories that are only partly correct or not correct at all. You may destroy a much loved family myth, or you may delightfully confirm it. You may uncover a family secret your ancestors carefully covered up. You may not even want to know, but it is all the history of your family, the good and the bad.

Be careful and kind to other family members, especially the older ones. You may be uncovering something embarrassing to them. What is now perhaps not a scandal was, when it happened, something that had to be carefully covered up. Consider whether or not to tell them some things they may not know, it could be hurtful for reasons for which you have no idea. Wait until you know a little more.

Could of course be juicy gossip!!! But gossip can be hurtful to others.

Write it down!!

As you proceed write down the information you find, the date you found it and where you found it. Add any references and other information. You do not want to go back again and waste your time. A notebook is useful. Sometimes it is necessary to go back to confirm something though.

Remember there are a lot of people with the same name and often a date of birth in much the same time frame and in roughly the same area! It can take a lot of sorting out!

Be very careful you are not barking up the wrong tree. Use everything as a clue to start with, confirm everything. Even if that information is given to you by others, or you found it on the net. Particularly if you found it on the net!! Take care when looking at on line family trees. The person who complied it is human and we all make errors, check it!

Get as many confirmations of each fact as you can.

Your own database

Pieces of paper or pages on a word processor are all very well. They are great to start with, but there will come a time when you need to organise your information.

At this stage you will need a database. It can be manual or computerised.

1 Manual

(a) A card system . One card for each person, kept in family groups. Shoe boxes are useful.

(b) Family Group Sheets, where each family is recorded.

(c) Family Tree Charts to show more relationships.

(d) Notebook for any jottings, information you find, but cannot place.

A manual system like this is very successful and this was the norm before computers anyway. Needs a good filing system, kept up at all times, so information is available when it is wanted.

2 Computerised

A computer database. This needs a good backup for when problems occur, which they always do. A Doomsday copy kept in another location is useful as well in case of fire or other disaster.

There are many good family database programs available and it comes down to personal choice and cost.

Free Ones (download)

My Heritage have a free one Family Tree Builder that can be downloaded. Good.

Legacy Standard Quite a good one. Has most features

Gramps No end notes etc, but otherwise handy.

ScionPC Neat look and plenty of information can be placed. Portable! Can create a web site. Will run on Linnux.

There are plenty more!!

Paid Ones

Roots Magic basic but good. Beginners like it.

Ancestral Quest. Another of the simpler ones.

Family Tree Maker is one of the top ones. Associated with Can be used alone.

Legacy can directly search and some other sites. A powerful program but perhaps not as visually pleasing as some others.

Family Historian is great for photos, so if you have a lot....!!!! The program is not really for computer beginners. However it is a very viable program for those that are more advanced.

The Master Genealogist is exactly that!!! A career genealogists program or for those that have been researching for a long time and understand the jargon.

Doro Family Tree for those with Jewish origins.

Gen Box Family History not so good as many others but does have a great feature its freehand drawing tool is very handy for making those last-minute notes.

Win Family more expensive than the others and less handy.

Famtree Very inexpensive but a more manual system than most others. Takes longer to do things.

Of course there are others.

Enjoy your new hobby

One works by oneself in this hobby. Fine, no problems with that of course. It is a good idea to join a local Family History/Genealogical Society. There are many very helpful experienced people who can help you and later in your turn you can help others.

These societies have a lot of resources, how to books, online data bases, CD's/DVD's, and even microfiche.

Enjoy your new hobby, have fun. Remember it can get addictive!!!!!


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    • maryspatch profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Australia

      Good idea, thanks.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 

      5 years ago from United States

      Great guide for what to do. I'd love it if you put links to those resources you mention. That would make people come back to your hub for that information later. It has made some of my Hubs get many views.


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