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How to Research Your Genealogy

Updated on July 18, 2009

Essential Questions

When you begin researching your genealogy, it is easy to become overwhelmed with all of the details. Let's narrow down the problem to a few essential questions. These will guide you as you begin to organize your project.

1. Where do I find the information (resources)?

2. Who do I talk to (resources)?

3. How do I keep records (materials)?

4. How long will it take me to find the information (skills)?

5. How much information do I need to find (goal setting)?

Finding information

This is one of the hardest and most daunting tasks that you face as you begin your search. There are literally hundreds of people and records that have the information you need. Realistically, you will not have time to find all of them. Depending on your answer to questions 4 and 5, this could be a month-long search, or a multi-year long search. Let's just say this is a work in progress that you will begin now, and continue until you have run out of leads.

Speaking of leads, as you take on the role of genealogist, you will find that you also have to put on a few other hats.

  • You must become a news reporter. Write down everything in notebooks. Make copies, bring your camera with you, and most of all, ask lots of questions.
  • You must become a detective. There are some skeletons in your family's closet that few want to admit or remember. You may have to do a little digging. Be persistent. Keep your records under lock and key so that you don't lose them or they get damaged in any way.
  • You will become your family's official spokesperson. When relatives hear that you are working on this project, most will be more then willing to answer your questions, and some will have more information than you care to hear!

The main sources for you are living relatives. You need to physically visit them. Second, you must snoop around public records stored in newsrooms, a few online, libraries, and magazines. Finally, the family bible or church registry may include records that will benefit you.


Talk to the Living, and the Dead

Make a detailed list of who is alive, and dead. You may want a large piece of butcher paper that you can mark up with the family tree. After you have talked to the living relatives, which is the easy part, talk to the dead ones as well. Many wrote journals, diaries, had their pictures taken, wrote in local newspapers, etc. Ask amongst the living if they remember anything written by those who have passed away. Also, be aware that some neighbors or friends of the family may have as much, if not more information than those who lived with them. A good friend will hear more tales of sorrow than a spouse of forty years!

Keeping Tally

Organization will be the death or life of your project. If you know you are a messy, unorganized, unprepared person, you need an organized person to help you.

You should have an on-going rough draft of the family tree (in pencil!) that stays at home. For each branch of the family, you should have a separate small notebook. Each notebook should be thoroughly labeled so that if it is misplaced, it can be returned to you. You should have a workable digital camera that you can take pictures with, and if possible, a scanner (portable would be cool). Each notebook should be paired with a sturdy folder that can hold photos, small objects, and papers. As you search, your objective is to collect data and artifacts and ask questions. Analysis should be left for when you're alone in the car or at home.

Are We There Yet?

The length of time it will take depends on two factors: your persistence and your goals.

If you do not wear the reporter and detective's hats, it will take a long time. You have to be aggressive. Persistent. Determined. Focused.

Your Goal

You need to constantly ask yourself this question, "Why am I doing this?" If the answer is to find why your family acts the way they do, you will find out very shortly. If you are really wondering about a specific person in the past, it may be a good idea just to focus on that one individual. Make sure that you're doing this research for the right reasons.

Think of the end product. Do you want to publish a genealogical record of some sort? If so, you may want to view a few before you begin, to see what kinds of information you will need to collect. Do you want just enough information to fill in your child's family tree each year? If so, maybe you will only need to make a few phone calls.

If you are truly in this to find all of the information you can, and to create the best family tree possible, then you will have to set the timer on the kitchen table to "zero." You will finish when you finish, not one second too soon, or one second later then needed. Take your time and explore all avenues. You will be surprised at where it leads you.

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