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Tips on Getting Started on Your Family Research

Updated on September 21, 2017

Please welcome a guest writer, Tina Sansone. She is an expert genealogist with a talent for writing. Enjoy her article.

Genealogy has become one of the largest hobbies in the world. But, in the last few years, more and more individuals are taking researching their family history more seriously. With the ability to do one’s DNA via mail, an explosion of wanting to learn more has occurred. Almost every day I have someone ask me as a professional researcher, what do they need to do go get started? Is it something they can do, or do they need to hire a genealogist?

Here are a few tips I share with them.


Purchase a plastic bin to put your documents in. While a box may work, for protection against potential flood or be a bit sturdier, a good bin is best. There are even long flat ones that will fit under the bed.

Family Documents

Start collecting family documents – some examples are:

  1. Birth, Marriage, Divorce & Death Certificates

  2. Awards & Promotions

  3. School Reports & Certificates

  4. Work Papers

  5. Insurance

  6. Probate, Wills, legal documents, Power of Attorney

  7. Photos

  8. Letters & Post Cards

  9. Family Bible

  10. Medical Records

  11. Paper giving family member’s contact information in case of emergency

Interview Family

Interview family members, especially those who are older or have health issues. They may be the only ones who have the answers to questions you may need, such as grandma’s maiden name. How many of us called our grandparents, “Mammaw or Pappaw” and never really knew their first name? I see it all the time, so now is the time to ask those questions while some are alive that will know. Asking for dates of important life events, nicknames, employment, information on siblings and even stories of events that happened in their lifetime. Make sure you record the name and date of the person you are interviewing. Years from now you may forget who gave you the information on that piece of paper.

Keep Asking Questions

A great idea is during the holiday gatherings, ask your family members to bring copies of documents you may not have. Update all important family events. Make copies and share with everyone. Send a request to the family a couple months ahead of the holiday gathering, so they will have the time to collect the documents.

Medical Records

Medical Records are an important part of a family history. Family members often call me wanting to know how an ancestor died, or any diseases that may be associated with our family’s medical history. Keeping a record of any illnesses and sharing it is important. As you look at family documents, make note of any illnesses and cause of death. For older records, they may be called something differently than today.

Family Reunions

Family Reunions are another great way to gather information. Sending the family some pedigrees or family groups sheets ahead of time is a great idea to get that updated information. Every yea,r we update births, marriages, divorces, deaths, etc. Reunions give you a chance to talk to cousins and update their family data. Photograph opportunities are another value of family get-togethers.


Photographs are an important part of family research. It is important to store them properly and label them with the appropriate pen. Finding out who is in the photos is one of the things you can ask during your interviews or at reunions. If a photo is damaged, taking a digital image of it, then putting it away will protect it from over use.

Digitation and Scanning

Digitation and Scanning are great ways to keep track of documents or photos if you don’t have much storage space. Taking digital pictures preserve the documents/photos and gives you the ability to share with the family and friends.

Location Backgrounds

History of the places your ancestors lived can help you in your research. For example, the Yellow Fever epidemic was responsible for many deaths as well as the migration of many people. After the civil war, the migration of many going north occurred, so those living in Mississippi, might show up later in Chicago. Major disasters may have affected your ancestors as well. They also experienced earthquakes, tornadoes, ice storms, floods, etc.


DNA is another aspect of genealogy that has really taken off in the last five years. Lots of people are sending in their kits, even those not necessary interested in genealogy. They want to discover their ethnic makeup or as will do, see what diseases they are prone to get. DNA has become to genealogists one more resource, just as important as the census, birth certificates or military records. They all play their part in documenting your ancestor’s life and their connection to you. The three companies that do DNA testing are Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andme. It is important to note, that while most DNA will help you discover cousins, there have been those times that reveal skeletons in our ancestor’s closet. You need to be prepared for whatever the tests results may disclose.

Record Sources

Recording your sources is very important. When I first started researching, which for most of us is on our own families, I did not keep track of where I found information. Now I get calls asking me how I know something to be true, and I honestly cannot always answer that question. I can’t recall where I found family information ten years ago – was it from an online database, a library book, from an interview with a relative or somewhere else. So, learn from my mistake and start off keeping track of where, when and who gave you the information. If you get information from a book, also, get the title page as well. If you interview someone, while an email is great, they can change, so also try to get an address and telephone number. Hopefully one of those will still be current years later.

Family history can be fun and something to do with all the family – children are never too young to learn about their ancestors. But, doing it correctly will ensure you have the right ancestor and not going down the wrong path. There will be times when you hit a dead end (brick walls), but do not give up. Records are always being submitted online, or new family members are submitting family bibles or DNA that might help you break thru to a new generation. Some of us due to work, disabilities or other commitments cannot do the research. Maybe for you just keeping documents and photos in a secure bin is what you can do. Later in life when more time allows you can do more. If you find you need help, there are professional genealogists that are there to assist you either by consultation or taking on the research for you. A great place to find a genealogist that might help you is the Association of Professional Genealogists.


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    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 4 months ago from Houston, Texas

      We had dinner guests here last night who were considering ordering their DNA results just for fun. Many people who do not have access to old records or family members who can fill them in on records from the past have this new ability via testing.

      It is great to have actual family photos with notations of the names. I am so happy that my mother and I did that while she was alive. Other family members with an interest in genealogy have also been able to fill in some information for me and vice versa.