The easy way to get started on your family history research guide



Rough Draft -- needs lots of polishing

Following are some rough ideas I hope to collect into a presentation to help people who may feel overwhelmed by starting out in their family history work. Someday, perhaps, I'll build a tool that follows this model of research.

The Problem

Traditionally when people are starting out in their family history work, they are handed either a 4-generation pedigree chart, or a blank family group record, and asked to fill in as much information as they know. While fun for some, this for many may bring feelings akin to looking at 10 pages of a blank college application form. Fear sets in, the page gets taken home and set aside.

A different approach

An approach I'd suggest is to start by finding a single document related to your family history. Perhaps it's a birth certificate, maybe it is your birth certificate. Take a look at the birth certificate. What information does it tell you? Open up Personal Ancestry File (PAF) or whatever genealogical record manager you want to use (would beginners even have these?), or grab that empty pedigree or family group sheet that's been lying around. Write the name of the person from the birth certificate in an appropriate spot. Write the birth date. Yes, start with what you know, in this case with a birth certificate, what you can document or as we genealogist like to say, what you can "prove".

Talk with the family, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Is there a family historian or genealogist? Talk with the people who know and care about the family history. Get people to talk about themselves. For most people, our lives is one of the favorite topics of conversation. There may be a trunk full of family history, letters, documents and pictures, that will be carried to the dump, because no one wants the information. Ask. Tell the family members that you are interested in the family history and you would like to have documents and pictures.

Write down or record the oral history you can get from others. Begin to collect documents that help you add to the information you started with the birth certificate. Get your parents or grandparents death certificates. It is incredible what you may find.

Documents are so valuable, because they may have the facts you need. They may prove that the oral history is true or false. Remember the oral history or "family traditions" may not be exactly true or factual, but even if they contain errors, they may lead you to look and find the truth. Sometime the family tradition may be a clue of where to look to find the information you seek.

To be a good genealogist or family historian, you must be a good detective. Look, seek and listen every where you go. Ask question and ask for help, most people rise to the occasion when you ask "Could you please help me?"

The model

  • Source-centric. Work from source documents. What do you have in your hand? What pieces of information does it provide?
  • One person at a time.
  • Follow the basic research model
    • Choose a person in your lines.
    • Decide what piece of information you want to know about them
    • Find out which record would document that information
    • Obtain the record
    • Search the record
    • Record what information you found in the document
    • Decide what you want to find out next.

More ideas

I imagine a piece of software that starts out by asking a single question. What kind of document do you have in your hand? (providing a list of choices). It would then walk you through recording the information provided in the document.