How to Begin
What To Do First
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Knowing where to begin can be confusing and intimidating. By following a few key steps, you will begin your research in a beneficial way.
- Start with yourself, and work backwards. Record your own details first and then the details of your parents and siblings. Next, record the details of your grandparents and all their children. Continue to work back, one generation at a time, based on the facts you have already found.
- Talk to everyone around you. Gather names, places, dates, and events. Encourage your family members to tell their stories. Record what you hear (see Organizing Information) but consider what you are told to be hearsay until you can verify the information, usually through archival sources. Treat every statement as a clue to your ancestral story.
- Gather your family's documents and record the details. Marriage records, old letters and photos, birth, naturalization, citizenship, and death certificates, etc., all tell stories and frequently contain the names of ancestors, places of origin, details of immigration, and names of other relatives. Obtain copies of documents and photos, or take digital pictures of them and retain those for viewing again later. Looking at a document or photo again (even months or years later) can sometimes reveal things you overlooked or did not understand earlier.
- Choose the approach you want to use for your research. Although most people research both sides of the family, some researchers follow their paternal ancestry only, while others focus on their maternal line. Some researchers record only those people who are related by blood, plus their spouses. Others record the members of extended families and build very large family trees incorporating adopted relations, common-law or same-sex partnerships, etc. Yet other researchers choose to undertake a One-Name Study (See Choosing a Strategy).
- Join a local genealogy society. Many local societies have collections that include resources specific to where you live and may have created finding aids and indexes that can be invaluable in searching for ancestors. Society members are eager to offer guidance and encouragement to beginners, making your society a most important resource (See Learning More).
- Visit local libraries and archives. Many libraries and archives have both genealogy resources and local history collections. Get to know your librarian, who can suggest research strategies and arrange for inter-institutional lending on your behalf for many materials not held locally. Your archivist will be well versed in the history of your locality and will help you find documents that will be relevant (See Finding Information).
- Don't expect to find your complete family history on the Internet, or in the library, or through some other researcher. Finding a complete family tree is very rare, although in the course of research you may discover that others have recorded some branches of your family. Become used to the fact that your research will never be "finished"; there will always be an earlier ancestor or another cousin to find!
- Expect to discover family "secrets." All families have skeletons in the closet, and your family will not be an exception. This raises issues of privacy and confidentiality. You must recognize that particular family stories, if made public, could be embarrassing or hurtful to family members. You must use discretion and tact in deciding how and whether to make such information available to others in any form, whether in small publications produced for immediate family, or in published family histories, or on an Internet website. That such information is true is not always sufficient reason to reveal it. Consider suppressing potentially damaging information from public view.
- Don't expect someone to do your research for you. However, you may rely on librarians and archivists to help you discover resources that will be useful. The thrill of genealogy comes in discovering new facts about your ancestors, yourself.
- Give credit where credit is due. Genealogy is a highly collaborative activity, and you will share information you have and receive information from others. Give other researchers credit for any substantive information they provide. Research is work, although it is enjoyable work; and we all appreciate recognition for good work that we have done. Cite your sources, including your fellow genealogists (See Organizing Information).
- Follow the rules. Libraries, archives and research centres apply rules for the consultation of their material. Also, be careful when handling old books and original archival documents.
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