Basics of Genealogy – Getting started

About 20 years ago, I first took an interest in where my family came from and decided to do some “family research.”  At the time, I honestly didn’t even know it was called genealogy!  I just wanted to find out about my family history.  I started where everyone probably starts (or where everyone should start) – by asking my parents about their parents and grand parents.  Over the past two decades, that initial curiosity has turned into a full-blown passion (okay, maybe obsession) for tracing my family history and for genealogy in general.  I never would have believed back then that I would become an evangelist of sorts for genealogy, but here I am.

Along the way, I have made a great number of mistakes in my research – especially when I was starting out.  Some of those mistakes, like not getting enough information from relatives while they were will alive, may turn out to be critical.  Others, like not documenting or organizing my research correctly, were avoidable yet very correctable.  The purpose of this series of articles is to help others avoid the mistakes that I have made along the way as well as share some of the knowledge I’ve gained as far as tools, tips and tricks.

So for this first “installment,” let’s talk about just getting started and some of the mistakes that I made when I first started out.  Sometimes that can seem like the easiest or the most intimidating part.  Where on earth do you get started?!  The answer is simple…

1)  Talk to your living resources.  Notice that I didn’t say just living family.  You should talk to not just your parents, but also your aunts, uncles, grandparents (if you are lucky enough to have living grandparents), cousins, great aunts and uncles, even “distant” cousins.  Ask them for facts…the who, what, when and where.  Also ask them for stories!  Stories can sometimes provide more information than we realize.  You may glean a nugget that means very little now, but down the road, it could be the key that blasts through a brick wall.  Don’t stop with your living family though.  Inevitably, in those stories, you will hear friends and neighbors mentioned.  When you do, go talk to them too.  Often times, friends and neighbors who have known your family for a while will remember details that your own family has forgotten.

2) Take notes.  I can’t stress this enough.  Take notes on everything, not just what you think is important at the time.  Even better, if you can, record the conversations with your phone or other digital recorder and then transcribe the conversation later.  Taking notes will save you later from trying to think back through your conversations to pull out that one detail that you remember hearing, but just can’t quite recall.  If you don’t conduct your interviews or conversations in person, be sure to save the letters and emails in a hard copy form for review over and over.  Going hand in hand with taking notes is…

3) Document, document, document.  Did I mention that your should document your sources?  Make sure you write down the who, when and where for any sources, especially those oral interviews and letters.  Later on, you may be able to connect some dots just by knowing who said what.  I strongly suggest using a standard form of documentation for everything even if you never plan to do anything “formal” with your research.  The more standardized you keep things, the easier it will be for you to sort things out down the road when you have REAMS of notes.  I found this article on Genealogy.com to be incredibly helpful as it combines both the Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA guides on documentation.  I know it seems very “formal,” but it is very worth it in the end to start off this way.

4) Try to stay organized.  This is actually the subject of my next post in this series, but I wanted to touch on it briefly here.  Even if you don’t follow a detailed organization system like what I will talk about in the next post in the series, I strongly suggest you keep your notes and sources organized by family name early on.  I have been learning this the hard way as I am still going back through stacks of my early research to organize it and finding information that I found early on, but didn’t know I had because I didn’t have it organized.  I have smacked myself in the head several times as I realized I had a clue or key piece of information for years, but never used it because I didn’t organize.

I hope this post helps you if you are just getting started in your family history research.  It is one of the most rewarding “hobbies” that I have taken up and being able to pass all of this on to future generations is something that I hope those future generations will enjoy.

Let me know what you might like to see as I go along on these “how-to” posts!

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