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If you are just getting started on family history research, this page will give you a few ideas about where to begin. This can be an exciting adventure and the beginning of a rewarding lifetime hobby or profession. Those of us who have been involved in genealogy research for years welcome you to our community.
Before You Begin
This page has a few things to keep in mind before you get started. A little care in the beginning will pay big dividents later on.
You may want to watch the tutorial, "Ancestors Season 1: Getting Started" at FamilySearch Learning Center.
Don't Get Overwhelmed
Our first advice to you is to avoid getting discouraged as you first get started. Some beginners get overwhelmed by the large body of knowledge experience researchers seem to have and wonder if they can make any significant contributions. Others get intimidated by having a lot of information they have gathered from others which they don't know how to organize or process. Some are challenged by what they see as a vast amount of available information, but one which is difficult to filter in order to find what they are looking for. Some avoid getting started because they are concerned that records in their case will be impossible to find.
These pages (and indeed this entire wiki) has some advice on how you can get started and overcome these perceived obstacles. Each of us that are experienced researchers started out in the same position you are starting now. Using the techniques outlined here, you can make a good start on your family history with the background you have right now.
Ask for Help
There is an active community of people all over the world with a passion for family history. You'll find us affiliated with libraries, historical societies, user's groups, or part of discussion groups and forums on the internet. Many of us are anxious to help others get started and join us in our passion. You become our collaborators in unlocking, organizing, and connecting information about families. We like to help you do your work efficiently and accurately so that the records you share will not spread errors that we then need to correct.
Don't hesititate to ask us for help as you're getting started. Some good places to ask are online discussion boards and forums, classes at your local libraries, historical societies, community centers, or colleges. There is usually a local history center near you with volunteers available to help you get started. You can located these at Find a Family History Center.
Set Specific Goals
It will help you focus on your family history if you set some specific goals about what you are trying to accomplish. It could be a mixture of several things. Writing these down will give you a perspective and give you guidance on where to concentrate. Here are some things you might want to consider:
- learning more about your heritage
- discovering family traditions
- memorializing contributions made by those who went before you
- finding out what connections you have to various historical events
- documenting your family's contributions
- preserving your family's history for future generations
After your initial search, you may find yourself drawn to a particular family group, geographical region, or historical period. Focusing your work this way helps you become familiar with records available in this area and become more productive as your research progresses.
Start with What You Know
To begin your family history, its best to start with what you know and work backwards from there.
Begin with your immediate family. What information can you find about significant events in your family and your parents family:
- significant life events
- military service
- where people have lived
- professional accomplishments
- newspaper articles
- marriage announcements
- important accomplishments
- personal letters of historical significance
- immigration records
- family bibles
Contact living relatives asking them for information they are willing to share. Even though people's memories may be unreliable, these stories give clues about where to start looking. Family traditions may be the needle in the haystack which helps you locate records you may otherwise be unable to find. Be sure to ask them about specifics including places and dates where things occured.
It is particularly valuable to contact living relatives as soon as you can. If you put it off, memories may fade, photographs may disappear, or people may pass on without giving you a chance to learn their story. There are some good tips at Creating Oral Histories and Oral Personal History with ideas about how to effectively interview and record other people's stories.
Ask about names of people in your family. Was someone named after a particular relative? Why? Are certain names traditional in your family? (If so, they can give you clues to which names to look for later.) Is there a tradition about how people are named in your family (naming a child after a parent or grandparent, for instance).
Keep Good Notes
As you find information, be sure to take good notes about what you have found. The Document AS YOU GO! article has some good suggestions for how to do this. Experienced researches find it helpful to keep research logs which record:
- what records you searched
- what information you were looking for
- where the records were found
- when you were doing the search
- what information you located (or didn't locate)
Recording this same kind of information when you're just starting out will pay big dividends later in avoiding repeated effort, sorting our questions, and explaining your conclusions to others.
As you think of ideas of other places to look or things to do, write them down in a To Do list. Then, when you put down your project and pick it up later, you'll have the benefit of your previous thinking to get you started again.
Organize Your Information
Genealogy work is a lot like putting together a giant jig saw puzzle. As you're getting started, you will be looking at bits of pieces of information you will be putting together over time. It's helpful to gather the information together in ways that will aid you in refining and improving your information as you find additional puzzle pieces.
Develop some kind of filing system which will grow with you as your research expands. When you first get started simple box, notebook, or portable filing cabinet will probably be sufficient. Later these may expanded to larger filing systems or collections of notebooks. The Organizing Your Files is a good article about a system for organizing your files. Although that system may be more involved than what you need when you first get started, its good to keep in mind where you may eventually be headed.
Computer programs can be helpful in organizing the information you have found, locating previous notes, and documenting how you determined the places and dates you have decided upon. It is helpful to make connections between your paper files and computer files so that you can connect these two records. The PAF and Other Genealogy Software page discusses the free Personal Ancestral File (PAF) program and has links to free and commerical programs that run on Windows and MacIntosh operating systems. Find a program that suites you and use it to start recording and organizing the information you have found. As you record information in the computer program, reference your paper files in a way that will let you locate this information later.
Rules of the Road
As you begin your family history research, it is important to keep in mind proper etiquette, ethical behavior and legal issues. There is a good article at Family_History_Etiquette,_Ethics,_Legalities. Summarizing some of those principles:
- be polite and respectful when working with others
- be prepared when asking others for assistance
- thank people for their help
- be careful when handling records of historical significance
- respect other peoples privacy, being especially careful with information about living people
- report your findings honestly
- be sure to appropriately credit the work of others (avoid plagiarism)
- don't infringe on others' copyrights