Do I really want to get involved with a genealogy project?
The very first decision when getting involved with a genealogy project can be the hardest. As depicted in the diagram it can be a balancing act where you could either end up flat on your face or be off to a good start. This decision is to actually determine if you are willing and able to expend the time, energy, and resources needed to achieve your goals. The time spent and the costs involved could potentially get out of hand but by setting your goals correctly they are much easier to keep under control.
To get ready for the first step start out slowly by doing a little crawling first. Since you are the one that sets those goals you first need to know what some of the objectives are that you could create for yourself. Do not set yourself up to fail. It is better to start off with smaller goals which you can change over time rather than to be going at full speed when you hit your first brick wall (it happens to everyone). The resulting decisions after your first setback could be that this was a stupid idea and may lead to you quitting altogether or you could end up overwhelmed by tons of data and end up burning out prematurely. To survive long term, you just have to keep everything in the correct perspective. If you decide to pursue your family history research there are two critical items (which are described below) that you should address as soon as possible. After that you can take all the time in the world to set appropriate objectives and readjust your goals as necessary.
What is genealogy? What is heritage?
Initially passed down by word of mouth the family genealogy was later depicted in the form of stylish paintings and documents. It has currently gained international interest as access to more and more on-line records has resulted in significant advances in its documentation and display capabilities. As it was in the times of an ancient king’s genealogy which showed his relationship to the gods, today’s family histories continue to be a form of storytelling to preserve the past for future generations. In today’s climate, the more accurately one can document the past the more likely it will survive through the ages. Today’s genealogy can take the form of simply collecting and preserving family information, all the way up to adding information to the "world tree".
Genealogy is the study of a family’s origins and history and is often referred to as a family history. The first known use was in the 14th century to display a pedigree of royal, aristocratic, or clerical blood lines as a means of gaining and commanding respect. Some family trees, like that of Confucius, have been found to list 80 generations dating back 2,500 years.
Also see a short article on "What is Heritage?".
What goals can be set when starting a family history?
The very first goal can be one of the easiest, one of the most rewarding, and is actually the most important. The first step is a critical step because time is running out and you may only have a short window of opportunity to complete this step. Preserving memories, documents, and photographs has to be your number one priority. All the other goals can be slowly and progressively added as you become more and more interested and confident when researching your family’s history. It is important to remember that this endeavor can take the form of a pastime, hobby, a passion, a calling, a vocation, a career, or a legacy and if kept in the correct perspective it can be quite rewarding. Once the critical steps are taken care of, you can relax and enjoy you new endeavors.
Even though the natural urge when starting a genealogy project is to jump right in and start collecting names of as many ancestors as possible, you should somewhat resist this urge. It can become very addictive and getting those names identified, collected, and organized in a website like familysearch.org or a software program (see compatible Family History Products) can start to consume much more of your time than you anticipated and this also has the disadvantage of obscuring an important issue.
An alternative approach when starting out is to initially record your ancestors back only 2 to 4 generations and then record all the descendants from each of those identified names. The next step is to identify those people who are still living and try to make contact with as many as possible. Your aim is to collect as many copies of documents/photos and record their memories while these people and objects are still available. Remember that people do not live forever, that memories are fragile and can be forgotten, and that documents and photos may get destroyed or passed on to someone else so that you may never see them again.
Searching through the online data for information back 5 to 10 generations may seem to be the appropriate goal and in and of itself may feel rewarding but what happens later when you say to yourself that I wish I had talked to my Aunt before she passed away or that I wished I sat down with my Uncle before he started losing his memory. Set your first objective to be one where you collect as much of the available information (documents, photos, and memories) while you still can. The online information is interesting and valuable but you have to remember that the same information will still be there months or years from now and there may actually be more information that is available the longer you wait. That data is not a time sensitive issue so it should have a lower priority while talking with those that may not be around later or recording information that may soon be forgotten should be the highest priority. This perishable information may actually hold the clues that make it possible to find the 10 generations in the first place. Setting the right priorities will give you the best chance at success.
Just ask questions before it’s too late (before the information is forgotten or your ancestors are no longer accessible). Who are all those people in the old photographs? What was it like when you were a kid? How did you meet your spouse? Did you have a dog when you were little? Always remember that there are no stupid questions if there are answers to those questions but you have to ask those questions before time runs out.
Preserving information and memories (questions produce answers).
Ask for permission to record this information while promising not to disclose sensitive dates to others or post such information on a public forum.
- Get others involved (siblings or aunts and uncles) by asking them to ask more questions around the family while writing it all down. Don't forget that their input and stories are important as well.
- Get the children to help by asking their grandparents even more questions and you may inadvertantly create a budding genealogist.
- Don't forget to use video recordings to capture the question and answer sessions. It is often less disruptive than taking notes and besides allowing for a smooth flowing interview it will capture a moment in time that may not be repeatable.
- Find out more than just the dry facts of where and when they lived. Find out how they lived, their lifestyle growing up, and their motivations. Make it interesting for yourself as well as for others who may eventually read your information (your storytelling). Someday one of them may be a collaborator or may pick up the torch where you left off.
As mentioned earlier this first step or goal is the most important because it is defined by a finite time limit. Access to much of the information and memories of the previous generation will be lost forever if action is not taken immediately. So if you do nothing else, at least find and record as many of these answers as possible and collect copies of all the old photos and documents. You will regret it later if you put it off too long.
If you are a member of the senior generation and you are “new to genealogy” this first step is important for you too. Simply ask yourself the questions from some of these question lists and record the information for future generations. In fact, no matter what your age, everyone should take a look at these question lists just to record your answers for posterity as those answers may leave valuable clues for future family historians.
A suggested list of questions to ask can be found in an article about the interview process (Appendix B) which will get you started in capturing the answers which are important to understanding the lives that your ancestors lived. Remember, the question why is just as important as the questions who, what, when, and where.
Collecting/storing documents and photos for the future.
Digitizing, labeling, and restoring old photographs (using free programs or free online services) and copying documents is the next step to take. Again, labeling the photographs will be easier if you can ask someone that knows the people in the photographs so ask the questions before it is too late. Preserving original photos and documents is also a concern you could share with your relatives and friends.
Storing results in multiple places in case of a disaster is also a good idea as unexpected things do happen and this includes backing up your computer files. Better to be safe than sorry.
For those with the most life experience who are “new to genealogy", the task of preserving your family documents and photos may be a bigger job than you feel you want tackle by yourself. The solution is to simply ask if there is someone in your family from a younger generation that would be interested in helping you to get organized by entering the information and photos into the computer. This interaction could potentially spark an interest in your helper(s) and they may want to pursue some of the following steps that you have no interest in. Make it a win-win situation where the family comes out ahead in the end. Over time, you could ask your helpers if they would like to be promoted to the status of “partners” so you could continue the research and the adventure together.
Build a small network of family and distant cousins to collaborate with.
Discuss your interest in genealogy with your family and build a small network of collaborators within your extended family. This will also help you to weather any rough patches that you encounter as the unavoidable setbacks will not seem so severe if you can discuss them with others. And who knows, a collaborative effort from many individuals may solve the problems you have encountered.
Start making contacts outside your direct family (your “cousins” from distant relatives) but be ready for the occasional dispute as information based on low quality sources could lead to different conclusions. In some instances it may be better to back away from your conclusions (even though you may be right) rather than alienating a fellow researcher.
And finally, ignore the naysayers as they will never have any interest in researching your family’s history or their own for that matter (that is their loss not yours) but remember that they should still be considered good sources of information.
Organizing what you have already collected.
Too much data can quickly become overwhelming so at some point a better filing system will become necessary. The best approach is to document and organize as you are collecting the data because chances are you will get behind and never catch up, so document as you go.
Data recording in the form of computer spreadsheets, genealogy software for recording your lineage, and access to the FamilySearch Family Tree software which involves the "world tree" are all options you can evaluate. Since there is a possibility that someday you may want to use the Family Tree software there are a number of suggested Partner products that have been certified so that they are compatible with the FamilySearch products; many have free versions that can be evaluated.
Try a small project first to build some confidence.
The time has now come that you have to interpret the data you collected in order to get the story right. No matter how good your sources are you should still be aware of some rookie mistakes that can be made. Once you are confident in your facts, you can start the storytelling. Pick a single person (your favorite person) and tell a story about their life. You don't have to write a biography, just remember that this is about storytelling. The following are some suggestions.
- Start out with Once upon a time and tell where they were born, what it was like for them growing up, how they met their spouse, how their family started to grow, and how they spent their golden years. If your subject asks the question: "Are you making a book out of me?", your answer could be: Yes, someday. Hopefully you can end your story with happily ever after.
- Give some background about where they were born and raised, especially if it was in a foreign country and that type of information may be new to the people reading your story. Also remember that overcoming hardships in their life can become an important part of your storyline.
- Build a family tree display for your ancestor and include it as a part of your story. Several types of displays are currently available which include the standard pedigree chart, fan charts, portrait charts, descendants charts, and so on. If using a descendancy chart be more cautious about the information you include about living people.
- Add a "Credits" page for attribution when using free photographs taken from the Internet. This is also a good place to acknowledge the assistance of others (for their time, resources such as photos and documents, and any financial assistance) that helped you achieve this goal.
- Write a final chapter called "Research Summary: Chronology" describing your own adventures involved with the discovery of the information on which you based your story. It could be useful for others if they take an interest in genealogy and would also serve as a useful means of recording your source information.
- And finally, dedicate the story to all the loved ones that have passed before us by either creating a collage or a portrait page. Now you would have a short story worth telling and sharing with others.
Continue the storytelling by starting a webpage.
Create a webpage or blog so family members can access it to see your progress. Ask others to contribute more photos and documents as well as assistance if they are willing to do so. A simple blog describing your genealogical interests and family history experiences can also aid others and requires no special web skills.
Sharing your knowledge on a website, blog, or through a cite like this Research Wiki is not only helpful to others but can also be rewarding to yourself when others start sharing their knowledge with you.
- When collaborating with others be sure to give credit where credit is due. Don't leave the impression that this is MY website. You created it for the family so enthusiastically share it with others.
- Add search keywords for your website if you want the general public to see the pages or you may just want to "keep it in the family" by only giving the web address to family members. Either way, a website is in the public domain so be careful what is posted on those pages and remember that you should have permission to post pictures or documents related to living individuals.
- If you prefer you could create a limited access website just for your family. This may remove some of the concern by family members who do not want their infomation left open to the public. To be safe, you would still have to closely monitor the activities of the people you give the password to.
Re-evaluate your current objectives and think about long term planning.
Do you find genealogy interesting and enjoyable? Do you think it is worth pursuing in greater detail? Would you consider making a career choice related to genealogy?
- Set your goals a little higher if desired, take a break and reflect on what you have accomplished, or you may want to jump right into another story about another one of your relatives.
- Give yourself the necessary time to re-evaluate and reflect on your interests. If you've already collected the "perishable" data then it is safe for now to just sit back and think it through. The other information about your ancestors that is out there in the world somewhere will still be there later and in all likelyhood it will just continue to grow as more information becomes accessible.
- Use some of the down time to do some long term planning about where you want this to go next. As mentioned earlier there are several levels that you could direct your goals toward ( a hobby, a passion, a vocation, a career, or a legacy). Find your level of interest and pick some objectives but like any of the goals you set for yourself, there is no harm in readjusting them up, down, or changing direction at anytime.
How do I keep myself (and others) from burning out?
When you hit the inevitable brick wall, take a step back to double check your research or redirect your goals to other family lines. That wall may never go away but as new information becomes available on-line that wall could just as easily disappear. When searching other family lines of your "cousins" (not in your direct lineage) clues have been known to appear which would take you around or over that brick wall. One thing to keep in mind is that your goal of documenting your family history will actually and ultimately be a great benefit for future generations (your kid's kids) so don't get discouraged by a little brick wall.
Always remember that you are never really alone in this endeavor as there are forums which may do volunteer work to help you get over a hurdle or there may be local historians who could help for little or no cost to you. You can always rely on the expertise and experience of others who have faced the same issues and who were willing to document their knowledge in a Research Wiki like this one.
Searching for more (what information is missing?).
You can utilize this Research Wiki for finding additional information to assist you in the learning process but its primary function is to identify the location of records and to provide the knowledge base on how to access and use those records. State and county information is available for the United States as well as many other countries. Please note that It is not required to have an active account with FamilySearch to browse this wiki but you must be signed in inorder to create or edit any of the articles.
You can also access the LDS records collections without an LDS account inorder to search the records that are currently on-line and anyone has full access to the LDS local history centers that can give you assistance and access to records that are currently not available on-line (note that there is a shipping fee for requested materials).
While the Research Wiki's objective is to provide location information for resources, the Family Tree software is designed for searching and recording information about the people in your ancestry. A free account can be easily established which will give you access to both the Family Tree features and the Research Wiki editing options.
- To start, search the on-line data to find more source information for the ancestors you have already identified as you may find clues to other relatives.
- Also remember to watch the census data for groupings, such as neighbors who were often related to each other when travel was more restricted than it is today.
- Play with various Family Tree features and the partner programs (like Puzzilla) to see the various types of displays for the information you have collected. It may trigger an idea or offer you clues that are not obvious.
- In addtition to searching the Internet for free, there are also numerous fee ($) based services that can also be used to find information and other researchers investigating the same ancestors.
If your answer is, Yes I want to become a family historian.
If you are interested in proceeding or are still curious about what is next, then there are several articles at this site that will walk you through the process. This FamilySearch Research Wiki will guide you through all the steps to assist you in achieving your goals.
A thorough listing of several Research Wiki articles can also be found in the article titled Principles of Family History Research (see box below).
When you are successful in acheiving your step by step set of goals, be sure to aim a little higher with your next objectives. Crawl, walk, run; it is easy when accomplished in the correct order. You never know, someday one of those goals could be to write articles in this FamilySearch Research Wiki that would be useful to others.