Saturday, April 30, 2011

Let's Start at the Very Beginning (A Very Good Place to Start)

Today I drove to a library in Albany to speak to the Capital District Genealogical Society about “Writing A Page-Turning (But True) Family History.” I have only been to Albany one other time – that was in October to do an interview with Joe Donahue on the Roundtable (a show on Northeast Public Radio) about my book and about genealogy in general. But as I was looking at my schedule this week (trying to get myself organized), I realized that I am speaking at that exact same library in Albany next week – giving the exact same lecture – but to a different group. Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?

Like everyone else, I get lots of email. I mean to answer all of them. Really I do. But it doesn’t always happen. There’s just only so many hours in the day. I get lots of email from people who ask me questions about their specific genealogy research problems. Some of them are complex problems, but many of them are questions from people who are just starting to do genealogy research and don’t know where to turn or what to do first. So, since I don’t get around to answering all these emails individually, I thought I would address some of these basic beginning steps all at once here.

What should you do when you first begin tracing your family? Here are ten do’s and don’ts to help you get started.

1) DO start with yourself and your own family. You are the first person on your family tree. Make sure you have the relevant documents for yourself and your own family. Then move back to your parents and grandparents. You would be surprised at how many people do not know basic information about their parents or grandparents. Many people don’t know their parents’ marriage date – or even the maiden names of grandmothers. Track down this information first.

2) DON’T get ahead of yourself. Don’t try to start your research with some famous ancestor in the 1800s. You will want to work your way back one generation at a time – ensuring that the connections are correct and you actually are related to this person in the first place.

3) DON’T try to tackle your entire family tree at once. Besides being overwhelming and discouraging, this is also impossible. You will want to eventually choose one family line to focus on.

4) DO educate yourself. Check out books from the library about how to get started in genealogy research. Find a book about how to do research in the particular place your family lived. Join a genealogy society and learn from their classes – and from talking to people there who may be more experienced.

5) DON’T miss the resources on Under the “learn” tab, check out the different Wiki pages to get oriented on a wide variety of topics. For example, type in “German Research” to get a detailed guide on researching German ancestors. You can also find guides for each of the 50 states and most Western European countries – as well as other places too.

6) DO develop a system to organize your research results. For one thing, you will need a computer software program. You can download PAF from There are many other options you can purchase. These allow you to enter information about your family and also list the sources.

7) DO contact family members. Express your interest in gathering information about the family. Find out what others might have or might know that can be useful to you.

8) DON’T swallow online family trees whole – or lineage society records – or really any other record for that matter. Online family trees are riddled with errors from minor inaccuracies to completely incorrect people listed on your tree. You will want to do as I suggested and start with yourself and move back one family at a time, verifying what you find – even if you find a large family tree online.

9) DON’T miss opportunities to interview family members. Documents will be there (okay, not always – but generally), but family members won’t. Get their memories and experience recorded before they slip away.

10) DO take advantage of online sources, but DON’T expect to do all your genealogy research online – or assume that all needed records are online.

By the way, my daughter got a Sound of Music CD for Christmas and lately I often have Doe a Deer in my head - can you tell? The other song I have in my head a lot lately is Here Comes the Sun because my son got a Beatles CD. I don't mind too much because I actually really like both CDs - and it's certainly better than My Little Pony which I have also found myself singing while alone in my car before (maybe that is too embarrassing to admit...)


  1. Don't feel too bad - singing My Little Pony to yourself is no more embarrassing than having a husband who still watches Arthur in the morning before anyone else wakes up (youngest child is 18 BTW). I'm just hoping that carrying old those old kiddie songs in our heads is not going to lead to brain rot.... Oh, and great advice! Wish they would include this on Ancestry commercials.

  2. When our toddler was a newborn and would wake up in the middle of the night all the time, my husband would watch X-Men cartoons while he tried to get him back to sleep. (Hopefully he doesn't read this and find out I'm letting his secret out:)