Overview of Family History Research

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Basics of Family History Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Family History Research
Home Sources
Family History Collaboration
Basics of Family History and Technology
Basics of DNA
Basic Record-keeping
Evaluation and Goal Setting
Family History in Time and Place
Family History Etiquette, Ethics, Legalities
List of Useful Resources for Beginners

This article originally appeared in "The Foundations of Family History Research" by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA, and Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy


There has never been a better time to be a family historian. Recent surveys have found that genealogy ranks as the second most popular hobby in the United States. These surveys conclude that approximately 73 percent of Americans report having an interest in learning more about their family history.1 And there are as many goals for family historians as there are individuals doing it. Some researchers are trying to find living relatives, and some are creating multimedia presentations to share at the next family reunion. Some want to publish a family history to pass on to future generations while others are studying their family’s health history. Some are doing research for clients while others are simply adding names to their new software program. At the same time, most family historians are interested in discovering their family story and preserving it for future generations. All these pursuits make up the exciting adventure that is family history.2

This recent surge of interest, coupled with new technology, has changed the face of genealogy. Though there will always be a need to visit brick-and-mortar repositories and to search out original records, computers and the Internet have brought a convenient, inexpensive, and speedy aid to family history.

With heightened interest in the subject, family historians have dramatically increased the number of requests for help and research materials at libraries and archives around the world, a fact that hasn’t escaped notice of mass media publications and television broadcasts. Scarcely a day goes by that a genealogy or family history story doesn’t make the news. Because of the demand for information and services, commercial and government entities as well as genealogical groups and individuals are producing a constant stream of historical records. The good news for family historians of all interest levels is that new sources and research opportunities are becoming available every day.

Taking all of these new developments into account, this chapter is about foundations—acquiring information about the past, evaluating what you learn, and recording and summarizing for the future—and is intended to acquaint you with the practices and procedures that successful genealogists follow. By using these guidelines you will have the tools you need to put together quality family history information and to avoid common, and sometimes costly, errors. This chapter discusses six foundations of family history:

  1. Focus on your personal knowledge of your family by beginning with what you know and by identifying and cataloging items often found in the home.
  2. Collaborate with others to grow your family tree by interviewing all persons who have information about the family and by using the genealogical community to expand your research.
  3. Understand the technological developments in family history research, including the Internet, DNA testing, and computer programs, and how they are changing and simplifying the way family history is researched.
  4. Organize and evaluate the information you obtain to avoid research duplication (and enable future generations to know your ancestors—and you).
  5. Position your ancestors in place and time by analyzing historical maps and written histories and other records.
  6. Know how etiquette, ethics, and certain laws can impact your family history research.

Whether you are a family history novice or a seasoned researcher, the recent technological advances, vast variety and availability of records and information, and online resources make reviewing these family history foundations a helpful exercise. Soon you will embark on one of the most remarkable and compelling journeys of your life: the reconstruction and preservation of your own family’s history.

Start with Yourself

Family history research begins with the present: family historians consider what they know about the family from first-hand experience or from the traditions and stories passed down to them. This beginning also includes identifying and cataloging items—heirlooms, documents, or other tangible items—often found in the home. Together, these research paths provide a foundation that should be returned to often for additional clues.

Begin with What You Know

Genealogy how-to guides and courses advise beginners to start with themselves and move backward in time. But this step-by-step approach is good advice for seasoned family historians as well. Those who have done a good amount of research will find an occasional review of traditions, names, or other information useful. Details that seemed inconsequential early in their investigation assume great importance when combined with the more recent research. For newcomers, the process of beginning with ones’ self and acquiring the documents that firmly link them to their parents before researching grandparents or earlier generations, will provide a strong foundation that will focus the research and keep it accurate.

Some family historians tend to overlook their family’s collateral lines (those lines that do not include direct ancestors). Going back to what you know about collateral lines could help you break down research blocks in direct family lines. Another suggestion is to continue to record the weddings, births, deaths, and other milestones of the current generations. Never become so focused on the deceased that the living are neglected.

It is important to make a tangible record of this knowledge on paper, disk, or audio or video tape. Keeping this information only “in your head” could likely result in forgotten or misremembered events, dates, and relationships. Make this record as detailed as possible. Although the facts may appear too recent to be of interest, your knowledge will soon be history to younger family members. As you record the information, begin with the present generation: yourself and any siblings you may have.


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