R E S E A R C H. Do the memories of book reports and science projects trigger immediate heart palpitations and sweaty palms? Do you have flashbacks to awkward oral presentations and late-night diorama panic? You’re not alone and I feel your pain. I mean, it’s 2020: can’t we just click a button and immediately uncover everything we need to know about our ancestry?
I wish it were that easy. (Or do I? More on why I actually love the research below… ) But here’s the thing about family history research: If you don’t do the work, it truly doesn’t matter. You won’t get a poor grade in the school of life. You won’t flunk out of family history school. No one will notice and it won’t negatively impact you in any way.
And yet: You might be missing out on a journey to self-discovery; on walking a path where you feel as if you’ve gotten to know your great-great grandparents in some sense by adding colorful detail to their life stories and putting flesh on the bones of people long forgotten.
There are so many ways in which family history research can be exciting and even quite fun. *gasp* The way I see it, there are a few key ways family history research is different from (read: cooler than!) traditional research:
- There is no deadline. You don’t have to stay up all night cramming random facts into your brain. In fact, you don’t have to do anything today or tomorrow or even next week. The beauty of this work is that you can go months and years without touching it, and pick it up again when you feel inspired, motivated and ready.
- It’s personal. One of the things I always hated about school research assignments is that I just didn’t care about photosynthesis as much as perhaps I should have. When you aren’t invested in the subject, it can be really hard to stay motivated. But when you’re researching your family, your past, and YOU it’s much easier to engage.
- You are the expert. Even if you hire a professional genealogist to help you explore your ancestry, YOU are still the foremost expert on your family. No one else.
- You always get an A.Okay, really what I mean is that there are no grades on this research. No one is going to judge you or the work you’ve done. It’s entirely your decision whether to include extensive citations or video interviews or relatives by marriage.
Ok so if you’ve read this far, you’ve generally agreed that the research *could* be interesting and slightly more enjoyable than 11th grade history. Now what?Spoiler alert: you don’t need a license to operate Google. If you’re just getting started or considering dipping a toe in the genealogical waters, it’s super easy to begin. Here are a few quick steps, starting with the “known” and moving to the “unknown”:
- Start Where you Are: Get out a pen and paper and literally map out what you know. Mom and dad? Check. Brother and sister? Check. Grandparents? Hmm…. Might need some help here. It’s always a good idea to take stock of what you know as a starting point before trying to dive straight into the unknown.
- Hunt and Gather: Go exploring through your parents and grandparents’ basement and attic. Look for family records like marriage certificates, old photo albums, letters, old newspaper clippings, and even family Bibles. Not only are these lovely heirlooms to keep, but they also hold rich detail that can be used to unlock new doors in your family history.
- Ask Around: Once you’ve reached the limits of your own knowledge, sit down with your family members and start asking questions. Where was Papa born? Do you remember your grandparents? Do you have any photos of them? I’m telling you – IRL conversations and seemingly meaningless details (“there was an old family legend that we came over on the Mayflower”) can go a LONG way in uncovering the truth and eliminating potential road blocks.
- Mind the Gap(s): Now that you’ve gathered all the “knowns” via immediate family and sourcing, try to find the white space in your family history. Make a list of a few big questions you have that can’t be immediately answered: Who were your great grandparents? Did they emigrate from somewhere else? If so, where?
- Gateway Drugs: Start with the low-hanging fruit, most of which is online. You’d be surprised how much information can be found – and FAST – about your family with just a few clicks of a button. For example, Ancestry.com is a fantastic starting point, as is FamilySearch.org, with the largest online collection of free records available.
- Create a System: Now that you’ve gathered a small treasure trove of records and information, it’s a good idea to think about how you want to maintain and store these materials. In the olden days before online databases and Internet, people stored their family trees and records in giant binders. You can still do that today, but a software tool like Family Tree Maker or RootsMagic can offer a lot of useful features and allow you to protect and share old records… especially if an entire record set were, say to… disappear (as it has!).
- Now What?: Now that you have built some branches and have exhausted the low-hanging fruit, make a list of questions that will require more time and resources to explore. These might require a trip to a local City Hall to request copies of vital records, a visit to a local cemetery, or a formal research request to the National Archives.
Easy peasy, right? Look, I get that this might seem oversimplified, and it is in many ways. But the best way to learn is to do. See where these first few steps take you.
Once you’ve gotten started, check back here where we’ll be taking you through more advanced research techniques, a framework for deepening your exploration, and getting past brick walls.