Genealogy Basics: Getting Started

A friend and I were talking the other day and she mentioned she might be interested in learning more about her family’s genealogy.  She asked me, “How would I get started?”  I gave her the same answer I’d heard every genealogist and genealogy class instructor give: “You start with yourself.”

“Well what does that mean?” she asked.

It never occurred to me that the sentence I’d heard over and over again wasn’t going to be enough information, maybe because I’d grown up being surrounded by genealogy-related talk and genealogy-related items.  And yet, I was a merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts’ genealogy merit badge.  What kind of instructor did that make me?  Shouldn’t I have known to be more specific?  Of course I should have!  Lesson learned, so I started the explanation again, this time with more instruction.

The process of beginning genealogy is basically the same for each genealogist who instructs an interested party.  Start with yourself, fill out the forms as far back as you know and then start interviewing family members for more information.  I wanted to provide that same information but I also wanted to give my friend information about organization and documentation.  And I wanted to do it without overwhelming her.  It was information I desperately wish someone had given me when I started instead of having to learn organization and documentation later, after I had piles and stacks of stuff to go thru.  So here’s the instructions I gave to my friend:

Start with yourself.  That means getting a pedigree chart or family tree and completing as much information as you can about yourself and getting the documentation to go with that information.  My favorite place to get genealogy forms is through the Midwest Genealogy Center’s website.  They not only have the basic forms every genealogist needs but they also have a research checklist, census forms and forms for kids doing genealogy.  I highly recommend using the family unit charts because of the amount of information included on that form.

Pedigree Chart


Family Group Chart

I always like to suggest people get copies of the documentation for the information they need to fill out first (birth, marriage and death records).  The place you were told you were born may very well be different than what your birth certificate reads.  My dad always used to tell me if I was going to do something I might as well do it right the first time.  I think that advice is extremely applicable to genealogy.  Do it right the first time and you won’t have to re-do it.  Plus, a great deal of useful genealogical information can be extracted from vital records.  That’s another topic for another time.

Once you have the information recorded for yourself and the documentation copied, decide how you want to store your documentation.  Will you be storing it electronically only?  Will you keep your paper copies as well?  If you’re keeping your paper copies, decide if you’ll store them in binders or file cabinets.  I always recommend people keep both an electronic copy and hard copy of everything, just in case something happens to one of them.  For hard copies I recommend getting archival quality sheet protectors to store the paper in.  Now is also a good time to start thinking about organization.  How will you be organizing your data?  Both electronic and paper organization needs to be considered.  This may seem a little disjointed in the process but doing it early will allow you to build on the storage and organization systems and keep you from getting behind on organization and storage.  But even if you can’t decide on an organization system right now at least be looking at possible systems to see how they might work for you.

While deciding on organization and storage systems you’ll also want to consider whether you want a computer program to store your genealogy information.  There are many, many programs out there to choose from.  A good number of genealogists, blogs and websites have reviewed the genealogy programs out there.  Many programs have a trial version you can download and play with to see if you like it.  The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard: whatever program you decide to use, learn how to fully use its functions and stick with it for awhile until you know for sure whether you like or hate the program.

While you’re working on making all those big decisions, you can continue working on information gathering.  Ask your parents and grandparents for their information, see if they’ll give you copies of their vital records (birth, marriage and death).  Add that information to your forms and, if you have one, genealogy database.  If the timing is correct you can start looking at census records.  The latest census out there is 1940.  That will catch many grandparents.  We’ll look at census records a little more in-depth in a later post.

Once you’ve reached the point that you don’t have any living relatives to interview or request information from, that’s when you start document-only research.  We’ll talk about that in next week’s post.

How did you get started on your genealogy journey?  If you were instructing someone in how to begin their genealogy journey, what would you be sure to tell them?  What do you wish someone had told you?

About Danni 116 Articles
Join me on my genealogical journey where I hope my experiences, discoveries, mistakes, and successes will help you on your journey. We'll throw in some bits of history for a little flavor and that is what makes up Talking Box Genealogy.