An old adage says, "Begin at the beginning." For family genealogists, that should say just the opposite, "Begin at the end"–well, at least in the present. Always work back from what you know. Before starting any research, you should list all the relatives on the side of your family that you want to search. And pick a side–mother's or father's. Don't try to do both.
Ask relatives from earlier generations–parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins–what they know. And although they may remember other relatives, it's the stories told to them as children about past relatives that will be the most important. You'll be amazed at how far back some of your relatives can remember. Often, relatives remember hearing stories as the family sat around to a holiday dinner. At the time, these stories may not have seemed important. But they remember them, nevertheless.
Unfortunately, often these stories contain more fiction than fact. Whispering down the lane over a family history can create legends that you'll need to verify. Try to find as many living relatives as possible and use them to validate the information you find in your search.
One way to get relatives to open up about family ancestors is to break out old photograph albums. Older members of your family will at once begin to name various people in the pictures and stories about them will begin to unfold. This is an excellent activity during family reunions. But be prepared. Everyone will be speaking at once, and you'll most likely not be able to keep up, so bring along a small tape recorder to record the session. And don't forget to ask for dates and locations.
As you begin to do your research, get the word out to the rest of your family that you're looking for information about your ancestors. There's a chance that someone else in your family is also interested in your family line and has already discovered some information that will be useful to you. Contact your relatives by regular mail or E-mail and ask for information. But don't expect others to give you their hard-earned information without offering some of your own in return.
For many beginning family historians, the Internet is a genealogical paradise. But remember, there may be serpents lurking among the lush informational foliage. The Internet will give you access to a host of genealogical Web sites and E-mail lists. Some sites contain major databases with specific surnames while others like Genealogy Today offer advice on a variety of genealogical topics.
You may go to these sites through an online link or perhaps through special genealogical software that you can purchase. The databases on these sites will give you the opportunity to tap into the research of thousands of other family genealogists like yourself from around the world. Someone somewhere most likely has researched a particular group of ancestors that may just fit into your family tree. One woman traced her family back to 900 A.D. But again remember, all the information you obtain on the Internet must be verified through actual documentation.
E-mail lists offer you opportunities to both send and read messages from other genealogists. Take the time to read through the posts. You may want to limit yourself, however, because signing up for a lot of these lists may cause an overload in your Inbox. You'll begin to receive so many messages that you won't be able to read them fast enough.
Many Web sites and E-mail lists have a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) Page which will answer many questions about genealogy in general. But don't rely on the Internet as your only resource. Only a small portion of the information you'll find there has been verified, so you should use whatever you find as a complement to other sources.
One of the best sources of genealogical information is the Family History Center, operated by the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints–LDS). The tracing of ancestors is an important part of the Mormon religion, so their centers contain some of the best genealogical records in the world. Researching at the centers is a do-it-yourself affair, although the staff will gladly show you how to search the databases and confirm the facts by accessing actual documents recorded on microfilm. You won't pay anything to use the facilities, except small charges for copying and ordering specific microfilm from the main center in Salt Lake City. Much of the LDS information is available on CDs which can only be accessed at a local Family History Centers and some reference libraries.
Although you may start out keeping the information you find in looseleaf binders, at some point you'll want to organize your findings on your computer by creating a folder and saving appropriate information in subfolders. Another way is to use one of the many excellent genealogical software programs available. Even though there's an initial cost, you'll find it a worthwhile investment in your sanity. Genealogical files tend to multiply faster than rabbits.
Maps of all kinds can be valuable tools in your ancestral search. While reading about locations of ancestors can be informative, actually plotting those locations on country, state, county, or township maps can instantly provide insight into how your family developed through marriage and migration.
Lastly, know early on that you may not be able to take all this on yourself. While ancestral information in the United States may be fairly organized and easy to obtain, the same isn't necessarily true in other countries. You may have to hire a professional researcher which can cost anywhere from $15 to $40 an hour. Before you write that check, be sure to exhaust all other possibilities.