The Internet has changed the face of genealogy forever. Once relegated to challenging library work or long distance traveling, genealogy now has a powerful "instant access" aspect. So potent is this new component of research, many are so overwhelmed that they end up failing to get accurate and verifiable information. Our best advice for people just getting started is to take a timeout, purchase a book or other tutorial resource and just spend a few days reading about genealogy.
One electronic resource we recommend is Climbing Your Family Tree, an interactive tutorial CD-Rom that lets you click and visit sites as it describes how they fit into your research efforts. If you prefer a printed reference, try Genealogy for Dummies, or The Idiot's Guide to Genealogy. The titles sound condescending, but they really are excellent guides for people just being introduced to genealogy who want to get started quickly.
Once you've gotten a good overview of the different types of techniques and source documents, come back to Genealogy Today and let us guide you through the process of researching your family history.
Before we go any further, here's a lesson we all need to heed. There once was a young genealogist, full of energy and desire to learn about his heritage. He was a bit of a geek and was heavily into efficiency. So much so that he developed his own sort of shorthand for documenting his family history. Many years later when he was a senior citizen, his grandson got interested in genealogy and started asking him questions. Well, it had been many years since he had even looked at his work, and now an old man with a failing memory, he was unable to decipher his own code and so all his work proved to be useless.
The single most important function you need constantly remember is to properly document your sources and explain any abbreviations or shorthand you use. We all think our perfect memory will last forever, but there's nothing worse than when you stumble across conflicting facts and forget where you got them. If you interview a relative and get some good stories, make sure you jot down their name along with the story.
You'll find there are a lot of misconceptions out there about online genealogy and what the Internet has to offer. To help you get started and avoid costly mistakes, be sure to read "Where's MY Family Tree?", a series of articles that help debunk many of the myths associated with genealogy. You can be sure not to miss a single issue of the series by subscribing to our newsletter.
To get your research started, the first thing you should do is interview as many of your living relatives as possible. There will be plenty of time to search online and locate source documents, but one day your relatives will not be around to ask questions and they can be one of the best resources you have access to. When interviewing relatives, don't just ask for names and birthdates, etc., but ask questions about where they lived, what they did for a living, and what they did for fun. Things like "when did they learn to drive a car?" and "how many years did they attend school?" give you a much more insightful look into your heritage. If you need help getting started, we recommend purchasing a copy of Your Story, a guide to helping perform better interviews.
Once you've started assembling your facts from your living relatives, make sure you take the time to get everything organized. We can't say it enough -- when you start researching online you're going to get swamped with clues (some helpful, others not). So, the best advice we can give to people just getting started, is to take some time to organize your research. We have a free series of articles that focus on this point called "Organizing the Past".
The three best resources for getting your research off to a good start involve census records, obituaries and a special death index. Each of these is available, in some capacity, online and is easily accessible. One of the greatest myths about the Internet is that everything is free. While there are many valuable free resources online, some of the best resources are not. You should be prepared to invest some money in genealogy. Our goal is to help you minimize this investment by highlighting those resources that have the most value.
When you're getting started the resources that help the most are those that include source information for people living in the 20th century. In April of 2002, the U.S. government made the 1930 census available to the general public. If you ever talk to someone who has been a genealogist for years and mention census research, they'll probably tell you you're not ready for that. In the past, census research involved countless hours of sitting in front of a microfilm reader. Today, many companies sell indexes that allow you to locate your relatives in a matter of minutes.
The first company to make 1930 census data available online was Ancestry.com. On midnight of the day the 1930 census was released they started working on putting it online. Ancestry.com is a commercial website and access to their 1930 census data requires purchasing an annual subscription, but it is well worth it. You'll get more information out of the one page your relatives are listed on than from any of the free resources online. Click here to perform a free search of the 1930 census index at Ancestry.com -- no purchase is required to see if there are any matches for your family.
Aside from census, another valuable resource is obituaries. While not a primary source document, they can provide a bunch of clues to help locate other possible living relatives. Many people don't realize that there are thousands of newspapers out there, many without a web site, and even those that do have a web site, not all post their obituaries or maintain an archive. One site which addressed this problem is called Obituary Depot. They encourage genealogists and family researchers around the world to take a few minutes every day to transcribe the obituaries from their local paper. The result is a database that receives several hundred new submissions a day. At last count, there were over 460,000 listings. Click here to search this free resource, and if you can spare a few minutes, go grab the latest copy of your local paper and help others out by keying in the obituaries.
Don't be surprised if you cannot locate a published obituary as not every person was lucky enouch to receive one. Even today, I hear people say, "oh, I didn't think to call the newspaper after he died." Another closely related source to check is funeral cards and notices. These date back to the 1830's and over the years changed in shape and format.
In the 1930's, the U.S. government started a program called Social Security designed to help citizens when they retired from the workforce. This program can assist family researchers because the SSA tracks when citizens die so they know to stop the benefits, and they publish a Social Security Death Index. Many genealogy sites make this index available online for searching. For a small fee, you can actually write away for a copy of the actual application of one of your relatives. The application lists the names of their parents and the address where they were living at the time. Click here to search this free resource at Rootsweb.
Now that you've tried these three resources, you're well on your way to becoming a Family Researcher. When you're ready to learn about more places to hunt for ancestors, visit our Family History section.
And be sure to stop by our Marketplace and browse through the Gifts and Jewelry area for fun items to let your friends and family know you've been bitten by the genealogy bug.