Many times when embarking on genealogical research, one tends to go directly to the Internet. With the prevalence of websites dedicated to family history and the ease of accessing large databases, this can seem a logical and convenient way to start. However, it is not always the most efficient method.
The very best way to start any research line is to first consider what you already know. This can be done most easily by simply taking a blank pedigree chart, family group record sheet, or even a blank piece of paper, and writing down everything you know off-hand (names, relations, dates, places, etc.). This will give you a good idea of where you need to start, demonstrating not only the blanks in your family tree, but also the information you already have. You may be surprised to discover how much you really do know. At this point, it is vital you contact living relatives. As trite as it sounds, this step is often overlooked, and the amount of potential information can be staggering. You never know what your mother, grandparents, aunt or anyone else knows, let alone what types of documentation they may have stashed away in a file cabinet or attic box. Talk to them, record everything, and then start to piece together the family. You can double check your own data, and then through home sources confirm and add to it.
Home sources, or in other words, documents or family memorabilia that are of genealogical value, are a genealogist's best resource. Many times these sources are easily accessed through a simple phone call to a relative, or can even be found among your own records. These kinds of sources are also extremely interesting and can open a personal window on your ancestors. This early phase of the research process can be among the most gratifying and exciting, simply because the impact of handling tangible evidence about an ancestor can make him or her become much more real to you, instead of just a name on a paper. How interesting it is to view a photo of a great-grandfather, and discover how much he looks like your brother, for example, or to read an account of an ancestor's Atlantic crossing and the hardships they may have endured.
Common home sources include the following: birth, marriage, and death certificates and announcements; obituaries, letters and postcards; school records, passports, immigration/naturalization records; books of remembrance, military records, photographs, journals; family bibles, baptism certificates, and any other family documents that someone found worth storing.
When researching home sources for genealogical data, there are certain things you will want to look for beyond the obvious names, dates and places, depending on the documentation and the situation. For example, if you are dealing with a family member from a predominantly Catholic country (Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, and Latin American countries), then keep your eye out for something that may indicate a parish name or church, besides a town or city. If dealing with American sources, look for immigration information, including naturalization papers, passports, port of entry, etc. that may help to identify from where they sailed. For a death record, look to see if the place of death and the place of burial are different towns, as this may indicate another place to locate your family. In general, you will want to record as much information from these sources as possible, as you will never know in the future how a seemingly meaningless reference may prove the difference in future research.
After thorough contact with your living relatives, you will probably become aware that the most successful genealogist is a great at networking. Moreover, even though this networking should start with immediate and extended family members, it is not limited to them. This is an area where the Internet can be of utmost value. Part 2 of this article will discuss taking full advantage of the Internet as the next step in genealogical research, from contacting others (as well as your relatives) who are working on your same line, to the extensive databases and other resources that can be accessed right from your computer.