Whenever I visit with people about genealogy the usual comments are that a relative did the family history years ago. The person has no idea if it was published or what happened to it. Sometimes they refer to a copy of the information being in the possession of another relative.
Even though you have no idea of the type of research, whether it is documented or thorough researched, it is a good idea to try to locate the family history that Aunt Mable put together fifty years ago!! You will want to begin by asking questions of living relatives, but at the same time looking in logical places.
Who was the person who collected and researched the data? Do they have heirs that may have kept the genealogy? Where did the person live? Try to learn more about the person and when they lived as well as any connections they have to living people.
Did the person collecting and researching the genealogy belong to a genealogy society? Once you learn where the person lived, check to see if there are genealogical or historical societies in that area. These are some good web pages to search for names of societies.
Historical and Genealogical Societies of the United States
Society Hill - The Directory of Historical and Genealogical Societies
Once you have located a society in the area where the subject of your quest lived, you can contact them to see if they have any lineage charts, membership papers or knowledge of the person and their research. Many societies now have their own web pages and e-mail addresses. (Tip: find an obituary for the subject of your quest and it may indicate if he or she belonged to a genealogy society.)
What happened to their research papers, manuscripts or published material? While the society may be able to give you some ideas, it is also worthwhile to check other resources, such as the catalog of the Family History Library (LDS). This can easily be done at their web page, http://www.familysearch.org.
Check the catalog by place search, entering the location where your relative who did the genealogy lived. In the list of topics, pay close attention to "societies" and "genealogy." It is not unusual for societies to allow microfilming of their member's charts and information. The next step should be to check the catalog by surname to look for any publications or manuscripts of your family that have been donated to the library. The third step is to search by author, entering the relative's name.
Many genealogies are never officially copyrighted, but it is still worthwhile to check the Library of Congress catalog at http://catalog.loc.gov/. Use the same approach by entering data into the title or author query box and the subject query box. There is also a chance that your relative's family history, manuscript or papers were donated to a library or society. To check for such a repository and collection search the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) at http://www.loc.gov/coll/nucmc/. Be sure to read all of the information at this web site regarding how to search.
If your library has access to HeritageQuest Online (ProQuest), search the book and PERSI categories for your relative's family history. There are over 25,000 family and local histories available for checking by name and subject. Images can be viewed directly from the matches that are provided. PERSI indexes over 1.6 million genealogy and local history articles in periodicals. You might find mention of your family searching relative or their research. If your library does not subscribe to this service, you can access it through a Godfrey Scholar membership in the Godfrey Memorial Library. For more information check out their web page at http://www.godfrey.org.
Ask your librarian about OCLC WorldCat. This is an indexing of publications that librarians access when trying to locate a specific title or author. It can be searched the same way by keyword, author or title. If a book is located, ask your librarian about securing it on interlibrary loan. OCLC WorldCat can also be accessed through Godfrey Scholar memberships.
Do not assume that you will never find your relative's research papers or publications. Unless they were totally destroyed by some insensitive person, there is a good chance they are lurking around the corner waiting for discovery.