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Gathering Family Data

Tips and hints for beginning researchers on obtaining facts from family members and setting a foundation for further research.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Here are a few, brief tips for beginning researchers. One of the first questions is always, where to begin, and the first answer is always, begin with yourself, your family, and home records. The information you draw from your immediate and extended family will be of greatest value in setting a foundation for further research.

Living Relatives

You living relatives are the one of the best sources of information on your ancestors. Interview them, especially older relatives, and tape their interviews so you can refer to that information later. Ask them about their childhood, schooling, and about their parents and other relatives. Crosscheck with other relatives. Collect documents from other relatives for easy reference. They will also help your descendants complete their family tree!

Sourcing information for building family trees is the biggest challenge in genealogy. Ask family members about anecdotes related to common ancestors; gather information on distant relatives; and ask for suggestions of other people who can help you.


A picture speaks a thousand words. Old photographs have information that can tell you a lot about your ancestors. Look carefully at the clothes and other items in the photograph to know more about the lifestyle of your ancestors.

Go through family albums, and ask relatives to identify people in the photographs. Try to pinpoint the date through the clothes, if dates are not mentioned on photographs.

Diaries and Letters

Personal diaries and old letters are a minefield of information. Diaries throw light on social customs and daily life of your ancestors. Letters may show the relationship between your ancestors and their descendants. If you can find addresses on the letters, you will be able to find out more about various relatives and their relation to each other.

Old Books & Documents

The old recipe book or family Bible often have a lot of information scribbled on the margins and blank pages. Birth dates, anniversaries and important occasions may be mentioned in the family Bible. Recipe books provide information on the kind of income the family had, their interests and lifestyle. And don't forget to check other old books you might come across which could contain old letters, notes, ancestral signatures, or inscriptions.

Also, go through old government records like census, military service, school, marriage, birth and death. Funeral homes may have records on various deceased relatives.

Family Heirlooms

Some items are family heirlooms by virtue of being passed down through generations. Take a closer look at the old wedding dress, tea set, jewelry and other items that belonged to your grandmother or her mother. These items can tell you a lot about the financial and social status of your ancestors.

The Internet is a great tool that facilitates genealogy research. Put the information you have in a genealogy database, or search the database for more information.

Meeting other people interested in genealogy is another way to source information, as well as getting useful tips from more experienced genealogists. They may suggest sources of information, and point out errors in your methodology, if any.

Genealogy is not just about family trees, however. You must remember that it is about people, your ancestors as well as living relatives. The aim of building family trees is to help you connect to those in your family and give you a sense of belonging.

DNA Test

DNA testing is an increasingly accurate way to relate people to each other. As popular wisdom goes, "DNA does not lie." While old letters and records may contain inaccuracies, DNA that is passed on from generation to generation tells a fascinating, and true story about who you are, and who you are related to, so long as it is interpreted correctly. Today, DNA testing helps those who wish to find out their ethnic roots, and know more of their genealogy. DNA testing and its practical uses is a fascinating subject to explore.

Genealogy is not just about mapping the relation between people. It seeks to study the lives of the people and how they influenced and were influenced by prevalent social, economic and other factors. It also allows you a peek into the lives of people long gone, helping you understand and get closer to your roots.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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