Where can I find a biography of my ancestor?

Biographies are works written in the third person by someone other than the subject of the biography; whereas an autobiography is written in the first person, by the subject; and a memoir is, generally speaking, an autobiography with a particular focus, as opposed to a life chronology. A personal history or "life story" can be considered biography or autobiography, depending on its author -- many life stories are compiled and edited by a third person, often from personal interviews with the subject or drawn from diaries and letters, etc. Another form of biography is the biographical sketch, which is less extensive than a biography and may appear in biographical collections, necrologies, organizational publications, histories, etc.

Biographies are often, written about a person who was prominent or distinguished in some way and often in book form, and certainly, the subject may provide information or access to information and otherwise contribute to the biography. However, biographies and their counterparts are in no way limited to the rich and famous. Your ancestor's biography may very well have been written and published in one form or another during life or after: biographies are being written today and will be tomorrow about people who lived in the recent and distant past.

Home sources are the first place to check for a biographies, autobiographies, memoirs and life stories. By home sources, we mean home libraries, personal documents and memorabilia in your own home our that of family members, extended family and even distant cousins -- different people may have different pieces to the puzzle. And even if you don't find a biography, you may find memorabilia that can suggest other places to look: clubs, societies, fraternal organization, schools, employment, and labor unions, etc.

Local area libraries are good places to check for information on those who have lived and worked in the community, including local area histories. And don't forget to check the library's vertical files, the information may surprise you. Beyond the local area you can look to schools attended many schools -- even grade schools publish histories, publications or alumni associations that may feature biographical sketches. The same is true for clubs and associations, fraternal organizations, work places and labor unions, military publications, etc.

You also want to check biographical collections and necrologies connected to any of the above; such books contain biographical sketches for a number of people in one collection. Other places not to be overlooked are state libraries and archives, local historical societies and genealogical societies whose mission it is to collect the history of a place and its people. PERSI is a good source for researching genealogical society publications. And the Amercian Historical newspaper are another excellent source that can provide not only obituaries giving brief biographies, but often feature biographical sketches of individuals within the community. Regardless of its classification, anytime you can find the writings about an ancestor's life, you are fortunate and worth the search.

<< FAQ Section


Help us improve this frequently asked questions area. Please send us feedback or additional questions.

click to view original photo