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Treasured Blog: Family History Edition

A beginner’s guide to researching your family history

It can be overwhelming to figure out where to begin looking for information about your family. That’s because uncovering the history of your parents, grandparents, and other family members is a bit like detective work. 

Professional genealogists use oral interviews, historical records, genetic analysis, and other records to obtain information about a family. They’ll use that information to demonstrate kinship and pedigrees of a family’s members. But you don’t have to be a professional genealogist to start discovering your own family’s stories. 

You can dive into the fascinating history of your family with no experience at all. And once you do, you’ll be amazed by the long-lasting benefits that come with it. So, ready to learn how to get started? Read on for a beginner’s guide to researching your family history.

Decide what you want to learn

The first step in researching your family’s history is to decide what information you’d like to uncover. Knowing what your goals are will help to guide your research approach. For example, you might only be interested in learning about your immediate family. Or, you might be aiming to put together a complete family tree going many generations back. 

Regardless of what it is you’d personally like to uncover, setting a goal will help to keep your research motivated and on track. Not sure what you’d specifically like to learn? Here are some questions you can ask yourself, which will help you to discover what your goal is. 

  • Which family would you like to know more about?
  • What individuals in your family intrigue you the most? 
  • What information is missing from your knowledge of your family?
  • How far back can you trace your family heritage? 

Ask yourself these questions and more to decide on your research goals. But be careful - don’t set too many goals at one time. It’s best to hone in on just a few at a time. Once you begin finding answers to your questions, you can use those answers to help set new goals.

For some, it’s difficult to focus on one specific question. In that case, you can set the goal of building your family tree. Creating a family tree is a core element of genealogy, and can accompany your research goals - or be the research goal itself.

Begin to create a family tree

A “family tree” is a diagram or chart that shows the relationships between people in several generations of a family. A family tree will tell you information like who your family is, how it has grown, and where your family comes from. 

Most family tree charts include a box for each individual. Each box is connected to the others, indicating relationships. It’s up to you, the genealogist, to decide how much information you’d like to include for each person. The box could include the person’s name, date of birth, date of death, birthplace, and other information. Sometimes, a photo of each individual is included as well.

Creating a family tree is a great way to document the names of your family members and ancestors, as well as other information you know about them. You can begin by simply charting the information that you know. For example, create a box for yourself, your parents, your siblings, and any other family members that you know. From there, you can slowly add to the tree as you discover more family members and details about their lives.

Start with the information that’s close by 

Once you’ve decided on your research questions, it’s time to start looking for the clues to answer them. The best place to start looking for those answers is right in front of you. Your friends and family, and the photo albums, documents, or scrapbooks that are kicking around your home likely hold a lot of valuable information. Here’s how to use the resources around you to dive into your family history:

  • Look for important documents, records and photos 

Nowadays we tend to store our photos, documents, and memories digitally. But it wasn’t always that way. Generation X and the generations that came before them relied on printed photos, documents, records, letters, and scrapbooking to save family stories. You’ll want to go looking for these resources in your home, and elsewhere.

In some cases those resources might be easy to find. They might simply be displayed on a shelf in your parents home. But photo albums, documents, and scrapbooks may also be tucked away in a closet or attic. Look thoroughly throughout your home and your family member’s homes to see what you can find. And of course, ask those family members if they happen to know of any books that you can refer to for family history.

  • Examine the resources you find

You’ve successfully located an album, document, or scrapbook. Now, it’s time to carefully work your way through it. Be sure to examine every page, paying attention to small details. For example, consider taking photos out of their plastic holders to take a look at the back of them. The back of a photo might reveal information like the date the photo was taken, and where. Sometimes, the photo taker may have left a note on the back describing who is in the photo.

For scrapbooks and some photo albums, especially those from the 1960s and 1970s, it’ll be a bit more challenging to remove photos. Albums in those days were often magnetic (called “sticky albums”), and users would glue in their photos. If you’ve got one of these albums, you can use these instructions to learn how to safely remove photos from them. 

Information you’ll want to note from scrapbooks, documents, and photo albums includes names of family members, dates, important events, and locations. You can also note details that you discover relating to family stories. For example, you might discover what the vocation of a family member was.

  • Interview family members and friends

You’ll be amazed by the family stories you can uncover by simply interviewing your family members. Consider interviewing anyone who is willing to talk with you. That might include your parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, or even an older sibling. In some cases, family friends can also provide valuable oral history.

Conducting an interview might be a bit nerve wracking, especially in the beginning. The key is to know what it is you’d like to learn from the discussion. Prepare your questions in advance so that you’re sure you touch on every area of importance. To help you begin, here are some commonly used questions for researching family history: 

  1. Where did you live when you were growing up?
  2. What were the names of your parents, and where did they come from? 
  3. What did your parents do for a living?
  4. Were there family members living nearby?
  5. What were their names?
  6. What can you remember about older relatives?
  7. Do you know their names, where they lived, and what they did for a living?
  8. What was your family religion?
  9. What family traditions do you recall?
  10. Can you describe them?
  11. What family stories have you heard about your parents, grandparents, or distant relatives? 

While interviewing, be sure to record the answers you uncover. You can do this by writing notes as you listen, or consider recording the interview - you can download a free app to your mobile phone that will audio record.

Look through public records and archives

Once you’ve examined familial documents and interviewed your relatives, you can turn to public records. At this stage, you’ve likely filled out a good portion of your family tree chart, and gathered some clues that will help answer your research questions. 

Public records and archives are a fantastic resource for accessing ancestral information that has been publicly documented. There are many free and paid search engines available online that will allow you to search records in the United States, Canada, Britain and more. All you need to begin searching, is a name.

Here are some of the types of records and archives that you can use as a research tool:   

  1. Birth Certificates: Learn when and where members of your family tree were born, and who their parents were. 
  2. Marriage Certificates: Learn when and where your family members were married, and to whom. 
  3. Death Certificates: Learn when your family members passed away, and where.  
  4. U.S. Immigration Records: Discover how and when your ancestors arrived in the USA.
  5. World War II Army Enlistment Records: Find your ancestor in the records of people who enlisted in the United States to serve in WWII. There are Army Enlistment records for the United Kingdom as well. 
  6. Newspaper Records: Searching newspaper records for mention of your ancestors can uncover interesting stories about their lives. You’ll need to research every name on your family tree. As you do so, you’ll notice the family tree will begin to grow!

Share your family history with others 

It won’t be long before you’ve put together an impressive family tree chart, and discovered the answers to some of your research questions. But once you’ve gathered these family stories, you’ll want to be able to showcase what you’ve found - both for yourself, and others. 

One way to showcase your work is through the Treasured Platform. Treasured provides a simple interface to collaborate on family stories and display them through interactive 3D Museums.

Regardless of what shape your family history research takes, one thing is certain. Uncovering and preserving your family’s history will provide many long-lasting benefits - and these benefits can extend beyond the person who is discovering and documenting that history. The knowledge of your family’s culture, memories, and identity is an invaluable gift that you can leave behind for generations to come.

Are you ready to begin preserving your family’s history?

Book a free demo to learn how Treasured can provide you the tools you need to get started.

In our latest on the Treasured blog, we share even more benefits to learning and preserving family history.