3 ways to get started with your family history research

When I tell people about my genealogy project and my interest in family history, the most common question I'm asked is "Where do I begin?" Despite a strong interest – or at least curiosity – in ancestry and family lore, it often seems like unfamiliar territory. There's good news, though; researching family history isn't all about travelling to faraway towns or chasing missing documents (although that's part of it).


At a time when travel can be challenging and online research can only get you so far, here are three ways to start your research at home. The chances are that you already have access to a lot more information than you thought you did.



1. START A TREE


You know the drill – make a family tree by adding your name, your siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and so on. You'll be able to fill in many names, especially in your immediate family to begin with, and as you move upward and outward, you'll know which questions to ask. "Whom did my grandmother's first cousin marry?" or "What was aunty Girlie's actual name?" will help you start conversations with members of your family and fill in the blanks.


I usually begin with a pen-on-paper draft, and transfer it to a digital format once it's large (and unmanageable) enough. You can also use an online family tree website such as Geni.com, FamilySearch or MyHeritage, but make sure to be mindful of your relatives' privacy, as these trees are highly searchable (for example, keep the names of living relatives private). I prefer my own spreadsheet-based family tree template, which takes a bit more effort but is often clearer and easier to browse in sections. I create a new tab for each branch, which also helps me decide the focus for my research.


As an example, I made a tree with my maternal great-grandparents, Elsie and Clifford, and their children. The next two trees featured each great-grandparent with their parents and siblings; then followed trees for the parents of Elsie and Clifford, and so on. In my research, I focused on each of these trees separately so that I wasn't overwhelmed by names and could find connections.


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2. START A COLLECTION


This is one of the first things I did when I decided to research my family history in earnest. I procured a giant box, and started filling it up with relevant items – photographs, (small) objects, newspaper clippings, negatives, cards, letters, prizes, books, documents, trees, maps – anything I had that belonged to my ancestors went in there. My box was inaugurated with my grandparents' wedding album, a poetry chapbook with notes from my great-grandmother, my great-aunt's postcard collection, my grandfather's handwritten family tree, and his grandfather's medal of service.


The next step involved organising these materials: a physical folder with tabs for each line of my family, and in there went research notes and timelines, family trees, documents, wills, anything paper-based (except photographs); an album with photographs arranged chronologically; and a spreadsheet that archived all these items for referencing as my research widened and progressed.


A collection like this not only helps you view everything in one place and figure out the next steps (which thread to pursue, which documents or letters are missing and where they might be), it's also useful when you want to build a story around the people and places represented therein.


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3. START A CONVERSATION


Of course, family history is collaborative. You'll need to talk to various members of your family to fill in the gaps and build a more complete story. I don't say "true" story, as everyone's perspectives and memories differ, but a more nuanced and perhaps balanced story nonetheless.


What documents and photos would you like them to search for? Asking for specific information has better results than simply asking for "anything pertaining to your family" – the latter feels overwhelming or confusing and they're unlikely to bother. But "do you have grandma's birth certificate" is likely to yield better results.


Interviews are great as well. With permission, you may record them, or simply take notes. It's necessary to prepare a set of questions beforehand so that neither you nor your interviewee are derailed; people often talk a lot (and meander!) when they start narrating stories of their past. These stories are definitely important, so listen and record everything, and ask follow up questions about them. You can later arrange the bits of information chronologically using my lifeline template, or something similar.


The pre-written list of questions will help you get back on track and ensure you get the info you need. Be respectful; when I first went to my grandmother for an interview, I hadn't fully explained to her what I would be doing, and she was less than pleased with the barrage of questions – at least, until she saw the results of my research!


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