Genealogy 101: A step-by-step guide to recording your genealogy.
by Mary Angus-Yanke
The following 22 steps gives an overview of what is needed to trace and record your family’s genealogy. Information and problem solving for each step in greater detail is found in additional posts on this website. Come back to the site as you work through your genealogy as you need those details – search for them by subject.
1. Collect and Store Information
Create a ‘shoebox’ to collect and store family information and photographs. Your shoe-box should be both a physical one and a digital file folder that you create on your computer’s desktop. Remember that everything you collect needs to be properly sourced and verified. Scan and download the information you collect into your computer, carefully labelling each one correctly. Include the name of the person who shared the information and items with you, and in the case of photographs, the name of the collection from which each photograph came.
2. Document Sources
Ensure that you and others are satisfied that you have factual information. When conflicting facts arise, the sources you used will help you to know which is most reliable, with information from primary sources more reliable than secondary ones.
3. Chart Your Progress
Create a chart of the work you’ve completed. This chart will help you to stay organized and know where you left off last time you were working on each family branch, and where to continue to do further research when you are able to resume your work. It will act as a work-map – a blueprint for your work – and will prevent a lot of wasted time looking for where you left off, what’s left to do. It will also help to most easily prioritize the work you most want to do. Pedigree and Fan Charts work well.
4. Get Multiple Sources
Set a goal to get more than one source for each fact in your family tree whenever possible. Some sources will be secondary, so be sure to include as many primary sources as possible for each fact.
5. Use Reliable Sources
Primary sources such as church and state birth, marriage & death certificates, baptism, marriage and burial registrations, censuses, deeds, wills, and family bibles form reliable cornerstones to your research. Secondary and derivative sources such as family stories, letters and books written after events happened are valuable clues, but consider that they can easily contain errors so they need to be verified by a primary source.
6. Interview Family Members
Your living ancestors are the only people able to tell you about your ancestors – Interview them while you are able to. Their stories will prove invaluable to your family’s history. We can learn anything we want to about world history, but our own personal history – which we should know quite well – can only be accessed by asking our family members questions. If you are fortunate enough to have a grandparent is still alive, talk to them now; Imagine the possibilities if they also knew their grandparents – you are in a position to easily gain first-hand knowledge from first-hand family sources for 5 generations of your family.
7. Share With Others
The privacy of family members is paramount, and care must be taken with whom this information is shared. However, your genealogical journey will constantly benefit from sharing what you know with others. Throughout the years, I have met several cousins in this way, and we have helped one another accomplish more than any one of us could have ever done alone. Many of them have become very good friends, ones that I count among the best. I love helping others solve their research problems, and have been helped countless times by others to solve my own. Join the genealogical society in your area for a great network of people in your community, and join online genealogical groups and blogs to discuss your current genealogy work.
8. Get Organized
Starting with a pedigree or fan chart, pencil in clues as you begin each person, and then write that person’s facts with ink as they are confirmed or corrected by reliable sources. Organize your research as well so you know what you’ve already researched for that person and what’s left to be done. Keep a to-do list of what you are working on, and prioritize it so that you get the information that’s most important to you first whenever possible. Many genealogy software programs have these properties built into them as well.
9. Social History
The social events in the time and place your ancestor lived goes a long way to round out their life story and our understanding of it. Diaries and letters can be valuable artifacts that tell us of social history. Religion, Politics and the Industries around our ancestors tell us a lot about what their lives were like, and are relatively easy to access through libraries, historical societies, newspapers and internet research.
Every genealogist I’ve ever met talks of how easily it is to get distracted in their research. Try to focus on a specific section of your genealogy at one time. I usually work on one family branch and concentrate on that one branch for a season. I find that my work is more productive as I am easily reminded where I left off and what I am hoping to find. If any information comes along to me on another branch, I tuck it away in my shoebox so that when I am working on it again, it is all there waiting for me. I also schedule my research, which I find helps me to stay focused: When I know what I want to find and how much time I have to do it, I am much more likely to stick with my priorities in order to meet my goal.
11. Ask Questions
When facts do not add up with the information you have or additional information is needed, ask for supporting documents of the situation. As examples, when an age appears to be wrong or you suspect a name is wrong, people are missing or included that you don’t think belong there, ask for a copy of the document that was used to arrive at various conclusions. Also, ask more than one person/source the same question – everyone has a different point of view that is of value to every situation.
12. Photographs and Artifacts
Photographs are an entire undertaking of their own! Being a very visual person, I would not have a history without them. Photographs add a remarkable personal dimension which words alone cannot. It can be very helpful to include a scan of the back of photographs for the information about the photographer, location, or for the original owners handwritten label. Remember when digitally labeling items that each label will need to be unique, as eventually you will have a number of photographs of the same person. Please do not write on the photograph itself. The information about each photograph you have should include: 1. The names of individuals in the photograph in order; 2. The date photograph was taken i.e., c. 1880; 3. The event photograph was taken for, i.e., Wedding; 4. The name and location of the photographer; 5. The source of the photograph, complete with who’s collection it came from. At this writing, I have a collection of more than 7,000 family photographs, documents and artifacts, including some original photographs which date back to the earliest that photographs were taken and documents which date much earlier than that, all of which are precious to me. Having digital copies of these further ensures their survival in the event that the original is destroyed or lost, and also makes them very easy to share with others. Please remember that the people these items came from is precious to them as well, so be sure to record who shared them with you as the originals and negatives are all being lovingly cared for by other members in your family.
13. Message Boards
Message boards and publications such as RootsWeb/Ancestry/Genealogy.com and The Genealogical Research Directory are examples of resources which research certain surnames, general genealogy, an era, a specific culture or location. These genealogy websites, facebook pages, and bulletin boards are very useful tools in connecting with distant members of your family, and I have had my best successes in finding clues to my genealogy through them. You will find links to popular message boards in the “Research Resources – For All Genealogists” page of ths website
Genealogists usually begin by researching certain surnames. However, what appears simply to be a name can become complicated very quickly. Surnames can have many spelling variations and errors which must be taken into account. Even the most straightforward of names I research have had different spelling variations: one example is the the relatively simply surname ‘Lynn’ which I’ve found in different documents misspelled or the variants of Linn, Lyn, Lin, Line, Lyne, Lyon, O’Loinne, O’Linn and O’Lynn, with the etymology of the name being O’Fhloinn. The use of a soundex program will help you to look for ways the surname you’re researching may have been misspelled, and researching the etymology of the name will help you to trace it further back in history.
Also, just because someone has the same surname, don’t expect they are necessarily members of the same family – many are not, no matter how unusual the name. As well, just because someone is spelling their surname differently than yours, don’t assume that they’re not related to you.
Some of the most common errors in genealogy are made by those who attach their genealogy to the wrong ancestors because the surname is the same. They may want to associate it with someone who is famous or to royalty, but their true genealogy is lost to them when they do.
Another clue for genealogists to keep in mind is forenames: Many cultures used naming traditions until very recently when naming their children. Knowing what that tradition was can be an additional tip to the forename of that elusive ancestor you are looking for.
15. Reading Handwritten Records
Handwritten documents give us additional clues as to the era or culture the items were written in, and adds another personal element of the person who wrote the document. Reading these documents can be very challenging, however, especially when reading old scripts, which is a skill that is developed over time. Start by comparing questionable letters with other portions of the document. Post these portions of the document on online message boards and websites to get help from others to decipher these documents. One site that offers help by other genealogists to decipher difficult to read genealogy documents is https://www.facebook.com/groups/672462506205064/.
The internet is a wonderful resource for genealogical research, but not all research can be done on the computer. Among the best information, experiences and relationships I have had are in doing research where I actually got out and explored the places my ancestors once lived and worked. These can include archives, libraries and historical societies, the towns and cities they lived in, the cemeteries they are buried in, and museums dedicated to preserving the historical artifacts from the era an ancestor lived in or living museum which will give a glimpse into the cultural and social life of our ancestor.
17. Schedule Back-up Records
Back up digital data, such as computerized family trees, photographs and documents on an external hard drive, an online backup service such as iCloud, AND on a contemporary storage method such as memory sticks or external hard drives. Back up physical data, such as printed family trees and documents by photocopying or printing out a second copy of them, and storing them off site. Create a back-up schedule to ensure that large amounts of information aren’t lost to you: Every month, season or at least twice a year, depending on how much you’ve been working on your genealogy. Every genealogist I know, including myself, have lost large amounts of their genealogy through failing to backup their work in reliable ways. Several different back-ups at all times has saved these situations.
18. Genealogy Software
The best way I know to sort and organize my genealogy information is genealogy software. Family books can often be published directly from the software, and many different reports can be printed at any given time. Sharing your information is much easier using software with GEDCOM files, the universal format for genealogy information. Research what software is available on the market currently in making your choice, and take an online course in getting the most from your software program once that choice has been made.
19. The Census
Each country has different census dates and formats, and each census contains different information than those taken in other years. These censuses contain invaluable information to genealogy work. When reading a census that includes your ancestor, take note of the other people in your family’s household and of their neighbors – I consistently find great information on extended family that my direct ancestors lived near on most censuses. Many contain errors as names were spelled incorrectly and family gave enumerators wrong information for a variety of reasons, so keep these in mind when using the census information – it’s not gospel.
20. Use The Genealogy Process
The process of researching genealogy remains the same regardless of who, what, when, where or why you’re researching. This process includes these 5 stages:
1. Identify family information.
2. What do you want to learn about your family?
3. Choose the records you want to find.
4. Get the record you’ve chosen and research it.
5. Incorporate the information in your family tree and history book, using source citations.
21. Online Research
Online research has enabled genealogists to reach much farther back in time, with much greater accuracy, than ever before due to the large volume of information available to individual researchers. I still know people who refuse to use the internet in their research for one reason or another, but their efforts are multiplied and their results divided because of that refusal. Keeping in mind that the internet is unedited, you will need to be especially careful with the sources you use from it.
When you find a document online, print it out right away. I’ve found many times that when I go back to get the information, it is not available any longer, or the site requires me to subscribe to it in order to access the document again.
The internet is a very powerful research tool for people undertaking genealogy.
22. Evaluate and Analyze The Information You Use
Have you been able to identify each ancestor in your family tree? Ultimately, that is your goal. Filling basic knowledge out with further details will help you to write their stories into a family history book, which is explored elsewhere on this website.
Additional Resources Available
When you successfully find and document family history as outlined here, you will have preserved your valuable family’s history and you will have all the information you need to publish your family tree, and more than enough of the facts required to begin to write a family history book.
I am sure you see by now that genealogy is a time-consuming pastime, so using that time wisely is of great importance. A large number of research resources also want big money for you to use their indexes, and the province I live in charges $100.00 for every birth, marriage and death certificate I order, so it can also be very expensive. Being a cheap genealogist, I include as many of the free indexes and sources as possible on this website, and I avoid big genealogy for-profit corporations as much as I can. Having said this, information on those websites can be invaluable and unavailable elsewhere, so planning your time wisely so that you get the most out of them while you are subscribed to them is important.
You will find it helpful to use the genealogy working kit, or some of the individual pages within that kit, which are all available in our store. The kit includes the fill-in-the-blank forms, charts, guidelines and research references to follow the step-by-step process outlined here. These will get you well on your way to researching your family history and to help you to stay on track, all at a very affordable cost, and is organized for those who are serious about recording their family’s genealogy.
A wide variety of additional genealogy scrapbooking packages are also available. These will help people at the very beginning of their genealogical journey to create beautiful family records using minimal information and photographs. Check these out in our store. They include genealogy scrapbooking kits for you and for children to explore family roots together.
Consult our in-depth conversations about each of these steps in the future as you need them when you are working through each step. These conversations are in various posts on this website. Find them by subject using the search bar. Join into the them by adding your own research experiences and questions.