Step 1. Identify what you know about your family
Information on hand
Most families have at least some information relating to their history; in fact, your family should be one of the first sources consulted. Older relatives who remember what they have seen or heard, documents of all kinds, and even artifacts like dishes and furniture, if accompanied by stories, are some of the possible sources of information. What sources of family knowledge can you find at home? When you have thought about the question, view Sources of Family Information to see a printable list of items you might already have or might acquire from family members.
As you start, you should have a plan for organizing all the material you will collect so that it can be easily stored and retrieved. One of the most common systems is to obtain file folders or loose-leaf binders. You could start with four divisions, one for each of your grandparents. Some people have a folder for each couple indexed by surname, while others put all of the information for one grandparent’s family into a binder. You may want to colour-code by surname or family.
As documents accumulate, you may need to have more than one folder for each couple, or more binders for more branches of the family. The system you make should be adaptable and expandable.
Here is a short list of materials that you might use. Make a list of the ones that you will need to obtain.
- file folders
- index dividers
- binder paper
- archival page protectors
- archival photo albums
- photo-safe pen
- filing box or cabinet
- computer paper
- home office
- bigger house
When you have obtained your folders or binders, label them and put into them the documents that you have on hand (such as birth and marriage certificates) and the material that you collect in the future. One good way to preserve paper records is to use top-loading archival page protectors.
Make a list of contents and put it at the front of each folder or binder. For a sample list that you can print, download this document list.
Tip: Photocopy your valuable original documents and put them away in a safe and secure place. Use only the copies for research.
Sometimes other members of the family have relevant material and don’t want to part with it. Ask to photocopy or scan it, or make notes on a separate sheet of paper that you can put into your file. (If they won’t even let you look at it, remember that it’s not worth going to jail just to obtain genealogical information.) You can use the Inventory of Offsite Records form to note who has the original items.
Computers and the Internet
Although not indispensable, a computer and Internet access can greatly help with your research. With genealogy software and the Internet, you can:
- organize information
- add or delete ancestors and correct errors without having to redo everything
- create many types of charts
- access information and send queries
- find and keep in touch with distant relatives easily.
Keep these things in mind when using a computer in research:
- Electronic information does not last. Back up your data in electronic or printed form.
- Internet information needs to be verified with original documents.
What software should you use? There is no one answer to that question, as each user has different needs and each genealogy software package has different strengths. The following list rates some of the popular software in terms of ease of use for a beginner.
- Personal Ancestral File
FamilySearch.org - Family History and Genealogy Records
Downloaded free, a basic program, easy
- Family Tree Maker
Software at Ancestry.com
Reasonable cost, slightly more difficult, great charts
Legacy Family Tree Genealogy Software
Downloaded free, easy
- Master Genealogist
The Master Genealogist
Reasonable cost, difficult
- Brothers Keeper
Brother's Keeper genealogy shareware
A range of products from free to paid-for
The Internet has become an excellent resource for indexes and digitized records such as censuses, but you must be skeptical of submitted family trees that don’t cite their sources. Some particularly good sites are the following:
Go to each of the above sites and enter the name of parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent. Then note any results that you think are worth following up.
Tip: Eventually you may want to submit your family tree to a website or create your own family history web pages. If so, make sure beforehand that you have obtained permission to use information from family members, acknowledged the use of material from published sources, and considered copyright issues. DO NOT put information about living people on the Internet! For more on the topic, you can consult Cyndi's List for Etiquette and Ethics and Copyright Issues.
Use of charts
The material that you collect should be recorded before it is filed. Two standard genealogical charts – the pedigree chart and the family group record - have evolved over the years and are widely used to display and share information. If you have a family history program for your computer, it will do the charts for you, but it’s important to understand what the software is actually doing.
There are some simple rules to follow when filling out one of these charts.
- The date should always be written: day / month (written out) / year (full).
Example: 12 June 1888 or 6 Feb 1776.
- Use women’s maiden names, if known. If not known, put married names in parentheses or leave blank.
Example: Sarah Jane SMITH, Sarah Jane (JONES), Sarah Jane ( )
- Capitalize or underline surnames. The system you use is your choice but be consistent.
Example: David John JONES or David John Jones
- On handwritten charts, use a pencil with a good eraser until you are certain of your facts; then use black pen, which photocopies better.
- Place names should go from smallest to largest.
Example: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
- Do not get hung up on the “correct” spelling of names. Years ago people were not as literate as they are now and even simple names like Smith have variations.
Here are some conventions to use when writing names.
DUN(K)T(H)O(R)N(E) – parentheses indicate letters that are sometimes omitted, e.g. Dunton, Dunthorne.
ME/I/YNDHAM - slashes indicate letters that are interchangeable, e.g. Mendham, Mindham, Myndham.
Tip: Searches should include all variations of the name.
The Pedigree Chart shows your direct ancestral line and has a great deal of information on each page. At a glance you can see how far you have progressed and where you may need to research. It looks like this.
Now print and fill in your own Pedigree Chart. You should always start with what you know about yourself, and then about your parents, working back one generation at a time. Don’t be tempted to skip a generation as that could lead you in the wrong direction.
The Family Group Record shows a married couple with all their children. Married people with children will be on two charts, first with parents and second as parents. These are convenient to take along on visits or trips for family members to fill in. A family group chart looks like this.
Now print and fill in a Family Group Record with yourself as a child or as a parent.