Genealogy 101: Family History and More

Local resident doing genealogy research in the Local History Room.

Local resident doing genealogy research in the Local History Room.
Photo: Kristin Beadle

See also: Genealogy Topic Guide 

What is Genealogy?

Strictly speaking, genealogy is the study of individuals and their family relationships. In a larger sense, however, genealogy studies the lives of these individuals and their families, and their relationship to the broader history of the times and places in which they lived. At its best, genealogy might draw on the fields of history, biography, geography, law, medicine, surveying, and linguistics among others. The study might simply be a conversation with an elderly relative, or it might become a fascinating, life-long pursuit.

Family History vs. Genealogy

There are two types of genealogy. The first is called a family history. This begins with one's self and works back from generation to generation to the immigrant ancestor, or farther, if possible. The end result is the complete lineage of one individual. Usually a family history is done first. The family genealogy is more complicated. It begins with the immigrant ancestor and traces down, generation by generation, all of the descendants to the present generations.

Start With What You Know

The best way to begin genealogical research is to determine what you already know. Write down your name, date and place of birth, date and place of marriage and the name of your spouse. Then write the name of your father, the date and place of his birth, marriage and death, and his place of burial. Then do the same for your mother. That is two generations. Continue with similar information about your grandparents, and great-grandparents, until you run out of information. Look for information in your home. Often someone in the family will have a Bible containing a family record, a box of birth certificates and obituaries, old photographs, etc. Talk to older members of your family to see what they know.

Charting

This kind of information is usually recorded on two standard forms by genealogists. The first is called an Ancestor, or Pedigree, Chart, and records the direct ancestors of a given individual. The other is the Family Group Sheet, and captures basic information about one couple and their children. These charts are commonly sold by genealogy societies and by a number of commercial sources. Printable forms are also available online. For appropriate links, see http://www.cyndislist.com/ and choose the category "Supplies, Charts, Forms, etc." There are also many computer programs available for recording and sorting family information. There are two good reasons to use standard charts. The first is that it helps YOU to see what you have. The second is that any more advanced researcher can tell at a glance what you have, and may be able to make suggestions about how you might proceed.

Research

Once you have collected all the information that exists in your home and family, you are ready to go on to research in libraries, archives, and courthouses. Before you do that, however, it is a good idea to read a book about effective ways of doing research. Even small local libraries usually have a basic how-to book, and some history about local families. Larger libraries, of course, will have much better collections.

Taking Notes

It is essential to record the source of all the notes that you take. You may find it necessary to go back and check them against the original source to verify their accuracy, and in order to do that, you must know where you found them! If you choose, at some point, to share the information that you have found with others, you will want to be able to tell them where you found it so they can verify it for themselves if they wish to, and draw their own conclusions. A fact which cannot be verified in the original source is of little use to a good researcher. Conclusions based on unverifiable research are worse than useless. So, for each note that you take, write down the title of the book or record from which you took it, the author, if any, the date, publisher and page number. If the information came from an interview, write the name of the person who told you, and the date and place of the interview. Appropriate forms for recording citations can be found in several books. See the list below for some suggestions. You will NEVER regret taking the time to document your sources. You will only regret the times that you didn't!

Keep a Research Log

It is also helpful to keep a log of all the sources that you search. Include all the publication information listed above, the name of the repository where you found it, the date of the search, a note about what you looked for, whether you found it or not, and possibly a note about the source itself – whether it was legible, indexed, full of obvious errors, etc. A log will help you avoid duplicating a search, and will prove useful in other ways. You can number each item in the log, write the same number on the notes from that search, file them in numerical order, and use the number again to cite the sources of entries on your pedigree and family group sheets.

Note Taking Tips

A few other hints: always take notes on the same size paper. Standard typing paper is useful, but some people prefer half-sheets or legal size. Notes on non-standard items, such as the backs of envelopes, tend to get lost easily. If you are forced to use an envelope, you can tape it or photocopy it onto your standard size later. DO NOT discard your original notes. Every time you recopy something, you introduce an additional chance of making an error, and inevitably you will need to consult your originals to correct something that you copied wrong on your charts. Also, choose a filing system that you can live with and stick to it, so you can find what you are looking for easily. Many of the how-to books discuss different filing systems.

Improving Your Research Skills

If you continue your interest in genealogy, you will want to continue to improve your research skills. Sometimes local genealogical societies offer classes. Three other good ways to do that are by reading genealogical magazines, by joining a genealogical society or two, and by attending conferences.

Genealogical Magazines

Three excellent magazines are The National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The New England Historic Genealogical Society Quarterly, and The American Genealogist. All three set high standards for research and publication. Even though the articles may not deal with your family, they will teach you techniques to use in your own research. These publications, and several others, are housed in the Local History Room. Click for a complete list of our genealogical magazines. Other titles of interest, with subscription information, can be located by consulting the Standard Periodical Directory in the library's main Reference Collection.

Genealogical Societies

Joining a society is a good way to learn new skills and to make new friends. It is helpful to join three, one in the area where you live to meet like-minded people, one on a national level to keep you in touch with broader developments in the field, and one in the area where you are doing your research to help acquaint you with the resources in that area. There are also some societies devoted to specific national and ethnic groups. Our local organization is the Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society. Addresses of other societies you might wish to join are listed in many sources. One good one is the current edition of The Genealogist's Address Book, by Elizabeth Petty Bentley.

Conferences

Since few colleges offer courses in genealogical research, attending a conference is a useful way to learn a lot in a concentrated period of time. Each year there are two major national conferences offered by the National Genealogical Society and the Federation of Genealogical Societies in various cities around the country. If you attend one, you can count on many hours of top quality instruction by respected lecturers, and extensive exhibits of new books, forms, computer programs, and related genealogical products. In addition, there are many state and regional conferences. You can find information about conferences in most genealogical periodicals.

Happy searching!