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GenealogySpot > Features > Getting Started

Getting Started

Researching your roots can be a lifelong project. With so many records and resources, it's not easy to find a starting point. While every family history follows a different path, there are general guidelines that every beginner should know.

Document your Living Relatives

While you may be tempted to begin your research online, the first thing you should do is turn off your computer and pick up a pen and paper. "The starting point for anyone doing family history research is their own family," said Mary Popovich, a member of the Association for Professional Genealogists with 16 years of experience. "Older relatives should be interviewed to see what they know and papers should be sorted to see what information they contain."

Construct your family tree using your own knowledge. The birth, death and marriage certificates of your living relatives and ancestors can help verify your research. Letters and diaries also provide clues.

Your family history includes more than names and dates. Interview the older members of your family for clues and family stories. has compiled sample Oral History Questions you can ask. Tales of your grandparent's childhood during the Great Depression will add life to your family tree.

Before you proceed, develop a clear method of organizing documents and notes. Photocopy records and cite sources to ensure accuracy, Popovich advised. To organize ancestor names and important dates, consider downloading family tree charts and research logs at and Family Tree Magazine.

Initial Online Research

Once you've gathered names from interviews, you're ready to search the Social Security Death Index. This database, managed by the Social Security Administration, can provide you with the birth date, death date and last residence for some ancestors. The index only contains the names of people whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration, not everyone who had a Social Security card. Most people in the database died after 1962. If you find a relative in the database, you can get a copy of their original Social Security application, which contains place of birth and parents' names.

The census is an invaluable resource to genealogists. "Following the family back 10 years at a time, [census records] often can give a good basic snapshot of the family history," Popovich said. "Moreover, they help locate the family at a given time in a certain place, which is particularly helpful for families that were on the move." Some census data has been transcribed on the Internet at sites such as Census Online and the USGenWeb Census Project. However, the bulk of census records must be perused at a state or county library. The National Archives and Family History Centers also have microfiche of census documents up to 1930.

With the clues you've gathered so far, you can begin researching the places your ancestors lived. The USGenWeb Project maintains genealogy sites for every state and county in the United States. If your ancestors emigrated from another country, consult the WorldGenWeb, which maintains informative sites for almost every nation. Other helpful resources can be found in GenealogySpot's Country and State sections.

Military records, passenger ship lists, cemeteries, wills, land records and obituaries may provide additional pieces to the puzzle. RootsWeb and Family Search maintain good online databases of such materials.

While you conduct your research, it can be helpful to communicate with other amateur genealogists. Posting a message on a forum dedicated to your surname can lead to new clues. Gen Forum and the RootsWeb Message Boards are two forums where researchers share information.

Beware of Online Data

While the Internet promises to make genealogy research easier, beginners should recognize its weaknesses. "Many inexperienced researchers will accept what they find on the Web without considering the source or spot checking the research using original records," Popovich said. "One person's transcription error may be accepted as fact by another [person] and another and another."

Typos in transcribed documents and extraneous results from surname searches are two things to watch for. While you might find a family tree with your surname online, there is no guarantee of its accuracy or your relation to that family. You must document your lineage yourself through vital records. Read the Top 10 Genealogy Mistakes to learn how to avoid other common research pitfalls.

Field Research

Professional genealogists warn against performing all of your family history research online. Most of the documentation you'll need is not on the Internet, but at libraries and archives. State and local libraries have genealogy guides, local history books and newspaper archives that are unavailable anywhere else.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City contains thousands of genealogical records on microfilm. The library's collection can also be accessed at Family History Centers nationwide. The National Archives and the Library of Congress also hold many important genealogical documents.

Often a trip to an ancestor's hometown will prove fruitful. Researchers can access primary documents at the local cemetery, courthouse and church. A visit to an ancestral home in another country can be rewarding, but researchers should gather as much information as possible in America before they leave, Popovich said.

Improve your Research Skills

To learn the finer points of record gathering, consider taking a free online genealogy course. RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees will steer you in the right direction. If you think you've hit a dead end, browse the library of the for research tips.

   --- J. Britten

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