Center for Archival Collections
For Beginners: Getting Started
Begin with yourself. Record the dates and places of your birth and marriage. Do the same for your parents and brothers and sisters, including their death dates and places, if needed. Continue this process for each generation back as far as you can. It is usually helpful to use a pedigree chart format. Make accompanying family group sheets, to record the parents and all their children. Be sure to document each source of information at all times. Wherever you have a blank space is information you need to find out.
Talk to your relatives. It can be helpful to bring along photographs or other documents you have collected to help family members jog their memories. Family history is more than just names and dates. The Archival Chronicle includes some suggested questions that should help to recall family stories as well as the vital statistics.
Organize your information. A three-ring binder is a good place to keep your work. Review all materials, then make a want list of what you need to extend your family lines. Keep a record of sources checked (a research log) in order to avoid reviewing the same material.
Go to your local library. At the library you may find a family and local history collection of atlases, cemetery records, census records, directories, family histories, newspapers, obituary files, photographs, published biographies and histories, and other miscellaneous materials. Larger research libraries such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana have materials from all over the United States, including military records and passenger lists. The microfilm resources of the Family History Library can be ordered via interlibrary loan from a branch Family History Center.
Visit the county courthouse. Local government records that might be found at the county courthouse include court records, deeds, divorces, estates, guardianships, naturalizations, soldiers' records, tax records, and vital records (birth, marriage, and death). State and local health departments usually have contemporary vital records. Call ahead to determine hours of operation.
Visit the church your ancestors attended. Records of baptism or confirmation, marriage, and burial may be available. If a church no longer exists or records are not available, get in touch with denominational archives.
Contact local genealogical and historical societies for assistance. The societies usually maintain collections of family and local history. Many publish indexes and transcripts of records. Featured speakers at their regular meetings provide information on topics of genealogical and historical interest. Membership provides opportunities for meeting fellow researchers and exchanging information.
- Store originals of all documents in a safe place. If you need the information for your research, make a copy to take with you.
- Call ahead to confirm hours of operation.
- Plan your research trips. Decide what information to look for and where it is most likely to be found before you go. Bring your notebook and research log with you.