Family Tree Research:
Where do I Begin?

After his grandmother’s funeral, a teenager asked about her ancestors. His uncle, stating that he did not know, replied,

“We have lost a great source of information
for family tree research, now that Grandma is gone”.

Truer words were never spoken, when it comes to family tree research.

In my view, the best place to start tracing your family tree is at home, in your immediate family.

Do you have a story about someone you interviewed, that you would like to share? Click here.

Starting a Family Tree Research Project

Whether you are a young person doing a family tree research project for school, whose parents and grandparents are still alive, or an older person doing family tree research as a legacy for your children and grandchildren, the advice is the same:

After obtaining either a family tree template or family tree software, fill in your own birth and marriage information, as well as those of other family members that you know.

Then, begin by interviewing the older members of your family. Obtain their life stories. You may be surprised how much you didn’t know about their lives!

Find out about their parents and siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, including names, dates of birth, marriage, divorce, and death, as well as where they were born, lived and worked, where they went to school, who in the family did military service, what their hobbies were, and so on.

Interview - Mario Monicelli
Wikimedia Commons
Interview - Mario Monicelli

Try to get as much information as possible about previous generations from them, while they are still here to tell the tale.

Find out what kind of documentation they have that would be helpful in your family tree research, in terms of verifying when and where events in people's lives occurred. In addition to any questions you might have, ask each one if they have any information about the following:

  • whether there was a family Bible from a past generation, and if so, who might have it;
  • whether they know of any family tree research that other family members have done;
  • whether they have any family movies, slides and videos of family members, especially of older family members when they were young;
  • whether they have any scrapbooks or old photographs of family members or of ancestors who are no longer with us;
  • whether there are any diaries, trip journals, circular letters, or old letters written by or between your ancestors, which would shed any light on family relationships and add some additional information about the lives of your ancestors; and
  • who might have birth, marriage and death records, school report cards, military records or war medals (which hopefully would provide military identification numbers, so that further documentation could be obtained), immigration documents, home purchase and sale documentation, and other resources, for various family members.

Record that information in your software, or in a notebook. Try to get the spelling of names that are mentioned.

Also, a filing cabinet or some sort of system for organizing all of the paperwork and other items you accumulate is absolutely essential.

Examples of Documents
you might Accumulate.
Samples of Vital Statistics

Equipment you might Take with You when Interviewing

Before interviewing, prepare a set of questions to ask. Think about what you want to know, and write it all down. The more organized you are, the more smoothly your family tree research will progress, in that you will not have to go back to the same relative unnecessarily, to ask more questions.

You might want to consult this autobiography page for ideas about additional questions to ask.

Don't forget a notebook. You will want to take notes at various times while you are interviewing.

Consider taking a scrapbook, or a photo album, with you, which will trigger memories about the people in the photos. It may lead to the interviewee's version of various stories about each individual in the photographs or newspaper articles.

Wikimedia Commons
Digital recorder

You will also need a video camera, preferably with a tripod. These days, many of the older generation are accustomed to being videotaped, and are not afraid of speaking in front of a camera.

Videotaping the interview is an excellent way to preserve not only what was said, but that particular relative’s mannerisms and way of expressing him or herself - which, if your family is anything like mine, in some cases may be just as interesting as what they actually say on camera!

Wikimedia Commons
Cell Phone

Take a digital camera or a cell phone so that, if your relative shows you something which he or she does not wish to part with or lend out, but which would conclusively prove something that you have been searching for, you will be able to capture it digitally.

Or better yet, go with a portable scanning device. There are some very light-weight scanning devices on the market, some of them produced specifically for the genealogy market. They will allow you to scan photographs, documents, and other important items right then and there, and you can upload them to your computer later.

The Flip-Pal Portable Scanner

One such device, which is proving particularly popular among genealogists, is the Flip-Pal portable scanner.

About the size of a netbook computer, the scanner runs on 4 AA batteries, and saves images to an SD card. It comes with an adapter which plugs into a USB port on your computer, into which the SD card can be inserted.

It also has software which allows you to "stitch together" several scans which you have made of a photograph or object which is larger than the scanner's surface, making the size of the document irrelevant.

The scanner also can scan photos through plastic or glass (such as in a picture frame or a photo album), creating a clear image without glare - a clear advantage over a cell phone and its flash!

For further information, see my web page Flip-Pal Mobile Scanner: Product Review.

Another Option: Hire a Professional

If you don't have time to do the interviewing yourself, consider hiring someone to do it. One such company, located in California, is Tears of Joy Stories.

One of their services is to videotape a person's life story. They also will take home movies and photographs and make a montage or a biography video of someone's life. (See the Links page for a more complete description of this company's offerings).

After the Interviews

With the "mountain" of information which you obtain from doing your interviews, you will have a lot of documentation to organize and to evaluate. This should be done immediately after each interview. You likely will find that, while you have made considerable progress in your family tree research, you also have a lot of questions that have arisen as a result of the things people have told you, and from the documents gathered.

Types of Documents Accumulated

You will have a number of different versions of various family stories, as each person has his or her own perspective on what happened, when, and why.

The documentation you have obtained will either prove things you have been told (birth, marriage, or death dates, date of sign-up for military service, etc.), or will provide clues for you to follow up and corroborate or disprove independently. Similarly, the various elements of the stories you have been told will have to be verified.

Naturally, all of the items listed in the "equipment" list (with the exception of the notepad, the question list, and possibly a digital camera or cell phone) are "nice to have", but may not be strictly necessary.

If you are prepared to take a lot of notes, then you can simply sit down and talk to the person, without any method of recording the interview. The disadvantages are that there will be no record for future generations, and you will not have a recording to play back, should you wish to review the contents of the interview. Either way, you will learn a great deal about your family history.

So, the long and the short of it is, you likely already have everything you need to get started on your family tree, in terms of

  • you,
  • the members of your immediate and extended family, and
  • their vital records (birth, marriage, and death dates), along with
  • some excellent sources of data for family tree research, and
  • at least part of their life stories,

in your home or that of a relative or two. So choose a way to record it (template or software), and get started on your family tree research project - a fascinating journey into the past!

Go from "Family Tree Research: Getting Started" to "When is my Family Tree Complete?"

Go to "Family History Tips"

Go to familyhistoryalive Home Page"

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