Undoubtedly, the most important repository for you is the one that holds the records you need. I gave some tips on finding records in previous blog posts such as “Accessing Archives from a Distance.” This post is simply meant to highlight some of the important onsite repositories for beginners. “But we are in the middle of a pandemic,” you say. And I say now is the perfect time to get your game plan ready. We can visit all of these repositories virtually and create a research plan, which I will discuss in more detail in a future post in this series, but you can read a previous post on the topic here.
Top repositories for beginning genealogists:
Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah – This is the largest collection of genealogical materials in the world. Much is being digitized and can be found on their website. Some is “locked” due to contractual obligations and requires you to be in the library or at a local Family History Center to access. They have a huge collection of books on site. This is an important repository simply because of the geographical reach one can get from working on site. You can work on several projects at once while at the FHL.
Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana – This library is possibly the second largest collection of genealogical materials in the U.S. As the creator of PERSI (the PERiodical Source Index), they hold over 8,000 titles of genealogical society journals, on site, in addition to many other genealogical books and materials from all over the world.
Your State historical society or genealogical society library – Find out where your state’s historical and/or genealogical society is and whether they have a repository. Their collection will most likely be tailored to the state you are working in.
Any large genealogical collection in a city near you – Many cities have large libraries, and many of those libraries have a genealogy or local history collection that focuses on that city and region.
Local public library with a genealogy/local history collection in the area of your research – When you are working in smaller, rural areas, finding a small public library will often be the treasure trove you need. Small public libraries have the granular focus of collecting and saving information for that area.
Get online and find the catalog on the website for each of these locations. Pick a research project and start searching the collection for sources that might be useful for your goals. Then create a research plan. Someday the pandemic will lift and we will be able to travel again. I hope you come away with a ginormous amount of research to do onsite because you will have filled your days with research planning.
When I began my family history journey, I started with paper charts and forms. It did not take long, however, to realize that there had to be a better way to store all of that information so I didn’t have to make photocopies and instead I could make nice charts and tables to share.
When I got started, there weren’t a lot of software options out there, and especially not for Mac users. I used a free shareware genealogy software for a while, but eventually found my way to Reunion. Over time, various websites developed that allowed users to create and store their trees in the cloud.
What is the best way to go about this these days? My answer to these questions is always “do what works best for you.”
Some only work in the cloud, having their tree completely at Ancestry or MyHeritage or any of the sites that let you build your trees online. Others only have sparse trees on those sites and keep the bulk of their research on their computer software. And still others, only work in word processors or on paper. Again, the best system is the one that makes the most sense to you.
I do a combination of all. I have most of my research in Reunion on my computer. I print out important items and keep them in my binders. I add clues or other documents as I find them to my trees online.
If you are looking for software, there are some great options. I recommend consulting Cyndi’s List for the latest. You can also find ratings and reviews at pages such as GenSoftReviews.
Find a system and and online or desktop tree-builder that works best for you. It will help you stay organized and keep you research manageable.
When I first started genealogy, there were a decent number of online sources, but most everything was still in a library or archive somewhere. I wrote a lot of letters and filled out a lot of vital records applications when I first started. I began on the cusp of what the internet has become (and still becoming) in terms of online genealogy.
If you are a beginner today, I just wanted to share my top genealogical websites for starting your genealogical journey. Some are free, some are subscription. I hear a lot of complaining about the subscription prices, but when I think about how much I spent on mail and application fees, or gas or plane tickets and hotels to conduct this research “back in the day,” it doesn’t compare in my mind. Having access to millions of records at home, in the middle of the night (or early hours of the morning if you are more like me), is worth the fee to me.
My top genealogy sites for getting started (and in no particular order, only as they come to mind):
FamilySearch (free) – Hosts millions of digitized records and books that is constantly growing with new digitized microfilms every day, has an invaluable research wiki, and has a public-generated and edited family tree.
Ancestry (subscription, though you may access a library edition through a local library) – Also has millions of digitized records, databases, books, newspapers, and more. Also has a DNA database and public member trees.
Find A Grave (free) – Public-sourced cemetery and gravestone database full of millions of memorial pages for individuals from all over the world.
Do you have a question of a more specialized nature? Perhaps you want to find some charts and forms to get you started, or find out more about railroad records, or are not even sure what you want to know more about? Another fantastic source I recommend to beginners and advanced researchers alike is Cyndi’s List.
Cyndi’s List has categories for you to browse. Don’t search the site, browse it. Find a category that fits your research question. This site is a list of links to other websites. But they are sites you may not have known to search for on Google or even know that those records and resources even existed.
Genealogy on the internet has exploded in the 20 years I’ve been involved. So much more is accessible at our fingertips than ever before! Get out there and find your ancestors.
After you’ve collected everything you know, it is time to reach out to your living relatives. Every day that passes by, is one day closer to death, unfortunately. Not to be grim (though we did just pass Halloween), but this is a sincere fact of life. And I’m not necessarily talking about YOUR death; that’s another discussion about YOU getting YOUR genealogical records in order. I’m talking about our older relatives and even those our own age. The time is now to talk to them, to interview them regarding their memories of the family history. Each person will have their own side to every story, their own memories about family events, and so it is so important to ask as many relatives as possible about family events.
There are some great online resources to help you with questions that can prompt family members to talk.
Linda Spence, Legacy: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Personal History
Kirk Polking, Writing Family Histories and Memoirs
I have found that paper forms are very handy to use when interviewing relatives when you can sit down with them face-to-face. They can help prompt them to talk about things that they had forgotten. If they see a blank on your form and they know that information, they are often willing to share. Currently, I recommend phone calls or Zoom meetings for you family history interviews. And during this time when we are all so isolated, some of those older relatives would probably really appreciate the call.
It seems that sometimes cousins know more about my direct line than I do because they were more willing to gossip about something not affecting their nuclear family units. Ask cousins what they know about a particular family event and see what kinds of stories you hear.
If they are comfortable being recorded, do that so you don’t have to be a furious note-taker while they are talking. If you are using Zoom, that is quite easy. You can also set up your phone to record voices or go old-school and use a tape recorder if you still have one. Come prepared with charts and questions. Share with them pictures, documents, and information you’ve already collected. This often jogs their memory.
Here are some topics:
Important life events
Most of all, this is supposed to be fun and engaging. So, make some time to make some calls either by phone or zoom. As the holidays approach in this weird year, reach out and have some family history conversations with your family members.
If you are brand new to genealogy or if you want to do a refresh here are some solid starting points.
Start with yourself and work back in time.
Begin with what you know and work toward the unknown.
Start with the basics: birth, marriage, death
Add more details: military, education, residences, employment
Utilize common family history forms or genealogical software to help you build your family tree. Start with yourself and record everything about you, your spouse, kids, etc. Then work on your siblings and parents. Don’t stop with your direct line. Write down everything you know about your aunts, uncles, cousins, expanding out from your direct line.
Start in your own home. Look through your old papers for:
birth and death certificates
letters or diaries
I’m not going to tell you that one way is better than another. The best way to do anything is the way that works for you. I will tell you that I started with paper forms. Then I used an old Mac program that no longer exists. I’ve used a Mac since the beginning of time and so I have been a Reunion user almost since their beginning. I also use online family trees, but I treat those more like a holding place while I’m using their website. All of my research is housed in Reunion. I also print everything and organize it in my binder system.
Once you’ve exhausted everything in your own home, you’ll want to start talking to your relatives. We will discuss that next time. That’s where the fun begins!
I’m starting a new series that will focus on some “beginning” or basic concepts of genealogical research. A bit of a reset, perhaps. This year has been one giant [insert your favorite expletive-driven description here.] I’m feeling the need to get back to some of the basics before we head into the holidays and 2021. I’m hoping for a refocus and a shift in my thinking after the utter [again, insert your favorite descriptor here… “crapfest” comes to my mind] this year has been.
So this new series will look at some of the basics, starting with, why do we even do this at all? There are spiritual, religious, emotional, and psychological reasons we might be engaged in this pastime:
Greater understanding of family stories brings empathy to living family members, perhaps emotional healing
Helps with loneliness and depression by filling you with a feeling of knowing your family members and ancestors loved you (even if indirectly)
It may help with that muddling-through-life feeling by understanding that our ancestors went through tough times too and survived. “I can DO this! It’s in my DNA!”
Provides us with wisdom and a broader perspective when we understand our ancestors in historical and social contexts
May experience “spiritual power” and serendipity while engaged in genealogy
“If you were to gather fifty genealogists in a room, chances are that forty-five of them would readily admit to having experienced a few unexplainable incidents in their search for roots.”
Has the genealogy “bug” bitten you? Have you thought about why? What benefits you may be getting from researching your ancestors? You might take a few moments to consider the WHY of your love/obsession with family history research. For some it may be as simple as finding the next piece of the puzzle. For others, it may take on a whole new dimension.