Saturday, July 6, 2013

Where to start

Michele [not me] asks:
”I was talking to my 13 year old son, trying to think of hobbies we could do together, and we are both interested in researching our family tree. Where do you suggest we start? My paternal grandmother did genealogy for years and years, kept records by hand (pre computers) and then ended up giving ALL her stuff away to some distant, very little known cousin. My grandmother is not with it mentally enough to give us tutorials, so I thought I'd ask you what a good, easy starting place might be.”
[I know Michele through a homeschooling group that we both belong to]

I wouldn’t be too upset about not having your grandmother’s research. If you are brand new to genealogy and you are in possession of someone else’s research, it is way too easy to accept it all as gospel and just copy everything down willy nilly.  You will be better off starting from scratch.  You can try and track down her notes later.  Here are some things that I suggest for the beginner.

  • FamilySearch will become your best friend.  This is the website for the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT which is the largest repository of genealogical holdings in the world.  Everything on this website is completely free of charge.  You might have to invest in paid subscription sites sometime in the future but I would definitely start here. You will need to make an account with them so that you will get the full benefits of the website.  The first place I would start would be their Learning Center.  Scroll down to the bottom and you will see videos especially for beginners.  These are excellent.  After watching these you can browse through their other videos for more in-depth information.  They have 112 videos just for beginners.
  • You have two options for recording your information.  You can use a stand alone database program or you can use “the cloud.”  The stand alone database program I recommend is Legacy Family Tree.  I also recommend that you start with their free standard version. You can always upgrade to the bells and whistles edition later once you get comfortable with the data entry. There are other programs out there that are also good but I have found Legacy to be the easiest for beginners to learn. 

    The other option is keeping your data online and working on it there (the cloud).  The top two websites for this are FamilySearch’s FamilyTree and’s Member Trees.  If you want to go this route then my choice would be FamilyTree.  Even though access to the Ancestry’s Member Trees is also free, will tempt you with “hints” that you will only be able to access with a paid subscription.  When you are first starting out, it is a good idea to stick to the free resources until you know if this hobby is something you want to invest more of your time and money in. 

    You can also use both of these methods at the same time.  Legacy directly interfaces with FamilyTree.  This means that as you are entering and updating information in Legacy, you can sync it to FamilyTree so that other people will also have access to your research.  You can also download people from FamilyTree directly into Legacy which I don’t recommend until you have more experience so that you will know the difference between good information and bad information.  If you like better, then you will need to use Family Tree Maker (FTM) as your database program if you want to interface (sync) directly with it.  Again, I don’t recommend this unless you are willing to pay for a subscription to so that you can get the full benefits of their website.  I have a subscription to but I still like Legacy and FamilyTree better.  FTM does not have a free version nor will it sync to FamilyTree.  I will mention two other programs that have free versions and can sync with FamilySearch. They are RootsMagic and AncestralQuest.  These are both good programs but again, I think Legacy is the easiest to learn for the beginner. 

  • Always start with yourself and then work your way backward in time.  Don’t make the mistake of getting too far ahead of yourself.  Take the time to really investigate each generation before going on to the next.  When you are working in a database program you will see what all things you are looking for (just fill in the blanks!).  You want to enter your information, your spouse’s information and the information for all of your children.  Then you can go backwards to your parents and then to your grandparents.

  • ALWAYS document WHERE you got EVERY piece of information that you record.  Failing to do this is the number one mistake that beginners make.  I can’t emphasize enough just how important this is.  Legacy and all of the other genealogy database programs as well as “the cloud” applications have a place for you to record this for every fact.  Get in the habit of this early on.  One really nice thing about FamilySearch is if you access any record on their site they will give you the proper citation.

  • Join a local genealogical society.  My local group, the Columbia County Genealogical Society (CCGS), has members from total beginner to very advanced.  It is a great mix.  We get together once a month and talk about our research.  We also have special presentations and field trips.  Networking is very important in genealogy as you will soon find out.  You will be emailing people all over the United States and probably the world.

  • If you stay with this hobby you will probably amass a large reference library but for now I recommend just one book, Val D. Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy (third edition).  This book was published in 2000 so it is a little behind the times when it comes to computer programs and the internet but it is excellent when it comes to teaching you the basics of doing research and showing you what you need to know about the basic records sets.

I warn you, genealogy is addicting.  I have been doing it for 22 years and I am not the least bit tired of it.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

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