Have you ever wondered about your ancestors?  Where did they come from?  How did they get to where they resided?  

Genealogy is intriguing for many people and maybe you have gotten “the bug.” This blog post will take you through some of the basic steps of doing research, collecting and verifying information, organizing, and sharing what you learn with others.  

Researching: How and where do you find information? 

Start with yourself. Collect information on yourself and your parents, and then work back a generation at a time, rather than find a specific person and work forward.  It is less likely that you will make mistakes and follow the wrong family line. Get a copy of your own birth certificate. Get copies of your parents’ birth certificates, marriage license, and any other documents. Interview your family members. 

The research process can be lengthy. But, it is also fun! Follow this research process recommended in The Librarian’s Guide to Genealogical Research to get you started. 

  • 1.  Collect, organize and record personal sources.

  • 2. Identify and contact family members.

  • 3. Add information to your charts.

  • 4. Check the sources.

  • 5. Focus on one person in a single area.

  • 6. Identify available resources.

  • 7. Select the best research tool.

  • 8. Acquire the record.

  • 9. Record the source in the research log.

  • 10. Add information to the form.

  • 11. Evaluate the data and begin cycle again.

When evaluating and gathering data, the How to Do Everything Genealogy (Fourth Edition) suggests that you keep these questions in mind: 

  1. Origin – Where was the document created? By who? And, why? Is it an original document or a photocopy?
  2. AuthorityIs the person writing the record an authority or expert?  Have you checked?  Is the information hearsay or fact?  Is the information from an original or secondary source?
  3. Bias – Does the author or creator have another agenda?  There may be a reason to lie or mask the truth (ex. a child born out of wedlock, a person misrepresenting their age due to vanity or a desire to legally marry, concern about being part of a religious or ethnic group, or to qualify for or avoid military service).

Look for information in your own home or that of your parents or grandparents. Here are some things to look for:

  • Birth—baby books, birth certificates, birth announcements
  • Marriage—wedding book, marriage certificate or license, announcements
  • Death—obituary, funeral book, will, memorial cards
  • Religious—baptismal/christening records, confirmation, ordination and ministerial records
  • School—report cards, honor roll, awards, graduation diplomas, transcripts, yearbooks
  • Everyday Life—journal, diary, biography, letters, photographs and albums, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks
  • Employment—Social Security card, citations, achievement awards, disability, pension, membership, retirement records, income tax records
  • Military service—selective service, pension, citations, disability, service medals, discharge, uniforms (photos, too)
  • Land and property—deeds, land grants, mortgages, leases, tax notices, abstracts of title, estate records, financial records
  • Civil & legal—bonds, summons, subpoena, guardian, contracts
  • Health—hospital, medical, immunization, x-rays, insurance, vaccinations
  • Family—Bible , lineages, genealogies, histories, coat of arms
  • Licenses—business, occupation, professional, hunting/fishing, firearms, drivers, motor vehicle
  • Citizenship—naturalization papers, alien registration, deportment papers, passport, visa

Interviewing your relatives can provide you with valuable information and clues to other resources. You don’t have to conduct a face-to-face interview. Some of the best interviews can be conducted by phone in multiple sessions. Always use open-ended questions that will get more than a “yes” or “no” answer.  Be aware that some people do not wish to talk about their past, and it could be for any number of reasons. Set a time and a date for the interview. And, before you talk to the person, have an idea of what information you want to get from the interview. After interviewing, obtain original documents to verify or refute claims. 

  • Face-to-face—set a time and place.  Bring your video camera or voice recorder, digital camera, mini portable scanner, paper, pencils, laptop.
  • Family gatherings—weddings, graduations, family reunions, funerals.  Be prepared with equipment to record information.
  • Telephone conversations—ask one or questions per visit and make it an ongoing project to interview.  You can build on your relationship over time and ask further questions as your research proceeds.
  • Virtual interviews—use Skype, Zoom, Google Meet or another internet-based program to talk to people long-distance.
  • Written questionnaires—use a short list of questions and space between them for people to write their comments.
  • Requests for corrections—use a pedigree chart or family group sheet with information filled in and ask for corrections/additions to them.

In addition to searching for records at home and interviewing family members, there are countless online sources of genealogical information. The National Archives is an excellent place to begin your online research. There is a section of their website dedicated to Resources for Genealogists. Here, you’ll find information on Census records, researching ethnic heritage, military service records, immigration records, land records, naturalization records, passenger lists, and more. Additionally, with your Charles County Public Library card, you have free access to Ancestry Library Edition and Heritage Quest Online. Between the two sites, you’ll be able to access Census records; birth, marriage, and death records; Freedman’s Bank records (for researching African-American ancestors); the Social Security Death Index; city directories; Revolutionary War Pension Files; and much more. Lastly, you may want to check out FamilySearch. FamilySearch is a free genealogy website maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In addition to providing access to billions of online records (including the International Genealogical Index), FamilySearch allows users to create family trees to share and organize their research. 

Organizing: How do you keep track of everything? 

Document your sources. Documenting your sources lends credibility to your research and helps you remember where the information was obtained. Record enough information so that another researcher will know what you have searched. It is a good idea to include the name of the person about whom the research concerns, the date of the research, and the place. Organize this information into file folders, notebooks, and electronic files. Pedigree charts, family group sheets, and family trees are excellent ways to track familial relationships. For templates and more information, visit the National Genealogical Society website. Standard pedigree charts use the Ahnentafel numbering system. It’s a tool that allows you to derive an ancestor’s relationship based on a number. 

Help Please!: Where do you go to get help?

Researching your family history will be a fascinating and frustrating process. Many genealogists hit a “break wall” during their research and struggle to uncover new information or make sense of the data that they’ve already collected. For help, reach out to your local genealogical or historical society. Look for webinars and classes being offered by local libraries or the Maryland State Archives.