How to Get Started Researching

Researching your family history is a marathon, not a sprint. Start with that assumption and you be less frustrated when your research bumps into the inevitable “brick wall”. I started in November 1993 when the local computer software store offered my choice of any application with the purchase of an app. So I chose a genealogy app, just to see what it was about. I don’t even remember what app I actually bought, but I was hooked.

Today, there are so many more ways to research online that it’s easy to forget how it worked before or It’s also easy to think that’s the only way to do family research. But, all of the records and ways to search for your ancestors are still available. In fact, there are still many records that are not online.

So, how do you get started?

Start with what you know

Write down what you know about yourself and your immediate family. A Family Group Sheet (FGS) is a great starting place. A separate Family Group Sheet should be filled out for each marriage or relationship that produced children. The form includes blank spaces to the information you want to collect. Don’t worry if you don’t have all of the information yet; remember, family research takes time.

Complete an FGS for you, your parents, your grandparents, etc. Go back as far as you can. Don’t worry about researching or proving any of this information yet. Right now, you are just writing down what you know – or think you know. If you aren’t sure about something, write a question mark (?) next to it.

How far back do I go?

In the United States, the 1940 federal census was released this year. Many of the Population Schedule pages are available online and available at a National Archives branch. So if you can document people alive in 1940 then you have a solid starting point for your research.

Choose a research goal

People get into family research for many reasons. The Who Do You Think You Are (WDYTYA) on NBC in the US and BBC in the UK has help make family research more popular. It has also make genealogy into a game, like Angry Birds, to some.

When you start researching your family, create a goal. What do you want to learn? How far do you want to go? Do you only want to learn about your great-grandmother? All immigrant ancestors? Are you just following one name, one family line? Whatever your goal, it helps to think about what you want to achieve. A goal helps shape your search, how much time you put into it, etc.

My research goal was to find all of my immigrant ancestors. Well, it still is my goal but I do keep researching a family even if I find the immigrant. But finding my immigrant ancestors are my main goal.

Decide how you plan to store what you find

There are several ways to store the information – usually government or religion-based documents – including paper files, an app on your computer or using a service on the Internet. There are advantages and disarranges to each. Searching Your Family Tree Online can help you get started.


You can keep all of your research notes on paper. Many people still do. Many local records are not online so you have to get a photocopy – almost always on paper – of the information anyway. Many people like a physical document to hold and read. You can make notes on it or add loose pages to the file. The downsize of paper is that paper files take lots of room very quickly. And file folders can get heavy.

Computer Application

There have been genealogy computer programs since the early days of personal computers. One of the earliest I remember is Personal Ancestral File or “PAF”. Since that time, however, there have been – and still are – many apps to choose from. There are apps for Apple computers, Windows computes, Linux computers, and even Internet apps (websites). I’ve found that each app is a little different and the one that works for you is a personal choice. So you might need to test a few trial versions to find the one that works best for you. I personally use RootsMagic and its predecessor, Family Origins. But Family Tree Maker, from is very popular, as well as many others.

The benefit of an app that stores the research database on your computer is that you keep control over your information, including personal information about living people.

Online Services and are just two examples of services that let you create a family tree (or several trees) online. is a paid service; that is, you pay a subscription fee to see records. is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) as a free service. That is, it doesn’t cost you anything.

Researching your family history

Once you have some basic information in place, a goal, and an idea about how to organize what you find it is time to get started. There are so many people ready to help you out that you should see progress right away. Good hunting!


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