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Beginning Genealogy: Getting Started: Research Basics

This is a guide to print and online resources useful to the study of family history and genealogy. Many of these materials are available through the Government and Heritage Library.

Research begins with you!

Genealogy begins with you! Whether you are just beginning your origin story journey -- or you're going back to the beginning to retrace your steps to finding missing links.  And then you work your way back, generation by generation. Here are tips for starting your journey on the right foot.

Start with what you know and gather information

  • Gather information about yourself, beginning with your own birth record
  • What do you know about your parents?  Record your parents' vital information: birth dates, marriage dates, and what city or town, county, and state each event took place.
  • Next, do the same for your grandparents and their parents, and their parents if you can.

Get organized!

  • Family History Research is time-consuming, so getting organized will save time and help ensure good results.
  • Getting organized will keep you from looking at the same resources over and over.
  • Be methodical, take good notes, and document every step of your research.

Keep an open mind and be creative!

Learn about historical context, the communities, and historical events that shaped the lives of your ancestors. Names, dates, and records are one aspect of your work. Learning the social history of the time will help tell your story and make you a better researcher.

Learn about genealogical research methods and find helpful resources.

Learn more:  Take a class or join a genealogical support group

First steps: gather information

Locating and organizing family stories, heirlooms, mementos, and items that mark rites of passage is an important first -- and ongoing -- step in genealogical work. These items -- like old toys, clothes, quilts, flags, uniforms, baby books, and others -- have a family story and can give important clues and information.

Look for family heirlooms

  • Scrapbooks, photos and albums, diaries, and baby books
  • Family bibles, wills, and letters
  • Diplomas and school records, yearbooks, awards, and club memberships
  • Immigration or naturalization records, passports, and drivers licenses
  • Birth, marriage, and death announcements
  • Employment records and military documents or artifacts

Interview Relatives

Ask your family members, especially older ones, about births, marriages, and deaths and family stories. Get as much detailed information as you can. 

Gather and record:

  • Names: Full names, nicknames, and maiden names
  • Dates:  When did things take place?  If they do not know the exact date, do they know the season, the decade, or if it was before or after a significant event?
  • Places: What neighborhood, community, town, city, and state did people live in? 
  • Relationships: Are/were the people named siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, friends, spouses, or business associates?


Global genealogy

Is your ancestral story rooted in another country or culture? There are plenty of resources to be found to conduct your research.

Visit the FamilySearch Research Wiki to find research tips and strategies as well as access to collections relevant to ancestry around the globe. 

Get organized with tools & templates

Image of a family chart from the National Archives and Records Administration.Family History Research is time-consuming, and getting organized will benefit you in many ways. Get acquainted with these organizational approaches, charts, and tools:

Research Calendar or Log

Maintaining a Research Calendar is one of the most important tools for researching your family history. The advantages of keeping a research calendar include: saving valuable time; prevents looking at the same resources and records over and over. 

  • Advantages of keeping a research calendar or log: saves valuable time; prevents looking at the same resources and records over and over by knowing what you have already looked at; you can share your research with other.
  • Research calendar forms:  

The Ancestor Chart  

Whether you call it an ancestor chart, family tree form, or pedigree chart, this form is an excellent tool for clearly showing ancestral lines, organizing your information, and seeing at a glance where you need to focus your research.    

  • Start by using an ancestor chart to make notes about what you already know about your family and work your way back, adding dates and locations where possible.  Genealogical research is done working backwards from the present, one generation at at a time. Don't be tempted to leap-frog over a generation!
  • Record the key events in a person's lfie: birth, marriage, and death: 
  • Names: first, middle, and last, with the surname in all capital letters. For women, use the maiden name.
  • Dates: day/month/year  
  • Locations: record the smallest geography to the largest (county and state). ​​​​​​
  • Tips
    • Review the chart to note gaps and tackle the missing information, focusing on one individual at a time, starting with people closest chronologically to you—record fathers on the even-numbered lines and mothers on the odd-numbered lines.
    • Research the information/ancestor gap closest to yourself.
    • Tackle one individual and one generation at a time.
    • Fill out the chart using a pencil until you have documented a particular fact. Then you can write it in pen. 
    • Number your charts.  
    • Record the sources you use to find ancestor chart data (many charts allow this on the reverse page).  
  • Ancestor chart forms from the National Archives (NARA):   

Family Group Sheet 

Keep a family group sheet for each person on your ancestor chart. Although you may wonder why you need to record information about an ancestor’s siblings, gathering facts about other people in your ancestor’s family and community may be of value later. Often, brick walls in research are overcome by studying the families connected to a direct ancestor. Family group sheets will also help you compile a complete family history.    

  • A family group sheet should show basic but essential information about a single family, including major life events and relationships. It will also allow you to quickly see what information you have and what else you need to find.   
  • Start with the father and mother, recording their full names. Write the date and place of their birth, marriage, and death, including burial location. 
  • Next, add the children in birth order, with number one being the oldest. Record the dates and place of birth, marriage, death, and burial place, as well as their spouse’s name.   
  • Be sure to cite sources of each piece of information that you use to identify family members and their life events. Include your name and the date you created the family group sheet.  
  • Family Group Sheet forms:  

Family Migration Map/Chart

Family migration chart or maps allow you to put a visual on your family's geographical movement over time. There are a number of approaches out there, and you can even make your own.