With the new year, some people are thinking more about family history, especially with the popularity of such shows as "Who Do You Think You Are?" and the excitement of the upcoming release of the 1940 U.S. Federal Population Census on April 2, 2012.
If you have not been bitten by the genealogy bug, more than likely you know someone who has (perhaps even in your own family). Here are a few tips to get you (or your cousin) started.
1. Start with yourself and work backwards. It is very tempting to begin work with the farthest ancestor you know and keep on going backwards from there. However, documenting your parents, siblings, grandparents, and so on gives you a solid base from which to work. At some point in the future, you will be the oldest ancestor, and your groundwork will be very helpful to your great-great-grandchildren. You may find surprises along the way, such as a sibiling of your grandfather who died at a very young age, or a marriage that took place of which no one in the family knew. At this stage, also gather copies of your immediate family's original records, including birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates, as well as photographs and other important records. You can also use free online forms like this Family Group Sheet.
2. Talk to your family. I have heard many regrets from researchers who wished that they could ask their grandparents more questions. Governmental records were created to provide legal evidence of a person, not to provide genealogists with a family tree. In speaking with your family, especially older relatives, you may find that some facts might be embellished or mixed-up over time. However, there usually are some grains of truth in them. Write down the stories and then set out to document the facts using primary sources. Family stories can also illustrate the personality of an ancestor. For example, one story in my family told how my great-grandfather would jump into the back of his granddaughter's car (my aunt) when she was going on a date. He declared he was the chaperone for the night and this would drive her crazy, but soon this became a running joke. Looking at the pictures of him, you can see a jovial and mischievious look in his eye, and it also seems to explain all the crazy hats he wears in many photographs.
3. Don't believe everything on the Internet. Commercial websites and non-profit websites are wonderful places to begin, if you have not done any sort of research at all. There is so much more online than ever, especially for the at-home researcher. However, be aware that not every record is digitized (or available online), and some compiled information may be incorrect. Note where the information comes from and the date you accessed the website. Just as in printed books or indexes, the information may give you clues, but you still have to follow up and find the original documents. Make sure you are also aware of the limitations of the collection by finding out exactly what is available through that website. Some libraries also provide free access to subscription-based websites. Call your local branch to find out what is available to you.
4. Make time to visit repositories. Once you have an idea of where some of the records are that document your family, take a Saturday or some free time to visit the library or archives where the records are located. Call ahead of time to find out the hours, copying costs, and how to view any original records. Be sure to ask the staff for help when you arrive as well, since this will save you time. Every archives and library is different in how the material is accessed and made available to the public. In any institution, however, the reference staff is there to help you. Be aware that some records will only be available on microfilm or in original format, and you will need to allow time to view these records. If you are doing research on Georgia families, at some point you will visit the Georgia Archives. Be sure to visit their website at http://www.sos.ga.gov/archives/.
5. Join a local genealogy or history group. If you are just starting out, and especially if you are the only one in your family who seems to be interested in genealogy, you might feel a bit isolated. In Georgia, you can join the Georgia Genalogical Society, which not only has a great website, newsletter, and journal, but also provides workshops throughout the year to help you with your research skills. Meeting like-minded people helps expand your knowledge base as well as provide a way for you to ask others in a similar situation for ideas and advice. In Duluth, there are many wonderful people to meet in the Duluth Historical Society. To find more local organizations, please visit the Directory of Historical and Cultural Organizations (http://content.sos.state.ga.us/GHRAB/), provided online by the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Board.
No matter how you approach your family history, the number one rule is to DOCUMENT YOUR SOURCES. As you come across information, whether in a personal interview, published book, or primary sources, write down where the information came from and when you found it. You and your ancestors will be glad you did. Make sure to also enjoy the process and have fun meeting new cousins along the way. Your family is larger than you ever imagined.