When I ask people why they aren’t doing their genealogy, the most common response is that they don’t know where to start, followed closely by “I don’t have the time” and “my family isn’t that interesting”.
Ok, (A) your family is that interesting even if you don’t know it yet and (B) genealogy doesn’t have to be a time suck but we’re going to talk about those two things in another blog post. Today, I’m just going to focus on where to start.
Getting your family history organized can feel like a big job because, let’s face it, you’re going to invest some time and probably a little money. Don’t get scared! You don’t have to start big but you really should start as soon as possible, especially if you have living relatives who could help you. I wish I had dug deeper into my genealogy when all of my grandparents were alive because I have questions now that I believe only they could have answered. So start small if you want but START!
The good news is, it’s really not that complicated to get started with your genealogy and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Here are the ten first steps you should take, in order:
(1) Write down everything you know right now.
/// You might not think you know a lot about your genealogy, but you probably know something. Write down the names of all the family you can think of and where they lived. You can add in birthdays if you know them. Don’t worry if you’re fuzzy on the details – you’ll correct yourself a lot later. This is just to get it out on paper so you have a starting point.
(2) Write down what other people close to you know.
/// If you can, interview family members and add what they know. If you don’t want to bother relatives you never talk to, that’s fine for now (we’ll get there). Just add in as much info as you can from people you’re comfortable talking to.
(3) Start filling out your direct ancestor index.
/// We all come from the same number of direct ancestors. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. Although we may have significant uncles, stepparents, siblings, and so on, starting with the direct ancestors is the easiest way to begin. I have a pre-printed index that you can fill out or you can just sit down and write your direct ancestors down.
(4) Scan your photos and family history documents.
/// Get your photos and documents scanned ASAP. You can send them out to have people scan them for you, but it’s easy and usually more cost effective to scan them yourself at home. You need to make sure that you have the right equipment to create high quality, archive-level scans but even that isn’t too expensive. I did a whole blog post on this with a list of equipment. It might take a while but if you ever needed an excuse to binge out on Netflix, here it is.
(5) Scan your slides.
/// Slides are important and there’s a high chance that if you have them, nobody has looked at them for a really long time. You need a specific type of scanner to scan slides at home but it isn’t that expensive. Here’s the guide to scanning slides.
(6) Digitize your home movies.
/// Same as above – if you have movies on VHS, 8mm, or Super 8, it’s probably been a long time since anyone watched those movies. Movies are a great way to start conversations about family history but an even more important fact is that film deteriorates over time so the clock is already running on how long you have to get those things digitized. I did my 8mm and Super 8 movies at home and blogged the process but this is another thing you could send out if you only have a few.
(7) Put all of your digitized photos and movies in a safe place.
/// Personally, I like to have all of my photos and movies saved to two different hard drives in case one of them fails. I also upload them to my private Google Photos account, which is free if you choose the “High Quality” upload size instead of uploading full size files. High Quality is fine for most people who aren’t going to blow up wall sized prints of their photos.
(8) Collect photos, movies, and slides from other people and digitize them.
/// You have two reasons for doing this. One is that you’ll significantly add to your database of family history photos and movies. The second is that you’ll get a genealogy conversation with family members and that gives you a base to come back when you have questions later.
(9) Use your collected information to start making “chapters” or files for each direct ancestor.
/// Here’s where you start putting it all together. You want to match up photos and documents to the ancestors they belong to. I do this digitally using my genealogy worksheets, but you can also do this by hand if you want to physically move things like wedding portraits and marriage certificates into labeled folders. Little tip: A big pro of doing things digitally is that you can just handle a photo or document once and then use the scanned image in all of your filing. Here’s my post on doing digital genealogy.
(10) Start finding more information by searching online.
/// You might be surprised that it took me this long to tell you to get on Family Search or Ancestry or some other site like that to do some genealogy research. The truth is, I know a lot of people get onto these sites and fall down rabbit holes where they lose a lot of time but they don’t get a lot accomplished. I think it’s better to get in there and do the work that only you can (indexing your ancestors, getting photos scanned) and then come to the table with a solid idea of what you already know and what you’re trying to find. Making chapters for each ancestor is especially helpful because you can really get a feel for what you do/don’t have for someone.
Now, personally I’m an Ancestry.com subscriber and I love that service but I know it’s a little pricey. Family Search has many of the same research documents available and it’s free. The downside of Family Search is that it’s one big family tree that everyone is constantly editing whereas Ancestry lets you build your own tree that you can keep private if you want. If you really aren’t ready to jump in with both feet or you don’t want to spend a lot of money until you get a little more comfortable with family history, I say buy my $10 genealogy worksheets bundle and start on Family Search to fill the pages in. Just remember to save images or copies of documents to your computer, keep building up your chapters on your ancestors, and just do a little at a time.