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Researching Your Family's History

Genealogy vs. Family History

Is there really any difference between the terms genealogy and family history? They always seem to be used interchangeably.

Actually, there is. Genealogy is solely concerned with direct ancestors: your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.  Sound simple?  Remember that every time you go back a generation, you double the number of ancestors.  You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents...  How do you research such a growing number of people?  Ancestor by ancestor. But you can't research individuals in a vacuum. That's where family history comes in.

When you refer to family history, you exclude no one who is part of a particular household.  Every individual is important -- brothers, sisters, adoptees, step-siblings, half-siblings, step-children, in-laws, even boarders.  The extended family, as it turns out, is not a new concept. Keeping track of other members of the family is not only interesting but comes in handy in a pinch. At some point in your research you will come to what is known as a brick wall. There seems no record that links your ancestor to the next generation. Sometimes going sideways, looking at the records of a brother, sister, uncle, any member of your person of interest's household, may lead you to that one record that makes the leap backwards. And about those boarders I mentioned. Suppose you have lost all trace of a daughter in a family household because you do not have her married name.  Check out those boarders.  It's not uncommon that a boarder becomes an in-law (and perhaps your ancestor) through marriage.

Interested?  Take a look at the rest of this page for tips for beginners. Then click on the blue tabs to the left of this LibGuide to see what resources are out there (and in the library) to begin or to continue your search.

A note on the use of the word Genealogy. I myself tend to use genealogy more often than family history. Genealogy is shorter and often space it at a premium.

Photos from Digital Newton: Newell Family Album

Begin at the Beginning -- With Yourself and What You (Think you) Know about Your Family

You and Your Family

Often people encourage beginners to start with parents, but you should really start with yourself.  Write down the basics of what you know about yourself.  When and where you were born, where you have lived, went to school. If you have a spouse and children, include them too. Have you figured out where you are going to put all your notes so you can find them again? If you haven't, you may want to get some file folders, labels, notebooks, index  cards, etc., to have ready to organize your findings as they develop. Start these files with the notes on yourself.   Then write down what you think you know about your family members -- names, nicknames, birth and marriage information. Family group sheets and pedigree charts might help you at this point.  Look for the section below labeled Printable Forms and Charts Online and make some printouts. Once you have added the information you remember, file these as well. But how do you figure out a filing system for all this family history you are suddenly acquiring? Below you will discover another section, this time on organization titled Organize Now. That may help. If you want to organize your information on your computer,  take a look at the next area on Selecting a Good Genealogy Software Program.

Checking Around Your Home

Now look around your house. Do you have birth certificates, marriage records, etc.? You can add them to the family files you have just set up. (Photocopies are fine if you already keep your original records in a specific place.) What about memorabilia? Don't forget family photos and scrapbooks.  You may have a lot more at hand than you realize, even if you have no records. There is a great illustration that gives suggestions for the items you may already have available in your home. This is the link to Home Sources for Family History.  Take a look.

Networking with Relatives for Information, Records, Photographs, Memorabilia...

Next you start networking.  Let your family know what you are doing. Which relatives know the most about the family and its stories? If you don't know, someone in the family can  probably tell you. Perhaps you have a relative who is already working on a branch of your family.  Maybe others have family records or photographs that they would be willing to share. Smart phones and digital cameras make it possible to record these items even if relatives don't want to let the originals out of their possession.  (And other family members might want to get rid of those old family photos they know nothing about.  Take them before they end up in the trash. You;ll be glad you did as you progress with your research.)  Do you have family members who are curious about what you are doing?  Who may even want to help? Keep in touch with them.  Family history isn't just about the past but the present and future as well.

Printable Forms and Charts Online

All the links listed here should provide you with printable forms that will help you keep track of your research.  I find that they provide me with a format for my handwritten notes.  The Midwest Genealogy Center was a new discovery for me.  Their site is well worth a few extra minutes of your time, even if, like me, you have no ancestors from this part of the country. And Midwest even allows you to download their forms to your computer. You can type your information and save the charts. (I didn't know you could do this in the pdf format before I discovered Midwest.)

Selecting a Good Genealogy Software Program

Below I have listed links to reviews for genealogical software for both PCs and Macs.  One of the most frequently asked questions by people beginning to use their computers for their family history research is what software to use.  Different programs have a variety of options. The material below should help in your choice if you have decided to use your computer to track your research and your ancestors.

Organize Now

Learn to Cite Your Sources

The process of researching your family history involves much more than writing down names, dates, and places. You also need to keep track of where your information came from, its sources.  This helps both you and other researchers find the information again when you need it.  An equally important reason  is that  it is far easier to evaluate contradictory information from multiple sources when you keep your facts and their sources together. The rule of thumb is to record everything that will lead you back to your source.  The books below should help you learn what you need to keep.  As you become more experienced, you will also learn to save those sources that did not help you.  Otherwise you will waste your time digging into exactly the same source at a later date to the same negative result. 

Collect Information and Family Stories by Talking to Your Family

Talking to and Interviewing Relatives

There are very few family historians who don't regret things left undone.  A big one is not talking to their relatives while they had the chance.  Don''t make that mistake.  Interviewing family is not as easy as it may sound.  What if they think they have nothing of interest to say? (Trust me, 99 times out of 100 they do. They just don't know it.) What questions should you ask? If you are meeting face to face, should you tape the conversation?  What if the person lives too far away? What if the person likes the idea of the talk, but doesn't want to be taped? or videotaped? How do you follow up?

An Important Reminder

One tip. If you do get to interview a relative, write out your notes or make a transcript of the tapes as quickly as possible after the interview, definitely within a few days.  Doing this will lead to more questions on your part.  Moreover, the person you were interviewing may have remembered other information or stories that he or she would like to add. Don't forget to follow up on the correct spellings of names and places.  And even if you "know" your relative is wrong about a point, write everything down as it is told to you. You may be surprised how "faulty" information leads to useful discoveries in further research.  And don't forget in each case to write a thank-you note and send it along with a copy of your transcript or notes. It is not only a courteous thing to do but may lead to building relationships with fascinating people you may have taken for granted.

The following are books that can help you to get the most out of an interview with a relative:

But What If I Don't Have Family to Interview?

How Exactly Are We Related?

Be Prepared for Your Black Sheep

Become Familiar With Online Resources

Keep Up-to-Date with Online Resources

EOGN: Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter

If I only had access to one genealogy newsletter or magazine, this is the one that I could not do without. There are articles on new developments in websites and databases, hardware, software, announcements of conferences.  You will see just about anything relating to genealogy posted here.  It is my lifeline for what is currently going on in our collective passion of family history.  I highly recommend taking a look at the above blog.  Like genealogy, it is addictive. 

You can get Eastman's blog for free (click the link above) or subscribe to receive the articles as an e-mail newsletter once a week.

Conference Keepers

Conference Keepers compiles in one place information on a number of genealogy and family history related conferences. At a conference you get to attend lots of lectures and workshops and ask the experts questions face to face.  There is usually a large hall where you can check out family history societies, play with the newest gadgets, see what has been newly published or make connections with used books dealers. It is a perfect place to both learn and network.  This site may list a conference in your area. It's worth checking periodically.


Remember, However, Not Everything You Need is Online

This poster, created by Elizabeth Gorrell for the California Genealogical Society, is just a reminder that many key sources for family history are not on the Web.  Far from it.  County court houses, city clerks offices, the records of various associations and societies, manuscript collections, books, special collections in public libraries — a massive amount of material is out there.  Keep these alternatives in mind when you appear to hit an impenetrable brick wall.  The Internet is a great tool for genealogists, but it is only one tool.

Visit Genealogy Libraries in Your Area

 New England Historic Genealogical Society

Visit Libraries devoted to genealogy or with strong genealogy and local history collections

In Boston we have an extraordinary genealogy collection at The New England Historic Genealogical Society.  It's right off Copley Square — at Newbury Street — about a five-minute walk from the Boston Public Library.

 Although there is a fee to work at NEHGS, you can get in without charge if you go to one of their free classes.  Once in, the Society provides you with a pass for the day to look around, do research and ask questions.  The staff members are extremely helpful.

 To find the Society's list of lectures, classes and events, go to  Take note of events that are free and those for which a fee is charged.

If you become a dues-paying member, you can visit the library any time it is open for no additional fee.  Furthermore, you gain access to a number of online databases, Many are unique to the NEHGS, and available through your home computer.  You may also check out this resource at the Newton Free Library.  Our subscription gives access to most, though not all, of the Society's members-only databases.  This resource can only be used within the library on our computers, your laptop or digital device.

As noted, the Boston Public Library is a stone’s throw away from the NEHGS and is another important source of genealogical information.  Take a look at its genealogy offerings at  Look at the frame on the left for additional genealogy categories as well as trying the links in blue below.  They will take you to information on specific resources. If you do go to the BPL, you might want to visit their microfilm collection (a gold mine of information) and the Leventhal Map Collection as well.

Remember to contact local public libraries in the towns and cities where your ancestors lived. Most have not only a website, but also an online catalog you can access.  Here you will usually find a local history section that will also include genealogy. Both will be of interest to you.

A note on the photographs directly above.  The photos of the Boston Public Library to the left (new wing) and the right (main research library) were taken by myself .  The photo in the center of the New England Historic Genealogical Society was provided by and used with the permission of the NEHGS.

Books That Help You to Discover Your Familys' History

There are a number of  books written to help people starting to dig into their family's history.  Below is a small selection.  If you click on the link to the book, it will take you to the library's catalog.  Here  you can see if the book is in, reserve it for pickup, or get its bibliographic information.

Keep Learning: Knowledge Combined with Experience is Powerful

Free Classes on your Computer, a free database provided by the LDS (Mormon) Church,  offers a large number of short free genealogy classes via your computer.  You can watch the presentation while keeping an eye on a  printout that accompanies each.   (I always find online presentations more too quickly. I have a better chance of absorbing the material if I have a printout to follow.) Take a look at

Printable Documents

It is not easy to print out information directly from a LibGuide.  I have created printable pdfs for five documents you may wish to have.. If there is something else you would like to see here, leave a comment and let me know.

Never Forget to Have Fun

Although brick walls can be frustrating, the excitement of finding that missing puzzle piece or learning about your ancestors' lives cannot be over-estimated. Once you experience it, you will never forget it.

Author of Page

Profile Photo
Ginny Audet
Reference Department
Newton Free Library
330 Homer Street
Newton, MA 02459