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Researching Your Family's History

Where Do I Start???

Samiple of a family group sheet and family file



1.         Begin at the beginning. Where is that? The beginning of your journey is with yourself and your immediate family. This includes yourself, your spouse and your children. The next step is with the second generation of your family. This now includes yourself, your brothers and sisters (your siblings) and your parents.  Next you work with your father and his family (siblings and parents) and your mother and her siblings and parents. Your grandparents are your third generation.

            What I am trying to do is to get you into the habit of thinking of your genealogy as a history of both individuals and their families. You may notice that by the time you get to your third generation you know less and less information. What you don’t know will grow with each generation as you go back in time. Knowing families as well as individuals helps you stay with the families that belong to you. Otherwise you may find yourself going up the wrong tree to people who are not your ancestors at all.

2.      Now you can actually get started. Begin by writing down everything you think you know about the first three generations of your family:

  • You and your spouse and children (you as an adult)
  • You, your siblings and your parents (including you as a child)
  • Your parents, their brothers and sisters, spouses and their parents
  • Your grandparents and their siblings..............
  • Where and when were they born, married, died           

            As you go along, you will look for information on your ancestors both as adults and as children (when you track back to their parents).

            How do you know what to write down? Start by writing your information out on family group sheets [covers one family at a time] and ancestral or pedigree charts [covering only direct ancestors].  I provide several links to free charts and forms here that you can print out. One good source is Brigham Young University at If you already have a genealogy software program on your computer, you should be able to have the program format and print out family group sheets from the information you put into your software.          

            A second excellent source for forms is Midwest Genealogy Center. These forms you can either print out or downloaded onto your computer.  Once on your computer you can type in your information and save them to your genealogy files on your computer as well as printing out a filled in form rather than printing it out and then filling it in.  Click the link for the Midwest forms:

            As you write down information, jot down where you got it from on the back of your family group sheet or on a continuation page if you are working from your computer. Did your information come from talking to a relative, from a copy of a family record you have on hand, or from your memory.  You will need to know where it came from as you start your research.

3.       Once you have started filling in your family group sheets, the next thing you need to do is think about how you are going to organize your research. As you begin, it might be wise to begin organizing your first three generations with file folders, one for each family until you get used to the process. If you decide you prefer working on a computer, you may eventually want to file information to word processing files on you computer or choose a genealogy software program to save your research. Once you’ve filled out a few family group sheets, you can test the various genealogy software programs with the information you have collected.. 

            If you don't start organizing your work early on, you will pay for it in wasted time fairly quickly.

4.         Find relatives who have more knowledge of the family than you do. How do you do this? Talk to people. Spread the word. Ask your family members specific questions about information you are missing on your family group sheet. Always ask if they would suggest other family members who might have additional information.  If you are young, think of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles.  If you are older, think of brothers, sisters, cousins.  Relatives who are younger or just a little older than you might have information or stories that you've never heard or seen. Write down everything that they tell you.

             If you are lucky enough to have a relative tell you a family story, write what you can remember down. While you remember, you should also add your notes who told it to you, who you are, what your relationship is, when and where you spoke...

            Whether you are collecting bits of information or family stories from relatives, always write out what you have initially gathered as soon as possible. It doesn't take long to forget what that scribble or abbreviation meant. Just the act of transcribing from your notes audio tape, etc. will spark more questions on your part.  Send a copy to the person you talked to. And don't forget to say how much you enjoyed the talk. It could spark more memories. You could also send another question or two as well, but remember not to overwhelm them or yourself for that matter. Keep it simple. But don’t forget to ask them if they know anyone else in the family who might have additional information.  This step will be ongoing throughout your research. As you discover more information, you will have more questions. You may even discover new living relatives. They may even want to question you!

            And don't be surprised by unexpected reactions to your initial request for information. The person you think will be enthusiastic may think you are crazy or just not see the point of poking around in old family history.  And you may discover that purple haired niece of yours is already hooked and has been researching the family history for awhile. You could help each other and build an unexpected family bond.

5.         Don't forget what you may have in your own home. Check for family papers, photo albums, documents, scrap books, saved obituaries, military papers. This is another point to check with relatives. Do they have anything you could look at or copy. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy by Val Greenwood and Secrets of Tracing Your Ancestors by W. Daniel Quillen are two books that may be useful to you at this stage. This will be an on ongoing process of discovery.

6.         Now what? Armed with this information, you can now decide who you want to start researching and what you want to find out.  Remember, you are working you way backwards.  With your parents you have two families to research, with your grandparents four...  It doubles with each generation. Keep in mind that you cannot do everything at once – and you will want to. Slow down a bit. You want to miss as little as possible  and you don’t want to burn out.  You need to focus on what additional information you want to verify, find out, fill in. Remember that all that information you got from relatives may not be exactly on point. People misremember, make mistakes. You want to verify the information on which you will base future research.

7.         Think about the clues you already have regarding the ancestor you want to focus on.  What places did your ancestor live and when did that person live there?  These are three important questions in genealogy: Who? Where? When?

8.         What records do you think would have your information?  If you find you have questions about a record type, a very good reference book to consult is The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and published by Ancestry.   The third revised edition published in 2006 is the most recent.  Each chapter explains a different type of record that family historians consult, each written by an expert in its use. Most public libraries will have a copy in their reference collections.

You can also access The Source (the entire book) with updates online by clicking here:

9.         Find out where those records are and how you can access them.  Are they on or Do they exist only in hard copy (paper)? Who generated them? Are you looking for federal records such as census records or local records such as birth, marriage and/or death records?

            Whether you are dealing with Massachusetts, California or any place in between, another good book to consult is Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources, edited by Alice Eichholz and published by Ancestry. The 3rd edition published in 2004 is the most recent.  Where The Source deals with records, Red Book deals with location. Every state is covered in alphabetical order.  The records of each state are discussed--where they can be found, how to access them, and any indexes that exist.  Let anyone you contact know where you got your information and ask if the information you have is still correct. In this cast the book is over thirteen years old. Things change. 

            Every state will do something with their records that is just a little different from other states. Knowing information on your state will save you time, sometimes lots of it. Many public libraries will have a copy of Red Book in their reference collection.  This is also available online with updates at:,_County,_and_Town_Sources.  

            Note the Red Book's publication date – 2004. That was thirteen years ago as I am writing this. There can be a lot of changes in that amount of time, including state laws regarding record access.  It's good to look at the Redbook first to get a sense of the whats and wheres regarding a state's records and special considerations that you would not think of otherwise. But you also want to check for any updates and changes.  First check the online version linked above. This is supposed to serve almost as a wiki, with updates being made directly to it. An excellent second source for updated information is FamilySearch's wiki at there you'll see a place that says "Search by place or topic."  If you want to check Maine, you can type that in. You can also get more specific. "Maine Vital Records" works nicely too. If you are calling or writing for help, let your contact know where you got your information about their library, archive, or organization and ask if the information you have is still correct.

 10.      When you find a record, look at it carefully.  Does it give you the information you are looking for? Do you see other potentially useful facts?  If so, save the record by making a photocopy, downloading it, taking a picture with your digital camera, smartphone or iPad/Tablet (if allowed for an archived hard copy), or write down in your notes exactly what you have found.

            Always note where and when you found your record and any other relevant information that will help you or another find it again.  A genealogy is worthless without sources. 

            If you have to take notes, write information down exactly as you find it, even if you know it is incorrect.  It's possible that it is the information you know that is incorrect. Also, even if you are correct, misspellings and mistakes in one record may be a lead to other records with the same "mistake," records you've been missing because you are not aware of the alternate spelling.

11.       Do the records raise more questions? You will quickly find that every answered question usually leads to several new questions.  This brings me to the question of asking questions. You need to know how to ask or frame a question, both to yourself and of others. Put your question in the context of your family tree and what specifically you need to find out. Focus only on that branch of your family tree that concerns your question. If you are asking for help from others about an individual and you have that person's family group sheet, include that with your question. The easier you make your question to understand, the more likely you will be able to find your answer.  Making the question too broad and all-encompassing will make it impossible to answer.  You or your contact may just give up.

12.       Remember what I said about writing down where you found information?  You may also want to write down the records, sources or websites that did not work out.  Trust me, this will keep you from wasting time by tracking useless material down again in the future. At the same time, there is a balance to be struck here. Be aware of online sources that add additional records frequently, such as Ancestry and FamilySearch.  These are well worth rechecking frequently.

13.     Did you create that filing system I mentioned at the beginning? When you are done finding and looking at your new information, file it asap. You will discover that you do not always have the time to work on your family history.  You may have to suspend it for long periods. A good filing system will save you lots of time when you are ready to pick it up again.

            You may also need to suspend work on a particular branch or person that is turning into a brick wall. Write up your problem and where and why you left off. When you come back to it later, sometimes much later, with a fresh eye and more experience, your description may help you get past your problems.

14.       What now?  What information are you curious to find next. What’s your next question?  You get to start all over again. Think of all the discoveries you’ll make and stories you’ll find.

            Note: Remember that websites tend to be fluid. If they are good, they will always be adding new information. Just because a site does not have a particular record today, does not mean that the same will be true tomorrow.  As mentioned above, sites like and Ancestry are always adding new records. Keep a list of major sites to check periodically.

Printable Version of "How to Begin Your Family History: Step by Step"

Three Key Books for Rercords Research

The Source and Red Book Online

The Source and Ancestry's Redbook (mentioned above) are also available online.  You can consult them from your home computer.

Who, Where, and When: Keys to Your Search

Who, Where, and When are going to be the key elements of your search.  You may need to find one or more of these elements for a particular person, or you may have all three to use either in a search for additional information on that ancestor or to locate additional ancestors. 

Problems with  Names: Remember that the spelling of names was and is not necessarily stadardized.  Even now I've seen different branches of the same family spell their last names differently.  If it is a record such as a census, the name may be recorded as heard rather than spelled. If you are finding the name in a printed index (online or off) a transcriber/indexer having difficulty reading handrwriting may compound your problems.  If you are not finding a name, try different spellings.  Also check online to see if a society exists for your surname (putting the last name of interest and the word "surname" in your search.) You may find additional search suggestions.

Problems with Location: Are you sure of your location?  Remember that boundaries of cities, counties, and states change over time.  Also people may have lived in one town and gone to religious services in another.  Check maps. Know the surounding towns. Is the town near a country or state border?  This may affect where you find a record.

Problems with dates:  Are you sure of your dates? If you are checking for a very narrow date, within a year or two, broaden out your date search for a few more years.  Transcription errors don't just happen with names. 

Always check an original copy of the record where possible to see if the transcriber got all the information down corrrectly.

Who, Where, and When: Books That May Help

Where Can I Find...?

Link to Record Types

Printable PDF of "A Selection of Records and Documents Useful in Genealogical Research"

Do Not Limit Yourself by Format When Looking for Your Information

All of these will be useful:                                                                                                                                            

Printed Books

Electronic Books

Original Documents

Images of Original Documents

Online Catalogs and Indexes

Paper Catalogs and Indexes                                                                                                                                                                              

Search Engines



Other Internet Sources 




Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Source: This is an original record or document created by someone with first hand knowledge of an event.  It is also a source or record created very near the time of the event being covered.  Primary sources are what genealogists look for when trying to document family relationships.  However, primary sources are not to be taken as infallible.  Mistakes are made, sometimes accidentally and sometimes on purpose.  You always have to evaluate your source, whether it is primary or secondary.

Secondary Source:  This is basically everything else.  If you are looking at a transcription of an original document, it is a secondary source.  It is at least one remove from the original document.  When you transcribe a document, you increase (introduce) the chance of error.  A person can have trouble reading the original document.  Although a transcriber is supposed to copy letter by letter and word by word, our brain has a tendency to race ahead and read what we think is there.  If possible, check the original document.

Documents can be both primary and secondary.  A death certificate is a primary source for death information, a secondary source for birth information, since it is usually recorded well after the fact. Even an object such as a gravestone may not be reliable. There are a number of instances when a survivor changes their year of birth on a gravestone to appear younger.  Sometimes the literal "etched in stone" does not mean you are looking at a concrete fact.

A Surrogate:  This is an image of the original document (photograph, microtext, or digitization) and is usually considered as good as looking at the original. Two cautions.  Make sure the surrogate you are looking at includes the entire document.  Sometimes the original was only  partially microfilmed, photographed or digitized. If that is the case, you will have to look at the original document to know whether or not your information is there, not just the surrogate. Also make certain that your document was not originally in color.   If you are looking at a black and white Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, you are not seeing the original.  Buildings were color coded and you are missing critical information.  When you are looking at a man's World War I draft card, the color of the card tells you when it was issued.  There were three separate World War I drafts in the United States. 

But What About...?

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