One of the first questions I get from patrons who come into the Brigham Young University Family History Library is "Where do I start?" Well, I have a good answer: the FamilySearch.org Family Tree. Since nearly all of the patrons at the BYU Family History Library are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, if they log in to the Family Tree, they will immediately have an idea of how much has been done on their particular family lines.
So, now you are sitting in front of a computer screen (or iPad or whatever) looking at your family history on the Family Tree? What next? Here are my suggestions in a series of relatively easy steps.
Step One: Get acquainted with your family.
Most people know their parents and other immediate family members but start to fuzz out with great-grandparents and further back. The most common question I ask people as they start out with the Family Tree is "Who was the first person in your family to join the Church?" We talk so much lately about "pioneers" you might be surprised at how many people do not know the answer to this question. If they do know the answer, it is usually on their surname line and once we wander off the surname line, they usually do not even recognize the names of their ancestors.
We have an interesting culture in the Church. We profess to have fundamental religious beliefs about the need to "do work for our ancestors" but we usually know very little about most or all of them. Try this with the next person you talk to in the Church. Ask them to name all eight of their great-grandparents and where they were born. You will soon discover what I am writing about.
Step Two: Follow your family lines back to see what is in the Family Tree.
This is pretty simple also. All you do is click back on different lines until you run out of names. You may find some that go "back to Adam." By the way, this is a dead giveaway that the information you have in your family lines is inaccurate. I'll skip the back to Adam discussion in this post, I have written about that issue too recently in the past. But the idea here is to get an idea about how far back in time your family lines have actually been researched and not just copied. Here are some further suggestions concerning what you might find.
Lines ending in the 1900s -- This means your family has been the subject of very little research and usually means that you or your parents or grandparents were the first to join the Church. You have immediate opportunities to do research.
Step Three: Look carefully at the details.
One of the first indications that there is a lot of research that can be done is the absence of any source citations. As you go back on line in time, you should look at the individuals to see if anyone has added sources. If not, you can assume that the information is questionable and not complete. If you are inclined to find names for submission to the Temple, this is a good place to start doing research. My family's collective experience is that as we add sources and correct the information in the Family Tree, we find more people to include that have been overlooked. Watch for children's birth dates with gaps of more than three years. Watch for birth, marriage and death dates that do not make sense. Look for the warning icons from FamilySearch. Also, you should be adding all the appropriate record hints supplied by the program. However, make sure you have the right names, dates and, most importantly, places. Do not attach sources that do not make geographic sense.
Step Four: Start your research.
As you get to know your extended family, you will begin to realize that some of the ancestral lines have been neglected over the years. The reason was usually because records were not available. Well, the records are very likely available now and these previous dead ends can be extended, sometimes with amazing results. To do this, you may actually have to take some classes or seek help in a Family History Center or Library. Get busy, this is where your research will pay off.
Family History research can be very rewarding. But you need to do the work to reap the benefits.