This is an ongoing series on starting your family history research in 10 very basic steps. The steps so far start with Step One:
Step One: Start with yourself.
Now I will move on to Step Two.
Step Two: Find out what has already been done.
Discovering what has already been researched and documented concerning your own family history may appear to be a simple or very complex proposition depending on how involved your extended family has been in genealogical research in the past. The issue here is whether or not you want to re-do all of the previously done research. When I started doing research into my family about thirty or so years ago, I spent years in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah trying to discover what had already been done on my own family. That survey is still going on today. I am still today actively discovering the parameters of the research that has already been done.
What has changed over the years is that we now have the tools to compress the initial time I have spent over the years into a manageable process.
My experience is that most beginning researchers vastly underestimate how much previous research has been done on their particular family. One of the most powerful tools for determining the extent of the documentation available from others about your family is to begin putting your family tree online on one of the large genealogical database programs such as FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, Findmypast.com or MyHeritage.com. You could also use a family tree program such as Geni.com or WikiTree.com. The advantage of the four large database programs is that they generate automatic record hints. They all have the advantage of not only, in some of the programs, automatically finding records pertaining to your ancestry, but also provide contacts with other family members that are working on their own portion of a shared family tree.
Historically, genealogy has been a solitary pursuit. With the advent of online family trees, all that has changed and it is far easier to collaborate with family members. To the extent that you are aware of the content of online family trees, you can avoid much of the duplication of effort that was rampant in the past. Having your family tree on more than one of these programs increases the probability that you will find the limits of the research that has been done on your particular family. Depending on your own particular family circumstances, you may actually be overwhelmed at the number of potential relatives discovered by these genealogy programs.
Putting a family tree online is the electronic equivalent of doing a survey of your immediate family members. The way that genealogy was traditionally taught to beginners was to urge them to contact immediate family members for their information about the historical family. A large online database programs have created their own community of potential family members. This community can extend far further than it did in the times of paper-based genealogy. It is still important to gather whatever information and documents you can find from your immediate family members, but it is even more important to review what is already available online. It is entirely possible that carefully maintained family documents are already duplicated and readily available online. For example, my great-grandmother gathered genealogical information for many years and published what she had in a book. That family book was difficult to obtain because of the limited number of copies that were printed at the time. Presently, the book has been digitized and is online on the FamilySearch.org website. On the other hand, there may very well be personal documents that are absolutely essential to understanding your heritage better in the sole possession of your relatives. In these cases what the online family trees do is to provide a way to discover the identity of your relatives and give you a way to contact them.
One distinct advantage of doing a careful family survey to determine the extent of the knowledge about your family already possessed by your family members is that you become more aware of the identity of your ancestors and the details of their lives. Research becomes more meaningful when you know the identity of the people you are researching.
Previous posts in this series are listed here: