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Free Genealogy: How to Get Started

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Starting your family history is completely free and can be done anytime, and really, anywhere.

If you're curious where your family came from, you don't need a computer or an expensive subscription to get started.

In fact, it appears this might actually be causing an unrecognized problem for today's new genealogists.

Yes, you read that right. Starting with a computer/online subscription might actually be causing you a problem.

Start with what you know

I just had a great email from a newsletter reader who teaches genealogy classes in Australia. She told me she has her students make their ancestors come alive by requiring they add additional details to the research.

But that's not what relates to starting your family history.

She also said most don't have details on themselves beyond their own birth and marriage...


This made me think way back to when I was literally starting. Not what I did early on but really just starting.

It involved a trip to the library to get a book on how to do genealogy but the actual actions I took were drastically different than what most people today do.

I asked my family about our family (with guidance from my library books) and I got a fill-in the blank book to record "Our Family History" (the fill-in the blank book didn't last long since I was only about a decade old. Most of it didn't apply to my life but it helped me think about recording family history).

There was no Internet so I certainly didn't jump on didn't exist.

And then I realized, maybe what limited me was also what set me up for success.

Genealogy requires two absolutes, that is time and information.

Money is not required (although you will eventually get to a point where you will have to quit if you don't spend money, it's just not something required for every single action).

The Internet is not required---but it will reduce the amount of time and money needed for many parts, but some parts require you actually research in-person, not on a computer.

You could say organization is an absolute but I'll leave that under time (better organization saves time).

That means what you must have to start are some free time and some information.

Where today's newbies go wrong is getting their starting information almost solely from the Internet.


The BEST way to start is with information from your family.

Start with yourself.

What do you know?

If you really want to research your family history and especially if you want to pass that information down to your children or other family members, start by writing down information about your own life.

Do you have to write a family history to do genealogy?

Writing a family history is not my cup of tea. I love to write but for some reason, the written "family history" is not what calls me to genealogy. It's why you don't see posts about writing your family history (that's also a difficult task for Occasional Genealogists).

If you don't like the idea of writing about your own life in a story type format, don't do it.

A family story is not an absolute requirement, either.

You still need information, though.

Let's be realistic, here. Starting with yourself is not an absolute, either. You are always with yourself so that's always an option.

Take the time while you can to talk to your relatives. If you'll see them in person, gather some stories. Maybe you can jump on a Zoom call to check-in and even record them telling you about your family.

Why "what you know" is better than jumping to "research"

Here's what I really want you to understand and how you will stop yourself from causing the types of problems that can come when you start with online research...

I've said you absolutely must have time and information.

It will not help if your information is wrong.

A large part of genealogy is determining what information is right and what is wrong so you aren't just trying to avoid wrong information.

Sometimes you can't tell if information is right or wrong for a long time. That gets into some serious genealogy skills (mainly correlation which means comparing information against other information, hence you have to have gathered multiple sets of information to compare---which is why it might take time).

If you're starting, you don't worry about what correlation is or if you need to do it (yet).

Instead, what you need to do is gather information from good sources and keep track of how you learned that information.

Asking your mother about her life, things she remembers or was told by her family, is a good source for that information.

If she starts telling you about things she learned on the Internet, well, you don't know if that information is correct.

Genealogy is full of people with the same names. It's full of people with the same names, living in the same place, and around the same age (hint, they're often cousins, so that really unusual family name, it'll lead you just as astray as "John Smith").

Social security numbers, or other "unique" human identifiers are a recent invention. Essentially, you will not be doing research that has such simple ways to be sure two people are the same person or different people. Just accept it now that it's hard to be sure you've found the right person when doing genealogy.

This is why today's newbies are creating problems from the start if they start online.

The information you personally know or a relative personally knows (versus "know" from seeing it in an online family tree or from doing research) is more likely to help you identify the right person when you are ready to start "research" ("research" versus talking to relatives).

Information from relatives can still be wrong but it's insanely valuable. Sometimes even wrong information from a relative can lead you to the right information. Wrong information online will often just drive you crazy.

So record personal knowledge from any family you can. Don't just get the facts, get the stories. The stories are what will help you untangle incorrect information as well as making your family history come alive.

Capture that information now, while you can. You never know what will happen that prevents you from getting it later.