Set Yourself Up for Success Before You Begin Researching

Instead of just jumping into searches and queries, take a little time to prepare. Knowing just a few things before you start will help you break down those brick walls more efficiently.



Learn the area's history before you search for records


Researching the history of the area where your ancestor lived is the best way to begin your research. You’ll learn a lot about your ancestor's life before you even start researching them. You'll see a snapshot of their life BEFORE you find them in marriage, tax, and land records which means you'll be better able to evaluate the bits of information you find about them. Plus, you will understand the "big picture" context of the records. And once you start making those discoveries, it will help you avoid feeling lost and wondering if you missed something.

So how do you find the history? Use internet searches. Find books and articles. Blogs are great resources. Do not be shy about asking people who are experts in the area. Find a local genealogy or historical society. Read the local newspaper from that time. Seek information to educate yourself about what was going on before and when your ancestor was there. Educate yourself about the history of the area and the issues of the day.

Knowing the area helps you know your ancestor.

Once you understand the history of the area, you’re ready to find out what records are available to help you.

Get ready to play "Go Fish"


Remember that records are often missing or destroyed. Time, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes all are detrimental to records. You can’t know if the records you need still exist until you ask. And you may have to ask several places until you find them. That’s ok. Even the most highly experienced researchers have to go through this same process before they begin looking up records.

Preparing to research is a little bit like the game “Go Fish.”

Finding out what is available locally may require some patience and persistence. In the game Go Fish, you ask “do you have any ____?” The person you ask then consults the cards they are holding to see if they have what you request. If they do, you get what you want. If they don’t, you are told, “Go Fish” which means you do not get the card you want. BUT - you do get the chance to try again in the next round to ask “do you have any ___?” And so on.

In genealogy, you may have to play Go Fish for several rounds before you find what you need. Be patient and keep trying. Don't be shy to ask the clerk's office, then the church, then the local genealogy society, and then the state archives, “do you have marriage records from 1870 to 1880?”

Don’t give up!! Ask until you find what you need.

Use what's already available to you to find the records


Consider these resources when you play “Go Fish” for genealogy records.
Finding aids: A finding aid is a document that describes what is available in a collection. They are most often found in libraries and archives. Sometimes in bookstores and on genealogy sites.

Online guides: Search for the locality of interest plus “genealogy records.” This should give you a great set of returns to start. Just dig in. Try as many different types of sources as you can.

Reference books: Use online search engines to find books about conducting genealogy research in the state or the area. The National Genealogy Society has a great series called “Research in the States.” Each book gives a wonderful overview of the history of the state and the records and repositories available. Both print and PDF versions are available.

Genealogy societies: This resource is invaluable. Connecting with fellow family historians allows you to interact with the people who are already versed in doing research in the area where you are also researching. Ask for all the local tips and tricks to find what you need.

Call the locals: Instead of only searching online, call or email every local point of contact you find in your initial survey and search of the area. Think about who in the community may know about what you need or at least may know another person to refer you to. Call them on the phone or send a friendly email.

When you take the time to learn history and play Go Fish before you start searching the records, your way will be made much easier. Plus, when you get to know the details of the community surrounding your ancestor, you really start to get to know what their life was like. Details matter and make a difference. The more you know about your ancestor’s life and how to find records, the more successful you will be.