- Talk to them
- Let the family know you are interested
- Get interested in their lives and their parents lives
- Write to them
- Go to Family Reunions
- Videotape those still living
- Ask for Family History Books and Organizations
- Ask them if they are in a popular Web Service like FamilySearch.org
- Ask if you can get copies of the records they have
- Thank them!
Talk to them
When you start to get involved in Family History, don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you need to know everything before you can do anything. There’s too much to know, to know everything. So just start with the basics, start with what you know and expand your knowledge from there. Most of us know who our parents are, or at least who our adoptive parents are. So if that is all you know, start from there! Talk to as many of your relatives as you know and ask them for information on those they know. The get contact information, such as phone numbers and or addresses, on relatives that are still living and repeat the process. As you ask, the list of contacts will expand and you can build a “Relative Phone Book” with the results of your inquiries. The more people you contact, the greater the chances are that you’ll hit the “Mother Lode” and find a relative that is heavily involved in Family History that can give you a LOT of information about your family. Be friendly and courteous. Let them know you are interested in your Family History and ask them what information they have. If they don’t have a lot, just ask for references to those in your family that do. Having the right reference is just as good as finding the person themselves (assuming you contact that person before they die).
Let the family know you are interested
As you contact your relatives, be sure to let them know you are interested in finding out about the family on a long term basis. I’ve found that once you start broadcasting the fact that you are interested, the family members that have done a lot of Family History are much more likely to funnel information to you than others in the family that have shown no interest at all. And I too am concerned in giving records to those that will take care of them after I’m gone, instead of throwing them in the trash. That would be equivalent to throwing out a priceless art treasure simply because the owner didn’t realize it’s value.
Get interested in their lives and their parents lives
One thing that may be helpful to you as you talk to your relatives is to show a genuine interest in their lives and those of their ancestors. If they know you are truly interested, they’ll be more likely to give you that information. If you only show a passing interest, they have other things going on in their lives that will take higher priority, and you may miss getting the clues to dig back further in time to find your ancestors.
Also, be sure you can be entrusted with the information and guard and protect it. Family History information can be used for identity theft, and the last thing members in the family want is to have their personal information divulged to others outside the family and have it posted up on the internet where identity thieves can get access to it.
Normally you’ll have enough information to get back to your grandparents, and the information you’ll be searching for on the ancestors further back will not have the privacy restrictions the living or those less than 110 years since their birth have. It is OK to have information on living relatives, just be sure you are VERY careful when posting it to the internet.
Write to them
If you can’t talk to them directly or through the phone, try writing letters to them, either through snail mail or through email, depending on what kind of addresses you can find. Remember that it is a normal part of life to run into roadblocks. Successful people are those that can get around, over, or under roadblocks as quickly as possible. Don’t limit yourself to one kind of media. Different media communicate differently. Phone calls are great for handling issues that come up spontaneously but don’t normally provide nearly as much detail as an email can. Emails can provide the opportunity to think things through before you open your big mouth and insert your foot in it, but they don’t allow for quick and spontaneous answers to questions that you didn’t think about at the time of writing. Live streaming has the same limitations as phone calls. Use each media for its strengths. If you simply want to get a clue to additional places to look for information, phone calls would be great. But if you’re looking for a specific detail, such as data on a certificate for a specific event date, it may be better to document your request in an email. That way, they can’t conveniently forget what you asked them for. You can always point back to the email you sent at such and such a date and ask them, politely, if they’ve had a chance to look into it. They may just have forgotten they promised to send it to you and will follow up when they know you are waiting for it.
Go to Family Reunions
Family Reunions are a great way to meet members of the extended family, have fun, and share information about Family History research that has been done for the family. Go to them if you can. And while you are there, but sure you let others know of your interest and ask them which of the family has the most information. Then go from there. Contact those having the most knowledge and see if they can help you get started on your journey.
Videotape those still living
A great way to find information about your family is to sit your Parents or Grandparents down and just have them reminisce about their childhood, their families, and their Grandparents. You’ll find a lot of exciting things about their lives, that you’ll never find out by just asking for dates and places. And some of that information can be useful to corroborate the data you already have. For example, if you know that your Grandfather was stationed at a particular military base during World War II, because it was mentioned in a video tape, there will probably be military records that you can find relating to his being there. If you didn’t know about it, you wouldn’t know even to look. With videotaping you are looking for clues to help you in your search, not just plain vanilla data. Be creative. Ask your relative about how they met their spouse. Ask them about their schooling. Ask them about their military experiences. And ask them about their employment and church positions. Things that may not seem important now, may become critical when trying to find additional information.
Ask for Family History books and Organizations
While you are asking for information about the family, don’t forget to ask about books that have been published about your ancestors and Family Organizations that may have published them. There are many books out there, and they may contain a LOT of information on your family. My wife thought that a lot of Family History had been done on her Mother’s side because her Grandmother was involved in doing genealogical research. But she didn’t think that much was done for her Father’s side because neither he, nor his Father, had done much at all. However, we found that there was a Family Organization for her Father’s direct line, and we wrote to them to see what they had. We found that the organization had document HUNDREDS of descendants of an ancestor that was one of the first to come to America. The difference between thinking that nothing was out there, to finding three published books of descendants, including my wife herself, was astounding! If books or organizations exist that relate to your ancestors, it is DEFINITELY essential you find them.
Ask them if they are in a popular Web Service like FamilySearch.org
One of the tools that are relatively powerful these days is the use of Family History Data Repositories. Many people have become members of Web companies or organizations that have digitized millions of records and stored them in databases that can be searched. Ask your relatives if they are members of any of them. By becoming a member and connecting into the information they already have out there, you may be able to save a lot of time entering the information yourself. Just remember, though, that the information they have is only as good as the people that put it in, and in the past, many different people have had many different versions of the “truth.” I suggest you also keep a “clean” version of your Family History on your Personal Computer using desktop software. That way, you can keep the information you know is correct on your PC while you verify what is on the internet. Using the Database Search capabilities on the Web is good for finding clues and possibilities, just be cautious about accepting it as is. The nice thing is that currently, they are allowing users to document events by uploading images of certificates and other official documents. This has greatly reduced the duplication and errors found in prior data. If a document proves it, you’ll have to find a higher priority document to prove differently.
Ask if you can get copies of the records they have
It is one thing to ask people about the information they have and quite another to ask them specifically if you can get copies of that information. If you ask about information, you’ll be given summaries and vague references to stuff that may or may not exist. If you ask for copies of the information, you’ll get the real scoop. Just realize that giving you that information could cost your relative some money, so offering to defer the expense of copying will greatly offset their reluctance to do so. Be courteous and mindful of other people’s situations, and they’ll do the same for you (normally).
Always remember to thank them! Whether or not you get information from them in your current conversation is not as important as leaving them a pleasant memory of your conversation. It may be that sometime in the future, they’ll remember that you were interested in Family History, and at that point, they may have come across something important they’ll want to share with you. Even if the information they give you doesn’t pan out, you are building a relationship with them that will make them feel good about continuing to pass you possible clues in the future. Sometimes people that are not at all interested in Family History come across important things, and if they feel comfortable in entrusting you with that information, they will.
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