Memorial Hall Library

Introduction to Genealogy Research

See also: Resources for Genealogy Research

Getting Started

  1. Start with yourself. Always work your way back from the known to the unknown. Family legend or tradition may involve having a well-known ancestor. Unless this link has been thoroughly researched and documented, never assume that the connection is valid. Working back from a known ancestor will eliminate much frustration.
  2. Talk with members of your family. Interview family members about their parents and grandparents. Take notes about places, people, and dates. Memories may not be perfect, but they can provide you with valuable clues. Don’t neglect younger family members in this process. Someone may have already delved into the family history and is willing to share what they have found. 
  3. Get started with document research once you have exhausted your own knowledge and have talked with family begin identifying the various records available to genealogists. These usually include home sources, vital records, church records, courthouse records, census records, and online sources.

Getting Organized

The most basic organizational tool for genealogy is the ancestor chart. Fill the chart out as completely as you can. The blank spaces that are left show you where you need more information and can help focus your research.

There are several software packages that you can purchase to organize your research and there are websites (some free, some not) that keep track of your ancestors.  The best programs will include the following features: family trees, chart builders, report generators, the ability to import and export media, supplies tips and support and even the ability to work in your DNA results.  Speak with other genealogists and read software reviews in order to select a system that suits your needs. 

Best Genealogy Software 2018:

Guidelines for using a library, archives, or courthouse

  1. Call before visiting to ask about hours, parking, and copying procedures.
  2. Visit the website for the institution you are interested in visiting. Many organizations have great sites with indexes, bibliographies, photographs, digitized records and other helpful sources. 
  3. You may also be able to email an archivist or reference librarian with questions. Keep these questions brief and be as specific as possible (example: Can you look in the index of Cavaliers and Pioneers for Edward Johnson?). Do not ask for “Everything you have on the Johnson family.”
  4. Think about your research questions in terms of location and time period and not necessarily in terms of surnames. Location and time period will determine what sources might be available that will have information on your ancestor. For example, asking “I’m looking for a marriage record from Jefferson County from the 1930s” is better than “I’m looking for the marriage of Calvin Johnson.”
  5. Become familiar with the library’s online catalog. By searching the catalog prior to your visit, you become knowledgeable about the collection and can make a list of “must see” items. This will help you maximize your time once you arrive.

Getting started in the records

Home Sources

Don’t overlook items in your home or the homes of family members that can yield genealogical information. These items include letters, photographs, scrapbooks, diplomas, newspaper clippings, family Bibles, and school yearbooks. Check attics, basements, underneath beds, or other out of the way places where they may be stashed.

Vital Records

Vital records are records issued upon the birth, marriage, divorce, or death of an individual. Genealogists value these records because they allow us to learn birth dates/locations, parents’ names, maiden names of female ancestors, death dates and locations, and many other facts. Modern vital records are easy to obtain and are a fairly recent invention. Many states did not begin keeping these records until the late 19th or early 20th century. 

Church Records

Since church records often pre-date vital records, they may be the only place where a birth, marriage, or death is recorded.  Knowing about your ancestors’ faith helps to make them more real and they become more than just names and dates.

Courthouse Records

Courthouse records actually comprise many different types of records that are available in most county courthouses. These include wills, deeds, tax lists, and marriages. You will need to know the state and county in which the ancestors you are researching lived in order to access the courthouse records. Many courthouse records have been microfilmed and made available to researchers by the Church of Latter Day Saints ( Note: Memorial Hall Library is part of the FamilySearch Affiliate Library program. Ask about the benefits of this status for you.

Census Records

Taken every 10 years since 1790, the Federal Census is the official count of the U.S. population. Mandated for the purpose of drawing congressional districts, the Federal Census is probably the most important source for genealogists at all levels of experience. Personal information contained in the Census is sealed for 72 years by Federal Law for privacy. The most recent census available to genealogists is the 1940 census which was released on April 2, 2012. The 1950 census won’t be released until 2022.  

The Internet

The Internet has drastically changed how people do genealogical research. Many records are now available online and contacting people has never been easier. Remember that information posted online may not be 100% accurate. Facts and relationships still need to be verified, if possible. 

Evaluate your information

Genealogical information is taken from a wide variety of sources. Evaluating accuracy is an important part of the research process. Original records are regarded as being more likely to be accurate than compiled or transcribed records. However, original records are only as good as their source. For instance, a death certificate would certainly be considered an original (or primary) source. The information on the certificate was most likely provided by a physician, friend, or relative; any one of whom might not be able to accurately answer the questions. The census is another good example of an original source that should be carefully evaluated. Census takers may have gotten their answers from neighbors, the children, or they could simply have made them up.  

Information taken from secondary sources (published family histories, compiled indexes, transcribed records, etc.) should be carefully evaluated as well. Consider whether the author of the family history had access to original records or were they relying on family stories and tradition. When looking at a transcription of records imagine how things like handwriting and unfamiliar terminology might affect the transcriber’s interpretation. Remember that every time a record is indexed or transcribed an opportunity arises for errors to occur that can be perpetuated indefinitely if they go unnoticed.

Lastly, when using public family trees online (Worldconnect,, etc.) remember that no one is checking them for accuracy. Anyone can publish anything online. That doesn’t make it true.

Online databases available through MHL

  • American Ancestors
    The databases of the New England Historic Genealogical Society
  • Ancestry Library Edition
    Search for your ancestors, check US census records, birth/marriage/death records, etc.
  • HeritageQuest
    Census data, family records, local histories, tax lists, city directories, land and probate records, birth, marriage and death records, etc.
  • FamilySearch Affiliate Library Records Access

Popular genealogy websites

Genealogy glossary

Person who has died
Share of husband’s real estate to which the widow is entitled
The total property held by an individual and available after death
Recipient of proper either through purchase, gift or request
Individual who sells or gives property to another person
Same location. Identifies a document that has already been quoted
A person below the age designated as adulthood
Died without leaving a will
Identifies a woman’s maiden name
After death
Used in dates for next, usually refers to the following month
Widow of particular individual
Shows that an incorrect fact has been copied faithfully

Common abbreviations

You may find the following terms on family trees or genealogical charts.

b. or bn.
Date of birth
b. or bur.
Date of burial
abbreviation of latin word “circa” meaning an approximate date or time
Date of death
Abbreviation of a latin term meaning died without issue
et. al.
Abbreviation of latin term meaning others, indicating the presence of other names not listed on the document
Justice of the Peace
m., m1, m2
Marriage date, numbers indicate first, second marriage
No date known
Abbreviation for the latin term “obit” meaning deceased
Guardian of underage person or minor

Family relationships

Family relationship terms can get complicated. Below are definitions to help you keep it all straight.

the brother of your father or mother
the sister of your father or mother
your brother or sister
the son or daughter of your uncle or aunt
Second cousin
the son or daughter of either parent's first cousin
the son of your brother or sister
the daughter of your brother or sister
the father of your father or mother
the mother of your father or mother
your child's son
your child's daughter
Great grandfather
the father of one of your grandparents
Great grandmother
the mother of one of your grandparents
Great uncle
the uncle of one of your parents
Great aunt
the aunt of one of your parents
the father of your spouse
the mother of your spouse
the son of your spouse's former marriage
the daughter of your spouse's former marriage
your father's second (or subsequent) wife
your mother's second (or subsequent) husband
the male offspring from the remarriage of one of your parents
the female offspring from the remarriage of one of your parents

Updated 5/15/2018