Beginners Guide to Family History Research
by Rosemary Tiwari, Newsletter Editor of the Iowa City Genealogical Society
28 April 2007

I.    Why Genealogy?

A. Cultural Diversity.  Genealogy allows individuals to investigate your own ethnic and cultural heritage, to help you understand you and your family.  It is a personal way to view the processes of immigration and assimilation and it is fun to share the details with friends and family.

B.    Connectedness.  Genealogy can do more than just teach kids about the past. They'll become closer to their living relatives as they learn more about their family's origins.  Family history is about stories, not necessarily who married whom and all the way back.  Its important for kids to have a sense of connectedness to everyone else especially now when many kids and especially teenagers are feeling quite alienated.  As children piece family stories together, they'll also learn more about themselves. Genealogy can help kids gain pride in themselves, their family and their heritage.

B.    Reference Skills.  While we learn about ourselves, our families and their communities, we may need to verify some of the facts in the projects. We will learn how to develop reference skills by using libraries, reference books and people as resources.

C.    Organizational and Computer Skills.  A key skill learned by working on a family history project is organization. Developing a research plan to find information is an important component of any project. Researchers learn to progress through a set of steps to locate and analyze data, this develops organizational skills which are useful throughout our lifetimes.

D.    Local History.  Social historians, public historians and genealogists understand that the lives of individuals become part of local history. Family history introduces students to a larger historical context.

II.  Getting started.

A.    Read a beginners book to become familiar with how to do genealogy and the types of resources used.  Check out a book on genealogy from the library Climbing your family tree: online and offline genealogy for kids: the official Ellis Island handbook is located at 929.1/Wolfman and is one of a number of great resources a subject search of genealogy will give a long list of other books available at the Iowa City Public Library.

B.    Join a genealogy society.  The Iowa City Genealogical Society meets at 9:30am on the last Saturday of most months at the LDS Family History Library in Iowa City.  For current meeting information check the Johnson County GenWeb website at

The link to the Iowa City Genealogical Society Bulletin Board is located about midway down the main page of the website.  As a member you will receive a newsletter 10 times per year with information about the monthly meetings, area workshops, national conferences as well as tips and tricks to make your own research more effective.  See Appendix A.

C.    Read some beginner's guides online.  Cyndis List is a great place to search for all sorts of links related to genealogy. She has a page of links related to beginning genealogists at

III. Gather your supplies.

A.    Ancestral Charts.  The ancestral chart is the big picture as it lists only the ancestors from whom you directly descend and not all of the family members.  It is a good quick look at what you know, a road map of sorts.

B.    Family Group Sheets.  The family group sheet lists much more detail than the ancestral chart, it gives the names of the children as well as the parents in each family.  It will be useful to you later if you record your sources on the back of these pages.  See Appendix B.

C.    Genealogy Computer Software.  There are many computer software packages available which are excellent ways to keep track of the details on all of the individuals that you learn about while doing your family history research.  Many people use Family Tree Maker, others use free software like PAF which is distributed by the LDS Family History Libraries and downloadable from:
Our Webm
aster uses Brothers Keeper Version 6.
I personally use Generations 6.0, but not as a result of much deliberation since it was a gift from my husband several years ago.

D.    Binders and File Folders.  There are many theories regarding the best way to organize your files after you start collecting information, my suggestion is to keep in mind that you will want to preserve these documents for many years so whatever system you use be sure to use acid free and lignen free materials and store your documents in a spot that is as climate controlled as possible (not the basement or garage).

IV.  Record what you already know.
Pencil in all that you know on the charts and remember to use maiden names for women.  If you prefer to work directly in your computer program that is fine as well, after you have entered your data you will be able to print the family group sheets and ancestral reports with your information included directly from your computer program.

V.  Search for more information.

A.    Look for clues at home.  Look for clues in your own attic, basement, etc. Photographs, diaries, scrapbooks, documents, family Bibles, and other mementos in your own home may have information that can help you find names, dates, and places to help guide your research.

B.    Talk to your relatives.  Ask them about documents and photographs that they may have in their homes that will provide further clues.  Record their personal stories and memories.  See below.

C.    Find out what others have already done.  Check for published family histories at the State Historical Society of Iowa library on Iowa Ave in Iowa City, also query your surnames in the Heritage Quest database which is available through the Iowa City Public Librarys website.  Free genealogical sites like are also great places to post queries regarding your research for others to see and make contact with you. The GenWeb State sites (like ours for Johnson County which is listed above) include Gravestone Photos, Obituaries, Queries, Documents, and Biographies Boards which contain a lot of information submitted by other researchers. 
Check them out and consider posting to these Boards.

VI. Start Researching.  

A.    Non-Internet Research.  Libraries, courthouse, cemeteries, churches, funeral homes, etc are all locations which have resources that most likely are not entirely available from any internet website.

B.    Internet Research.  More and more information is being indexed and entered into on-line databases which are easily accessible from your house if you have a computer with internet access.  Some of the sites like are available through a paid subscription. Others like are accessible through your local librarys website if you are a local card holder for the library. My favorite sites for linking with other researchers who are working on the same family lines are the surname sites at I have made numerous contacts with very distant cousins who have been very generous in sharing their research with me.

VII.  Document your Sources. 
Be sure to keep track of where you find each bit of information that you record.  You will very likely find conflicting information as your research continues and you will want to know where you found the first bit in order to determine which is more likely the correct source. Some problems you will encounter are missing records, spelling variations, and lack of indexes.

VIII.  Stay Organized
The number of people you are researching increases quickly with each generation you go back in time.  Take the time to enter information on your charts or in your program.  Copies of records will mount up so develop a system to organize your copies by surname, place or type of record. Preserve your original documents and photographs.

IX.  Ask Questions. 
Ask Questions. People generally are willing to help. Most genealogists are happy to share their knowledge about where to look for information. Join genealogy societies in the areas you are researching, keep attending workshops, read how-to books or watch videos, find books on the state, type of record, or general problem that you are working to solve.

Tips for Interviewing


1st: Interview your oldest living relatives as soon as possible.

2nd: Plan your interview ahead of time.

3rd: Prepare for the interview by making a list of questions to ask and by testing your equipment. Take extra tapes and batteries with you for the interview.

4th: Ask "open-ended" questions about family memories, parents and grandparents, school days, vacations, dating, marriage, children, military service or wars, hobbies, and so forth.

5th: Preserve the audio or video tapes in a safe place, type a transcription, and share copies with family members. You may also wish to donate to copy to a local public or university library or historical society, along with your transcription.


1.   What is your full name? Why did your parents select this name for you? Did you have a nickname?

2.   When and where were you born?

3.   How did your family come to live there?

4.   Were there other family members in the area? Who?

5.   What was your grandparents name on your dad's side and your grandparents names on your mom's side?

6.   What were your uncle's names?

7.   Where were you born?

8.   Where was your mom and dad born?

9.   Where was your mom's parents born and your dad's parents born?

10. What was the date of your parents wedding and where?

11. What was the birth and death date of your parents and grandparents?

12. Where are your grandparents buried?


Just for fun questions to ask:


1.   Did you receive an allowance? How much? Did you save your money or spend it?

2.   What was school like for you as a child? What were your best and worst subjects? Where did you attend grade school? High school? College?

3.   What school activities and sports did you participate in?

4.   Do you remember any fads from your youth? Popular hairstyles? Clothes?

5.   Who were your childhood heroes?

6.   What were your favorite songs and music?

7.   Did you have any pets? If so, what kind and what were their names?

8.   What was your religion growing up? What church, if any, did you attend?

9.   Were you ever mentioned in a newspaper?

10. Who were your friends when you were growing up?

11. What world events had the most impact on you while you were growing up? Did any of them personally affect your family?

12. Describe a typical family dinner.

13. How were holidays (birthdays, Christmas, etc.) celebrated in your family? Did your family have special traditions?

14. How is the world today different from what it was like when you were a child?

15. Who was the oldest relative you remember as a child? What do you remember about them?

16. What do you know about your family surname?

17. Is there a naming tradition in your family, such as always giving the firstborn son the name of his paternal grandfather?

18. What stories have come down to you about your parents? Grandparents? More distant ancestors?

19. Are there any stories about famous or infamous relatives in your family?

20. Have any recipes been passed down to you from family members?

21. Are there any physical characteristics that run in your family?

22. Are there any physical characteristics that run in your family?

23. What was the full name of your spouse? Siblings? Parents?

24. When and how did you meet your spouse? What did you do on dates?

25. What was it like when you proposed (or were proposed to)? Where and when did it happen?
ow did you feel?

26. Where and when did you get married?

27. What memory stands out the most from your wedding day?

28. How would you describe your spouse? What do (did) you admire most about them?

29. What do you believe is the key to a successful marriage?

30. How did you find out your were going to be a parent for the first time?

31. Why did you choose your children's names?

32. What was your proudest moment as a parent?

33. What did your family enjoy doing together?

34. What was your profession and how did you choose it?

35. If you could have had any other profession what would it have been? Why wasn't it your first choice?

36. Of all the things you learned from your parents, which do you feel was the most valuable?

37. What accomplishments were you the most proud of?

38. What is the one thing you most want people to remember about you?