Beginners Corner

All of us started somewhere and for reasons as varied and individual as we are.  There is no right or wrong way to research your family history.  Each of us finds our own path depending on why we are doing this and how much time and money we are willing to commit.  Resources are available to everyone, at every level.  There are free websites, paid websites, blogs, podcasts, archives, books, tree-building software, citation and bibliography generators, numerous numbering systems, discussion forums by the hundreds, etc., etc., etc.,  The list is almost never-ending.  It can be overwhelming to someone just starting out.

So the best advice for a beginner is to start small and see where your research and your curiosity take you.   Some of you will jump in, play around with the process for a while, get bored (or discouraged) and move on.  Others will jump in and, like so many before them, become enthralled, excited, elated and, well, totally addicted.

Before you begin you need to determine:
  • Why you are doing this?
  • How far back do you want to go?
  • What kind of resources (time and money) you are willing to commit?
  • Do you want to work on-line?  Or would you rather work only with non-digital resources.
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In 2014 it is hard to imagine anyone embarking on this journey without using the resources available on the Internet.  If you don't have a computer, there are many very inexpensive laptops on the market and many local, often free, resources for learning the basics.  
The Charleston County Library maintains a full-access subscription to Ancestry.com which is available for your use at the Johns Island Branch.  Talk to the reference librarian for information about accessing this resource.
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Once you have a focus and a resource, you can begin.

All you need to get started is one ancestor about whom you have a fair amount of accurate information (a parent or grandparent is usually a good place to start), a pencil (never a pen) with a good eraser, or better yet a large, stand-alone eraser, access to your resource of choice, and a lot of patience.  

Some Good Advice:

If you are lucky enough to still have older family members alive and willing to talk, get yourself a tape recorder (preferably digital) and start encouraging them to tell you their stories before it is too late.  There is an old "joke" among genealogists which states that the person you most desperately need to talk to in order to acquire information for your research is the person whose funeral you are currently attending.  The elders of our families are a time-perishable commodity and their stories are priceless.  While you are listening (and recording) these stories, write down questions you have, ideas that come to mind, anything and everything that pops into your head while you are listening and asking questions.  Try to collect stories, not just names and dates and be sure to ask open-ended questions.  This is probably the most important step in researching your family history.  Don't think you know how to do this or what questions to ask?  Below are three resources that will help you organize and conduct family interviews.

Simultaneously, start gathering any and all concrete resources you and your family have (diaries, paperwork, bibles, passports, land records, photos, wills, family heirlooms, etc.)  Don't forget: That person you are interviewing may possess "stuff" you can use.  Clues to your family history might be found on the backs of old photographs, in the family bible, or even on a postcard.  If your relative is uneasy with lending an original, offer to have copies made.

Sort through it and organize by 
  • Surname; or
  • Date; or
  • Type of item
Scan everything you can (documents and photos) onto your computer and/or digital storage media (CD, thumb drive, or SD card)

Choose an on-line genealogy resource to use for your research.  A few suggestions are:
  • Ancestry.com
  • RootsWeb
  • Family Search
  • Family Tree Maker

Choose a single surname, individual, or family with which to begin.  Focusing your family history search helps keep your research on track, and reduces the chance of missing important details due to sensory overload.  You can't do it all at once, no matter how much you may want to.

Explore one surname, one branch or one direct descendant line at a time finding everything you can on-line and through your own resources and family interviews. 

Write down your source for EVERYTHING!  I cannot emphasize this enough.  Take the time to make a detailed note (citation) of where you found every piece of information when you find it. You do not want to have to go back and re-invent that wheel down the road.

Explore the internet for information and help
Organize your new information - take notes, make copies or scan documents.  Make sure you save and date everything!
  • Set up a file/storage system for your artifacts (actual and digital)
    • Everything on-line 
    • On your computer and/or
    • On a cloud-based storage system
  • Actual documents/photos/etc.
    • Archival storage boxes
    • Archival photo albums
Don't forget to have fun doing this!

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