Identify What You Know

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Step 1: Identify What You Know.

Start by reviewing what information you already know. Record that information on appropriate forms and keep your records organized.

By the end of step one you should have:

  • Facts and information recorded on family group records, pedigree charts, and if desired in personal and family history notes.
  • Organized copies of documents and family memorabilia.

Use Appropriate Forms

Begin by carefully recording and organizing your information so important facts and clues will not be lost. To help record the information you already know about family members, you may want to use standard genealogical forms such as family group records, and pedigree charts. These forms are familiar to other researchers and assure that your findings will be understandable to others. The forms, used by most researchers, can be purchased at genealogical stores, the Family History Library, Family History Centers, and most genealogical libraries.

Computer Programs for Generating Forms

You could also use computer programs to generate these forms. After you type genealogical information once, these programs can generate many kinds of forms such as completed family group records and pedigrees. For example, the Personal Ancestral FileTM computer program makes it easier to cite the sources which document events, and allow you to even add customized events to a family group record. Computer programs allow you to make frequent updates and share information with others while limiting the mistakes caused by redundant typing or writing of information. For further details see Using a Computer for Genealogy.

The Personal Ancestral File program can be downloaded for free starting at the FamilySearchTM Internet Genealogy Service home page at There are several other commercial computer programs you can purchase which also help you keep and organize genealogical information. For more information about various programs see Not Sure Which Genealogy Management Software to Use?

Family Group Record

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Blank family group record
Family group records are forms with space to record information about the parents and children in one family. Good family group records show names, dates and places of births, marriages, and deaths (see the example to the right). You can enhance their value by citing the sources that document these events in the lives of family members. If you use computers to generate family group records, you also can easily display additional events such as censuses, change of residence, land purchases or sales, wills proved, and any other events in the family members' lives. The most useful family group records display as many events and sources as possible.
Start with a well-documented family group record.

Start research on a new family by compiling a well-documented family group record. This will help you gather, correlate, and analyze information. A well source-footnoted family group record bristles with clues to help you find further sources. For a more detailed explanation of their value see Family group record: roadmap for researchers.

You may need additional pages for large families. While modern family group records are usually letter size, other sizes such as legal size have been common in the past and can still be used.

Create a family group record for each couple on your pedigree chart. A four-generation pedigree chart has seven couples, so you would make up to seven family group records for such a pedigree.

For a person who married more than once, make another family group record for each additional marriage, especially if the marriage produced children.

Pedigree Chart

Blank pedigree chart
Most pedigree charts, sometimes called “Ancestor” or “Lineage” Charts, have space for four or five generations (parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.) There is space for dates and places of birth, marriage, and death. See the example at the right. Ancestral lines can continue onto other charts.

Prepare a Research Log

Filled-in homemade research log.
A research log (or calendar of searches) is a list of the source you searched, or plan to search for each objective, ancestor or family. It includes notes about what you found (or didn’t find). Most logs are kept in the order that records are selected or searches are made.

You may have a research log for each objective, locality, ancestor, or family. Most researchers prefer to keep it simple with a set of research logs for each family they research.

A research log is crucial to successful research. It will help you—

  • keep your research organized.
  • keep your research focused on one objective for one individual at a time.
  • avoid duplicating searches of sources without good reason.
  • easily review and share search strategies with other interested searchers.
  • document the facts found during research.
  • record information about the records you searched in an orderly manner.
  • identify what is found or not found for each objective.
  • locate a record that was searched earlier if you need to check it again.

Effective research logs must include—

  • Ancestor's name
  • Research objective(s)
  • Date of search
  • Location and call number of the sources searched
  • Description of the sources, including complete information on author, title, and year
  • Comments, such as the purpose and results of the search and the years and names searched.

You may also use your research log to identify—

  • Your document number or reference to findings
  • Quality of the source (if indexed, legible, language, etc.)
  • The place where the person you are searching lived.

You may purchase a basic log at the Family History Library, at Family History Centers, or at genealogical stores, or you may create your own. For more details about research logs see the wiki article Research Logs, and Using a Research Log in Step 2 of this article.

Personal and Family History Notes

You should also record other personal and family history information such as residences, occupations, schools attended, military service, property owned, and immigration or naturalization. At times such biographical information is essential to help prove relationships. You may use a computer program like Personal Ancestral File (see Adding a Custom Event to a PAF Family Group Record), a word processor, regular paper, or create your own form to keep your notes organized.

Suggestions for Recording Information

As you record information, be consistent in the way you write it. Someday other researchers may use your information or notes as they continue research on your family. The following suggestions are practiced by most genealogists, and are easily understood by all researchers.

  • Names. Write names in the order they are spoken (first names, then middle name(s), then last name or surname.) You may want to capitalize the surname to identify it. Use maiden names for women.
  • Dates. Write the day, then the month, then the complete year (23 May 1891). Always write the month, or use an abbreviation. Never use numbers for months. Other researchers may not know if 6-8-50 means 6 August or 8 June, or 1750 or 1850.
  • Places. Give the town (or parish or township); the country, province or district; then the state and/or nation. Only abbreviate the state or nation. Use standard abbreviations. For example:

          Stephenstown, Renesselaer, NY
          Ansbach, Oberfranken, Bayern, Ger.

Commonly, researchers use native spellings for all places or levels (jurisdictions) except for the nation. For example, the native name of Bayern is used instead of Bavaria. Always indicate the name of the country except for USA or Canada. The state or province is sufficient when identifying places in those countries.

  • Sources. Be sure to fully identify the source of your information. If a person, give their full name. For a book or other document give the complete title and other information. For suggestions see Cite Your Sources.

Recall Information

Always begin research with yourself and work backward to identify you ancestors.

Recall information about yourself and your family. Write down (or type) your name, birth date, birthplace, marriage date, marriage place, spouse, and the children’s names and dates and places of their births, marriages, or deaths.

Recall similar information abut each prior generation (parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and others.)

Try to recall both vital event and biographical information. See the following box.

Types of Genealogical Information

Types of Genealogical Information

Vital event information can uniquely identify a person as distinct from any other person. It is generally compiled on family group records and pedigree charts. It includes—

  • Names. The complete name, including given or first names and the last or surname for—

          The person.
          Father and mother.
          Spouse (husband or wife).
          All children.

  • Gender.
  • Dates and places of—

          Birth (or christening)
          Death (or burial)

  • Relationships (to spouse, children and parents)

When you cannot find all of this information about every ancestor, you may need to calculate or estimate dates and places of birth, marriage, and death.

Biographical information gives additional information about a person’s life, such as—

  • Religious beliefs
  • Religious events such as confirmation
  • Latter-day Saint ordinance dates
  • Purchase of property
  • Employment information
  • Dates of immigration and naturalization
  • Migration to other places
  • Social and economic status
  • Military service
  • Education and other accomplishments
  • Ethnic group
  • Participation in community, social and historical events
  • Naming practices
  • Family traditions
  • Cause of death

Often you need biographical information to identify which records have the genealogical information you need. In such cases, biographical information is essential, not optional!

Gather Family Information

Some family members probably know a lot about the most recent generations of your ancestors. Use these sources and methods when gathering genealogical information from them:

Family Records

Search all the old storage areas of family homes, including the attic, storage closets, trunks, safe, deposit boxes, and so forth. Encourage your relatives to make similar searches in their homes.

Your second cousin, great-aunt, or other relative may already have gathered some family information. Most families have at least one relative who keeps track of cousins’ birthdays, anniversaries, or deaths. Learn who that relative is. Be sure to ask your parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, other relatives and friends of the family for help in finding—

Official Documents

  • Certificates of birth, marriage, and death
  • Wills, deeds, and property records
  • Military service and pension documents
  • Passports
  • Naturalization documents
  • Medical records
  • Licenses (business, marriage, fishing, driving)
  • School records
  • Insurance policies

Books and Albums

  • Family Bibles
  • Scrapbooks and albums
  • Baby and wedding books
  • Books of Remembrance
  • Photograph Albums

Personal Writings

  • Journals and diaries
  • Personal histories and biographies
  • Letters and cards

Printed Notices and Announcements

  • Newspaper clippings and obituaries
  • Announcements of births, weddings, and anniversaries
  • Programs (award ceremonies, funerals)
  • Family reunion notices and records


  • Religious records
  • Fraternal or society records
  • Occupational awards

Family Traditions

As you discuss family history, you will probably learn some traditional family stories about an ancestor. Many traditions are based on fact, but most prove to have significant incorrect information. Stories often tend to inflate an ancestor’s importance or misrepresent one’s origins.

Be skeptical about family traditions. Treat them as vague clues. Family traditions such as the following have often proven to be false: (1) close connections to nobility, (2) three immigrant brothers who settled in different parts of America, (3) radical name changes by immigration authorities (4) descent from an Indian princess, or (5) a valuable estate that the descendants are entitled to have.

Be skeptical about family traditions.
Treat them as vague clues.

However, most family traditions also include many correct facts and serve as clues for further research. Therefore, write down the traditions, indicate who is most familiar with the stories, and be sure to investigate the facts.

Family Memorabilia

Many families have kept objects that may provide important clues for further research on an ancestor. You may want to write a brief description explaining (1) what each item reveals about the family and (2) where the item is located. Look for—

  • Religious artifacts
  • Samplers, tapestries and quilts
  • Heirlooms
  • Pieces of furniture or household items
  • Medals, awards, trophies
  • Souvenirs
  • Clothing, uniforms

How to Gather Family Information

Keep a record of contacts with family members on your research log. This will help you avoid duplicating your work and can help in following up later. Write out notes about interviews, meetings, and reunions. Make paper copies of e-mails and keep copies of letters sent or received. Cite these notes, printouts, and copies on your research log.

Interviews can be face to face or by telephone. Handbooks such as the following can help you prepare for an interview:

Akeret, Robert U. Family Tales, Family Wisdom. New York: Henry Holt, 1992. (not at FHL)

Fletcher, William. Recording Your Family History. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986. (FHL book 973 D27fL)

E-mail and Correspondence. When writing family members, follow a few basic rules:

  • Don't send form letters.
  • Don't send unfamiliar blank genealogical forms, especially with the first letter.
  • Be reasonable. Don't ask for too much at once.
  • Ask simple, straightforward questions.
  • Be generous in sharing and prompt in answering.
  • Show appreciation.

For more suggestions see Correspondence.

Many introductory books about family history will give you more information about gathering family sources, including oral history and additional home sources. One of the best books for this kind of information is—

Lichtman, Allan J. Your Family History: How to Use Oral History, Personal Family Archives, and Public Documents to Discover Your Heritage. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. (FHL book 929.1 L617L)

Requesting Additional Information from Your Family

As you learn about your family, you may want to share the information you find with you relatives (see Step 5.) This may also be a good opportunity to request additional information from them. If your first requests were only for basic information about a few relatives, more information may be available. Your new information may jog memories of family members who may provide more clues. Also they may have recently found the information you were seeking.

Family members who were reluctant to share information earlier may have changed their minds, or may be intrigued by the information you have found. Your information may convince them of your seriousness and they may pay more attention to your requests.

Gather Low-Hanging-Fruit Sources

As you begin research on a new family, three kinds of sources are relatively easy to search—

Online databases.

Some of the best free databases on the Internet (or partly free at Family History Centers, or Family History Library)—good sites to begin research on a family are listed on the wiki at Databases Online. Several of these sites are more for United States research, but most countries have their own unique sites that also would be good places to start.

Family histories.

Compiled genealogies and family histories may be available for a family you are researching. In order to find these search library catalogs or indexes such as—

  • Family History Library Catalog Surname Search. Search using just the family’s surname. This searches the world’s largest genealogical library for works with this family name as a main subject.
  • WorldCatalog Advanced Search. In the Subject field enter the surname and “family” like this, Greenwell family. This searches the catalogs and displays the results from thousands of North American libraries at once.
  • Periodical Source Index (PERSI) People Search for a family name in over a million article titles in genealogical periodicals. Put the family name in the Surname field and click the Search button. If the Article Results List is too long, redo the search but in the Keyword field add the two-letter postal abbreviation for the state where they lived.


Censuses show family members, their residence, and are often indexed. Use census records in the United States, Canada, and Britain early and often, especially if they are indexed. It is important to add EVERY census you can find to the family group record for EACH member of the family to show where they lived throughout their lives. For a list of links to online census indexes see Genealogy Links.

Record Useful Information

After you recall and gather family information, review each document, record, letter, your interview notes, and other sources. Copy the information from these sources onto your family group record. Add custom events to the family group record to for events such as religious confirmations, school, military service, land purchases, fraternal organizations, and wills written. Cite each source that documents an event listed on your family group record.

List these source documents on research logs. For suggestions on using a research log see Prepare a Research Log.

Organize Your Records

Sort the materials you have gathered into groups for each individual or family.

Organize and file materials in a way that is easy for you to use. Your filing system should—

  • be simple.
  • be consistent.
  • be convenient and accessible.
  • keep your records safe.
  • help you find your information quickly.

Several ways of organizing notes are described in—

Dollarhide, William. Managing a Genealogical Project. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1991. (FHL book 929.1 D69m)

Many people use loose-leaf notebooks (such as 3 ring binders), or file folders to organize their materials. Put files in alphabetical order by the name of the husband. Your notebook file tabs, or file folders may include the information needed for on-going research, such as—

  • Family group records
  • Pedigree charts
  • Maps
  • Research logs for the family
  • Photocopies of source documents, interview notes, copies of e-mail and correspondence, Internet printouts.

It is usually a good idea to have a notebook tab, or file folder for each family (parents and children). Store these notebooks or files in a safe place. You may want to take them with you when researching that family.

Individuals on your pedigree are in at least two families: (1) as a child, and (2) as a parent. Log information and file documents prior to marriage with the father’s file. Log information and file documents starting with marriage in the husband’s file.

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