Series: Do-it-yourself

Do-it-yourself Family History, Part 1

The author in 1978

The author in 1978

The first thing you should do before you start developing your own family history is identify what you have on hand. Believe it or not, most of us have what we need to get started because it all starts with you!

But first a quick disclaimer: In the Internet Age, most of us have a love/hate relationship with privacy. If you plan on documenting personal information for folks that are living, do so with care. You may be willing to share your birthdate with others, but some family members may not. Ask first, publish second.

Assuming that I was starting from scratch, what do I have readily available?

Birth Certificate

I have a copy of my birth certificate. While I wouldn’t scan and post it to Facebook, I can use it to identify when I was born, where I was born, and who my parents were. Some birth certificates include the ages of your parents in the year of your birth. If you don’t know their exact birthdates, you can use these as a rough guides. For example, if I was born on June 28, 1965 and my mother’s age was listed as 25, she was born about 1940 (she was actually born in 1939).

Example birth certificate

Example birth certificate (click for a bigger view)

Marriage Records

Unless you packed them in a box, you most likely have access to your marriage record. Like Birth Certificates, many include the names of both sets of parents – yours and your spouses. If you are researching on behalf of your children (or future children), you can use them the same way.

Military Records

If you are a military member, you most likely have a DD-214 or other document that describes your military service. When the time comes to write your life story, it may come in handy. Use it to align dates, remember awards and recognition, and recall units where you served.

Bible Records

Sadly many folks in our generation have abandoned the Bible as a family history tool. In the good old days, Bibles were used to record births, marriages, and deaths. If you are fortunate to have one in the family, use it. It’s as nearly a primary source as the real thing.

Early Bible record

Early Bible record

Which reminds me, primary sources are always better than secondary. Secondary are better than tertiary. A primary source is considered direct evidence. For example, my birth certificate is a primary source because it officially recorded my birth with the State of New York and is signed by someone with first-hand knowledge (either a doctor or a state official going on record to say I was born that day). A secondary source is one derived from the primary source and is usually complete removed by time, distance, or firsthand knowledge. If I look at all your birth certificates, generate a document that lists them all, and republish, it would be a secondary source. I wasn’t there for your birth but am either looking at the originals or know you personally. Secondary sources are the most common since many records no longer exist. Tertiary sources should be used with caution since you never know what you’re getting. Mary, whom I don’t know, says you were born on July 4, 1972. She doesn’t say where she got the date. I can either trust her or confirm her information is accurate. The latter is the most appropriate response.


Pictures are part of your family history. Even if you determine you can’t move forward, you can begin your future family history with you. Look them over and date them the best you can (in the old days, actual photographs were sometimes dated on the back). Put them in chronological order. When you finally sit down to write your life story for your progeny, you can insert them to make the story real.

Not entirely sure if I'd add this to my family history...

Not entirely sure if I’d add this to my family history…

Personal Letters

Once upon a time we wrote letters and relied on the United States Postal Service. Today we use e-mail so correspondence is more ephemeral. Nevertheless, if you have any old personal letters, consider using them, too. Sometimes they contain life information that you forgot. You can use these to jar your memory. If they’re dated – and they usually are – you’ll know when something happened.

The important thing to remember as you begin your quest is to retain some sort of organization. Eventually you will have tomes of information. If you don’t organize first, you’re liable to miss something later.

In Part 2, I’ll address some of the tools I use to stay organized. Until then, happy hunting!



2 thoughts on “Do-it-yourself Family History, Part 1

  1. Rah Rah!!! (I’m cheering you on!) Go get ’em!

    Posted by Mom | December 9, 2014, 5:13 am
  2. Reblogged this on Lisa's Research & Reviews and commented:
    get more people involve!!!

    Posted by Lisa | January 16, 2015, 8:36 am

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