10 Best Ways to Learn Your Family History


Family history. You’ve heard about it. You might have even seen a few TV shows about it. But more than anything, in the back of your mind, you always have the questions, "Who am I? Where did I come from?" You want to know what your story is and that story starts hundreds of years ago with your ancestors. The process of finding out can be an adventure.

Getting started is easier than you might think. It doesn’t usually cost anything (except time) and much of it may be in your house or a phone call away. Here are the 10 best ways to learn about your family’s past:

1. Pencil and Paper

You can’t know what you don’t know until you know what you know. I think I just confused myself. Basically, by sketching out your family tree according to your own knowledge, you will start to have an idea of where you need to start searching. 

Start with you and your siblings, if you have any. Write down as many birthdates or death dates as you can remember. Do the same thing as you work your way down, well, as far as you can go, to grandparents or great-great-grandparents. For some people, this may stop at themselves, as in the case of some adoptions. Others may be able to reach back centuries.
By doing this exercise, you are able to visualize where your search needs to begin.

2. Grandparents

If you’ve got them, use them. If you’ve got a great-grandparent or even a great-aunt, even better. In members of older generations, you have a living breathing library of information. In my experience, the problem is that most people don’t talk about it enough. 

Every time I have sat down and struck up a conversation with my grandparents I have found out not only names and dates, but also the stories behind those names. After all, they personally knew many of the people you are looking are. They can bring your ancestors to life in ways that websites and other tools just can’t.
So talk to these members of your family and have a pen and paper ready. They will likely have some of the things I am about to recommend.

3. Photographs

As long as photos have been a fixture of family life, they have been a medium for recordkeeping among families. Sometimes it’s just a photo of someone you don’t recognize. Other times, names and dates may actually be written on the back of the photo itself. 

Beyond just information, I’ve found that photos bring your family history to life. They give you a chance to look into the eyes of the people you are studying. They remind you these people had lives—lives full of stories, happy and sad. Most likely, you will recognize your features in theirs. 

4. Family Reunions

Awkward or not, getting together with extended family—especially those you don’t know very well—is a great way to fill in the gaps in your history.

First, it puts many of those invaluable grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-aunts all in one place. In this way, family reunions can be a genealogy goldmine. Sit down with more than one of them at a time, get them talking about so-and-so’s wedding and watch the fireworks fly. They will remind each other of things they had forgotten.
Second, it makes you get together with parts of your family you don’t usually see or talk to. Forget that you don’t know them from Adam. They have information you don’t. By not talking to them, you miss out on that information.
So grab a plate of your aunt’s Carrot Jello Casserole and talk to everyone you can. You’ll be surprised when you walk away a treasure trove of family history.

5. Birth Certificates

These records are a great way to attach children to parents. Luckily, birth certificates are fairly common. Everyone has one and they help to give a beginning point for any given life. Best of all, most families hold onto these because of their importance in getting things like Social Security Cards or Passports. 

If you can’t find birth certificates in a shoe box or jewelry box, you always request them from the vital statistics office in the state or area where the birth took place. To learn more about how to do this, visit this page

old-fashioned wedding photo6. Death Certificates

These records complete the bookends to someone’s life. They typically tell you when, where, and how they died. Important stuff. They can often be found in the possession of surviving relatives. If not, death certificates can also be obtained from the vital statistics office in the state in which the death happened. 


7. Marriage Certificates

You’re probably noticing a trend here. You want to get your hands on as many records of significant life events as possible. Marriage is one of those—it creates another branch in the family tree. If you can’t find these certificates with relatives, this site  is a good place to search if your family history is primarily in the U.S.


8. Family History Websites

Sites like Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com may be the first thing that come to mind when you think of starting your family history search. The best feature of these services is that they allow you to tap into the family history work that other users have already done on your pedigree. Sort of the family reunion effect.

You can usually get a free 30-day trial and there is a reasonable monthly subscription fee after that. These sites can be a great way to bring all of your research together into one place and to benefit from the research of others.

9. Family History Center

Nearly every county in the U.S. has a family history center of some kind. These centers come equipped with computers, microfiche libraries, county records, and more. Most importantly, they come with a helpful, knowledgeable genealogist who can help you past any roadblocks. This page is an easy way to find one a family history center in your area. NOTE: Although these centers are provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they are open to the public.


10. Roadtrip

Beyond documents, photographs, and stories, there are the places in which your ancestors lived. If it will fit in your budget, you might consider taking a trip to these places. There is something magical about walking on the same streets or sitting in the same church your forebears did. It makes your family history all the more real. Often, at historical sites, churches, or museums, you may run into pieces of information that fit into your genealogy.

Nat’l Genealogical Society Conference in SLC in 2010

Great news for all you family history nuts in Utah! The National Genealogical Society will be holding its annual Family History Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah at the Salt Palace Convention Center on April 28 to May 1, 2010. The conference is expected to deliver workshops and speakers on family history work international and American. The conference will even include a mini-performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Sounds like fun to me! Anyone else planning on being there?

The (Surprising) Joys of 3D

Few things are more annoying than gimmicks. The dictionary defines a gimmick as "a concealed, usually devious aspect or feature of something, as a plan or deal." Like how stores lure you in for sales on Black Friday only to have very, very limited quantities of the items advertised. That’s how most people have always thought of 3D- a flashy label they slap on otherwise mediocre films to get someone- anyone- to show up on opening day, a sign that the film is not good enough on its own. 

Thanks to advances in the way filmmakers use 3D, it is finally becoming more than just a gimmick.
Anyone who has seen Disney’s A Christmas Carol, based on Charles Dickens’ holiday mainstay, can tell you that 3D has now become art. Rather than toss orbs at the audience’s face or point sharp objects at them teasingly, director Robert Zemeckis uses 3D to give us an awe-inspiring depth of field to beautifully composed shots and to lend real texture to the crags and crevices of his characters’ faces and the environments they inhabit. The CGI characters look all the more real because of the 3D and less like video game marionettes. Indeed, the audience finds themselves drawn into the world because of the 3D, rather than being distracted by it.
Zemeckis’ Christmas Carol and the upcoming Avatar from James Cameron represent a new wave of 3D movies. With groundbreakers like Forrest Gump, Terminator 2, The Abyss, Titanic, and Contact under their belts, these directors have reinvented the way Hollywood uses visual effects to tell stories. And they are not alone. Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and George Lucas are also joining the push to make 3D more than a gimmick, each planning their own movies using the new technology.
There has been some resistance from critics and set-in-their-ways moviegoers. For many, the stigma of 3D, evoking such bombs as Jaws 3D, has them turning their noses up in discontent long before they even enter the theatre. Purist critics decry 3D, despite advances and differences in usage, as mere distraction from the story and gimmickry. Then again, before Spielberg proved how awe-inspiring CGI can be with his towering Jurassic Park creatures, critics poo-pooed the technology as nothing more than a fad. Before Peter Jackson used motion capture to give us The Lord of the Rings‘ Gollum, one of the most haunting characters in modern cinema, critics gave the technology a thumbs-down. Critics and more traditionalist moviegoers, it seems, prefer not to go on faith, but on things seen.
No doubt, with such forces as Spielberg, Cameron, and Lucas behind this technology, 3D will soon take its place as another powerful tool of the film medium.