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Genealogy : Getting Started at The New York Public Library: First steps

A guide to getting started with genealogical research at The New York Public Library

Geting started

Philippa, Josephine and George Schuyler at home, playing dominoes, circa mid-1940s.Why does anyone research their family history? In the past it may have been to prove lineage, to make a connection with a noble or glorious past, or to prove kinship, in order to claim property, or an aristocratic title. Since the 1970s, with the explosion of interest in family history research that followed the publication of Alex Haley's Roots, and the subsequent hit television drama of the same name, genealogy has become a democratic exercise, something we can all do, that places our ancestors in the context of local, national, and international historical events. Genealogy is the most popular kind of research done by people in the United States. Genealogy research is different things to different people. It's detective work, it's a quest, it's open ended, and often highly personal. You might ask yourself

  • Who am I?

  • Who are my people?

  • Where do I come from?

  • How do I feel connected to the past?

  • How do I learn more about family stories, legends, and mysteries?

Before you begin your research, you might ask yourself the question

  • Why do I want to research my family history?

Basic steps to getting started in genealogy research

  1. Write down what you know in a systematic way. A pedigree chart - below - is a great way to start organizing your information
  2. Start with yourself, your name, date and place of birth.
  3. Then work backwards, writing down the same information about your parents, and their parents, as much as you know about your ancestors' names,  and the dates and places of their key life events, i.e. birth, marriage, and death.
  4. Gather any records you may have at home, that provide this information: diaries, letters, photo albums, scrapbooks, birth and death certificates, and so on.
  5. Interview family members who know something of the family's history, preferably two at a time. Gather names, places, events, and stories. Ask to see family photographs and documents, and find out the names and life stories of people in those photographs.
  6. Then you might begin to search in records available online, or in libraries and archives. Start with the census, the most recent being 1940, and work backwards, writing down what you learn.
  7. Expand your search to include other types of records, depending on what you have learned. Look for information in vital records, ship passenger lists, naturalization records, and religious records. Look for other records that describe your ancestors, their familial relations, and life events.

You will learn more about genealogy research as you go along. Talk to librarians, genealogists, and other researchers to discover more. Consult genealogy manuals, how to books, and take classes to further your knowledge. 

The Family Search article Principles of Family History Research provides a thorough grounding in beginning your family history research.

Defining goals

Before you start, think about why you are researching your family history. What is it that you want to discover? Defining goals from the outset helps you decide what direction your research will go in. Being aware of your research goal helps you develop specific research questions that will eventually lead you to the records you need. Research goals are usually quite broad: for instance,"I want to research my family history back as far as I can go." Or a goal can be quite specific, "I want to learn about my 3rd great grandfather's military service."

Examples of research goals might be

  • To learn when a family came to the United States
  • To research the teaching career of a Great Grandmother.
  • To discover if you are eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution
  • To know where in Ireland your family are from, so that you can visit the village.
  • To find out if you ancestor enlisted in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.

FamilySearch breaks research into three stages.

  • Quests, e.g. visit the ancestral homeland
  • Goals, e.g. find the immigrant ancestor
  • Objectives, e.g. identify a port of arrival, or identify a town of birth

Further reading

Decide What You Want to Learn.

Identify what you know : getting organized

How to Fill Out a Pedigree Chart

A pedigree chart (sometimes called an ancestral chart) is a great way to start organizing your research. You can download pedigree charts from the internet, from genealogy websites like Ancestry Library Edition, and from the National Archives

Remember to:

  • Start with yourself, and work backwards

  • Spell out family names in CAPITALS.

  • Number every individual and every pedigree chart page

  • Write out dates (e.g. 1 September 1940) to avoid confusion.

  • Fill in all the information you can.

  • Use a pencil, revisit, and make corrections and additions as you collect more information.

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Other charts you can use to record and organize your information

  • Family group chart: a pedigree chart does not include siblings, and other family members. A family group chart helps you keep track of family group vital statistics and relationships.
  • Research log: a research log helps you keep track of the resources you have searched and plan to search for an ancestor. It will also help you create accurate citations - you should always cite your sources.
  • Timeline: write out genealogical data in chronological order to create a skeleton narrative, and spot missing information and anomalies in your research.

National Genealogical Society: Free Charts and Templates

Isaiah Wilson (c.1844-1919) Timeline

Timeline for the life of Isaiah Wilson (c.1844-1919) 

Interviewing family

Talk to family and friends

  • Consider sitting down with groups or pairs of family members, or friends of family
  • Prepare questions in advance
  • Seek names, dates and places
  • Don’t just find facts -- collect stories
  • Ask to record your interview
  • Also collect any documents or family photos

Resources / further reading

Search for oral history manuals in the NYPL Catalog

Handbooks and how-to guides

Genealogy How-To Books

The Milstein Division has the latest how-to books and guides to genealogical research. Ask about them in Room 121, or search the Classic Catalog at catalog.nypl.org. See our blog post Genealogy How-To Books: How a Little Reading Can Save You A Lot Of Time (https://www.nypl.org/blog/2019/03/25/genealogy-guide-books). 

Online Guides

FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org) has a free online guide to starting genealogy research called Family History for Beginners that is full of tips and suggestions. (www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Family_History_for_Beginners) and a research overview, Principles of Family History Research.

Searching for Genealogy Handbooks at NYPL

NYPL has in its collections hundreds of handbooks and manuals to help you research your family history, from guides to getting started, through specialized guides to getting organized, finding specific record groups, research in different ethnic groups and communities, and genetic DNA.

Some useful general subject terms include:

The troubleshooter's guide to do-it-yourself genealogy / W. Daniel Quillen.A sample of more specific subject terms for ethnicity might include::

For help finding genealogy handbooks and manuals, or online guides to genealogy research, email history@nypl.org.

Reference librarians