Beginners’ Questions Answered

By Terry and Jim Willard

“In all of us there is a hunger marrow deep to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we came from. Without this enriching knowledge there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainment in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.”
– Alex Haley

Whenever we travel the country, people question us about our hobby. Of all the questions people ask, there are a handful that we hear repeatedly from people interested in starting their own family history research. You may want to take note—the answers to these fundamental questions can help anyone who’s considering family history as a hobby understand a little more about the endeavor.

Question 1:
Why research my family’s history?

The reasons we get involved in family history research are as varied as our ancestors. However, if you’re considering family history as a hobby, you may want to look at the following list of basic reasons for getting involved in it. If three or more of these reasons catch your interest, congratulations—you may have found a wonderful new hobby.

  1. Genealogy helps us understand who we are and where we come from. We live in such a fractured world today that many of us are removed from our true roots. Genealogy can connect us to those roots via our ancestors and help us develop links to our often varied cultural heritages.

  2. Genealogy offers us an opportunity to connect with current family members. While time separates us from our ancestors, distance often separates us from our living relatives. But as we gather information on our ancestors, we may also discover that other family members are looking for the same ancestors or that our relatives hold information that could prove useful in our research. Either way, genealogy is a great way to reconnect.

  3. Genealogy is an excellent cross-generational activity. As adults, we may be curious about our family’s past, but children often have an even greater curiosity. And children love hearing stories about their family from a grandparent.

  4. Genealogy is an excellent way to gather information on recurring family health issues. As the number of diseases with possible genetic connections continues to grow, family history research provides a wonderful opportunity to build a medical pedigree detailing health conditions prevalent in our families—something that may one day prove lifesaving.

  5. Genealogy research can result in a useful body of information that can be passed on to others. Whether members of your family’s current generations are interested in the family history, it is almost certain that descendants in future generations will want to know more about their heritage.

  6. Genealogy offers an opportunity to travel. Traveling to an ancestral homeland can be stimulating, emotional, educational, and most of all, fun.

  7. Genealogy is a great application for the home computer. Whether using the Internet to research ancestors, using computer software programs to organize and store family history information, or using e-mail to contact other researchers and family members, the marriage between the computer and genealogy is a match made in heaven.

  8. Genealogy is a stimulating activity that keeps us thinking. And as we all get older, finding new activities to keep our brains firing is very important.

  9. Genealogy is a flexible hobby. Regard-less of our other interests, genealogy can fit into almost any schedule. We can devote a lot of time or a little time to pursuing our ancestors.

  10. Genealogy leads to a better appreciation of history. Once we discover that we had ancestors living in a particular place at a particular time, the history of that place and time takes on a whole new meaning.

Question 2:
How do I get started?

How do you start? Try the following recommendations:

  1. Consult a good how-to book.
  2. If you are not already comfortable with using a computer, become so.
  3. Take a course in genealogy through a local adult education program, a local library, or online.
  4. Write down everything you know about yourself and your family and enter this information into a genealogy software program such as Family Tree Maker 2006.
  5. Connect with other genealogists by joining a local genealogy society, an ethnic genealogy society (if relevant), or a national genealogy society.
  6. Join a family association—search for phrases like “Willard Family Association” from an Internet search engine to see if a family association for your surname exists.

Question 3:
How do I organize my information?

Use pencil and paper or a genealogy software package to help you organize your family’s information through the following means:

  1. Write individual data on note cards; file the cards alphabetically by surname.
  2. Create a five-generation pedigree chart.
  3. Create a family group sheet.

Question 4:
Will the Internet help me?

Yes. And remember, the more comfortable you are using a computer, the more Internet technology can help.

Question 5:
How can I ensure my research endures?

There are a number of options open to you in terms of what you can do with your research.

  1. Designate a family member to carry on your research. Just as you are the keeper of the flame for your generation, there is bound to be someone to whom you can pass the torch. If not, leave your research to a local library, historical society, or genealogy society.
  2. Publish your work. This will ensure your research is available for future generations. If you choose to create a limited number of copies of your work, be sure to donate one of those copies to the Library of Congress.
  3. Create a monument to your ancestors, either literally in the form of a grave marker or more subjectively in the form of a memorial scholarship. Remember, however, that there isn’t necessarily a need for a concrete memento—the process of researching your family history and the pleasure you derive from the task can be the best reward of all.

Terry and Jim Willard hosted the ten-part PBS Ancestors series. They have researched their family history fifteen generations back on both sides.


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