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Diving into family history? First, get organized
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Learning, growing, sharing
Want to start your family research? Here are some tips to get you started:
Search historical records: A simple online search could help you find family members in historical censuses, military and immigration records and newspaper articles. Use these to trace your story back through time. Stay organized by using an online family tree.
Ask your family for more details: Pick up the phone or pay a visit to your loved ones. Ask your relatives for stories, photos and other knowledge about your heritage. Search family photo albums and heirlooms for missing details.
Add context to your story: Attach photos, stories and other important documents to your online family tree. Record interviews with relatives.
Share your discoveries: Create a book, calendar, poster or another meaningful gift to share with other family members.

Source: Heather Erickson, Ancestry.com

Janice Bagwell, who has already compiled an extensive family history, said organization is key when researching family members.

Work on one family member at a time, she said. Bagwell will keep a notebook page started for one person at a time, working until she reaches a dead end. Then, she’ll move on to the next closest relative.

"First of all, you have to determine the line, and it gets bigger and bigger. But you keep the family together," she said. "One branch at a time, carry it as far as you can and keep as much of that information together."

Then, you piece together the context of the time and what that person did for a living, or even where they were living. The idea is to try to create a narrative by putting dates and places together with what was going on during that time.

"You add to it with histories and stories, then you go back and you do the other side of that particular branch, and the other brothers and sisters and spouses," Bagwell added. "Sometimes, if you can’t find anything on the person you’re looking for, you can get a little more information by looking for a sibling."

Or, ask around in your family — maybe someone else has done a family tree and has a middle name you may not have. Sometimes, that’s all you need to unlock the mystery.

And speaking of names that may change, keep in mind the city or county where you’re looking for birth or death records. Sometimes, the county you may be looking for didn’t exist at that time.

"They cut them out of Indian lands and they gave them new names and redivided them depending on the population," she said. "We even have a few new ones here in the state of Georgia. What do you do? Find a book that tells you where the old lines were."

Heather Erickson, senior public relations manager for Ancestry.com, said if you’ve traced your family back to another country, you may reach another stumbling block.

Depending on the quality of that country’s records — and how they are accessed — you may or may not find what you’re looking for.

"With many countries around the world, records have been destroyed or the country didn’t keep detailed records, which can make some families’ research a little more difficult than others," she said.

"At the same time, many countries may have robust collections of information, but it is spread across multiple, different places."

For example, Italy has records in churches, libraries and archives across the country, but there isn’t a central location to access all of them.

Erickson said even if you’re just starting out and don’t have a lot of information, you can still gather information for your family tree.

Just a few details about your parents can unlock information about your grandparents, and lead you to siblings, their parents and even beyond.

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