Genealogy 101: How do I get started researching my family’s history?

You may have heard your friends or co-workers talking about genealogy, or tried to do some searching on the Internet under your family name. Now you would like to do more research to see what you can learn about your family’s history.

Seattle is a great place in which to begin working on your family history. There are several facilities in the greater Seattle area that will provide you with access to resources and assistance.

Courtesy Henry McLin Flickr CC

The Seattle Public Library owns the largest genealogy book collection in the Pacific Northwest, subscribes to major genealogy databases, and has two genealogy librarians on staff to assist you. The Genealogy Librarians offer basic genealogy classes and tours of the Genealogy Collection, which is located on Level 9 of the Central Library. Check the Library’s Web site for Calendar of Events for an upcoming class or tour: just search for “Genealogy.”

So, how do you get started? The first step is to write down what you and other family members know. Hopefully, you will discover that members of your family have collections of old photos, letters, Bible records, as well as certificates of all types. These are wonderful sources of information.

The next step is to organize this information. Genealogists have traditionally used two basic charts to keep track of their family information and to guide their research. The Ancestor Chart is used to create an outline of your ancestors. The Family Record Sheet is used to record more information about each couple and their children. There are also several genealogy software programs, which will enable you to organize the information electronically. Check the genealogy portal, Cyndi’s List, for more about genealogy software programs. Once you have organized your information, you can more easily determine where to start your research.

Oh yes, another important step is to keep a running log of where you get your information so that you and others can locate it again.

Now comes the fun part! Think of yourself as a detective. You will be using the information you have gathered in the first step as clues to locate additional data. Today we can do much of the initial research quickly thanks to the digitizing of so much information. You can find an amazing variety of data on subscription databases such as Ancestry Library Edition, Heritage Quest Online, America’s Genealogy Bank, and New England Ancestors. All of these databases can be used at The Seattle Public Library. Heritage Quest Online and America’s Genealogy Bank can be accessed remotely from any Internet computer by using your Seattle Public Library card number and PIN.

Many other digitized records are freely available on government web sites, such as the U.S. Dept. of Interior’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database or the U.S. General Land Office records.

State archives, such as the Washington State Digital Archives, also offer access to valuable information.

Checking for death records of your ancestors is a good place to start your research. State Health departments began recording birth and death records in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. Many death indexes are available on Ancestry Library Edition and through some state archives’ Web sites. The pilot site is also an excellent source for finding death records.

At this point you may be able to begin searching the U. S. Census records, which have been taken every ten years since 1790 and are available to the public through 1930. These records will help you develop an outline for your family history research. Census records will be topic of our next blog.

Everything Family TreeUntil then, here are a couple of great beginning guides for budding genealogists:


                               ~ Darlene H, Central Library

3 thoughts on “Genealogy 101: How do I get started researching my family’s history?”

  1. Hi!
    Is it possible to add the Jewish Genealogy Society of Washington State to the Around Town section of Shelftalk? JGSWS is another genealogy resource as meetings are open to the public. Our website is

    Thanks so much!
    Lyn Blyden, JGSWS President 2005-2008

  2. Thanks for your suggestion, and for the link – we’re sure many Seattle genealogy researchers will be pleased to find it here. Shelf Talk’s “Around Town” blogroll is a small list of other popular Seattle blogs, and I’m afraid isn’t anything detailed or research-oriented enough to warrant the inclusion of any genealogy sites. However, we’ll pass this along to our genealogy librarians for their consideration for the library’s genealogy resources page, which can be found here:

  3. If ShelfTalk is available to Seattle residents, how may I apply for a subscription?
    Have attended a Genelogy workshop at the University Library and starting from 0, and some documents from the family, am finding interesting information on my mother’s family in Washington. Sure, some times I will look at lists of names and keep trying various fields of details in searching databases, but then, out of the blue, a simple phone call can have me running in a direction which I did not know was there. This is very satisfying work. Looking forward to your next issue of ShelfTalk
    Barbara Marasco

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