Discover your Family Tree Today

Search, Discover, Build your Family Ancestry with an Organized Research Process

Building your family tree can be overwhelming if you don't know where to begin. To make it easier for yourself, you should start with yourself, your siblings, and then your parents. After that you should take one side of your family and go back one generation at a time.

To stay focused you should stick with one person and try to find one fact for that individual. Below we have outlined some steps that you can follow that will help you with your family ancestry search.

Genealogy Research Diagram

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1. Use a Task List and Write Down your Goals

A list is a good way to organize your objectives and monitor your progress. Creating specific well thought out goals, with as much information as you already know will lead to a more focused fact finding approach and better chances of a positive outcome.
Task List Example:
Task List Example

2. Pre-Research Planning

You may be at a loss as to where to look, as well as what kind of document might contain the genealogical data that you are trying to find.

Where to Look for Documents

Once you know what type of document you are looking for, then you need to try different repositories to locate that document. Your local Family History Library is a great place to start your research. They have an abundance of information and access to millions of documents from around the world. You can also try your local historical society if your research is where you live. State and national archives and large libraries all have access to genealogical information.

What type of Document Might Contain what you are Seeking

There are literally millions of documents that might have what you are looking for. For a list of document types, click on these links: Family Heritage documents and find your ancestor with genealogy records by events that touched their lives.

Create a pre-research log based on your task. Do some homework to find out what is available by making phone calls and doing some legwork before getting in your car or flying somewhere only to find what you are looking for is not available. Pre-Research Log Example:

You should record what you know, even if it is not available, this will keep you from trying to do family ancestry search for something that can’t be found.


3. Is the Document Available?

If you are looking for a document and it is not available then go to step four (4). If it is, go to step seven (7).

4. Is a Substitute Available?

Can an alternate family ancestry document be found to supply the facts you are searching? The first step is to analyze where you think you can find what you are looking for. Is it in a book, a microfilm, a letter, a legal document, etc. There are thousands of sources that can help with your genealogy.

There are different types of documents, primary and secondary which can help verify your family tree information. Primary Documents are created at or near the time the event took place, such as a birth certificate, a photo of a baby, a death certificate, a marriage license, a photo of a wedding. Secondary Documents record information after they have taken place and by a person who was not present at the event. Try finding several primary and secondary documents to have a well researched pedigree.

5. Update your Task Log

If you can’t find anything after trying several repositories, update your task log with the next steps.

6. Create a New Task

Create a new task and start the process again.

7. Update your Pre-Research Log

If your pre-research reveals some possibilities, update your log with your newly found family ancestry information.

Use several repositories to help with your pre-research process. You may have a list of repositories that work for finding specific locations, or a type of record. With pre-research practice you will build lists that work best for you.

Updated Pre-Research Log Example:

Updated Pre-Research Log Example

8. Start Researching your Genealogy

Based on your pre-research, once you have identified where you can find what you are looking for then it is time to execute your plan by gathering the data yourself, or hire someone to do your family ancestry research for you.

9. Did you Find Anything?

While conducting your family ancestry search did you find what you were looking for? Did the source contain the information you were looking for? If no, go to step ten (10). If yes, go to step fourteen (14).

10. Update your Research Log

If your probing was successful or not, update your log with what you looked at and the results. Writing down all your discoveries is essential so you don’t do the same genealogy leg work over and over again. Some problems last a long time, and you may get tired of working on an issue and decide to work on a new task. If you don’t write down everything you have done, you will end up doing some of the same leg-work again, wasting valuable time and effort. Sometimes when you get to a facility you may find yourself browsing other unplanned sources that may or may not be useful. Write down all the sources you used so you don’t duplicate your efforts sometime in the future.

Research Log Example:

Date of Search Repository Source Information
(author, title, year, pages)
Comments Next Steps
12-Feb Green County
Historical Society
Green County Pioneer, Vol 16 and Vol 17
field from to get copies
15-Feb World Cat Ordered (to be sent to local library)
Historic Green County Tennessee and its
People, 1783-1992

11. Continue Looking

Decide if you will continue to look for evidence. If yes, go back to step eight (8), and try a new approach, if not go to step twelve (12). Below are some suggestions to find information:

Consult with someone about the issue to get a different perspective. Being able to share your genealogy efforts to date will help give the consultant an idea of what you have already tried and lend some new family ancestry search ideas.

Try a new repository to conduct your research. Find a local genealogical society, historical commission, local library, or genealogy club.

Try different name spellings. The information could have been recorded differently than what you were expecting, either accidentally, or on purpose. If you don’t find something you are looking for in a certain county, widen your criteria to the next county over. Remember, counties formed over time and knowing this can be the key to your family ancestry search.

12. Update your Task and Research Log with your Findings

By deciding to stop your research for this task, update your log so you have a record of what was tried. You may want to research this same person in the future and it will remind you what you have already tried.

13. Create a New Task

Create a new task and start with step one (1).

14. Update your Research Log

If your family ancestry search was helpful for your task, update your research log with the details and make the necessary copies of the document you found while searching your family ancestry. If the facts come from a book, copy the cover and make sure you know who the author and publisher is. Make sure you have everything you are looking for, and that you copied every page that pertains to your ancestor.

15. Cite your Sources Fully

Cite your Sources so you can get another copy of the document. It is almost certain that you may lose or misplace part of the information you found; or you may discover you should have copied more pages from the document you were using. If you found the literature while traveling, it will be much easier to call the repository and tell them exactly what you need so someone can make a copy and send it to you. This is one (1) good reason to record everything; you will be glad you did.

Source Citation Begins by Writing Down the Document Information:
  • The repository –where you found the document
  • Author –who created the information
  • Title & Information –contains the title, page numbers, and any important reference details
  • Publication –includes the publisher and, ISBN # if available

Citing Books is Different than Citing Online Sources. As a rule:
  • Websites showing their URL should be placed in “< >”.
  • Website Titles, Newspapers and Magazines should be in italics. When you cannot use italics, place an underscore line “_” before and after the Title.
  • Articles and database titles should be in quote marks “Title”.

Citation Example:

James Reece, probate Records, July Term 1895; citing pages 304 and 305, probate court (original papers), Searcy County, Arkansas; photocopy from Family History Center, Microfilm #1031126, Item #1 : 2008

For a quick reference sheet, for citing online historical documents, see Elizabeth Shown Mills. QuickSheet, Citing Online Historical Resources.Genealogical Publishing Co., ISBN # 978-0-8063-1776-2

16. Organize all your Findings

Before getting consumed with lots of papers, set up a filing system that works for you and stick with it. There are several options to consider. You may consider filing your documents by year, alphabetically, or by setting up folders for direct family members, then alphabetically for subsequent ancestors. You may want to file your documents by surname, then cross-file your documents by putting all similar documentation in color coded folders filed by year, alphabetically, or alphabetically and then by year.

Whatever organization method is used: folders, notebooks, boxes, large envelopes, etc., be consistent with a filing system. Scanning all documents and adding them to a genealogy program will help keep your genealogy documents organized.

Make sure you have a back-up of all your records. You can lose your data if your file is only stored on your hard drive and your computer crashes. Having an external recovery plan is always a good idea.

17. Transcribe your Sources

After organizing your documents and you get the time, you should transcribe them. Especially wills and probate records. Understanding old handwriting takes time. If you don’t get the chance to look at a family ancestry document for some time and it is not transcribed, you will need to learn the hand writing all over. And sometimes a detail will only be noticed after the transcription. Transcription entails starting with the source citation which contains where you got the information and enough details to get another copy. Then copy the details line for line (grammar errors and all punctuation). Don’t forget to check your data for accuracy. It is easy enough to make a mistake while recording information.

18. Analyze your Data

After transcription, analyze your data. Does the source easily prove a family ancestry relationship or help to substantiate the person belongs in the tree? Solving kinship with accumulated evidence may conflict with each other, this is where you need to analyze and summarize the data.

All records are subject to interpretation and can contain errors. Your analysis should take into account the clues that further substantiate or contradict information known about the family ancestry. For more insight to analyzing your documents, read our article Family Tree Research .

19. Extract the Information

Because it is not the source alone that proves the person belongs in the tree, genealogists need to collect several documents that provide the date and location of birth, marriage, death, and burial information; and provide parents, siblings, spouse, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and other important relationships that solve ancestry related questions. The evidence from the documents should be added to your tree to support important events by adding the dates and locations as the facts; and adding the sources to back up those facts.

20. Rate your Sources

Use the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) to rate the source and extract the important facts from the family ancestry document that build your heritage. There are three (3) parts to the GPS standard: Reliability, Quality, and Information. For more details read our article, Genealogical Proof Standard Explained .

21. Is your Task Complete?

Did you get the facts that you were looking for? If no, go to step twenty-two (22). If yes, go to step twenty-five (25).

22. Continue Looking?

If you are not satisfied with your task being completed, you need to decide if you will continue to do more family ancestry research. If yes, go back to step number eight (8). If not, go to step twenty three (23).

23. Update your Task Log

Research is a process that can last many years. You may have to stop what you are researching so writing down your results will help organize and keep track of what you have done. It will also make it easier to pick-up where you left off and keep you from doing the same research over again.

24. Create a New Task

Create a new task and start with step number one (1).

25. Update your Task Log

If your task is complete, update your task log with your finding. This will help you new information in your family tree.

26. Add your New Data to your Tree

Use your research log to record your sources and information. Compile your information in a genealogy program so you can easily manipulate your data and get various reports.

27. Share the information

Share information with other relatives to help spread the newly found details and see if they agree with your new findings.

28. Create a New Task

Create a new task, and start with step number one (1).