Getting Started Offline

With the advent of electronic technology, software, and shiny new gadgets for data storage, genealogists everywhere always have something to look forward to. But for somebody new to the hobby, easily overwhelmed by this multitude of options, where do you start? I recently had this conversation with my cousin Teresa. She married into the family almost six years ago and heard countless stories about “the weird cousin who dances in cemeteries.”

“Which website is better?” she asked. “What software program should I buy?”

Before she opened her purse and dropped in front of the computer and got pulled into this contagious and addicting disease called “genealogy” (of which there is no known cure), I asked her if she liked coffee talk—the art of sharing coffee or tea while talking with family. Her answer was positive, so I then gave her some insight:

1. Get a good notebook, write down what you know about your family history, and then talk to your parents. Next, locate your oldest relatives and speak with them, because when they are gone, you will never again have access to their knowledge of the generations before them. Write down everything! The dates might be off by a few years or the names backwards, but this is rough work—it is an estimate to get you pointed in the right direction. Once you’ve written stuff down, then it will be time to prove it; as they say, without proof you have mythology.

2. Shoot everything—with a camera, silly! If you can borrow it (or have a portable scanner), scan it. Things like WWII love letters, obituaries clipped from unknown newspapers that are stashed in the family Bible in Great Aunt Bertha’s possession, and school yearbooks and report cards (if your family members are brave enough to share). And what about Gram’s photo albums?

3. Look through old photo albums. As you enjoy your coffee talk with relatives, make note of identities of family members and any memories that the photos might spark. Get prepared to shoot (or scan) away!

4. Don’t be afraid of cemeteries. In my experience, it was very commonplace as recently as fifty years ago for neighboring cemetery plots to belong to members of the same family. I have seen a row of four plots belonging to four siblings. The first sibling laid with his spouse to his immediate right, then in the next plot was his brother and sister-in-law, followed by his sisters and their husbands, respectively. In old pioneer graveyards, you might still find stones clustered together. The tallest stone could be considered equivalent to our modern-day celebrity or rockstar (head of the family), where their groupies (other family members) would be gathered around them. The black sheep or least favored in the family might be buried the furthest from the “celebrity” relative.

5. Check out your local library and genealogy society! The former may have online subscriptions to genealogy websites and databases, local newspapers on microfilm, and local history books that you probably won’t find (yet) online. The latter may or may not have online subscriptions, but they will have volunteers who can help you find your puzzle pieces. If your family is local, they might even introduce you to a society member or two who is a distant relative!

Online genealogy is popular for good reason, but there some very priceless pieces to your family story that you can only find rummaging locally and through the homes and possessions of family, like Dad’s Army footlocker in the attic or Great-Gramma’s recipe books in the microwave stand. What has been your best family find?

K. Liam Hobbes of Alberta, Canada, began his genealogical journey at a young age. Active in his local and online community, he’s been involved in several societies and has had many articles published. He keeps two entertaining blogs, is a regular participant in #genchat, and plays on many venues of social media as “Sir Leprechaunrabbit.”