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The Basic Process for
Conducting Genealogical Research

Determine what you already know.

Look around your house for sources of information about your family that include information such as names, and vital statistics such as birth, death, and marriage dates and places. For a comprehensive list of 'around the house' sources to check, see the Family and Home Information Sources Checklist (mid-page) at . (Scroll down to find this checklist. This page is part of the the companion website to the PBS Television series called Ancestors.) 

Interview family members for more information.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Folklife Programs has a great site called Family Folklore, How to Collect Your Own Family Folklore. It is a wonderful guide to gathering information about your own family. Check it out at:  Especially don't miss "Some Possible Questions for Interviews".


This image represents one of my great mysteries. It features Mary Burke O'Malley, my great-great grandmother, and her oldest son, Thomas O'Malley. They lived in Louisiana, but after my g-grandfather, Charles O'Malley left Louisiana for New Mexico, we lost track of this family. We know that Thomas married and had at least one daughter, but then what? Are there relatives still in the New Orleans area? Who were Mary's parents?


Organize your information using a database and devise a filing system using any combination of the following:


Record what you know

Begin with yourself and work your way back through parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.

Document your sources of information.

Keep a notebook handy to write notes, observations, transcriptions of interviews, etc.

A wide range of forms for recording information is also available, you will need Adobe Acrobat to use many of these . Some that can be found on-line include:


Decide what you would like to know.

Where are the gaps in the information you have collected? Are you missing your grandparents’ marriage date? Or perhaps you don’t know who grandma’s parents were or where your parents were born.

Do you want to trace all of your ancestors, or would you prefer to focus on a particular ‘line’?

Keep in mind that working backwards through a person’s life is a more effective way of researching. Their death is more recent than their marriage or birth, for example, and often easier to establish than their birth.


Choose a source of information.

Perhaps a census would fill in some gaps, or you might try the marriage records for a given county.

Tap into someone else's research for clues.

Maybe another interview with a relative will help. Keep asking, people remember stuff days after you've jogged their memories with facts you turned up after their help during the previous interview.

See the Record Selection Guide at (This is a PDF file)


Learn from your source.

Add new information to what you already know.

Make corrections to existing data.

Draw conclusions.


Document, document, document!

Always record as much information as you can about your source of information.

Follow the link above for more specific information about documentation and some examples of citations.


 Use what you learn to go through the process again and again.

Repeat the preceding steps ad infinitum -- I have learned that you are never really finished with this kind of research. You either just get tired and quit, or you hand it off to a younger person when you get MUCH older and pass on.


Research Standards

To conduct really credible and thorough research, adhere to the Genealogical Proof Standards (or GPS). These standards are listed in detail at:, and include the following:

  1. Reasonably exhaustive search
  2. Complete and accurate citation of sources
  3. Analysis and correlation of the collected information
  4. Resolution of conflicting evidence
  5. Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion
  6. The Board for Genealogical Certification web site contains a great deal of information about how to conduct your research in the most proper way, and also about how to get certified, if you are so inclined. If you are not that motivated, these listings of standards will help you to verify the research of others, including any professionals you may hire to do searches for you.

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This page was last updated on 02/10/2004
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