How to Use this Blog

The other day, I was attempting to give a quick tour of this blog to a friend who expressed some interest in tracing her own family history. In the process, I realized that so much has been posted here, it isn’t very clear how to use this blog. Where do you start? Do you start with the latest blog post, then hop around?

Below is a suggested order for getting started.

1.  Read about Critical Family History. It is more than basic family genealogy — critical family history stresses the interconnection between your family and its social, cultural, and historical context. Various conceptual frameworks can then help you plan out questions to ask, goals of your research, and strategies you might pursue.

2. Using resources within your own family, construct as much of a family tree as you can, and gather stories about the lives of people from your family’s past. A great place to begin is with oral history interviews with elders in the family. In addition, ask about things like old photos of family members, family religious records, wedding or baptismal records, old letters, and so forth. You may start out thinking there isn’t anything, but as people’s memories are jogged, find yourself surprised at how much there actually is stashed away in boxes and envelopes.

3. Use vital statistics records to construct family trees as best you can (do not feel constrained to use traditional family trees — increasingly there are guides for developing family trees that take account of a variety of family structures). People usually begin with census records. In the U.S., that means using U.S. and state census records. For death records, Find A Grave is very useful. Increasingly vital statistics records from outside the U.S. are available; click here for suggestions for where to look. 

4. Once you have mapped a family tree as best you can, search for additional resources that might give you details about family members, as well as a deeper sense of the context in which they lived. Drawing from the conceptual frameworks, consider the wider context of family, what kinds of context questions make sense to ask, and what data sources you might be able to use. It may even turn out that the context questions are what enable you to piece together information about your family that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

5. Explore various digital resources that might be available. Old digitized newspapers may be very useful — some locations preserved and digitized reams of old newspapers, while they have been lost (for example through war) in other locations. You may be able to track down information by Googling your ancestors; they need not be famous for someone to have digitized a record with a person’s name. 

6. You can mine census data for information you might not have thought about when you were using it to construct your family tree. Posts give examples, such as how to look at race and employment patterns, housing patterns, gender patterns in the organization of people’s lives, and so forth.

7. Look into places you can actually visit. Historical societies are widely available, even in small towns. Find out whether it is feasible to visit where your ancestors lived. You may be able to find records and people to talk to through these kinds of personal visits, that are unavailable through any other means. In my own family history research, for example, when I was visiting a historical center in a small town, the woman working there was able to direct me to an old house, still standing, that great-great grandparents had built. Libraries are also very useful, especially for context information. Guest writer Sherick Hughes offers a great example of learning and unlearning the local public library provided.

8. Track down property records and probate records. I have done this mainly in the context of visiting where ancestors lived, by going to the county courthouse. More is publicly available than I had realized until I showed up at a county courthouse and asked.

9. You may decide to have a DNA test. I don’t recommend starting out with out, but you might find DNA testing helpful in confirming or disconfirming what you discover using methods above.

In this blogsite are many examples of research others have done, illustrating how others have thought their way through questions and challenges of critical family history, as well as insights they have been able to glean. If you are a classroom teacher, you may find some resources under For the Classroom. There are also book reviews that illustrate how others have approached family history research.

I am always looking for guest writers, so if you have a story you would like to contribute, just contact me! And be sure to enter your email address in the box above to the left, if you’d like to receive an email announcement for each new post.


  1. Peggy Morrison says:

    This article is very helpful!

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