20 Ideas for Family History Month

Introduction: In this article, to help celebrate October being Family History Month, Gena Philibert-Ortega describes 20 small tasks you can do for your family history research. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

October is Family History Month! How are you celebrating? It can seem overwhelming to tackle that big family history project – especially during a time of the year when, very shortly, the holidays will be upon us. But what if you took small amounts of time this month to accomplish a smaller goal? What if you used some spare minutes or even an hour to do one thing that gets you closer to accomplishing that overall project? Sitting down to do family history doesn’t have to mean pulling an all-nighter; there are things you can accomplish in shorter amounts of time. The following are 20 ideas to consider this month.

Illustration: the family tree of Ludwig Herzog von Württemberg (ruled 1568–1593), by Jakob Lederlein, 1585
Illustration: the family tree of Ludwig Herzog von Württemberg (ruled 1568–1593), by Jakob Lederlein, 1585. Credit: Landesmuseum Württemberg; Robert Uhland; Wikimedia Commons.
  1. Update your genealogy database program. Any new births, marriages, or deaths in your family tree in the last year? Add that information to your database and attach scans of relevant records to those facts.
  2. Prepare interview questions for your Thanksgiving get-together. Have a list of questions ready to ask your family as you wait for the meal to be served or as a conversation starter at the dinner table. Ask questions like: “Who was the oldest relative you knew?” “What is a family memory you cherish?” “What was your favorite Thanksgiving and why?” If you need other question ideas, see my article: Interviewing Family Members for the Holidays.
  3. Write a Christmas/holiday letter and include a family history story. In addition to catching everyone up on your own family’s comings and goings, consider adding a paragraph or two about great-grandma or share the latest document you found. Share a few photos that you have. Use the annual holiday greeting as an opportunity to talk about your shared family tree.
  4. Seek out one new archive website for the place your ancestor lived. If you haven’t searched an archive website for their catalog or digital collections, do it as soon as possible! Remember to search not just on your ancestor’s name but on the place name of where they lived, or another keyword that describes them (such as religion, occupation, or membership group).
  5. Find your family in the 1940 (or 1930, etc.) census. Have you found everyone in your family in the census? If you haven’t, spend some time studying your family in one census year. Make sure to add that information to your family tree. You can find the US census records on GenealogyBank.
  6. Create a list of name variations for an ancestor. There’s no doubt that an ancestor can be found in records under a variety of names, from the misspelled and mis-transcribed to the use of nicknames or initials in place of proper first and middle names. Create a list of those possibilities for your next research session.
  7. Learn more about the place your ancestor lived. Consult the FamilySearch Research Wiki and search for the place and the word “genealogy” (for example: California genealogy or Ireland genealogy). This wiki page will include links to various records and information about the records and where you can find them.
  8. After you learn about the place, learn more about a particular record type. After you do the above search on the Research Wiki, try learning more about a specific type of record like State Censuses. Knowing more about a record set can help you in your research.
  9. Photograph a family heirloom. Once you photograph that heirloom write a paragraph about the item, describing what it is and its provenance. Include the importance of the item, and then share it with your family.
  10. Write a few paragraphs about an event in your life, a memory, or your relationship with an ancestor. Genealogists often spend so much time focusing on the dead, we forget that the memories and stories of the living are equally important (and that includes us).
  11. Scan a few family photos or a small photograph album. Take those images and add meta data to each photo with information about where it was taken and who is pictured. Then share the images via email, on social media, or by uploading it to a cloud-based storage website.
  12. Create a Facebook page for an ancestor, an ancestral couple, a family line, or your upcoming family reunion. Invite family members who use Facebook to the page. Encourage them to share memories, photos, and other information.
  13. Make a commitment to your genealogy education by reading a genealogy or history book, article, or blog posting. I wrote about some of my favorite books in this article: My Favorite Books for Learning to Research Female Ancestors. The GenealogyBank Blog Genealogy 101 series is another good place to learn more about research.
  14. Search the FamilySearch Catalog for the place your ancestor was from. Do a Place search and see what records and resources are available. Make a note of which items you should search (in some cases the records might be digitized).
  15. Document your parents. I know that might sound strange since you are trying to trace your family line much further back than the preceding generation, but genealogy is about connecting generations and you should always start with yourself. Document your parents and review what records you have for them and then move on to your grandparents. You might be surprised to find information missing simply because you’ve focused on other generations.
  16. Conduct a search on GenealogyBank. I know you’ve done that. Do it again. Use those name variations you created to conduct additional searches. Why? By conducting the search differently (such as searching on misspellings, name variations, or using wild cards in your search) you may find something that eluded you in previous searches. Plus, GenealogyBank is always adding new content, which means each month you have new opportunities to uncover your family’s story. Learn more about GenealogyBank Advanced Search Techniques.
  17. Revisit your previous research. Do you have copies of records that you put safely away after a past research trip that haven’t been touched since? Take another look at them. Maybe you have photographs of records you need to download. Take some time to look at those records, enter the information into your genealogy database, transcribe or abstract them, analyze them and file them away.
  18. Use WorldCat to identify books that will help with your family history research, such as local and family histories. WorldCat is a library catalog with 2 billion items in 10,000 libraries around the world. Once you identify some books, consult with your local reference librarian about the possibility of an inter-library loan.
  19. Search online for the genealogy or historical society in your ancestor’s hometown. Check their website for digital or library collections as well as research assistance. This might be a good opportunity to request a lookup in their library collection or do some on-site research.
  20. Start a timeline or research log for an ancestor or an ancestral couple. Use this to document years and events. A research log can help you keep track of where you have looked and what you have found. You can learn more about timelines here: Genealogy Timelines: Helpful Research Tools. Information about Research Logs can be found on the FamilySearch Research Wiki.

Get Started Today!

Well, here are 20 ideas for Family History Month. No matter how many years you’ve been researching your family tree or how much time you have to devote to your research this month, the above ideas can help you get started.

No time for family history research? That’s ok, it’s also a great idea to take a break. Use the month to spend time with your living family, plan out some research goals, or even attend your local genealogical society meeting. Sometimes a break can help us get recharged and come up with new ideas for our research.

Happy Family History Month!

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