I would like to learn about my family history. How do I get started?

Ideas and strategies to begin climbing your family tree.

Bain News Service, publisher. J.C. Smith [about to climb a tree]. Between ca. 1920 and ca. 1925. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Keep an open mind and be ready for every possibility because ancestors were only human. Their stories are as wide and varied as those of the people living today.

If an online tree or published book seems to include your lineage, make note of it and give the researcher credit for any help their work provides you, but always do your own research.

Getting Started

Climb your family tree one branch at a time.

  • Begin with yourself, followed by your parents, then your grandparents, and so on.
  • As you write down each family group, include your siblings, your parents' siblings, grandparents' siblings, etc.
  • Ask who has collected or inherited your family's papers and photographs. Arrange a visit!
  • Interview living relatives, family friends, and others who knew your relatives well.
    • Ask for full names, complete dates, and detailed locations for every person and event in your tree.
    • Expand on that raw data with the details: Who were they named after? What were their childhoods, schooldays, workdays like? How did couples meet?
  • Find your family in the 1940 Census and continue backward decade by decade. Access Census records by creating a free account at FamilySearch: 1790 External, 1800 External, 1810 External, 1820 External, 1830 External, 1840 External, 1850 External, 1860 External, 1870 External, 1880 External, 1890 External, 1900 External, 1910 External, 1920 External, 1930 External, 1940 External.
  • Seek out vital and legal records in the county or state where your ancestors lived. These include birth, marriage, divorce, death and more. A quick reference to locate county and state level records is the Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, available in the Library or online External.
  • Personally visit the cemetery to read tombstones and see which family members are buried together.

How-To's and Helpful Tools

Get started at the Library of Congress:

Find more foundational tools and resources online:

  • Online guides such as the FamilySearch Wiki External or Rootsweb Wiki External are also great tools for finding records and learning about the particular subjects and places in your research.
  • FamilySearch has compiled helpful forms External that you can use to organize your information as you interview relatives, track down vital records, search the Census, and more.

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Last Updated: Jul 31, 2020
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Send written correspondence to:

Researcher and Reference Services Division
101 Independence Ave. SE
Thomas Jefferson Building, LJ 100
Washington, D.C. 20540-4660

Please Note

The staff of the Library of Congress cannot undertake research in family history or heraldry. In order to perform work of this nature satisfactorily, it is necessary to identify a particular branch of the family concerned, and, because of the time and effort involved, searches for this kind of information usually require the services of a professional genealogist or heraldic searcher.