Getting Started with Family History

By Kerry Smith

New beginnings come with the new year. Many of us set goals. Some of us work on them for a short period of time. Other goals last longer. In fact, some are what we might call “low and slow,” like a good, simmering sauce. There’s not necessarily an urgency, but we also don’t want to put them off forever or we never taste the fabulous results. 

Much like my homemade marinara, cooked with homegrown tomatoes and fresh herbs, my slow, persistent efforts at compiling personal and family history have produced some of my most-satisfying passion projects. 

I’ve discovered that a little bit of effort here and there can really add up over time, making family history a fabulous hobby and blessing for anyone who has the desire.

Develop a Desire

My mom’s love for her family’s history has been passed along to me. Since I was young, I’ve listened to the stories, written a few down, and gathered information as it’s become available. 

My mom’s beloved cousin was an avid, professional genealogist. It was a lifelong pursuit for her, which she shared with all of us. I don’t think she ever knew it, but she was a tremendous example to me. I was just a young girl when she was most active in her research, but I remember being fascinated with her reading glasses, which she always wore on a chain around her neck. She’d put them on as she shared stories, information, and photos. She was a walking, talking Google for our family’s history. Today we are still blessed by her extensive efforts as our family tree is very much well tended.

For a long time, I felt that our family tree was “done” because of her care. Then modern technology showed me there’s always work to do. For our family, it’s bits and pieces. But as I poke around on, I realize I can always build upon our reservoir of information, recording stories and downloading photos—two of my favorite hobbies.

Maybe you also have a family tree that seems to be pretty tidy. Or perhaps you’re a pioneer in your family and absolutely overwhelmed with where to start. Many people are probably somewhere in the middle. So let’s explore where you might begin your efforts:

Start Simple

President Boyd K. Packer (1924-2015), former president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, suggested everyone start with a cardboard box, filling it with items around the home that contain family history information. Take a few days to find things like birth certificates, photos, honors, and awards, to name a few. Lots of things can go in the box that depict your individual story or your family’s history. 

I’d like to suggest an even more simple approach that has helped me and is totally doable for anyone. 

  1. Start with you. Begin with the easiest way for you to start. Write down what you know or record your thoughts on video. Record the highlights. You might think of the type of information included in an obituary or life sketch. Of course, it’s probably not your goal to write your own obituary, and that’s not the suggestion. Rather, think of the types of highlights people want to know about other people. Then build upon that foundation as you do more work on your story.
  2. Set a regular day and time. Sunday afternoons are often an ideal time. Begin with an hour or whatever amount of time you can spare. Set simple goals you might achieve. The following steps suggest ideas.
  3. Verify information. When you have a bit of information written, dive a little deeper for details. Find exact dates and locations using church, state, or government documents you find around the house or online. Those are considered primary sources and are the most accurate.
  4. Play on and related apps. See what they offer, what fun things you might do. There are places to record your thoughts and feelings. You can add photos. Discover what your surname means. Learn about your ancestors. Fill in your portion of your family tree. (Your information remains private while you are alive.) Then check the site or sign up for emails to learn about new activities you can do to further explore your story.
  5. Choose one favorite passion project. I love to hear and write stories. For me, it’s so much fun to write down memories and history. I’ve interviewed family members and recorded their stories. 

Make It Fun

Let’s build on that last step a bit. Even if you hate writing, there are tricks to make it easy when it’s all about you. For instance, I’ve worked on my life history a bit. I don’t worry about writing chronologically. I just pick a memory and write about it. After a time, I’ve written several and call them my vignettes. They’re not necessarily impactful one by one, but as a collection, they’re quite fun and represent me well. 

Pictures say a thousand words, right? So tell your story in photos if that’s your thing and the effort of writing is going to impede you. Be on the hunt for family photos when you visit home. It’s ok to select just a few if there are tons. Keep taking photos on your phone and have a plan to print them in an album or upload them online to preserve them a bit. I upload many of mine to a digital frame for the family to enjoy. It’s not a permanent solution, but it’s fun for now. 

Another idea is to give yourself a treasure hunt by collecting family heirlooms. If those are scarce, you could gather family recipes into a book. Think of the things that really represent you and your family and showcase them.

There are tons of projects you might explore, all of which can be accomplished in whatever time you can devote to the effort. 

Think of the Blessings

Many years ago in college, I interviewed some people who knew my grandmother Vera. She died when my mother was only three. I wrote down some questions about Vera and mailed them to her friends and extended family. When they replied, I organized their responses in a scrapbook I designed for a class project. I’m so glad I had the foresight to do it because those individuals are no longer with us, and their memories of her would be lost otherwise. The scrapbook was a gift to my mom years ago and continues to be a gift years later, providing a bit of insight about the mother she’s never known here on earth. 

Our efforts don’t have to be perfect. Vera’s scrapbook could now use a new design and better pictures. But at least it exists. I’m glad I didn’t wait for the “right” time to do it. I just did it. 

I recommend to anyone to just do what you can—even if it’s a tiny bit. Pray to know where to start, and give a little time and effort. Your life will be enriched, and I promise you’ll discover more about yourself, your family, and God’s blessings in your lives.

Kerry Griffin Smith enjoys uplifting those around her. She was a writer and editor for the former Ensign Magazine. You can find her sharing impactful, clean books in her online book club group. Feel free to join.

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