National Family History Month: How to Discover Your Family History

This is a guest blog post by Kamilah Zischang, intern at the Young Readers Center. Learn more about this opportunity here.

Kamilah “Kami” Zischang is currently pursuing her MLIS.

October is National Family History Month. This is a great opportunity to talk about family history and make sure your family story is remembered for decades (and centuries) to come. Personally, I have always had an interest in history, my family’s history in particular. After my mother’s passing, researching and documenting my family’s history felt like an important and worthwhile way to stay connected to her and the rest of my family.

Talking to kids about family genealogy isn’t always easy and fun. If they are anything like my own, they have very little interest in listening to or even sitting through family history that can oftentimes feel like a boring history lesson. They don’t want to hear about their great-great aunt Petunia from Petaluma, unless she’s done something really cool.

So, a way to introduce the idea to them is trying a KWL approach.

  1. Ask your child(ren), or better yet, have them write down (or draw) one thing they already Know about their family, past or present.
  2. Then have them write down something they Wonder about their family. If they feel stuck, you might suggest a couple of questions to get them started:
    1. Where does our family name come from?
    2. Who is the earliest family member who came to the U.S.?
    3. What types of jobs did our ancestors do?
  1. Record and share what they Learned about the family.

During this process, you might want to define a couple of keywords, such as ancestor and ancestry, genealogy, “a.k.a,” and descendant. This glossary list on ancestry.com can be a great help!

After you have discussed what they already know and prepared some questions about your family, you can transition into digging for a bit of information to answer the questions they Wonder about.

An excellent place to start looking for answers is with older family members. Many families are separated geographically, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic, and many grandparents haven’t had a chance to see their grandkids, so they might be happy to play family historian.

If a grandparent isn’t available, ask anyone in the family who might have details that you’ve forgotten. For myself, when I started researching my own family’s history, I reached out to my brother. Even though he is only five years older than me, he is my oldest and closest relative. Some of the questions I asked my brother were about relatives’ names and locations that were important in our family’s background.  Asking these questions and researching via ancestry.com and social media helped us find unknown relatives that we now keep in touch with regularly!

Mary Ann Comstock, my 3rd great grandmother, pulled from ancestry.com

Speaking of ancestry.com, this is a great source to verify the information that you’ve collected through oral family history and lore. It provides access to vital statistics, things like birth and death records, marriage records, military records, and census records. These things are great ways to track family members through the years.

The Library of Congress provides free access to many digital collections to help with your search. Please note that while the Library provides free access to ancestry.com and many other subscription databases, they are only available on-site when you come in and do your research. If you are not able to come in to the Library in person, you can still use many of the library’s digital collections and resources:

  1. Chronicling America, a digital collection of newspapers from around the country dating from 1789-1963. Try searching by names of family members, known places where they lived or worked, and organizations they belonged to.
  2. Local History and Genealogy Reference Services, a collection of genealogical resources, where you can fill out your Family Group Sheet and access relevant Digital Collections.
  3. Ask-a-Librarian about local history and genealogy resources. While the librarians cannot do the research for you, they will give you excellent pointers to help you with your search.
  4. Maps: the Library’s Geography and Map division holds millions of maps, many digitized and available for free online. These high-resolution maps may give you context and insight into smaller details of their life.

Here is a map of the county that my family is generally from. It is dated 1881, and according to census records, my family was there during that time. Map of De Witt County. [Austin, Tex.: Texas, General Land Office, 1881] Map. Library of Congress Geography and Maps Division.

Now that you’ve found out interesting things out about your family, it’s really important to play family archivist and write down what you’ve Learned. If we don’t write it down, did it even happen? Jokes aside, my brother hadn’t written down the information that he gave me, and if I hadn’t asked and recorded it myself, the information might have been lost for years to come.

Recording your findings is important and doesn’t have to be a chore; it doesn’t have to be visualized as a graph or a family tree. A “relative”ly easy activity for kids (and adults)  is to create a Zine, a short, fun personalized booklet about everything they Learned in the process of researching the family. You can make them however you’d like, but a fun idea to represent some of your finding would be to include any pictures or newspaper clippings that you found into your Zine, along with your own drawings, stickers, and other decorations that make it unique.

Not all families are biologically related, but every single person’s story is a valuable and unique thing about them. If you and your family members do not share ancestry, you can help each other find that information and share it with each other. Some parts of the past may be painful, but your family is here now and you are making your own story for the future generations to discover.

For extra credit, take note of these tips from Ahmed Johnson, Reference Librarian in the History and Genealogy Section of the Library’s Researcher and Reference Services Division:

  • Pro tip #1: Start your research with yourself and work backwards
  • Pro tip #2: If you are local to the D.C. area, there is a limited number of research appointments that can be made to come into the Library and access some of the onsite resources and databases.

Happy researching!

One Comment

  1. Andrade, Jose Carlos Costa de
    October 29, 2020 at 5:26 pm

    Achei o artigo muito interessante e útil. Eventualmente pedira licenca a voces para reproduzir trechos do artigo em uma publicacao que estou planejando produzir.
    Parabens a voces!

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