Start a Holiday Tradition – Trace Your Family Genealogy

The Library of Congress has one of the world’s premier collections of U.S. and foreign genealogical and local historical publications. The Local History and Genealogy Reading Room, located in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, is the hub for such research. More than 50,000 genealogies and 100,000 local histories comprise its collections. The Library’s royalty, nobility and heraldry collection makes it one of only a few libraries in America that offer such resources.

(The following is a guest post by Anne Toohey, reference librarian in the Local History and Genealogy section, Humanities and Social Sciences Division.)

Family Christmas dinner. 1921. Prints and Photographs Division

Family Christmas dinner. 1921. Prints and Photographs Division

Oral history has been the main way of preserving family and tribal memories since before the invention of writing and is an important part of family social networking in the present digital age. During the holiday season, family gatherings provide many opportunities to add to your family history. Sharing family stories can take place in a very informal and conversational way.

The holiday dinner table provides a venue for relatives of several generations to share and compare experiences, to discover stories unique to the various generations, and to build not just family memories but social networks with cousins and relatives with whom one interacts less often. Sometimes different branches of the family know different versions of the same story, and comparison adds details and veracity to the story itself.

One of the first things to do when compiling a family history is to interview your older relatives. They can also be a great source of stories that can enrich your family history with personal accounts, as well as give clues for further research to set the family in historical context. Most family stories have at least a grain of truth, even if the details are not exact. And as you conduct genealogical research in primary sources such as vital records and census records to verify the facts in the stories, and to set these memories in historical context, the memories of your relatives will be made more accurate and useful for the compiled family history.

It is often better to ask open-ended questions, and the open style may actually be preferable for family gatherings because it allows opportunities to form new questions about a particular family member or story. For instance, for a family story about how dad dropped the Meissen dinner platter with the turkey on it one Christmas, some may wish to ask what was special about the Meissen dinner plate, how it was acquired, whether they had lived or visited Germany, how mother felt about losing her antique and whether it could be fixed and replaced. Some might want to know what was served after the turkey slid to the floor and whether there was a Fido who complicated the story. These questions may be based on individual interests of family members but may elicit further truths from the storyteller.

The genealogist in the family may want to also intersperse more targeted fact questions to elicit information about specific birth or death dates, places lived or specifics about personalities and experiences of themselves or past ancestors whom they knew or have heard about. These questions can help target further genealogical research.

Oral history can help to shape family memories and add details to family stories that can become the foundation of further research into family history. Formal oral history might depend on setting up interviews, recording audio or visual accounts and transcribing these accounts, and sometimes might be conducted with non-relatives. While the formal style may not enhance the more informal conversations at the family dinner table, the many websites with lists of questions for conducting oral history on the web, and sites devoted to the open and closed interview styles, may help you to shape more informal family conversations.

The Library of Congress can help find books about oral history, find facts about the family or the geographic location, and find places to archive family history. For instance, an existing Bibliography of Books about Oral History can be searched in the Library of Congress catalog, or in World Catalog (often available at public libraries) to provide access (sometimes digital; sometimes analog) to these books. Remote access to reference librarians is available through Ask a Librarian.

You can also archive your family memories at the Library of Congress. You can archive your compiled family history at the Library of Congress. Oral history can be archived also at the Library of Congress through StoryCorps – one of the largest oral history projects of its kind and preserved at the American Folklife Center – and the Veterans History Project, a project to preserve personal accounts of American war veterans.

There are many social networking sites on the web where you can share your family memories and find lost cousins whom you never knew existed. Family history is a great gift and a legacy to the younger family members who may not normally hear the stories. For those who may be solo for the holidays, consider interviewing neighbors and friends!

The Library of Congress blog will bring you more helpful tips, ideas and resources to aid in your genealogy research in the coming weeks.

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