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Image of a family record page. At top is image of family in a living room. On the bottom left is family working in a field. On the bottom right is family playing and relaxing.
Family record. Before the war and since the war . Krebs Lithography, 1880

Explore the History of Your Family and Community

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This post is by Candice Buchanan and Sheree Budge from the History and Genealogy Section of Research and Reference Services at the Library of Congress. Please join them for a presentation on Conducting Genealogy Research using Vital Records on December 15th from 2-3pm. You can register here.

Viewing the past through the lens of family or local history can create a bond between the present day researcher and their ancestors or the past residents of their communities. That bond enables the distant events of national history to be seen from a more personal, memorable, and tangible perspective. If you are interested in the history of your family or community, visit your local genealogical or historical society. Talk with your family and your school or public librarians. Ask questions and learn about how the people and places in your life fit into the bigger picture of history.

Here are some getting started suggestions from the Reference Librarians who specialize in Local History and Genealogy at the Library of Congress.

Father and son in matching cowboy hats and shirts looking at each other
Father and son at the Wyoming State Fair. Carol Highsmith, 2015

Climb Family Trees One Branch at a Time

Your family tree begins with you. As you climb the family tree, you will move from the present to the past adding each branch.

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

  • Begin with yourself, followed by your parents, then your grandparents, and so on.
  • As you write down each family group, include siblings for each generation.
    • Use free family group sheets and pedigree charts to organize the information. Explore some of the Library’s collections of family trees featured in a post from the Prints and Photographs Division’s Picture This blog.
    • You may want to consider genealogy software to help you organize your family tree as it grows. There are both free and paid versions available.
  • Ask who has collected or inherited your family’s papers and photographs. Arrange a visit!

Local and family history research requires you to access and evaluate numerous original and published records in a variety of repositories and collections. Keep track of the sources you use and give credit where it is due.

If an online tree or published book includes your lineage, make note of it and give the researcher credit for any help their work provides to you, but always also do your own research. It’s very important to review every record and relationship for yourself.

Interview Living Relatives

Interview living relatives, family friends, and others who knew your family well.

  • Ask for full names, complete dates, and detailed locations for every person and event in your family tree.
  • Expand upon the basic data with the details: Who were they named after? What were their childhoods, schooldays, or workdays like? How did couples meet?
  • Caption photographs with dates, identities, locations, and circumstances.
  • Collect documents already in your family’s possession that will help you to authenticate facts and add additional details, such as: family bibles, certificates of birth / marriage / divorce / death, diplomas, military discharges, letters, and more.

Learn More

Explore the Family History for Kids Research Guide for ideas about how to interact with your community’s history and share what you discover! See the Genealogy Basics Research Guide for step-by-step instructions to search the Library of Congress Online Catalog and Digital Collections.

Other Classroom Resources

Want to include genealogy and local history resources in classroom activities? Explore some of our lesson plans including Local History: Mapping My Spot, Exploring Community Through Local History: Oral Stories, Landmarks and Traditions, Oral History and Social History, and Family Customs Past and Present: Exploring Cultural Rituals.

How would you bring genealogy and family history activities to your classroom? Let us know in the comments.

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