Top 5 Beginning Genealogy Questions

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Based on the questions we’re getting through our new chat reference system, a lot of you are working on your family history history right now. For the beginners out there, I thought I’d share the top five questions new genealogists ask the librarians in the Pennsylvania Department when they’re getting started.

1. Can I look at the file on my family? 
This is absolutely the number one question, and most of the time, the answer is no. Not because we’re mean, but because there just isn’t one. Unless your family was extremely famous (or infamous) here in Pittsburgh, it’s highly unlikely there’s a file. I think people ask because popular TV shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots,” where celebrities are presented with neatly packaged stories of their ancestors, make it seem like all the information you’ll need is in one place. In reality, weeks, if not months, of research goes into each 20-minute TV segment, and a whole team of researchers has been involved in finding and verifying the documents.

Now, that being said, the library does have a handful of genealogies published by people just like you who researched their own families, and Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society maintains a limited number of family files based on research that has been submitted. Once you’ve done some of the initial research,  or you have a reason to think there might be another branch of the family that’s well-documented, then it’s worth asking this question.

2. Everything I need is online, right? 
Unfortunately, the answer to this is also no. There is an enormous amount of information that’s now available online, and it’s a place to start, but not everything is on the internet. So please don’t get frustrated when Ancestry.com or Google doesn’t turn up what you want!

For example, if you’re researching someone who was born or died here in Pennsylvania before 1906, a lot of records are not online. We do have microfilm copies of the birth and death registers that were kept by the city of Pittsburgh, by Allegheny City (now the North Side), Allegheny County, and a couple of the smaller towns around Pittsburgh starting roughly around 1870. Those registers contain the same type of information you’d find on a modern birth or death certificate – details like parents’ names, a home address, and other personal information. Once we reopen, those records are open for anyone to use in the library; if you need information from those sources, but can’t get here, our researchers will look for the records you need. Depending how tricky a search is, it can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to go through the indexes and registers.

Looking still further back than 1870ish? From there, experience and knowledge of other institutions has to come into play. Because there weren’t any municipal entities keeping good records, church records become the focus of a search. Most of those records are not online, and they’re not at the library, so we work with the researchers to figure out the best place to refer them for the next steps.

At this point in the process, people realize this is a lot of work, and they either get REALLY excited (in which case, they’re off and running), or they get really overwhelmed, leading to Question 3.

3. Can you do my genealogy for me? 
Still on the “no” bandwagon here. Sorry. We just don’t have enough people to do the research for everyone who asks. We can do limited research – I mentioned that we can search the birth and death registers; we can search for obituaries or death notices from local newspapers when we have an idea of the date it might have appeared; we can search for newspapers articles about your ancestors, again if we have an idea of the dates.

And what we can do is teach you how to ask the right questions, where to look for the documents that back up the family stories, and how to put the clues together when the documents don’t tell a clear story. We also have numerous classes throughout the year aimed at genealogists of all experience levels. And we partner with Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society and host its educational programs, and its library lives with our department on the third floor of  the Main branch in Oakland.

4. Will that DNA test tell me everything I want to know? 
Probably not (see we’re getting better than a flat “no” now). Especially at the beginning of your family history research.

I will be honest, I am not an expert on the DNA component of genealogy. What I do know is that it will give you a general idea what region your ancestors came from. The tests compare your DNA to DNA from people in other countries and they look for regions that share the most commonalities for a match. To get the most out of a DNA test, you have to upload your test results into a service like Ancestry or MyHeritage and hope that relatives you don’t know about have also done the same thing. The best thing about a DNA test is that it can connect you with other branches of your family to see what research they’ve unearthed.

5. OK, how do I get started then? 
I’m so glad you asked! Now, this may seem counter-intuitive coming from a librarian in a genealogy department, but you’re not going to start with us. You’re going to start by talking to your own family members. Talk to your own generation, siblings and cousins, to see what they know about your parents and their parents. Then talk to any members of the older generation that are still here. When and where was everyone born? How many siblings did they have? What were their parents names, and when were they born? When did they die? When did people get married and where? Where did they live? If they weren’t born in the United States, where did the family come from?

Take all of this information, and start filling in a family tree chart, preferably one where you can record dates and places. Wherever you have a blank spot on the chart, or a question mark about information you’re writing down, that’s where you start your research.

Please check back for more tips to get you started on your genealogical journey!

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