Family History You Can Do

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“Family History You Can Do,” Ensign, Aug. 1995, 62

Family History You Can Do

You may be compiling your family history without even knowing it! How many of these ten everyday activities have you already done?

When you think of doing family history, do you think of spending hours squinting at roll after roll of microfilm, poring over dusty volumes in the library, reviewing Aunt Melba’s six-inch-thick book of remembrance with her, and endlessly copying charts and group sheets?

Well, brace yourself. Compiling your family history does not necessarily mean spending hours of tedious investigation into faded records. There are many fun and interesting things you can do to advance your family history cause right in your own home, and they are things you would probably want to do anyway. Here are some simple suggestions to get you started:

  1. Arrange your family photographs. Do you have photographs stacked in shoe boxes or still in envelopes from the developer? Go ahead—sort them out, label them, and arrange them in photo albums. Believe it or not, you’re doing family history. Photographs don’t have to be fifty years old to qualify as family history; today’s pictures of you and your family count, too.

  2. Get your family’s birth and marriage certificates. Of course, an important part of family history research is searching out and locating birth and marriage certificates of our ancestors, along with other important documents that pertain to their lives. But do you have a copy of your birth certificate, or your marriage certificate? Do you have copies of your children’s birth certificates? If not, why not gather these documents together for your family? It will probably be easier for you to get them now than for your descendants to try to locate them one hundred years from now. Marriage and birth certificates for your family can generally be obtained by contacting the department of vital records in the county, state, or province where the event occurred. The address or telephone number for the vital records office for a particular area can be found at a meetinghouse near you, in the family history center.

  3. Invite your ward family history consultants to your family home evening. They can help you organize your family records and help you see what needs to be done next. Be sure and have them give you a copy of the new family history handbook, “A Member’s Guide to Temple and Family History Work.” It contains the latest information on family history.

  4. Plan a family excursion to your family history center. Arrange for your ward family history consultants to take your family on a tour and explain how to use the various resources.

With some advance preparation, you could arrange a visit that would have direct application to your family.

Most if not all family history centers in the U.S. and Canada have the FamilySearch® program with Ancestral File™ and the International Genealogical Index® (IGI) on it. This could be your starting point. Bring up the Ancestral File or the IGI on the computer screen, and let your family see the information recorded there about their ancestors.

Then you might locate a microfilm ahead of time, such as a census film, that has an ancestor’s family on it. You could show your children how to locate the film in the film cabinets, load it into a microfilm reader, and find the names of your ancestors on it.

5. Keep a journal. We’ve all heard this one before, but we often put off writing in a journal. Waiting until we have the time to put all of the important events of our life down in writing may actually be counterproductive, as years may go by before we finally decide to begin. The easiest way to begin keeping a journal is to start with today. Write down what happened today, even if it seemed fairly uneventful. Tomorrow, write down what happens then. As the days go by, you will automatically include all the important events that occur, capturing the flavor of your life, activities, and interests.

You might consider keeping a journal for your children. The births of my children were wonderful, miraculous events. Although I remember the occasions well, the first two slipped by without my writing anything at all about them. When our third child was born, I was ready. Even though I arrived home at one o’clock in the morning, I made it a point not to go to bed until I had recorded the events of the day and the circumstances surrounding our child’s birth.

My children are too young to keep a journal on their own. I have tried over the past few years to periodically write down in a separate record what is happening in each of my children’s lives too so that each one will have it for their own someday. I include things such as the names of their current friends, vacations, visits to grandparents, and how they learned to ride a bike. You know the day will come when your children will ask, “What funny things did I say when I was little?”—so write those things down also. Soon they will be old enough to start writing things down for themselves, but I am certain that one day they will look on our account of their birth and early childhood as an invaluable gift for them.

6. Plan a family reunion. Our family has a get-together every year. It is a great opportunity to visit again with the cousins I grew up with and to renew acquaintances with other members of the family whom I never see otherwise. When you organize a family reunion, you’re doing family history.

7. Make a family calendar. At a recent family reunion, one of my cousins had a great idea: Why not put together a calendar that includes all the birthdays and wedding anniversaries for everyone in the family? Good thinking! We have more than a hundred members of our extended family now, and such a calendar is a good way to record these important dates and to keep track of the ever-growing list of names of all my cousins’ children.

8. Tape an interview with a grandparent or other relative. At a recent reunion, someone brought a tape recording of their interview with a great-grandmother. We hadn’t known the tape existed. It was touching for all of us to hear her voice and listen to her accounts of her family. The person who had the tape offered to make copies of it for anyone who might be interested. Everyone clamored to sign up for a copy. With today’s equipment, it is possible to not only make an audiotape of an interview with a relative, but to easily make a videotape as well.

9. Write down what you know about your family history. If my great-grandparents had simply spent a day or two writing a narrative of what they knew about their family, it would be a valuable resource for me. I wish they had written down for my generation such important and interesting facts as the names of their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, the places they lived, where everyone was born, why their parents decided to move from Kentucky to Missouri, and an account of some of the important events in their lives.

We might say, “But everybody knows who my grandparents and cousins are.” That may well be what my great-grandparents thought, too, but I’m here to say, as one of their descendants, that we don’t know. What seemed at the time to be simple, commonly known information is a mystery for us today. It will be a mystery for your descendants, too, unless it is written down now.

Were you fortunate enough to personally know one of your great-grandparents? My Great-Grandpa Harmon was born in 1879 and lived to be one hundred years old. He died when I was twenty-four years old, so I had the wonderful and rare opportunity to be personally acquainted with my great-grandfather, not only during my early childhood but across years of my adult life. I was able to talk with him, see what he was really like, and learn about the things he had done.

In the year 2009, my grandchildren will look to me as their grandpa. But I will see far beyond the short horizon of generations that they can see. I will have personally known and been acquainted with their Great-Great-Great-Grandfather Harmon! In the year 2009, I will still be relatively young, but I will have personal knowledge of six generations of people (extending from my great-grandfather to my own grandchildren), whose lives will have spanned 130 years of my family’s history. When I pass on to join my Great-Grandpa Harmon and my other ancestors, that personal knowledge I have of those six generations will be gone with me, unless I write it down now, to preserve it for the generations to come.

Writing all you know about your family history is the first step toward reaching the central goal of family history work: performing temple ordinances for those of your ancestors who have died without that blessing.

10. Get copies of your family history records that are already available. Once you begin to use some of these suggestions, you may find that you will actually want to visit Aunt Melba to see exactly what information she has. If someone in the family has already compiled some of the family history, ask if you can make a photocopy of it to start your own book of remembrance. Aunt Melba will be complimented and pleased if you ask for a copy of her records. Add that information to your family’s newly acquired marriage and birth certificates.

Why not make Aunt Melba’s research available to everybody by submitting it to the Ancestral File? Send a photocopy of it or an electronic copy on computer diskette (by following the directions with Personal Ancestral File® for submitting data to the Ancestral File) to: Ancestral File, Sixth Floor, Joseph Smith Memorial Building, 15 East South Temple Street, Salt Lake City, UT 84150.

Some of these activities may spark an interest in learning more about other things you can do to discover your family’s heritage. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City and many of the local family history centers have single-session classes throughout the week. These sessions cover a wide variety of topics such as using the census records, how to do research in a particular geographic area, use of computer resources for family history work such as Personal Ancestral File, and many other topics of interest. Since the complete topic is surveyed in one session, you can easily get a general idea of the subject without having to invest a lot of time or having to attend a lengthy series of classes.

Family history research does not have to be a tedious task. There really are fun things that anyone can do right now at home without any particular training.

If you pursue any of these suggestions—or others that you may come up with, now that you’ve got the idea—you’re doing family history. You don’t have to plunge into all of these activities at once. Just pick out one and get started.

Photography by Steve Bunderson