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Exploring Your Family History
How and Why

by David Spero, RN

In addition to what you can remember, you may also have historical records available in your home or in the homes of relatives — scrapbooks, photo albums, family Bibles, files, and miscellaneous papers. Attics, basements, closets, and old trunks may contain documents that can help you in your search.

Once you’ve gotten what you can from memories and from documents, Genealogy.com recommends that you “ask your living relatives for any information they may have. This is especially important for the older members of the family, as they often have information about people who are long gone.”

Doing family interviews
Interviewing family members is more a process than a one-time event. As Daus advises, “It’s a good idea to give the person time to prepare. Ask him a week in advance to start gathering photos, letters, documents, or other items that will help him share memories with you.”

Presenting your relative with a list of questions you plan to ask ahead of time can also be helpful. The following questions can help get you started:

• What were the dates (exact or approximate) of relatives’ births and deaths? How old were they when they died?

• What was the cause of death of each person? What, if any, major health problems did they have? • What were their physical characteristics, such as weight, height, race, and ethnicity?

• Is there any history of mental illness in the family?
You may come up with follow-up questions after the interview, or your family member may remember more things he wants to share with you once the memories get flowing. Invite him to call you if he wants to talk more.

Think of yourself as a journalist, and take this process seriously. You might want to ask your relative’s permission to record or even videotape the interview. You should be prepared for some emotional responses as you tap into the family memory bank. Not all memories are good ones. Most families have had their share of disappointments and personal tragedies. And even happy memories can have a sad edge if the people they involved have become ill or died. Give yourself time to process the new information and any emotions it may bring.

Most family stories have some truth to them, but some information may become twisted in memory or even outright forgotten. Fortunately, a lot of information can be verified or recalled through official records.
You can find birth and death certificates for many relatives in the places where they were born and died, respectively. (Some states keep these certificates at the state or county level, while others may keep them at the town or municipal level. “Where to Write for Vital Records,” a Web site run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and located at www.cdc.gov/nchs/howto/w2w/w2welcom.htm, can be a helpful resource for determining where to look.) Birth certificates typically include the names of both parents (which may help you further your research), while death certificates should list the cause of death and the date of birth. Birth and death certificates from some localities may be available online. (See “Online Resources” for more information.)

Other forms of documentation may also be valuable. School, employment, and military records, for instance, can tell you a lot, as can census records and immigration lists. These types of records can be found in national or state archives, libraries, and historical societies. The Family History Library and associated Family History Centers maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are also a potentially valuable source of information.

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