During certain times of my life, I’ve been super-nerded out on genealogy. Finding out who people were that came before you, that literally played a role in making you who you are today, intrigues me. I’ve run across a few different avenues of pursuing this research. Some of them are crazy expensive. Some of them are reasonable. Each approach has its pros and cons.
Before you get started using any of these strategies, you’ll want to gather as much data as you can. Talk to your family members to find out what is already known, especially older ones as they likely retain memories of people that you’ve never even heard of before. When you’re gathering information, it can be helpful to have a tape recorder (or voice recorder on your phone or whatever people use in our neo-digital age) to document all the stories. Listen specifically for full names, dates (of birth, death, marriage, immigration,) and locations. Addresses are wonderful, too. The more specific you can get the more likely it is that you’ll be successful on your search. Keep in mind that spellings may be slightly off. For one thing, some census record takers really didn’t care enough to make sure they spelled every last name correctly. For another, spelling wasn’t truly standardized until a couple of centuries ago, and that idea took a while to stick. And lastly, when immigrating, it wasn’t uncommon for people to change their names or how they were spelled, or have those decisions made for them.
Method #1: Hire a Professional Genealogist
Cost Ranking: $$$
Pros: Checking each genealogist’s certifications and specialties, you’ll be less likely to get errors than when you go it on your own. You’ll also probably get quicker results as they are professionals, and you’ll be able to avoid some frustration when you inevitably hit a brick wall in your family tree.
Cons: There is some self-satisfaction and a deep connection that comes with discovering your own ancestors. You miss out on some of this by having someone else do the dirty work.
Method #2: Subscription Websites
Cost Ranking: $$ (in general)
Pros: You’ll get that self-satisfaction you missed out on when you had a professional do the work, and you’ll be able to do the work in the comfort of your own home (given that you have internet access.)
Cons: These can be like a gym membership: you pay for however many months of access. You use it a whole lot the first couple of days. And then your desire starts to dim. But you’re still paying the subscription fee. Do your research before you subscribe keeping your family’s country of origin and religion in mind to make sure the specific service will truly fit your needs. See the concern about making errors under Method #3. It applies here as well.
Method #3: Family History Centers
Cost Ranking: $
Pros: Every Family History Center is staffed by volunteers eager to help you get started. Those volunteers may even be willing to share their personal access to those subscription websites with you. Some subscription websites are available or can be made available to any Family History Center via the LDS church’s subscription service. Check with the main office in Salt Lake to see if the one you’ve got your eye on is available in this manner. To get records, you order individual films of records to be sent from Salt Lake to your local center for your use. You pay a rental fee for these films, but you’re only paying for what you need. You’ll definitely get that self-satisfaction of knowing you were the one to discover your family members.
Cons: When you’re doing your own work, you have to be careful to triple check everything. Some of my family comes from a country where everyone has one of seemingly 5 names…first and last. So once I messed up and traced a branch back one or two generations before realizing they didn’t even belong to me. There is a wait time between discovering a film that might have your family on it and the film actually arriving at the library. (You can avoid this if you live anywhere near Salt Lake by making a trip to the main library downtown.) Your research time will also be subject to library hours. I’ve honestly never had anyone try to convert me when I’ve been at a Family History Library; the worst that’s happened is I’ve listened to an hour or two of history about their own family before they remembered they were trying to help me. They’re very nice people and don’t get paid for their volunteer work, so I can’t complain that much.