How to Start Researching Your Family Tree

1. Record what you already know.

A good method is to use an Ancestor Chart. These are also sometimes called Pedigree Work Sheets. Fill in as much information as you know, even if it isn’t exact.  This will help you pinpoint exactly what you need to find out. Start with yourself and work backwards.

From the Ancestor Chart, create Family Group Sheets for each couple. This is where you will record more complete information for each family (parents and children).

Some tips to save you time and confusion

  • Use a pencil and carry an eraser so you can make corrections to the sheets. Also, some libraries and archives do not allow the use of pens in research areas.
  • Record names and dates consistently. It is a good practice to always capitalize surnames.  This eliminates confusion when reading names such as William JAMES and makes it easy to scan and spot surnames.  For dates, the suggested method is day, month, year with the month spelled out or abbreviated and all digits included in the year, e.g. 2 July 2002.  Spelling out the month eliminates transposition errors – is it July 2nd or February 7th?   And the year 02 could mean 1802, 1902, 2002. 

2. Find out what others in the family know

Talk to family members and record what they know on your sheets. Check for family records and make copies. Some sources to look for are:

  • Birth, marriage, and death certificates
  • Diaries and journals
  • Letters
  • Military papers
  • Family bibles

3. Find out what research has already been done

Look for your ancestor surnames in family histories, biographies, and local histories found in local libraries, genealogical societies, and historical societies. You may be lucky and find that someone else, perhaps in another line of your family, has already done extensive research and published their results. This can save you hundreds of hours of duplicate research.


  • Keep a complete log of your research, even when you don’t find anything. Most of us work on our genealogy sporadically, whenever we can find the time. Remembering what names were searched and in what records can become very difficult. 

4. Select the specific pieces of information that you need to find

If you try to start looking for everything all at once, you will quickly become frustrated and unorganized. Maybe you know when your grandfather died, but you don’t know where. Maybe you know he was born in Ohio, but you don’t know when.

It is best to research one person, or at least one family at a time so you can keep yourself focused. Keep in mind, however, that a source may provide more than the one piece of information you are seeking. Be sure to check the source thoroughly and record all new information.

5. Select a source for the needed information

There are many different sources to be consulted for genealogical information. At the start some of your primary sources will probably be:

  • Vital records including birth, death, and marriage certificates - The original records may be located at a state vital records office, at the county probate court, at a historical society, or in some other location. 
  • Census - Search census records online at genealogy databases such as and HeritageQuest Online. These are subscription databases that can be searched free of charge at the Clark County Public Library. 
  • Probate records - These records will frequently be at the county probate court.  However, in some cases they will be turned over to another organization for storage. For example, in Clark County the wills from Probate Court are now held in the archives of the Clark County Historical Society.
  • Obituaries - Obituaries from the local newspaper may be kept in a library, at a historical society, at a genealogical society, or at all three. The Clark County Public Library is a member of the Ohio Obituary Index which is maintained by the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library. Obituaries from the Springfield newspaper 1918 – present are indexed in this database. Also, the Clark County Genealogical Society clips obituaries from the newspaper and keeps them on file.

6. Use genealogy websites

Online resources have made a wealth of family history information available that would once have required extensive travel or letter writing. But the steps outlined above should guide your online research as well. Also, remember that careless research can result in erroneous information being posted to a database.  Don’t accept everything at face value – look for the supporting documentation.

  • Ancestry Plus: Library Edition - In-Library use only on any Internet terminals in the Library or on any personal device connected to the Library's Wi-Fi network. You may choose to become a personal subscriber to use this website from your home.
  • HeritageQuest Online – Use from Library terminals or from home with your Library account number. This website includes the full text of various local history and family history books.
  • Fold3 Library Edition – Use from Library terminals or from home with your Library account number. This website specializes in military records.
  • – a free website offered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The site does require registration, but there is no fee for use.

7. Record new information, re-evaluate what you know, and start the process over again.

Contrary to what many people believe, family history cannot be traced in a day.  Some people spend 20, 30 and 40 years tracking down early ancestors and elusive bits of information. And some ancestors will never be found.  While the Internet has made the sharing and searching of much genealogical information faster and easier, there is still a wealth of material not available online. If you embark on this journey, be prepared for some frustrating hours. Your reward will be the connections you start making with both your past and present as you learn more about the heritage of your family.