5 Truly Essential Tools for Family History

essential tools for family history

Regularly and with exasperated sighs, someone will exclaim, "I just don't know where to begin," when it comes to family history. My quick answer is, "You begin with your heart."

That's a great initial brief response but it doesn't have enough practicality. As I have pondered the question and my quip, my mind explored other ideas. Eventually, these thoughts clustered into the 5 truly essential tools for family history.


1. Memories
Researching your family history is challenging. It can have a steep learning curve and takes time. Yet, your mind is full of memories. Memories of your life, the life of your living family members, and the lives of your family members who have passed away. Each of these memories is a little page in the book of someone's life. However, many pages in our loved ones lives are blank, not because their lives were not worth recording. They're blank because no one recorded a memory.  
Before you embark on researching your family, revisit the memories of your family. Sometimes, these memories are very painful. Sometimes they are clouded because of other bad events. However, many memories are so incredibly sweet and beautiful.  
Start with your memories because they provide so much depth and are also so perishable.

2. Audience
Audience?!? What does that have to do with anything? Well, everything actually. Knowing who we want to share our memories with, helps as we dig deep into our memory bank and pull out the treasures we've kept for so long. Knowing what your audience is able to handle and most interested in, helps you be engaging with your stories.  
For instance, if I was going to tell the story of my 8th birthday party to an adult neighbor, I would probably be as brief as possible. Neighbors would be moderately interested in the story if it served a purpose in our conversation.
If I was sharing the story with a child of mine, or a grandchild someday, I would want to tell them every detail that I can remember. What I wore. What games we played. Who came. What was the best part of the event. What were my presents. 
The amount of detail is only limited to my memory bank, but I would tell the child every little detail. Many children LOVE birthday parties and will start planning the next birthday party even before they've finished celebrating the one they're celebrating today. 
 Now, if I were sharing a memory with a son who was trying to make a difficult college decision, then I would not only include my experience but perhaps some 'hindsight' perspective about how that choice played out. Perhaps some additional insight of what I may have done differently.  
As you can see, knowing my audience determines the focus and amount of detail I want to share. It would also determine what information I would want to seek after in my research. 

3. Purpose
Why do YOU want to do family history? Are you curious? Do you feel compelled? Are you trying to find relatives because you are adopted and do not feel you have a sense of history? Are you struggling with personal challenged and you're seeking to learn what are the root causes of those challenges? Do you want to share wisdom with the rising generation or not forgot those you have loved and lost?  
What is your purpose?  
My purpose is partly a religious belief but also a journey of self-discovery. The more I learn about my ancestors, the more I learn about myself. The more I learn about the ancestors in a chain of relationships, I understand my parents and grandparents and the impact they have on my life. I have found a lot of healing, gratitude, and appreciation. I have learned so many lessons that I want to pass these along to my children. In that way, I will leave a better path than the one that was before me.  My purpose drives me to continue to discover and then share what I learn with them.  
Again, what is your purpose? 

4. Format
Finally, an 'actual' tool!?!?!  
You have your memories. You know who you want to share these memories with and your purpose for it all. You'll need a format. Perhaps you'll use a family tree or pedigree chart. Perhaps you'll use a longhand letter and ink pen. Perhaps you'll type an email or write blog posts. Perhaps you'll video record yourself or someone else. Perhaps you'll sing with loved ones the songs your grandmother used to sing.  
The format possibilities are endless. Go to a large genealogy conference and the convention floor is overwhelming with so many options your head will spin. There are a plethora of options online as well. But how are you going to know which one is right for you? That all depends upon the memories you have to share, the person (or persons) you are sharing these memories with and the overall purpose you have for your efforts. (Ah... there is a method to this madness).  
If I wanted to share my family history with a young child, I would want to create something that is visual with lots of photos and simple words. A scrapbook of me as a young child, photobook with stories, a video with photos and spoken words about a memorable event, a MP3 of night times stories chapter book, or a craft of their ancestors, and so on. All of these formats are engaging for children, but which one you choose depends upon the first three truly essential tools for family history. 

5. Dedication
Investigating and compiling our memories takes time and effort. We need to be committed to completing the goals we set for ourselves. Thankfully, our memories and who we want to share them with helps provide the fuel for our dedication fire. And as we stay dedicated to our purpose, the memories come more readily. Thus, the end result for the people we want to share with in a format that is best suited for our needs becomes a treasure. 


The 5 truly essential tools for family history are the building blocks for everything else involved in building trees, finding records, and discovering new cousins. In my book, 21st Century Family Historian, the introductory chapters focuses on reorienting our view of family history. Strong emphasis is on realizing that "family history" is about your family and their stories. Thus, the truly essential tools for family history relate to recalling and capturing those stories. In so doing, our hearts turn toward the people that have gone before.

 If every beginner used these tools, they will develop a strong passion for family history.

Am I missing a truly essential tool for family history? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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