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Genealogy Guide: Getting Started with your Family History Research

Genealogy and Family History

Genealogy is the pursuit of information about your ancestors. Family history research goes beyond simply tracing family lines -- gathering names, dates, and places -- to discovering how our ancestors’ experiences were affected by the times in which they lived.

The most basic principle of family history research is to use the facts you know about your family history and work backwards, looking for documents and artifacts that reveal more information and bring to life the bare outline of your family tree.

A Step-by-Step Guide

  1. Interview your relatives. First conduct interviews, asking elderly relatives for stories and information about their families and their childhoods. Take notes while you record the interviews on audiotape or videotape. Listen to the interviews again or create transcripts, writing down relevant information. Interview anyone who might be helpful—not just grandparents and parents, but collateral relatives like aunts, uncles, and cousins. The Center for Jewish History’s Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute has a how-to guide on interviewing your relatives.

  2. Gather documents. Ask your relatives if they have any documents, such as citizenship papers, marriage licenses, or birth and death certificates, that may contain further clues. Ask about other kinds of artifacts that may have been handed down across the generations: photographs, prayer books, wedding invitations, birth announcements, school report cards, diplomas, military discharge papers, etc. [NOTE: Take care to preserve valuable documents in archival-quality, acid-free paper or plastic!]

  3. Organize your information. Begin making a family tree using standardized forms (you may download and print this form) or genealogy software on your computer. Remember to record the source of each piece of information you find.

  4. Orient yourself to the research process. Read the Genealogy Institute’s research guides. For more in-depth explanations, consult the reference books in the Genealogy Institute collection.

  5. Search online databases for U.S. records*:
  • Vital records (birth, marriage, and death certificates)
  • Federal and State census returns
  • Naturalization papers (declarations of intention, petitions, certificates)
  • Passenger arrival records
  • New York Times and other online newspaper indexes (articles and obituaries)
  • Social Security Death Index
  • Cemetery records
  • City directories (residential and business directories)
  • Military records (draft registration cards, enlistment records)

* Many U.S. records can be located on free websites, such as and, and paid subscription databases, such as and Fold3 [both databases can be accessed for free on-site at the Center for Jewish History]. For further guidance in locating U.S. records, please consult the Genealogy Institute’s United States research guide.

  1. Write to or visit U.S. repositories to obtain materials not available online. These include: government archives, vital records offices, courts, and other agencies, such as the Social Security Administration; public libraries; and private libraries and archives, such as the Center for Jewish History.

  2. Visit U.S. cemeteries where family members are buried. Photograph their gravestones and translate any Hebrew or Yiddish inscriptions.

  3. Identify your family’s ancestral towns. For more information about the types of documents that may reveal an ancestor’s town of origin, please consult JewishGen's InfoFile on this subject.

  4. Search online databases and print resources for international records*:

* For country-specific guidance on locating international records, please consult the Genealogy Institute’s "Records by Country" guides.

  1. Join your local Jewish genealogical society and online special interest group. Join the Jewish Genealogical Society of New York, attend monthly meetings, and network with other family history enthusiasts. If you live outside of the New York metro area, find your local Jewish genealogical society here. Join a JewishGen research division based on your family’s geographic region of origin and take advantage of their discussion forums, newsletters, databases, and other research tools.

  2. Collaborate with other genealogists researching the same family names and towns.
  1. Document everything. Each step along the way, take time to organize your data and add to your family tree. Always remember to take careful notes and document all your sources!



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