Don't worry- that's not an existentialist question! Just some genealogy talk.
Blame it on the history major in me, but something that I enjoy doing in my spare time is researching family history. I love trying to understand what ancestor's were thinking/doing/feeling in different life situations. Even when I was a little girl I would ask my mom question after question about what life was like for her when she was growing up. When I was 14, I was published in the no-longer-published Everton's Genealogical Helper about finding the diary my great-aunt kept as a teenager in the 1920s. Since then, I've found many more fascinating pieces of information about relatives.
My favorite part of genealogy research is finding out information that I had never known before. Sometimes its funny, like the time I found out my mom was once in an "Alice in Dairyland" pageant (which she promptly denied until I showed her the newspaper clipping), and sometimes its sad, like finding out that a family lost both of their daughters in a fire.
But for better or for worse, the different puzzle pieces of family history come together and you can slowly get a clear picture of what your relatives lives were like. For me, the whole point of genealogy research is simply to understand how events, relationships, and locations shaped somebody's life.
I'm not a professional genealogist, but I have done my fair share of research for over 7 years. So if you're thinking of getting started on tracking down your own family's story, here are some resources that I suggest to get started:
1) Ancestry.com- it may seem obvious, but it's a great first stop. Make sure that you go to your local library to see if you can get free access.
2) Familysearch.org- a great resource that's similar to Ancestry, but is completely free.
3) Newspapers- Contact a town's local history center or public library to see if they have newspapers in a database or on microfilm. You'd be surprised what you can find. I've found long articles about how relatives met before they got married and extended explanations on death notices. Keep in mind that pre-Internet, newspapers would publish society pages that mentioned whose going out of town for the week or whose hosting a bingo tournament at their house. However, don't discount major city newspapers. I've found obituaries, interviews, and even criminal notices (yes, your relatives may have committed a crime despite family folklore that they could do no wrong), in major publications.
4) Churches- particularly Catholic churches keep extensive records on baptisms, marriages, and funerals. This is also helpful for tracking down information for former Catholic school students.
5) Findagrave.com- I can't tell you how many family trees I have pieced together thanks to the volunteers who contribute to findagrave. Definitely check this page out to see if your relatives are listed with a picture of their gravesite. Sometimes a volunteer will go above and beyond and link relatives together so you can find out who your relatives' family was.
6) Census records- See if you can find your relatives and learn about their occupation, income, and household members.
7) Ellis Island- Find out about your relatives' immigrant history with Ellis Island. They have a free database where you can search for passenger lists and ship arrivals.
8) University Archives- Often overlooked, but I've had success in finding pictures in yearbooks from a university archive. Also, look into alumni archives- I've found survey responses that were sent out to alumni, publications in alumni newsletters, and also pictures from reunions.
9) History Centers- give the history center a call and see if they have information and if they have staff members/ volunteers to help you with your research.
10) Google- don't write off Google! Sometimes you can find family tree websites completed by distant cousins- I've found two family trees just by googling the name of the person and location that they lived in, ex: "Theodore John Clinton" and "Springfield, Illinois."
Those are the top ten resources that have worked for me! Do you have a genealogy research tip? Just getting started? Share your comments below!