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The dictionary defines genealogy as the study of pedigrees, a record or table showing the descent of an individual or family from a certain ancestor. But if you ask a genealogy buff about the hobby, you'll find out that genealogy is much more than the definition suggests!

"It's the search for, and the discovery of, the lives of the people who contributed to you being the person you are today. It's a way of understanding history in a personal sense," says Bert Van Komen, a genealogy buff from Sandy, Utah.

Genealogy buffs trace the history of families -- usually their own -- by looking for clues and documenting information about each person in the family over time. They start from the present and move backwards in time.

The basic result of this research is something called a family tree. It's a list of each person in the family, when and where they lived and died, and their relationship to everyone else in the family.

People who research family trees insist it involves more than just finding out about names, dates, times, and places. Genealogy is about how individual people fit into the events of history.

"It really makes history come alive for me to know that one of my ancestors was living in a time and place I had only read about in textbooks," says Julie Bondy.

It's called a family tree because family lines branch out like a tree: each family stems from one set of founding parents. You might have 12 cousins and siblings who came from four sets of parents who came from one set of grandparents. The tree narrows as you move back in time.

Some genealogy fans say researching a family tree is a lot like building a pyramid. If you don't lay the proper groundwork, the pyramid will crumble long before you are able to build the peak. In other words, if you don't get all the facts right about recent generations, then you won't be able to find out about earlier generations.

"It's imperative that you find documentation or other proof of one generation before proceeding to the next further back. If you get the wrong place of birth for your great-grandmother, odds are you'll have a lot of trouble finding anything on your great-great-grandmother," says Van Komen.

Experts say the further you go back in history, the harder it is to find information. Often genealogy buffs are confronted with lost or destroyed records on the people they are researching.

"A 200-year-old fire in a town hall records [office] in your great-great-great-grandfather's home town can have a big impact on your research, because it means the loss of all his official records," says Lin Wright, who lives in Georgia.

People involved in this recreation say they spend anywhere from two to 20 hours a week sorting through resources like these to gather facts about their family history. They research, record, document and then recheck all the facts and figures.

It can require a big commitment of time and energy, but people involved in this kind of research say it's worth the effort.

"It is a hobby with real purpose and reward," says Bondy. "I really enjoy the detective work involved; it's like piecing together a puzzle."

Thanks to the Internet, research has become much easier and much less expensive, says Marie Ablett, UE (United Empire Loyalist). You should count on some costs, however. Luckily, how much you spend is up to you. "It's not all that expensive, and you go at your own pace," says Ablett. Here are some costs you will encounter:

-joining a genealogical society will cost $10 to $50 a year

-ordering a copy of records from the world's premier genealogical group, the Latter Day Saints

-official copies of marriage and death certificates range from $10 to $50

-stamps for self-addressed, stamped envelopes (SASE)

With so many people involved in genealogical research at one level or another, it would be difficult to guess exactly how many people take part in this recreation. What is for certain is that there are a lot of them! The Federation of Genealogical Societies says there are more than 2,000 genealogical societies in the world. It has 500 of those as members, plus another 200,000 individual genealogists as members.

Many people who are really serious about genealogy find employment working to help others trace their family trees. They can do this by contracting out their genealogical research services to individuals, or by working with software companies to design computer programs to help people find and record their family history.

Anyone who likes this hobby may also enjoy a career as a historian or researcher.

Getting Started

So, you want to dig into your genealogy. . . but just where do family-tree hunters find their information?

Genealogy buffs say the best place to start is with living relatives -- family members may be a terrific source of information on your family history. Other avenues of information to explore are:

-Parish records -- baptism, marriage, burial

-Vital statistics, civil registration

-Census manuscript

-Directories and gazetteers

-Newspaper articles, especially obituaries

-Published genealogies

-Genealogical dictionaries

-Local history books

Find out if your community or city has a "family history center." These centers can provide you with access to many of the above resources. Most major cities in North America have one and they're open to everyone for use. They are usually listed under the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints Family History Center in the phone book.

Of course, the libraries and archives in the area where your ancestor is from are likely to be rich in genealogical resources as well.

Tread cautiously! Experts say you can safeguard yourself from bungled research by looking out for these genealogy pitfalls:

-Check all dates against common sense. Does the marriage occur at least a few months before the birth of the first child? Are all of the children at least nine months apart in age? Have the parents died before the children were supposedly born?

-Record all siblings possible of your direct ancestral line. They share the same parents and can be useful if you hit a roadblock in researching your direct ancestor.

-Keep everything organized in charts. Cite your source for every date and location right next to the entry on the chart.

If you've never done this kind of research before, you would benefit greatly by joining a local genealogy group. The Federation of Genealogical Societies says groups hold regular meetings, with lectures on some general topic of interest. Going to meetings will also help you meet other genealogists with lots of experience who can help you solve problems with your research.

The Internet is a genealogy researcher's dream. There are tons of genealogy-related Net sites and newsgroups which provide a perfect forum for people to exchange and share family history information.


Federation of Genealogical Societies

A wealth of information

The National Genealogical Society
Nearly 100 years old and still kicking! Good information for beginners, plus a home study course

Genealogy on
Articles, quizzes and hand-picked resources on family research

How Genealogy Works
Learn how to research your family history

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