In Search of One’s Roots: An Introduction to Family Research

Old photographs, yellowed documents in a dusty box on the attic or a certificate hidden in the back corner of a drawer - it’s often findings like these that nudge the interest in one’s family history.

If you want to embark on the search for your ancestors, you need to immerse yourself deeply into the past. As the saying goes, every beginning is hard. In genealogy, however, it is exactly the other way round.

How and where to start?

Genealogical research: a guide

Start of research

The starting point from where you work yourself back chronologically from the present to the past is usually yourself. It is advisable to proceed in a systematic way, carefully approaching the past generation by generation.

Compiling basic information

Usually, it is not too difficult to collect the data of parents and grandparents from one’s own knowledge or with the help of other relatives. With great-grandparents, however, the first problems may arise. The further you travel back in time, the more the family tree branches out.

Talking with relatives

Conversations with parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and other near relatives still alive will provide the first general hints for family research.

Use of documents and certificates

The documents mentioned above, old records, and certificates prove to be useful sources. Based on these sources, it is often possible to form “knowledge chains” along which you can move hand over hand into the past.

Which data and information are relevant for the research?

At one point or the other, probably all genealogists in search of their own roots feel like being stuck in a dead-end street. On the other hand, in particular in personal conversations at the beginning of the research, they may feel drowned by a veritable flood of information. At this point, it becomes necessary to filter the useful and relevant data from the wealth of hints. In the field of genealogy, the following pieces of information are important:

  • Names
  • Dates of birth and death
  • Places of residence
  • Professions
  • Denominations
  • Marriages and divorces
  • Names of children / godparents
And where do you find them?

Apart from oral traditions, the sources helpful for research include the following:

  • Birth, marriage and baptism certificates
  • Family registers
  • Testaments
  • Proofs of ancestry and pedigrees (from the Nazi period)
  • Letters and postcards
  • Photographs
  • Military documents (soldier cards)
  • Diaries or written memories
  • Business documents
  • Construction documents

Once private sources are depleted, researchers can turn to local registry offices and competent archives. At this primary point of contact, genealogically relevant documents from the recent past can be consulted there. Genealogical associations and secondary sources such as school files, population registers or address books can also help. The same applies to the Internet that provides a wealth of information with the advantage of quick searches and easy data exchange.


Family research: key aspects and considerations

What to consider when doing family research?

1. Personal exchange and subjective information

In personal exchanges, you get clues that are useful for first insights into the present and previous generation. You should always be aware, however, that oral reports but also letters or other private writings are subjective. Thus, it is recommendable to critically examine the information contained therein.

2. Attention to historical data

The deeper you dig in the past, the less reliable will be the data. This requires particular attention. Occasionally, the spelling of names has been slightly modified in the course of time or certain data deviate from each other.

3. Careful navigation through the research

Even though it may sound obvious, it is particularly important not to accidentally “make a wrong turn” and keep researching about a person who is not part of your own family.

4. Using official sources

Local registry offices are the first contact points for records from the more recent past. They can provide reliable information on civil status cases such as births, marriages and deaths - but only for the period from 1876. Only since the introduction of the Civil Status Law, the certification has been regulated in this way.

5. Church records: official sources before 1876

Genealogically relevant data for the time before 1876 can be found in church books.

Click here to find out more about church books.

Useful Tips
  • Ask questions!
  • Note information carefully!
  • Note interlocutors for possible follow-up questions!
  • Record the finding places and references!
  • Proceed chronologically!
  • Create a family tree!
  • Exchange ideas with other family researchers!
  • Don’t get discouraged - genealogy needs patience and perseverance!

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