For many years, genealogy was the domain of hobbyists obsessively following their family lines across the Atlantic back to European royalty. Today, it ranks as the second-most popular pastime in America, and more and more people are getting involved in a new genealogy movement: the family history movement.
For family history researchers, genealogy research is about more than just filling in names, dates, and places on a pedigree chart. Rather than simply pushing their family trees back with as many direct-line ancestors as they can, family history researchers go deeper. They're more concerned with the quality of their information than with the quantity of names they find.
These researchers look for as much information as possible to flesh out their ancestors and learn how they lived. Instead of just searching for direct-line ancestors, they search for their ancestors' siblings as well. Family historians don't just collect vital statistics of birth, marriage, and death. They collect photographs and family stories. They seek to get to know their ancestors: What was great-granddad's occupation? Did grandma have a close relationship with her twin sister? Did my ancestors own land? Why did they move from Kentucky to Indiana?
The best way to start your family history research is to talk to the people within your family. Interviews and oral histories are gold mines of information; you can learn the fascinating stories that make your ancestors come to life. When this well of information runs dry, you can conduct ordinary genealogy research-but use your records more creatively. Think of the questions you'd like to ask your ancestors if they were here-you'd be surprised how many of them you can answer with written records.
For example, you may be curious as to whether or not your ancestors in the 1700s were literate. If you look at a book of notarial records, you can see the wills and contracts that your ancestors made. You may find that one of your ancestors signed her own name in her marriage contract, but her mother did not. From this you can deduce that the daughter could read and write, but the mother could not.
By searching further, you may find the mother's will, in which she left money to the parish school. From this you could piece together a little family history: the mother never received an education, but evidently learning was evidently important to her, since she left money to the local school. Obviously she also encouraged her daughter in her schooling, since her daughter could read and write. This is just one example of how ordinary records can be used to flesh out the lives of your ancestors.
The exciting thing about family history is that it's about getting to know your ancestors. After all, what's the point of genealogy research if all you do is go around collecting names and dates? The purpose of the work is to let your ancestors come to life.