Family History: How to get started — what’s holding you up?

This is the third in a series of columns about discovering and sharing your family history. For the first two see: Kids are like kites and Telling your family story-It’s so much more than names and dates.

BeforeLike any daunting task, the hardest part is getting started. For some families, the problem is knowing very little about the family; many older relatives are gone or were never close to family. Others have the opposite problem, yellowing photo albums and boxes full of unlabeled pictures, documents and memorabilia, 8mm movies, slides and tape recordings.

Where do you start?

Here are some suggestions that I have used for my clients and myself.

1. Know that this is not a project that you will put on your “To Do” list and be able to cross off next week. It is an ongoing labor of life, like landscaping a yard or learning a trade. You will see great progress and complete meaningful tasks, but you know there is always more to learn and work to be done. Realistically, your goal is to leave things better than the way you found them!

2. Next, ask yourself these questions:
• What are my most important goals right now? Organizing the family photos? Getting my Father’s story about WWII written down? Finding my Grandmother’s place of birth? Starting our family tree? Other?
• What info, documents, photos, etc. does the family already have?
• Who has it? Where is it?
• Who are my oldest relatives and how can I contact them?
• Who in my family may be interested in getting the information I have about our history? Can I recruit them to help?
• What’s my timeline for a first project? Is there a family reunion coming up?
or a visit to older relatives? Special anniversary?

3. I recommend that with photos and family stories, you begin with the oldest photos and the oldest people and work your way forward in time.

After finalSo, get those old photos and documents out of the cardboard boxes, wipe them with a dry microfiber cloth and put them into acid free envelopes & boxes that you can label with surnames and dates or in acid free sheet protectors and then into three ring binders. Once they are protected from further damage, you can begin to systematically get them scanned, restored and create books, albums, family tree posters and framed pictures.

4. Pick up the phone or visit your oldest relatives and ask if they could give you some time. Record any detail they can provide about relatives, living or deceased – full names (especially middle names or initials), dates and places of birth, death, marriage, religion, immigration and occupation. Any information they have is better than no information. For instance, maybe they don’t know exactly where someone was born, but they know the state or county. They may not know when someone was born, but they do know the year and how old they were when they died. Now you have their date of birth. What they can tell you in five minutes can save you five years of research. Then, of course, any stories or letters they can share fill in so much of the individual nature of your ancestors. You will find that the more you learn about them, the more you learn about yourself. Their stories become compelling.

5. So much of this work now: research, scanning, creating books, etc. is web based. If you’re not proficient on the computer, find a compelling picture, news article, letter, anything that will help one of the younger members of the family take interest. I’ve found it really doesn’t take much for them to get excited. It could just be an entry in the ship’s passenger list showing their great great grandfather coming to this country when he was 19 and only had $10 in his pocket. Now you have someone who can find their way around the technology while you help them find their way around the family.

Family tree poster
Family tree poster

6. Have a specific project in mind to start, one that is doable and ideally produces something that you can share visually, like a photo book or family tree poster or that takes the clutter in those boxes and gets them into manageable, protected, labeled items. Starting a family tree on or is also lots of fun and very rewarding.

Each Christmas and birthday I work on another photo storybook, family tree poster or four minute slide show for members of the family. That way, I’m slowly checking off my long and short-term goals and the family learns more and more about who came before us and how much we owe them. The books, slide shows and posters are short and easy to read or watch, a key to making them accessible.

Your goal is to get family engaged by capturing the essence of these ancestors and the amazing stories they have to tell us. In order to do this, we have a responsibility to protect and preserve our family archives, the source of our stories.

Next column: Tips for informally interviewing your relatives.

Resources for scanning, acid free storage: Magic Photo on Hwy. 99, Storables, Hollinger Metal Edge, office supply stores.

— By Maggie Fimia

Maggie Fimia

Maggie Fimia, owner of Welcome Home Family History Services, has over 30 years’ experience doing family research and helping families tell their stories. A former registered nurse, elected official and community organizer, she is the mother of two grown daughters and lives in Edmonds with her husband, Don Moe MD.


  1. This is all invaluable information and helps me as I embark on my own family tree research. Thanks Maggie!

  2. Maggie Fimia will be at the Edmonds Bookshop for the February Third Thursday Artwalk (Feb. 20) from 5-8 p.m. You can see her boards and books for yourself!

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