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Genetic Genealogy: DNA and Family History

Genealogy Basics

This is your Library. So, what better way to use it than to learn about your own local and family history! The Library has dedicated staff, collections, and resources to help researchers at every experience level.

We have collected over 50,000 family histories and over 100,000 local histories for communities across the country (and around the world). Even more may be found throughout the Library in maps, newspapers, photographs, and more.

Reach us online through our Ask a Librarian service, call us at (202) 707-3399, or visit us in person in Room LJ-100 (Main Reading Room) of the Library's Thomas Jefferson building in Washington, D.C.

Get started with these tools for talking to living relatives and neighbors, exploring records in your hometown, and searching Library collections!

This chart is an example of how a family tree grows generation by generation, beginning with you.

Climb Family Trees One Branch at a Time

Your family tree begins with you. As you climb the family tree, you will move from the present to the past.

Keep an open mind and be ready for every possibility. Ancestors were only human. Their stories are as broad and varied as those of the people living today.

  • Begin with yourself, followed by your parents, then your grandparents, and so on.
  • As you write down each family group, include siblings for each generation.
  • Ask who has collected or inherited your family's papers and photographs. Arrange a visit!

Keep track of the sources you use and give credit where it is due. Local and family history research requires you to access and evaluate numerous original and published records in a variety of repositories and collections.

If an online tree or published book includes your lineage, make note of it and give the researcher credit for any help their work provides to you, but always do your own research. It's very important to review every record and relationship.

Ken Light, photographer. Interviews with Ferdinando DiBernardo and sons, San Pedro, California. 1989. Italian Americans in the West Project collection. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Interview Living Relatives

Interview living relatives, family friends, and others who knew your family well.

  • Ask for full names, complete dates, and detailed locations for every person and event in your tree.
  • Expand upon the basic data with the details: Who were they named after? What were their childhoods, schooldays, workdays like? How did couples meet?
  • Caption photographs with dates, identities, locations, and circumstances.
  • Collect documents already in your family's possession that will help you to authenticate facts and add additional details, such as: family bibles, certificates of birth / marriage / divorce / death, diplomas, military discharges, letters, etc.

Start with yourself

In genealogy, we start with ourselves, then add names, dates, and facts that can be verified with reliable records. We work backwards in time from relationship to relationship and generation to generation. This way we build a documented chain of evidence from ourselves to our ancestors.

What do you know?

Take some time at the beginning of your project to review the documents you already have, what you already know, and how you know it. Be sure to cite your sources clearly and consistently. Decide on your research strategies and how you want to record your progress. Keeping a research log helps to avoid duplication and save time. By keeping track of your work, you can easily share your progress and explain your conclusions.

What do you want to learn?

Define your questions and your goals. What questions do you want to answer? Where will you look for records? How will you share and preserve your research results?

Use “Subjects beginning with…” as a good way to browse the Library of Congress Online Catalog for families or locations.

Search the Online Catalog

You can search the Library of Congress Online Catalog for subject headings relevant to your research. Each subject heading will provide a list of related publications or archival items that you can then review for any specific ties to your family or community.

To search the catalog, follow these steps:

  1. Go to Library of Congress Online Catalog
  2. Choose BROWSE
  3. In the dropdown menu, choose SUBJECTS BEGINNING WITH or SUBJECTS CONTAINING
    • Tip: Try both for most complete results.
  4. In the second field, type keywords such as SMITH FAMILY or GREENE COUNTY
    • Tip: Do not include the state until you see how your state is abbreviated in the catalog.
    • Tip: For locations, try searching by both town and county.
    • Tip: For surnames, try all spelling variations and look for cross-references.
  5. Your search will generate lists of subject headings, each of which you can click to see specific entries.
  6. Some entries may include links to digital material, so be sure to read through all the information provided.
  7. As you identify entries that you want to study, you can either come to the Library of Congress to view them or ask your local library to borrow them for you from other libraries through inter library loan. While the Library of Congress does not loan local or family history items, other libraries often do. Your local librarian can help you to make those arrangements.
Use the Digital Collections search menu to choose from "Everything" or select a specific category.

Search the Digital Collections

In addition, you can search for family names, locations, and related subjects in the Library of Congress Digital Collections. These databases include books, maps, newspapers, photographs, and more. They are free to use online from your home. No login required.

To search the online collections, follow these steps:

  1. Go to Library of Congress Digital Collections.
  2. Go to the search box on the upper-right.
  3. In the first field of the search box, select a category from the drop down menu.
    • Tip: Start by choosing EVERYTHING. If you get too many results, narrow your search to specific categories.
  4. In the second field, type keywords such as JONES FAMILY or MARION COUNTY, ILLINOIS.
    • Tip: For locations, try searching by both town and county.
    • Tip: For surnames, try all spelling variations and look for cross-references.
  5. Click on entries of interest to see full details, download images, and explore related items or collections.

Video Tutorial

Watch this brief video to see how you can use the Library of Congress online collections in your research!

Boyle County Courthouse, Danville, Boyle County, KY. After 1933. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

State, county, and community level research is essential in the pursuit of family and local history. Become familiar with the repositories in the areas where your ancestors lived: academic archives, courthouses, genealogical / historical societies, libraries, and more. Keep in mind that most records have not been digitized. It is critical to directly contact the institutions that may hold records important to your investigation.

A quick reference to locate local records is the Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources External. Online guides such as FamilySearch Wiki External are also great tools for tracking down available records in particular places.

View the Library of Congress U.S. State and Territory Guides - Local History and Genealogy Research Guides for charts that explain what you will find in each state's courthouse offices, dates of available vital records, quick links to targeted online collections, reading lists of the pertinent published material, and more.

Harris & Ewing, photographer. New machine to speed up statistics of census of 1940. 1939. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Our generation has the wonderful opportunity to access digital versions of many original records online. This provides an ease of access that past researchers did not have. With this new privilege comes new responsibility.

  • Whether in print or digital format, validate each record's source and evaluate its content.
  • Whenever possible, seek out and examine clear images of original documents, rather than relying on transcripts or derivatives alone.
  • Consult online family trees with caution. These databases may provide good leads, but it is critical to do our own research and find the original records that allow us to weigh the evidence.
  • Most records are not online. So, we cannot rely on digital resources alone.

Consult the Library of Congress Digital Collections tab above for tips to search the Library's Digital Collections free from home.

  • You can also visit the Library of Congress in-person to access our subscription databases. These are free to use while you are logged in to Library network. If you cannot come to the Library in-person, contact libraries in your area to ask which databases they provide.

The following links to online records highlight just a few of the most foundational sources that we can use to begin our research.

Cemeteries and Tombstones

Personally visit the cemetery to read tombstones and to see which family members are buried together. If the cemetery has an active office or board, ask them for burial records that may provide additional information and enable you to identify any unmarked graves.

For distant locations that you cannot stop by in person, search online databases such as: Billion Graves External and Find a Grave External. These sites are based on volunteer submissions and are not necessarily complete. As you locate the graves of your relatives, you can add or improve their entries in these free databases.

Census Records

Find your family in the 1950 U.S. Federal Census and continue backward decade by decade. Free access to Census records is available on sites such as FamilySearch External. Once you create a free account you can login to search: 1950 External, 1940 External, 1930 External, 1920 External, 1910 External, 1900 External, 1890 External, 1880 External, 1870 External, 1860 External, 1850 External, 1840 External, 1830 External, 1820 External, 1810 External, 1800 External, 1790 External.

The Library of Congress provides free access to Chronicling America, a collection of historic newspapers that you can search by location, date, and keyword.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

Newspaper articles are a great source for local and family history. In addition to obituaries and marriage announcements, you may find a variety of headlines and social mentions that provide insights into the daily life of your ancestors and their community.

The Library of Congress provides free access to Chronicling America, a collection of historic newspapers. If the newspapers for your area have not been digitized yet, use the U.S. Newspaper Directory to see which repositories house the archives. You can also access further resources about available publications through the Library's Newspapers and Periodicals Division.