My Great Aunt Already Did Our Family Tree

Lucky for me, someone else already did my genealogy

I’m really am interested in my family history. But lucky for me…

…Great Aunt Doris already did that side of my family tree so I don’t have to worry about that.

…Cousin Jason has all the family history stuff in a box at his house, so its safe.

…My uncle Gary, has a copy of that book that our great-great-grandma Virginia did that has all of our family history in it, so I know that’s all done.

…Mom’s Aunt Nancy, has been working on genealogy for years, so we can get it from her.

…Dad’s cousin Jeffery has our family history on the computer. He’s a real computer whiz.

I wish I had kept track, over the years, of how many times I heard statements like these.

As a family history addict, I cringe a little. I know that most of the friends, relatives, and colleagues who spoke these words were trying hard to connect with me on my favorite topic of genealogy. I know, too, they all probably had at least a tiny bit of curiosity about their heritage and really did figure that their relative had it covered. I also know that genealogy isn’t for everyone – probably not even for most. But, if you have even a slight interest in genealogy, or think that you may want to know more some day in the future, you may want to beware, heed my warnings, and take a little action now towards getting some of that family history into your own hands.


The Family History is Done

“The family history is done,” said no genealogist ever.

The last book written on your family may have been published long before anyone you know was born.

That Great-Great Grandma Virginia who wrote that book on your family may have died decades ago. So, there is a good chance that there will be some work to do to bridge between the people you know and the people she covered in her book. You may find that you need to talk to your parents, aunts and uncles, and other older relatives to figure out where your family fits into what she has written. Even a book written a few years ago, by a relative close to your same age, will need updates. Babies are born, people marry, and people pass from this world as the circle of life rolls on. Who is keeping track of all the updates between when the family history was done and present time? Will you even be able to figure out exactly how you are related to the people in Great-Great Grandma’s book?

Rodents and Floods

Mouse damage on book.

While you are reading this, a family of mice may be feasting on that old family history book that your uncle owns and has stashed in a box in his attic. Someone in the family may have family treasures in their possession, but that doesn’t mean that they are safe and will still be around when you get around to asking to see them.

Countless family treasures have been lost to basement flooding or cross country moves, to tornadoes and house fires. I often wonder what kinds of things I might have if my grandparent’s house hadn’t burned down when my mom was a very little kid. I especially mourn for the photos that I might otherwise have in my hands right now. Disasters can happen. It is so much safer to get copies of things made and distributed throughout the extended family rather than relying on one dependable old family historian to keep it all safe.


Technology (or lack thereof)

Digital media.

Software has evolved through the years.

That aunt who worked on genealogy for years, might have done all of her work on floppy disks that can no longer be read on a modern computer. That tech-savvy cousin Jeffrey, who talks about spending all of his time on the family tree, may be using old software, or worse, he may have written his own programs for managing the family data. Hooray to him for having the skills and passion to write his own code, but are you going to be able to know how to find the information you need? And even if he was using state-of-the-art tools, what are the chances that you are going to be able to get access to his computer or know his passwords to be able to access all of the information once he is no longer around?

Landing in the Wrong Hands, House Cleaning and Disappearing Artifacts

“I’m so mad that Aunt Evilone <a fictional name> won’t let me borrow Uncle Dennis’s photo albums. She doesn’t care about our family, but won’t let any of us see any of them.”

Those valuable genealogical assets of your family may not necessarily end up in the hands of someone who realizes their value to the rest of the family. I have heard more than a few tales of family disruptions that put “all the family history” into the hands of a family member with no interest in family history and/or no interest in playing nice with the rest of the family. And sometimes, the person who inherits the pile of stuff from the previous family historian just doesn’t have the time or energy to sort through it and share it with everyone else.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” It goes the other way too.

“My sister just threw out all those boxes of information that Mom had collected over the years. She didn’t think anyone would want any of it.”

When the family home is sold so that Grandma can go to the nursing home or move to a retirement villa somewhere warm, or because of the death of a relative, there is often a mad scurry to clean out the house. Unfortunately, this is also when family treasures often transfer ownership. There isn’t always a lot of time to know who is getting what or even what there is to get.

“My cousin Nick got those old pictures that came from Great-Grandpa George’s house and I just found out that he sold them all because the frames were worth a lot of money.”

Some will find the frame more interesting than the photo itself.

With the advent of Craig’s List and eBay, it is easier than ever to sell your old stuff for cash. When I look at an old photograph, I don’t even always notice the frame because I am so interested in the people in the photo, but that is because genealogy is my passion. Other people likely see the beautiful old frame first and don’t even think much about the old faces in the picture, especially if they have no idea who is in the photograph. Whenever I go to a restaurant that has antique family photos on the wall, I’m sad thinking that those pictures should instead be in the hands of their families. But again, that is because I’m so interested in family history. Don’t assume that the person who ends up with the family pictures will really have an interest in them. You can’t fault cousin Nick for wanting to make some cash, but it sure would be nice if copies were made of the photographs before they left the family.

“Boy, I wish I’d gotten copies of that stuff before Grandma died.”

It is pretty common to have siblings and cousins and other relatives who have just as much right to family treasures as you. When cousin Val stops by Grandma’s house and comments on how much she has always liked the family picture from when Grandma was a girl, it is Grandma’s right to tell Val, “Oh, why don’t you just take that.” You and others may never know that exchange has happened. Things disappear.

If you want to make sure that you are going to ever see the work that Aunt Nancy did or the photos that so-and-so collected, you need to talk to that person before they and their treasures are gone.

Content, Quality and Completeness

“Oh no, Great-Great Grandma Virginia’s book just traces back from one of her grandparents. It doesn’t say anything about the other three.”

Even if Great Aunt Doris, Cousin Jason, Uncle Gary, Aunt Nancy and Cousin Jeffrey are all willing to share everything they have on your family, you may be disappointed.

“Oh great, Aunt Nancy has a lot of names on a family tree, but she doesn’t say where she got any of her information. She didn’t cite a single source.”

You might find that a lot of work went into the pursuit of the family history, but the results are not well documented or organized.

“None of those photos in the box that Cousin Jason has at his house are labeled. I sure wish we’d looked through it when all the aunts and uncles were alive.”

You might find that it takes some work to sort through the collection to even know what you have. It will be a lot easier to do that sorting while you still have the expert around to help you understand what they have.

“I thought she had kept track of the family history, but all she had was a box of random papers.”

The “family history” may end up just being a box of stuff.

If you wait until you desperately need family information, you may find that the keeper of the information doesn’t have anything useful. Okay, it is probably far-fetched to think that you will have a genealogy emergency headed your way, but many schools do require kids to do a family history project as part of a high school history class, so wouldn’t it be nice to have something available to get your kid started? And, there are rumors that the genealogy bug can hit you fast and hard once you are exposed to a little knowledge about your family, so you don’t know when you might need a dose of information. And very seriously and sadly, sometimes it is at the death of the family historian that you realize that the torch has been passed to you and that you are now the only one really interested or capable of keeping  your family’s story alive.

Call to Action

Don’t Wait! Get started now!

Get your hands on some of the family history that has supposedly been “done” for your family. Do it now! You might not plan to spend any time on genealogy until some date in the future, or maybe you just want something to pass down to your descendants later, but doing something now will ensure that you actually get to see some of the work that your relatives have done and things they’ve collected. Contact your family’s family history nut and bug them to share with you. Get copies of things!  Buy a copy of their book if they’ve published one. See if your family historian can print you a pedigree chart, an Ahnentafel report and descendant reports (you’ll sound so smart asking). Ask questions. Say “thank you.” See what you can collect!

P.S. If you are really lucky, you will find that you do indeed have a serious genealogist in your family. But wouldn’t it be good to know that now rather than later?

How can Family Past Expert help?

If you need some help… Family Past Expert can assist you in sorting through the treasures that you collect. And, as always, Family Past Expert can help you get started with your family tree and do research for you. Contact Family Past Expert today through email or purchase a services estimate to begin your family history journey.



“Popular Baby Names By Decade,” Social Security, Web, 9 Jan 2017,  This is the interesting site where I found names for most of the fictional characters in my tale.


DNA Testing – where do I start?

DNA and your family history

A relatively new addition to the list of tools that genealogists have at their disposal is DNA Testing. The world of genealogical DNA can be very interesting, but also very complicated.

Which test should I take?

Where should I buy my test?

If I take a test will I instantly know my family tree?

I’ve spit into the test tube, now what?

What can I really do with the results?

Those are all common questions. I was actually asked about DNA testing three times during the last week just in the midst of normal conversations. I suppose my conversations are not always very normal since people are still trying to figure out where I’m spending my time now that I’m retired from the corporate world, but in any case, I’m being asked about DNA testing more and more often these days.

I am a genealogist and family historian but not a geneticist, so I definitely do not consider myself an expert in this subset of genealogy. But I do know some things that not everyone may know, so I thought I would write about some DNA testing basics that might be helpful. At the end of my article, I have posted links to many resources that let you dig a lot deeper. But, let’s start with some basics…

Three Types of DNA

Very basically, there are three kinds of DNA tests.

  1. Autosomal – can be taken by both to males and females; used to give you an idea of your ethnicity and connections to all the branches on your tree. This is the most common kind of testing and the kind that you see advertised by Ancestry in their TV commercials.
  2. Y-DNA – available to males only; used to give you your pure male paternal lineage. Each man gets certain DNA from his father who got it from his father who got it from his father and so on. It only passes from a father to a son. If a guy is trying to find out who is father might be, Y-DNA testing would be the most useful.
  3. mtDNA – available to males and females; used to give you your distant maternal lineage. It is passed by a mother to both her sons and daughters. Men get this from their mother, but do not pass it down to their offspring.

There are several companies who sell DNA testing kits. So, once you determine which type of test to take, you will be able to figure out where to make your purchase. There are a couple links later in this post that can be useful in comparing the different testing companies.

 A Very Simple Autosomal DNA Example

The following may be helpful in understanding the basics of how you get your autosomal DNA.

Let’s say that each of your grandparents has four pieces of DNA (really there are thousands).

Your grandpa gives your dad two of his four and your grandma gives your dad two of her four, so that your dad ends up with four pieces of DNA. They do the same for their other son, your uncle. But your dad and your uncle get a different set of things.

Autosomal DNA

Autosomal DNA example.

Your dad then passes down half of what he has to you and then does the same for your sister. Your mom gives you each two as well, but those aren’t shown in this example. Meanwhile, your uncle does the same for his kids. In this example, you, your sister and one of your cousins, all end up with a common piece “D” that originated with your grandpa. This continues down the generations, so through DNA testing, you may find distant cousins who share an element of DNA provided by a common ancestor.

The more you have in common, the more closely related you probably are. The tests can predict whether you are siblings, half-siblings, first cousins, sixth cousins, etc. with other people who have tested. With the combination of DNA results and old-fashioned family trees, you can work to figure out your common ancestor and how you are connected.

A Very Simple Y-DNA Example

If you are a male, then you have the same Y-DNA as your earliest paternal ancestor. Now, through the ages, mutations occurred to change things up, but we won’t get into that. At the most basic level, your Y-DNA is the same as your biological father’s and his is the same as his dad’s. Your paternal grandpa’s Y-DNA is the same as his dad’s and the same as yours (if you are a male). Girls are totally left out of the Y-DNA game. The following example is meant to show that the Y-DNA is passed down to the males in each subsequent generation. You will see that Great-Grandpa gave Grandpa his “Y” but didn’t give it to Grandpa’s sister. In this diagram, your male 3rd cousin and you will have the same Y-DNA because you are related through male ancestors. In other words, your 2nd Great-Grandpa gave both of his sons the same Y and they passed that same Y down to their male descendants. If you are a guy, this testing can be helpful in determining “who’s your daddy?” and a surname for your paternal line. Now, surnames changed over times sometimes too, like was often in the case of immigrants, but that too is another story.

Y-DNA example.

Y-DNA example.

A Very Simple mtDNA Example

Everyone gets mtDNA from their mother. That mtDNA is the same as your earliest maternal ancestor. Again, we are ignoring mutations and how DNA changes over time. But, basically, whether you are gal or a guy, you and your mom have the same mtDNA and it is the same as your maternal grandmother’s mtDNA and so forth back through the generations. Males are too busy passing on their Y-DNA or something, so they don’t pass the mtDNA down to their kids. It stops with them. But, females pass the mtDNA down to both their sons and their daughters. In this example, you can see that your earliest maternal great-grandma passed down her mtDNA. Your 2nd great-grandma gave it to all of her kids, but only her daughters passed it down to their kids. Your grandma also gave it to all of her children. But, only your cousins from your aunt will have that shared mtDNA. Your uncle didn’t pass it to his kids. This testing can be helpful to determine your pure maternal line.


mtDNA Example.

mtDNA example.

DNA Results

After you have spit in the test tube or swabbed your cheek (depending on which test you take), mailed in your sample, and waited and waited and waited for your DNA to be processed, you will not instantly see your complete family tree, but there is a lot you can do with the results.


Many people just do the testing for the fun of getting an ethnicity estimate. Again, think about those ancestry commercials where someone finds out they are not what they thought they were.

Simple ethnicity estimate.

Simple ethnicity estimate.

But that is just scraping the surface of what can be done.

Connecting with relatives and working your family tree

As a long-time family history buff, the most interesting part of DNA testing to me is being able to confirm that I have built my family tree correctly. When DNA results come back that show that Sally Smith is likely a 2nd cousin and my family tree lists Sally Smith as a 2nd cousin, that is a major victory.

Example of matches displayed through Ancestry DNA testing. (Names removed)

Example of matches displayed through Ancestry DNA testing. (Names removed)

But perhaps, even more fun, (yeah, I know that my definition of fun doesn’t always match what others think of fun) is when you can meet new cousins through DNA. Your results tell you that John Doe is likely a 3rd cousin, yet you’ve never heard of John Doe before. Working together, you trace back and figure out how you are related. Then you text or email and maybe even meet for coffee (or Diet Coke) and share photos and stories and information on your shared family tree. Very cool!

Example of DNA matches displayed in the GEDMatch tool. (Kit numbers, names and email addresses removed.0

Example of DNA matches displayed in the GEDMatch tool. (Kit numbers, names and email addresses removed.0

As more and more people do DNA testing and make their results available for comparison with others, the number of connections we can make to other family members will keep expanding. A disclaimer though… if you are looking for your cousin and she hasn’t taken a DNA test yet, you are not going to find her through DNA. And another disclaimer… you should be ready for surprises. Many genealogists who have worked decades on their family trees through old-fashioned paper-trail research, have had a surprise when they find that maybe grandpa’s father wasn’t really who great-grandma said he was.

Complex Analysis

You can also dig deeper. Sometimes it can be more complicated to figure out how you are related to your DNA matches. There are tools available to let you compare your results with someone at a very low level or triangulate to try to figure out how people are related. If you match with Sally Smith and John Doe, and John Doe also matches with Sally Smith, you may be able to figure out how John Doe fits into your tree. Most of you probably won’t get to this level of complexity, but when things get really complicated, there are people you can hire whose whole business is to unravel DNA genealogy for you.

Example sibling comparison. Green shows places where these siblings match exactly, yellow shows half-matches and red shows no match.

Example sibling comparison. Green shows places on each chromosome where these siblings match exactly, yellow shows half-matches and red shows no match.

How can Family Past Expert help?

If you need some help… Family Past Expert can assist you in deciding which test to take and help you with a basic understanding of your results. I can also help you if you need help with the tools or with communicating with your DNA matches. And, as always, Family Past Expert can help you get started with your family tree and do research for you. Contact Family Past Expert today through email or purchase a services estimate to begin your family history journey.

Links to Education and Help Regarding DNA Testing

If you do a Google search, you can find tons of information on DNA testing. The following are a list of some that have been useful.

DNA for ‘Dummies’ —

Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – What Now? —

Autosomal DNA testing comparison chart —

Y-DNA STR testing comparison chart —

MtDNA testing comparison chart —

Most bang for the DNA buck — (written in 2015, so costs listed in the article may have changed.)

Sorting out the DNA Tests Available for Genealogy —

Proving Native American Ancestry Using DNA –

Women’s Suffrage, 1951 – how a fact in an obscure record book can really get you thinking


1951 was the first year that my paternal grandmother and great-grandmothers could vote in their church. 1951.


We hear about women’s rights and frankly, I take it all for granted these days. Sure, as a woman working in corporate America for better than three decades, I ran into my share of discrimination. I shared an office with a guy for awhile who told me that the reason unemployment was so high was because, “you darn women think you have to work.” And, on too many occasions to remember, it was brought to the attention of all in attendance that I was the only woman in a meeting. It often went like, “@#$%! Oh, sorry, I apologize. I forgot we had a woman with us.” My male colleagues didn’t understand that it was more offensive to be singled out as the only female than it was to hear them curse. Heck, maybe I wanted to curse too. But through those rough work days, I just always remembered…



For a few years, there were as many women around my office as men. In college, studying computer science, the ratio was nearly 50/50, or that is what I was trained to say giving tours anyway. And for a period of time in the early 1990s, I was on a couple teams where the men found themselves in the minority. They didn’t always like that. But, somehow we lost the progress we’d made and females fled from the technical professions. Today at the University of Minnesota, College of Science and Engineering, which houses the computer science major, only 25.8% of their graduate and undergraduate students are female. In contrast, the overall University of Minnesota population is 51% female. So, I do understand, given this one example, that we still have a long way to go toward becoming somewhat equal.


The 19th Amendment of the US Constitution, which was passed by Congress 4 June 1919 and ratified on 18 August 1920, gave women in the US the right to vote. It took decades of protest and unrest to get this win for women. It is almost unfathomable to think of a world in which only men could vote. I have to admit that due to the election madness of 2016, it might be nice to not have the right and responsibility to cast a ballot, but that is a whole different story. I cannot imagine not having to pay attention to politics and issues because my husband (or father, or uncle, or brother, or some other male) would handle that for me since I was just a silly woman. While my mom and I have always been eligible to vote, putting the date of the 19th amendment in context of my family, my grandmothers were the first to be able to vote in all elections. They became of legal age just as women got the vote. Three of my great-grandmothers got to vote. They were ages 39, 43 and 57 in August 1920. One second great-grandma was eligible to vote at age 68 and another at age 72. No other woman in my family tree was allowed to be a voting member of society.

So all this is well known history. Women fought and won the right to cast ballots. Hooray for women. End of story.

Red Oak Grove Lutheran Church

Well, maybe not the end of the story. As I was doing research for a book on my paternal ancestors, I found myself crawling through the records of our ancestral church. Amidst stories of the foundation of the church, Sunday school, Ladies’ Aid Society and such, there was the following highlight,

“During the past years, a resolution giving women the right to vote in congregational meetings had repeatedly failed to gain the two-thirds majority required for passage. The resolution finally passed in 1951 and the women’s right to vote was incorporated into the new By-Laws when adopted.”

Whoa! This little country church of which I’ve been so proud and fascinated didn’t let the ladies have a say until 1951? The church of my ancestors and baptism didn’t treat women equally until 1951? Thirty-one years after women could cast a vote in electing a United States president and they couldn’t vote on church matters? Wow! My grandmother was 49 years old by then. My great-grandmother was 74. Absolutely amazing! Who were these men who voted against this? (They were likely my relatives since nearly everyone in that church is related.)

Was Our Church Unique?

Looking into the matter to find out just how behind the times we were, I discovered that Red Oak Grove was actually decades ahead of some other Lutheran churches. While Red Oak Grove’s ELCA synod voted to allow women to be pastors in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1969 that the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church allowed women to vote and in the Wisconsin Synod (WELS), women are still forbidden to be voting members. Unbelievable!

I am totally amazed that this discrimination against women can still be going on. Why do women continue to attend these churches? That is a rhetorical question. Evidently, some churches use a verse from Paul to continue to deny women rights.

1 Corinthians 14:33-35.

As in all the churches of the saints, 34the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. 35If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

In doing so, however, others argue that they ignore:

Galatians 3:28.

28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

To each his own, I guess. But, I’m very happy that I was brought up in a more progressive church and environment. I’d have a really hard time not speaking up.

Back to 1951

Even though this was a relatively short time ago, finding this item in the church archives really got me wondering what else was affecting women back then. Some might argue these were simpler times for women and change is not always good, but since US women’s suffrage in 1920 and Red Oak Grove Lutheran women’s suffrage in 1951, we’ve also seen other major changes.

1964. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it was perfectly legal to discriminate against women on the grounds of gender when considering whom to hire or promote. So a company could refuse to hire you simply because you were female.

1965. Before 1965 it could be illegal to use birth control. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Supreme Court made it illegal to ban married people from contraceptives, any type of contraceptives. Note that the birth control bill wasn’t approved for use for contraception by the FDA until 1960, and then it was made illegal in some states.

1969. Before the 1969 No Fault Divorce law, divorce could only be obtained if you proved your spouse had committed serious faults such as adultery.

1971. Until 1971, women could be denied the right to practice law, even if they had qualified as lawyers, purely because they were women. Barring women from practicing law was only prohibited in the US in 1971.

1972. The Boston Marathon wasn’t open to women runners until 1972.

1973. It wasn’t until 1973 that women could serve on juries in all 50 states. Some states allowed it, but others didn’t. The main reason to keep women off juries was to keep them at home. Their primary responsibility was that of caregiver to their families and homes, so they were kept out of jury pools. They were also thought to be too sensitive to hear details of grisly crimes.

1974. Until “The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974,” a woman could not necessarily get a credit card. If she was single, she could be refused a card. Period. And, if she was married she would need to get her husband to co-sign and it may be required to be in her husband’s name.

1976. Women couldn’t attend any US military academy until 1976.

1977. It was 1977 before workplace sexual harassment was recognized as an offense. Before then you could not legally fight being sexually harassed on the job.

1978. In the US it wasn’t illegal to lay off female employees because they were pregnant until 1978.

2012. Women couldn’t box in the Olympics until 2012.

2014. Women couldn’t enter any Olympic ski jumping events until the 2014 Olympics.

There are several things on this list that some may disagree with and there are many that I don’t personally care to do myself (divorce or ski jump, for example), but it is a good reality check to understand that there were things that we take for granted that our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. were not allowed. It may also explain why Grandpa may make a seemingly sexist remark now and then.


I’m certainly glad that my male relatives at Red Oak Grove came to their senses in 1951. But the main point in all of this is that researching your family history can lead you to interesting tidbits that get you thinking of topics you’ve never explored. Thinking through an event and its associated dates, and then contrasting that with the ages of your family members at the time, can give you a much better understanding of how life really was for your ancestors.



“17 Crazy Things Women Couldn’t Do in 1960.” Web. 22 March 2016.

“19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Women’s Right to Vote.” National Archives. Web. 22 March 2016., Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Vital Records, 1875-1940 (Provo, UT, USA, Operations, Inc., 2015).

“CSE: By the numbers.” College of Science and Engineering, University of Minnesota. 17 November 2015. Web. 22 March 2016.

McLaughlin, Katie. “5 things women couldn’t do in the 1960s.” 25 August 2014. Web. 22 March 2016.

Pearl, Diana. “14 Things Women Couldn’t Do 94 Years Ago.” Marie Claire. 18 August 2014. Web. 22 March 2016.

“Raising Up Strong Women.” Progressively Lutheran. 20 April 2010. Web. 22 March 2016.

The Holy Bible. Revised Standard Edition. The Melton Book Company: Dallas, 1952.

“WELS Constitution and Bylaws of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and the Constitution for the Districts Published by The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod N16W23377 Stone Ridge Drive, Waukesha, Wisconsin 53118 Issued by The WELS Committee on Constitutional Matters Adopted July, 1997  Amended July, 1999, August 2001, August 2003, August 2005, August 2007, August 2009, July 2011, August 2013, and July 2015.” WELS. 2015. Web. 22 March 2016.

A day at the library!

Coming off my high of getting to spend a day at the Minnesota History Center Gale Family Library, I thought I’d share some tips for visiting this and other research facilities. A lot of these tips may be intuitive, but they can serve as a good reminder, and I will admit that I didn’t remember all of these before I took my recent trip to the library.

Prepare! Prepare! Prepare!

Before you make the trip, invest time in learning all you can about the facility and plan ahead so that you can use your on-site time most efficiently.

Are there restrictions?

What does your library let you bring into the research rooms? Visit their web page to find out.

  • You probably will only be allowed to use pencils, NO PENS, so bring a couple sharpened pencils with you.
  • You likely will not be able to bring your coat, purse, bag, backpack or other luggage into the rooms.
    • So find out if they have lockers to rent.
    • And bring your notes and to-do lists in a format that is allowed. Think loose leaf paper or notebooks rather than a large portfolio case.
  • Do they allow cell phones, tablets and laptops? Chances are that the facility will allow these, and WIFI may even be available. But check before you go if you plan to bring your notes in an electronic format.
  • Find out if cameras are allowed. If they are, you will probably have to turn off your flash and there may be some materials that you cannot photograph.

Learn about logistics

What are their hours? You don’t want to show up on a Monday just to find that the library is only open Tuesday through Saturday.

Do you need a library card or a photo id?

Try to understand the lay of the land before you get there. Is there a reading room separate from the microfilm area? What resources will you find in each part of the library? Is there staff on hand to help you?

Plan your time

Most libraries now have online catalogs that list their holdings and have online search capabilities so that you can know in advance where to find what you need. Take time before your visit to plan ahead on what you want to find and where to find it. For example, if I wanted to find marriage records for family members who married in Mower County, doing a search of the Minnesota Historical Society library catalog for “Mower county marriage” would lead me to learn that those records are available on Microfilm and that I would be looking for microfilm with the identifier “SAM 209, Rolls 5-11” when I arrived at the library.

Finding SAM

As I was starting my time in the Microfilm room and asked where to find “SAM 24, Reel 3,” the librarian told me that she was impressed to see I’d planned ahead as they often have conversations like:

Patron, “I want to find a copy of my Grandma’s obituary.”

Librarian, “What was your grandmother’s name?”

Patron, “Grandma.”

At which point the librarian would, no doubt, like to hit her head against the microfilm file cabinets. The chances of success of that patron are pretty low. While the library staff is happy to help, they are not going to do your research for you, do not have the time to train you in the basics of genealogy, and certainly are not going to have knowledge of your specific family. It is your responsibility to know what you are looking for and where you plan to look.

So, search the online catalogs, write down the microfilm roll numbers and/or the location number of other resources you will be requesting. Note that you can probably look up this information once you arrive, but to make the most of your time on site, do what you can from home so that while you are there you can concentrate on obtaining the information you hope to obtain.

Vital records, newspapers, naturalization records, etc.

For common search items such as death certificates, obituaries, birth notices, naturalization records, and land records, you will make the most efficient use of your time if you prepare a list of what you want to find.

If you are looking for obituaries in newspapers, for example, I’d recommend arriving with a list in hand that has things categorized by location, then date, then name. Let’s use a hypothetical example. Let’s say that you have ten obituaries that you hope to find.

It might seem intuitive to bring the list of names in alphabetical order.


Or maybe it makes sense to you to bring the list in chronological order.


But, your searching will be simplified if you bring the list ordered by location and then date.


Why? Because you are going to find newspapers by the name of the city in which the newspaper was published. The reels of film will span a series of years in chronological order. So, in this scenario, even though the two grandmothers were from different sides of the family, since they both died in the same town in the same year, chances are they will be on the same reel of microfilm. Having your list arranged in this manner will minimize the amount of times you have to load film and wind your way to the correct pages.

The same goes for other types of records. You’ll want to look for all the death certificates in a certain county, in a certain year, at the same time. You’ll want to look for all the naturalization records in a certain county, in a certain year, at the same time. So come with your “things to find” list arranged in the same manner as the microfilm which you will be searching.


Challenging research

If you are looking for something fairly uncommon and/or are not sure where to look, plan to talk to the library staff. They are happy to help. But, before you arrive, make sure you have as much information as possible to share when asking your question. Make sure you know dates, or at least have an approximate date range narrowed down; names, including alternate spellings; and locations.

Things to bring

  • Those pencils, mentioned earlier.
  • A simple file folder to carry home any copies that you make while you are there. You don’t want the treasures you collected to be creased or crumpled before you arrive home.
  • A notebook to take down notes.
  • Your list of to-dos and supporting information. A folder, clipboard or small binder will help keep your notes in order.
  • Quarters and small bills. You will need small amounts of money for locker rental and copying fees. At the Minnesota History Center, it cost a quarter to rent a locker, but the quarter was refunded when you were done with the locker. Copies cost 35¢ per page in the microfilm room. The biggest expenses for the day were lunch and $6 for parking.
  • Eyewear. Make sure to bring your reading glasses or whatever you may need to comfortably look at microfilm readers, books, computer screens and your notes. In my vanity, I wore my contact lenses, but next time, I may just wear my eye glasses so that I can more easily adjust to see whatever I need to see more clearly. It would have been nice able to pull my glasses off at a couple points to squint closely at the fuzzy words on a page.


  • Patience. Many things at the library are not indexed, so you may find yourself paging through page after page of an old book or microfilm reel trying to find what you are seeking. It is not always an easy process to find what you want when things are not necessarily in alphabetical or even accurate chronological order. So plan to have to work hard sometimes to get results. Also, note that you may have to stand in line to get your turn at things. The biggest bottleneck I found was getting my turn at the microfilm printers.
  • A friend. This isn’t a strict requirement, but it is a lot more fun when you have someone to give you encouragement and ideas, and to eat lunch with.

During your visit

Get oriented.

When you arrive, get oriented. Talk to the people at the check in desks if you have questions or to get suggestions. For example, on my recent trip it was recommended to take care of my work in the reading room prior to the microfilm room because it sometimes takes awhile for records to be brought up from storage to the reading room.

Find out the processes you need to follow for retrieving materials. Learn how to use the equipment.


Ask questions

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The library staff are not necessarily miracle workers, but they may have an idea of a library holding that you hadn’t thought of that might have clues to answer your questions. Or, they may be able to confirm that you are on the right track in your ideas for researching a problem. They can assist you in finding more obscure resources, and due to the nature of their jobs, may have a lot of prior experience that can connect the dots from your question to your answer.

They can also help you with learning to use the equipment, tell you how to get copies made, and even point you to the restroom.

Take notes

While you are in your research frenzy, don’t forget to carefully document where exactly you found anything you found. One easy way is to take a photo of the microfilm box or the holding identifier on other resources. Also, make sure to write down page numbers and other identifying information so that you can appropriately document your source later.


Take a break now and then

Break for lunch or a quick walk. It can be a little overwhelming being surrounded by so much interesting information and after an hour or two of straining your eyes reading microfilm, you need to remember to take a break. Breaks clear your head and may recharge your problem solving skills.

Celebrate your findings

Hopefully, after a day in the library, you will come home with at least a few treasures to add to your genealogy collection. Make sure to take time to organize your work from the day, make sure you’ve tagged any copies of records with their sources, and make sure to file things so you can find them again when you want them. After that it is time to start planning your next trip!


Does this sound like fun?

If spending the day in the library doing research and collecting treasures sounds like fun to you, I encourage you to make time for a trip. Besides getting you out of the house and adding things to your collections, it can open your mind to new ideas on where to find information about your family.

If spending the day in a library doing research sounds extremely boring to you, I can do it for you. Contact for your genealogical services needs.

Why study your family history?

I have been asked on more than one occasion why I am so interested in family history. Every so often I run into someone who doesn’t roll their eyes and wonder why I’m so obsessed. A couple years ago a former co-worker, who shares my interest in the hobby, pinned me down. He asked me to quickly put my reasons into written words. I came up with the following:

Why do I do genealogy? That is a big question that probably has multiple answers. But off the top of my head, I’d say that it is because I have an insatiable curiosity for my ancestors and to honor them I want to know more and share their stories. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. Here is what I’ve used for a dedication in the books that I’ve put together:

“I have been interested in genealogy since I first read a book written by my great-great-uncle. His book described the lives of my Norwegian ancestors who immigrated to Minnesota from Norway in the mid-1800s. I feel that each ancestor contributes at least a little bit to who we each become. I am very interested in knowing who my forebears were and thus seek to understand their lives.

Following are biographical notes, stories, and information about our ancestors. I collected the following for myself and for my children. I hope that someday they will share my interest in the people who came before us.

My body of work is dedicated to my sons. For CJ and EJ who are my hope for the future. In loving memory of Philip David, my little angel, who is already in heaven sharing his fantastic hugs with all the ancestors remembered here.”

I’d also say that I do genealogy because it is an addiction. Every time I’ve found someone I never thought I’d find or have had a major surprise in what I found, it has driven me to want to learn more and more. And now it has gotten so bad, that I even enjoy doing research and finding things out about people who are not even directly related to me…

(…or maybe I do genealogy because I’m good at it and I’d never be good at golfing or running marathons or quilting or other hobbies that consume others)

I’m not alone in having genealogy as a hobby. It is frequently cited as the second most popular hobby in the U.S. after gardening. It has been measured as the second most visited category of websites after pornography.

But why? Why do we care about our family trees? I’ve tried to come up with some common reasons.

Who Am I?

Sometimes people have very practical reasons for doing family history research. These can include adoptees searching for birth families or birth parents searching for their offspring. Sometimes people need to trace medical conditions or land ownership. And well, some people are forced to do it because it is required for a school project.

Most people have an inkling of where their families came from, but family history validates that knowledge. Was that Irish grandmother really Irish? Did those German ancestors come from Germany or was it really Poland? Studying your family tree may lead you to places that you had never before discovered.

Finding out more about your ancestors, these people who gave you your DNA, can also sometimes provide you with a better understanding or why you are who you are. Do you come from a long line of musicians? Do you have a pattern of strong women in your tree? Do your religious convictions have deep roots? Learning about those who came before you may give you insight into yourself.

Bragging Rights

Sometimes people do genealogical research in the hope of finding they are related to famous people or to be able to brag that they have a certain lineage. While it may end up being embarrassing if you find you are distantly related to some infamous character or to a president whose ideology you don’t share, it can be interesting to find that you share a distant grandparent with someone well known.

Knowing your lineage can sometimes lead you to memberships in organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), The General Society of Mayflower Descendants or even something more obscure like the Russian Nobility Association in America. Many of these organizations provide social and services opportunities.

Solving Puzzles

For those who like solving puzzles, genealogy can become addicting. There is detective-like work required to fill in names on the family tree correctly. It is very satisfying to unravel a mystery or discover another branch to add to the tree. There is an indescribable thrill that comes from finally finding the answer to a problem that has plagued you for decades. Finding that the family stories passed down through the generations actually match facts, or at least lead you to the facts, can be exciting.


One of the biggest benefits of building your family tree can be finding connections to the past and the present.

Historical Connection

You can find connections between yourself and historical events. It makes things more interesting, for example, when the civil war is discussed, to know that your ancestors were actually there. You may not care much about the American Revolution and think of it as abstract and far away, but if you learn that your ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, it can become a lot more real and fascinating.

A heightened sense of belonging can come from knowing that your people helped settle a community, worked in an important industry, served in the military, or even drove a certain car. The study of big historical events becomes more personal, but genealogy can also put into context more basic historical things like understanding that when Great-Great-Grandpa was little they didn’t have cars, when Great-Grandpa was a young man he spent $125 to buy a second hand 1917 Ford Runabout, when Grandpa was little they didn’t have TV, or even when your parents were young they didn’t have cell phones.

Modern Connection

This hobby can connect and reconnect you with family. Genealogy isn’t always about going back in time. A lot of effort can be put into filling in the branches as current generations marry, have children and move around the world. Long lost cousins can be reconnected via this hobby and being the family historian, you might be the one to actually know ‘who is who’ at a family reunion.

They Were People

It can be comforting to understand that our ancestors faced some of the same problems that we do today, and they survived. Even centuries ago, people were falling in love and raising families and suffering loss. They celebrated and feasted and mourned. Learning about their traditions and rituals can be enlightening or make us shake our heads. If you are lucky enough to find old family recipes, you can literally taste what your ancestors ate. Though, I personally am inclined to want to find old dessert recipes more than that recipe for homemade pickled herring, it is still fun to see what they ate and how much work was put into preparing their food.


Finally, for me, and for a lot of other researchers, one of the main hopes is that the work we are doing can be passed on to future generations. We dream that 200 years from now, a fifth great-grandchild will find our names in the tree and take a few moments to remember us and to think about how our lives were way back in 2016.


Are you interested in knowing more about your family but don’t know where to start?  Have you started climbing your family tree but need help? Do you need assistance figuring out how to share what you you’ve learned about your genealogy? Family Past Expert is here to help!



Burm, Caitlin. “25 Reasons to Learn About Your Family History.” aPlaceforMom. 13 May 2014. Web. 16 February 2016.

Christensen, Emily. “4 reasons you should study your family history.” FamilyShare. Web. 16 February 2016.

Farnham, Alan. “Who’s Your Daddy? Genealogy Becomes $1.6b Hobby.” ABC News. 24 October 2014. Web. 16 February 2016.

“Genealogy is the Second Most Popular Hobby in the U.S.” Web. 16 February 2016.

“Genealogy: Why family research?” MyHeritage. November 2011. Web. 16 February  2016.

“List of hereditary and lineage organizations.” Wikipedia. 16 February 2016. Web. 16 February 2016.

Nigro, Carmen. “20 Reasons Why You Should Write Your Family History.” New York Public Library. 9 February 2015. Web. 16 February 2016.

Rodriquez, Gregory. “How Genealogy Became Almost as Popular as Porn.” Time. 30 May 2014. Web. 16 February 2016.

Rodriguez, Gregory. “Roots of genealogy craze: Column, How an elitist pursuit became a mainstream American obsession.” USA Today. 12 May 2014. Web. 16 February 2016.

“Second Largest Hobby in America; Millions of Americans Do It Every Day.” 10 October 2002. Web. 16 February 2016.

“Why Genealogy Is Important.” GiT Magazine. Web. 16 February 2016.

The importance of mentors

In observance of Thank Your Mentor Day, I am writing about the importance of having a mentor and being a mentor in our world of genealogy. This day is meant to honor those individuals who encouraged and guided us, and had a lasting, positive impact on our lives. I was fortunate to have a faithful mentor when I was young and just getting serious about researching my family tree. She didn’t call herself a mentor, but Lee Henderson became one to me.

I met Lee Ellen Estes Henderson through a query I made to a family newsletter called the Estes Trails. I was just starting to try to unravel the mysteries of my Estes family tree and this fifth cousin one times removed of mine answered my query. She would certainly not have had to take the time to respond. We are only very distantly related; she and my mom shared fifth great-grandparents.

Lee Ellen Estes Henderson (1917-2008)

Lee Ellen Estes Henderson (1917-2008)

What started with an initial answer to one of my questions, turned into a series of letters over the next sixteen years. Lee did not have a computer. She shared scores of information that she had collected, but everything she sent was hand written. I cannot even imagine how many hours she donated to me as she copied wills and documents and other information from her files by hand. Her letters were often 50-60 pages long. Talk about doing good deeds!

Those letters provided more than information regarding our shared family. They also contained advise, encouragement, and words of wisdom. She shared mishaps that she had made as a beginning genealogist and cautioned me to avoid pitfalls. She trained me to be vigilant in record keeping and skeptical of information that seemed too good to be true. I learned much from Lee regarding good basic genealogy skills, but I also learned the value of sharing and being positive.

I hope that she realized how appreciative I was of her assistance. I always sent sincere thanks, but I doubt she realized just how influential she was in inspiring me to keep chasing my family tree. I try to use her as a model when a family member comes looking to me for family information. I’ve yet to find a mentee who wants to delve into family history as much as I did and I don’t think I could handle hand-writing 50-60 page letters, but I share what I can when someone expresses an interest.

The world today moves faster than when Lee and I first started communicating. People come and go more quickly in the electronic world. There is something much more intimate about a hand written letter as compared to an email or text message. But even so, I would encourage experienced family historians to mentor those who may come to them for help. And, I would encourage every beginning genealogist to reach out to someone who is more experienced and work to establish an ongoing relationship. Ask for and take advice, be humble and appreciative for the nuggets of wisdom that are shared. Consider a mentor a gift!

Ready, set, go! (FamilyPast.Expert is open for business)

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If you have any questions, please use the contact (“reply”) forms that are available throughout this web site.

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Coming soon…professional genealogical services.

With a “soft opening” in 2015, FamilyPast.Expert will be fully open for business in January 2016.  A vast array of genealogical services will be offered to assist you in finding out more about your family’s past and to make that family history information come alive for you in a variety of interesting presentation formats.