Becoming a Family Historian: Starting Your Family History Project (How to Take Inventory and Create a Plan) - Small Legacies

Becoming a Family Historian: Starting Your Family History Project (How to Take Inventory and Create a Plan)

By: Eve Rhett 

If you are taking on the role of Family Historian for your generation, you probably have a lot of questions.  I know I did when I first started down this road two years ago.  Where do I start?  What does this even entail?  How big a time commitment will this require?  How do I organize this massive amount of information?

How I began my journey as the family historian.

Two years ago, my Grandma asked me if I would be interested in inheriting all of the family history research that her mother, my Great-Grandmother, had done throughout her lifetime.  I was 14 years old when my Great-Grandma passed away so I remember her well and I also remember how big a part of her life this project was.  

Even knowing how much time and effort she had spent on the Family History Project, I was still overwhelmed when I first got a close-up look at the vast amount of paper she had collected and curated over her lifetime.  I mean it was boxes upon boxes upon some more boxes!  Most of the boxes were full of hand-written notebooks she kept and letters she had written to and received from distant relatives over the years of her research.  

Overwhelmed is not really a strong enough word to describe the feeling I got when I realized what I had actually agreed to take on! 

Since that time, I’ve felt astounded in lots of ways by the enormity of the responsibility of being the newest generation of Family Historian.  Often I find myself needing to take a step back, take several deep breaths or even take a break for a few weeks to put things back into perspective.

Tips for Getting Started with Family History Documentation

How to Start Documenting Your Family Tree

If you’re just starting out as a Family Historian, it can be hard to know where to start.  My new motto is “Progress is better than Perfection!”  Below is some guidance for those just starting out on this journey.  These steps will help battle the overwhelming feelings by breaking things down into small, actionable steps that you can take to move forward. 

With that in mind, here is how to start your undertaking as this generation’s family historian!


The Importance of Motivation in Family History: Finding Your Place in the Project

Before you do anything else, decide how actively involved you want to be in the Family History project.  From simply storing the boxes in a closet and never looking at them again to hiring professionals and traveling to help you dig deeper there is a huge range of possibilities for what this new role can mean to you.  


Think about the time and resources available to you.

Gauge your own interest-level in the subject matter and evaluate what is feasible given your current circumstances.  As a “DINK” (Dual-Income, No Kids), I have a lot more time and resources available to me right now than someone like my sister who has a full-time job and 3 kids (all under age 5).  

I decided to take on the role of “This Generation’s Family Historian” for a number of reasons.  I love history and find family history really interesting. I like doing research on new topics and I have time available to devote to it. 

Think about where you are at in your life right now and plan accordingly. 

If you know you don’t have the time to devote to expanding on the family tree research or digitizing thousands of paper documents, just take it, protect it, and pass it on to the next generation when the time is right.  Simply keeping those items and the information they contain safe for the next custodian is a huge service to your family’s legacy and future descendants.  


Take Inventory: How to Assess and Organize Your Family History Materials

What is it that you actually have?  Is it all digital information?  Is it a few boxes of old photos?  Or, as in my case, is it boxes and boxes of all kinds of different things?  Figuring out what exactly you have to work with will be critical to figuring out your next steps.  

Before you jump into anything, figure out what you have, how much of it is there and what type of content/materials you are dealing with.  

Luckily, once I started digging into my great-grandma’s mountain of boxes, I was relieved to find out how extremely organized everything was.  Actually mind-bogglingly so.  Everything was generally organized by branch of the family.  This included my great-grandmother’s hand-written notebooks full of genealogical data (birthdates, relationship, dates of death, etc.).  It also included plenty of old photographs and correspondence.  Other boxes, included old cookbooks and hand written recipes from various ancestors.  Other boxes included diaries and Bibles and old school books.  It was actually pretty fun just taking a cursory look at everything to see what was there and it gave me a really good sense of direction in terms of what to do next.

Taking this initial inventory also helped in another way: it showed me what I did not have.  In looking through everything and talking with family members, I discovered that there was a pretty good collection of audio and video that also belonged in the “Family History” inventory but that I didn’t currently have.  Taking the initial inventory helped me figure that out and prompted me to gather those materials as well to enhance the collection.  


    Diving in: First steps in organizing your family history.

    Take a good look around, dig through the family history items you have and get a good grasp of what items you have and what you don’t have.  Think about your time and resources as well as your level of interest and motivation.  Knowing all of that will point you in the right direction for your next steps in becoming a Family Historian!



    Eve began her journey as a Family Historian following the Covid-19 pandemic.  Glad to be back with loved ones, she spent dedicated time documenting the memories of her grandparents and aunts. 


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