All services are free and open to anyone at any stage of their research process—not just scholars or genealogy experts.
The staff offers this advice for anyone starting their research:
Start with what you know. Pick the branch of your family you know the most about, because you’ll be more likely to find records and go back farther in time to see how records connect. You may be inclined to start with the gaps in family history, but that can make the process more difficult and frustrating. Talk to your family before you get started to gather as much information as you can before diving in.
Be flexible with spellings, dates and locations. Don’t count out records that might have a family name with a letter off or a year that doesn’t match with the family memory. Data may have been recorded incorrectly, or details may have shifted when told over multiple generations.
Learn about communities, not just individuals. You can understand quite a bit from researching the context of the period and area where your family lived—whether through church documents or local news bulletins—to offer clues and paint a bigger picture.
Try to get as much information from as many sources as possible. In addition to family-history databases online, you can do research in newspapers, court records, and the Freedmen’s Bureau records, which contain details about hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved people as they transitioned to freedom and citizenship after the Civil War. (Volunteers with the Smithsonian Transcription Center are currently working to make these records more accessible and searchable online.)
Consider print as well as digital. The internet is a powerful tool, but it’s wise to keep paper copies in addition to computer files. Formats might change in the future, and it can be helpful for sharing research across different age groups and technology comfort levels.
Explore free options for research. Ask your public library what resources are available—many now have options you can access from home.
Don’t get discouraged. “Come with a very open mind as to what you might see,” said Lisa Crawley, genealogy reference assistant for the center.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the center has moved to virtual appointments. It also does outreach with organizations and community groups and hosts monthly public programs online. You don’t have to be in Washington, D.C., to participate, and the staff has seen an increase in attendance from across the country.
To schedule a virtual research session or find out about upcoming online programs, email firstname.lastname@example.org.