The first thing I tell people is to write down what they know about their family. I usually direct them to Family Tree Magazine's free forms, and tell them the first one they should use is the Five-Generation Ancestor Chart. I also explain that a Family Group Sheet will allow them to expand on the information about a particular couple, by giving them space to list all the children they had and more details than the Ancestor Chart.
The initial sites to which I direct them are FamilySearch.org, and Rootsweb for the family trees and message boards. I also remind them never to underestimate the power of Google for searching for ancestors. You never know what you might come up with when you put in a name and its variations, such as searching for "Last Name, First Name", or adding a town name or a date. It is also a good idea to specifically search Google Books, since many older genealogies and histories are available there, free of charge.
I always add the caveat that online family trees are best utilized as a guideline, and the information found in them should be independently verified through one's own research.
When it comes to pay sites, I hesitate to recommend them at first. I think FamilySearch, Rootsweb and Google have a lot to offer for free. Many records have been transcribed and shared on USGenWeb (via Rootsweb) sites. There are also sites such as the UKBMD, where you can find transcriptions of UK birth, marriage and death records after 1837, or Nova Scotia Vital Historical Statistics, which has civil registrations for 1864 to certain years (depending on missing records and certain limitations), and marriage bonds from 1763 to 1864. I've struck gold on this website time and again.
Many people spring for a subscription to Ancestry, but I urge amateur genealogists to stay in touch with more experienced researchers (probably someone who interested you in genealogy in the first place), and learn more about the free resources first. If you come back to me after you begin your initial search, and tell me you've hit a brick wall in Canada, for example, I will direct you to many other resources before suggesting Ancestry.ca.
Also, I urge those interested in genealogy to take the time to check out GeneaBloggers for starters, and learn about some of the very popular blogs out there. Some blogs focus on genealogy news, some on a particular area of research, some on technology and software, etc. There is a very diverse genealogy blogging community, where we can all learn something new and useful. A subscription to Family Tree Magazine is also very nice, if you prefer something you can carry with you and read anywhere you go. I follow several blogs and read the magazine, however it's probably not entirely necessary to do both. The magazine is a luxury I enjoy.
What are your favorite tips, sites and ideas for people starting out in genealogy research?
If you think it would make too lengthy a comment, why not blog about it and leave me a comment with a link to the post? :)
Copyright (c) 2012 Wendy L. Callahan