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Museum Musings

11.16.17: Researching Your Roots

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Family history blog photo

Discovering your family’s history can be a complicated process, but even if you think you already know a great deal about where you came from, delving into your family’s stories can be incredibly rewarding. NMAJH’s new digital story-collecting platform, Re:collection, provides an immersive (and fun!) way to organize your research and share it with family, friends, and the future.

In all the time I’ve spent searching for records online, putting obscure names and phrases into Google search bars, and visiting libraries and archives, the most worthwhile part of my research has been interviewing my relatives. After interviewing my relatives, I learned a lot about my great-great-grandparents, Aaron David and Rebecca Simonoff (pictured above!), who immigrated to New York from Russia.

While archival research can tell you the facts like the address where your family members lived or when they were born, interviewing helps you get to that elusive next step of finding out what life was like for these people—what they ate, what they did for fun, what they remember about their childhood. Taking the time to sit down with relatives or friends and ask them to share their memories is incredibly worthwhile, both for the experience itself and for the homemade archive you and future generations will long cherish.

As an intern here at NMAJH, I love listening to the stories that visitors record in the “It’s Your Story” booths on the second floor. The video recording booths provide an opportunity to pass along a family tradition, share a funny story, memorialize a name.

So you want to find out more about your family history. Where to begin? Here are some tips I have picked up from my experience digging in to genealogy research over the last few years.

→ Determine what you know. A good place to start is to sketch out what you know of your family tree and list the critical facts (birth/death years, places lived, immediate family members) for each person. This will help you determine what exactly you want to find out and provide a framework for your research.

→ Know when to be specific.
When you’re conducting an interview, it’s a good idea to be prepared with specific questions to prompt discussion, avoiding yes or no questions. Try not to interrupt if the interviewee is in the middle of a good story, even if he/she is not really answering your question.

→ Record the interview.
Recording (with the interviewee’s permission) allows you to focus on the conversation without frantically taking notes. You’re also able to go back and check on the exact spelling or names of places or things referenced by the interviewee without having to interrupt them to clarify during the interview.

→ Know how to deal with inconsistencies in your research.
Your grandfather may insist in an interview that his father was born in a certain year, but you go to the city archives and find out that his birth certificate says otherwise. These kinds of conundrums are part of what makes family history research interesting and exciting. Don’t assume that any one source is always correct—just as a relative may not remember something correctly, the census taker may just as easily have skipped a line or have illegible handwriting.

Share your research. Your family members will be interested in what you’ve found. Make your discoveries accessible and concise. That’s where Re:collection comes in! Share your stories by logging in at and exploring the many offerings of the digital platform.

-Contributed by Jackie Bein, NMAJH Curatorial Intern

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