Tracing your Ancestry

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By: Mary Bess Paluzzi, Associate Dean of Special Collections


Letter from Anna M O’Brien to Brother John (1929) about recent interest in ancestry

There is a resurgence of interest in family history because of Public Broadcasting Service’s “Finding Your Roots” and The Learning Channel’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” — not to mention the frequency of ads from and our current exhibition, Artifacts from Ancestry, which documents the family stories of Dr. Lauren Cardon’s English 103 students using materials found in our special collections. After the holidays, you may be interested in learning more about your own family genealogy. Our Associate Dean of Special Collections, Mary Bess Paluzzi, offers these simple steps to help you begin building your family history.

  • Begin by collecting facts in your home from Bibles, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, certificates, etc.
  • The National Archives is an excellent site for family history research suggestions and resources.
  • Starting with yourself, collect names, dates and places for birth, marriage and death for each individual in your family (parents, children, siblings, etc.).
  • Genealogy Search is a link to free family tree forms. The use of family tree forms not only helps organize the facts, but it is a quick view of missing facts that need further research.
  • Genealogy Software Review rates the top ten genealogical computer software packages available to help organize your information.
  • The first source to check outside your home is your oldest relative or the family member who collects newspaper clippings (births, wedding, military service and obits), the stories, family Bible, photographs, letters, etc., and knows where family members are buried.
  • Documents must be located to prove each fact that you collect. Alabama birth and death records were collected since 1908 and are available at county public health offices. Marriages are recorded in the county probate office where the license was issued.
  • A federal census was taken every 10 years since 1790. From 1850-1940, the information was arranged by state, by county and, finally, by individual household, including names of each person living in a house, their age and the state/country of their birth. Additional information was collected in later censuses.
  • Transcriptions of many public records (marriages, deeds, wills, etc.) are available in the state archives, public and university libraries and online.
  • The commercial site is but one of many paid subscription services that offer online access to public records. Many libraries offer free access to Ancestry.
  • Selective U.S. military records are available online through and

As Paluzzi notes, your search will last a lifetime, and, through it, you will extend your family relationships far beyond your wildest imagination. The search will provide hours of intense concentration, pleasant companionship and haunting frustrations. You will work intensely for weeks, months, years and put it aside to be picked up again in the future. Many hours of exciting studies await you.

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