Thanks to television shows such as NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" and PBS' "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.," more Americans than ever are on the hunt to discover their roots. With sites such as Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com, amateur genealogists have never had an easier time hunting down details on their ancestors and unearthing hidden family secrets. But what about the future generations?
While chronicling your family's history, keep impeccable notes, verify everything and take some time to record your own life story. Your children's children will thank you.
*Hunting for the Past
In the Internet age, even on reputable sites, it pays to be a bit skeptical.
Scrutinize the information, even info on popular sites. Don't blindly accept the information you find online as fact. Check the source of the information, which may be detailed in footnotes or appendices elsewhere on the site.
"Because people copy information so freely over the Internet, a mistake in one family tree can quickly propagate through hundreds of other trees," says Janice M. Sellers, professional genealogist and founder of the blog "Ancestral Discoveries."
"What may look like a fact, because it is in so many places, could have started with one person's error," Sellers says.
Create a file to keep track of your search. Make a list of websites you've visited, even if you didn't find anything there. You'll thank yourself later, as you'll have a go-to list to check again and again. Recording each stop on the Internet -- with notes on the information you found -- will make it easier to verify the details you uncover. Even if you have doubt, hold on to the information.
"Whoever posted that information may have privately-held family information that isn't available anywhere else," explains Corey Oiesen, communications officer for the Association of Professional Genealogists. "Keep that clue and try to prove or disprove it."
*Preserving for the Future
While scouring the Internet for details on your forefathers, take some time to create an archive of your own life. In addition to the usual items like birth records, grade cards, diplomas and marriage certificates, a personal archive should include plenty of personal effects that detail your life -- and feel free to get creative.
At the top of the list should be rare items and information not available elsewhere, such as personal journals, artwork, treasured mementos and, of course, plenty of photos.
"Save as many photographs as possible, and try to identify as much as you can in each photo -- people, locations, dates, events -- and keep that information with the photo," Sellers says.
"It is far easier to find facts about ancestors in documents such as the census, naturalization files, court documents, etc., than to find photographs -- and if a photograph is not identified, all too quickly anyone who recognizes the individuals will have passed away."
Consider the items you find most fascinating. Are you intrigued by old portraits, travel souvenirs and official documents? Or are handwritten letters and personal journals more your style? Chances are what you find interesting now, future generations will also appreciate.
"Think about preserving the items that cannot be obtained elsewhere," Oiesen says. "Photographs, scrapbooks and personal letters can answer questions that other records cannot. Antiques and jewelry can also give clues about your ancestors' lives, even their country of origin."
Include handwritten letters from family and friends, printed emails you've sent discussing important events, greeting cards from notable occasions -- even children's artwork -- and don't overlook the mundane. A copy of your hometown newspaper, a few grocery receipts or a family calendar may seem mundane, but these everyday items provide valuable glimpses into daily life in the 21st century.
Each item in your archive should include the date, your full name and birthday, and the full names of those mentioned with their relation to you so future generations don't have to guess at the origin.