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6 Genealogy Projects You Can Do From Your Couch

By Andrew Koch
Take advantage of these five indoor genealogy projects as you bundle up for the winter.

If you’re stuck inside for health reasons or because of the weather, you’ll find yourself with more hours to kill indoors. But this time on the couch or in your comfy armchair don’t need to be lost! Many genealogy resources are now online, bringing billions of digitized records to your tablet or smartphone.

But research is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Make the most of your shut-in time with these six easy genealogy projects that will keep you cozy, further your research goals and complement your favorite warm beverage.

1. Write down your memories.

Remember that one ancestor who left nothing behind and is a total mystery to you? Congrats: You’re that ancestor for one of your descendants. Give that future genealogist the firsthand account you wish you had by writing down your own personal history.

Keep a running narrative that includes important facts about your life. Sunny Jane Morton’s Story of My Life (Family Tree Books) is a workbook that contains hundreds of great writing prompts that will get you started.

Your life story doesn’t have to be fancy or lengthy. For example, at a thrift store this summer, my wife and I picked up an old Bible that includes forms for various genealogical data: a ready-made family Bible.

In addition, make copies of genealogically important documents, and keep them in a secure location (preferably with the research documents you’ve collected for other members of your family). You likely have some of them handy, such as:

  • birth certificates and baptism/christening records for you, your spouse and children
  • confirmation or bar/bat mitzvah records
  • marriage certificate(s)
  • Social Security card
  • family photos

Details that seem boring to you might enthrall later generations, particularly your memories of historic events. You could even keep a diary or journal that documents your experiences.

More seasoned writers might consider partaking in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This intensive project encourages writers to create a full novel-length manuscript in a month. (November is the officially NaNoWriMo, but you can participate anytime throughout the year.)

While you might not want to commit to such a large word count, consider setting some time aside for writing about your family history. We’ve put together a list of the best writing resources and strategies, plus great suggestions on how to publish a book when you’re finished.

Don’t forget to document photos and heirlooms—both that you’ve inherited and that you’ve created. Put together a spreadsheet of your family’s treasures: where they came from, where they’re stored and who they involve. Be sure to provide captions for photos that indicate who is in each, and when and where the photos were taken.

2. Interview relatives.

As you gather notes for your family memoir, consider adding other relatives’ voices to the project. Interviewing your family members will help broaden your story and fill in any gaps. Plus, it will give you an excuse to spend time with loved ones who you might not have seen otherwise.

We’ve got a list of 20 genealogy interview questions to get you started. Some of the most important include:

  • How did you meet your spouse?
  • Who’s the oldest relative you remember (and what do you remember about them)?
  • How did your parents meet?

Make sure you start with your oldest relatives first, as theirs will be the first stories to be lost to time. Remember to ask, not just about their vital details, but also about their everyday lives.

Also inquire about your relatives’ “flashbulb memories”: recollections of learning about shocking or surprising information, such as important moments in history (President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the September 11th attacks, etc.). For example, does your relative remember the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Where were they when they heard the news, and what did they think?

3. Back up your data.

Eventually, the technology you rely upon for your genealogy will fail. Hard drives become corrupt, and you never know when a disaster like a fire or flood will strike.

Knowing this, make sure you periodically create multiple copies of your important genealogy files and family photos. According to Denise May Levenick, experts recommend the “Backup 3-2-1” model:

  • Three distinct digital copies of important files
  • Two different storage media (e.g., on your desktop and on an external hard drive or cloud service)
  • One copy stored offsite (e.g., at home on your personal computer and on a server hosted somewhere else, such as through a cloud service)

Backing up your data doesn’t have to be difficult or taxing. You can set many programs to automatically back up your data every so often. Dick Eastman reminds the readers of his blog to back up their data on the first of every month. You can do the same—or set another day.

4. Craft with your kids and grandkids.

You’ve probably got more relatives in your home around this time of year—especially during the holidays. Sure, you could retreat to separate corners of the house to watch Netflix. Or, instead, you could find activities that bring you closer together and celebrate your heritage. Genealogy doesn’t have to be just about preserving memories. Instead, you can use research time to celebrate old memories and create new ones.

When we asked our Facebook followers how they got started with genealogy, several said grandparents, aunts or uncles got them hooked. You can now be that ancestor who passed along the “genealogy bug.”

If you suspect the kids in your life won’t be interested in a “genealogy” activity, get sneaky. Instead of saying you’re doing “research” (a buzzkill word for kids on a break from school), tell them the craft is just helping you organize something, or making a gift for another family member. We’ve got great suggestions for kid-friendly genealogy projects that are fun for the whole family, most of which are perfect for cold or rainy days.

While not necessarily a couch-friendly activity, decorating the house for the holidays can also be an excuse to celebrate and share family history. Do you set up a treasured family wreath or nativity set? Or maybe you use beloved heirloom Christmas ornaments or china?

5. Create photo gifts.

Put those family photos to good use! Companies like Walgreens, Target and Vistaprint allow you to create custom photo gifts that your friends and relatives will love. Using these services, you can easily make mugs, calendars, magnets, posters, photo books and more.

Last year, I made a photo calendar as a Christmas gift for my mom. Each month had a different collection of cherished family pictures that I hoped would brighten her day. It’s a great memento of the times my family has shared—plus a reminder of the good times to come! It also saves me time (and money) later in the holiday season.

Tired of photos? Consider making gifts out of your family tree for your genealogist relatives. Generate an image of your family tree using your genealogy software program or one of the online tree services, then upload it to one of the previously mentioned companies or dedicated family tree printing services. You can also commission family-tree gifts from the crafters on Etsy.

6. Read a genealogy book.

Looking for something a little more solitary? Escape into the pages of a genealogy-related book. You can curl up with one of several genres:

  • genealogy how-to books, such as the Unofficial Guide to Ancestry.com by Nancy Hendrickson (Family Tree Books), The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy (Family Tree Books) or Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide by Diana Elder with Nicole Dyer (Family Locket Books)
  • published histories of a region your ancestor lived in, such as (part of my to-read list) the tome Europe: A History by Norman Davies (Harper Perennial)
  • biographies of famous people from authors like David McCullough or Ron Chernow
  • diaries, stories or letters from your family’s collection
  • published histories of a town, county or organization from the FamilySearch Digital Library or Google Books
  • historical fiction, from WWII-era novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner) to the classic Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (HarperCollins)

You can even read genealogical mysteries. English author Nathan Dylan Goodwin has published a series of novels following Morton Farrier, a detective who uses genealogy research to solve crimes. We interviewed Goodwin at RootsTech 2019 in Salt Lake City.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2019 issue of Family Tree Magazine.