You don't need to be a professional researcher to find out about your family history... in most cases all it takes is a little patience. Here are a few tips to get you started and to make the most of your efforts.
-Consider alternate spellings of names. "Wolinski" might show up as "Wolinsky" or even "Volinski" because of lazy census takers, etc. It was also common for people to change their names or use slightly alternate spellings once arriving to America.
-Use alternate address spellings during research. "102 E. 12th," "102 East twelfth," "102 East 12" and so on.
-Record everything, follow all leads. For example: Is the witness on your grandfather's WWII draft card someone who is unfamiliar? Research them too; they were obviously close with your ancestor so maybe you can find some clues. You may even be able to track down a decedent who has old pictures/stories.
Collect as much data as possible before starting. A suggested way to do this is to create a separate profile for each family member to be researched, and ask family and friends fill out as much info as they can:
Name: John Doe
Date of arrival:
Date of naturalization:
Known home addresses:
Known business/work addresses:
You will be surprised at what you can find these days from the comfort of your home. Here are a few sources to start with.
Ancestry.com - This is a good place to start. You can get a free trial membership and have access to several documents including birth certificates, naturalization and draft records, census records, etc -- all of which you can download for your records. You can also leave a message on the forums asking for information.
Google Advance News Search - Take advantage of Google's search tools, which allow you to narrow by date and more. Remember to use alternate spellings for names and addresses. Don't just search for "full preview only," you can pick up clues from snippet views.
Google Books - This includes old magazines and directories. Remember to use alternate spellings for names and addresses. Don't just search for "full preview only," you can pick up clues from snippet views.
NewspaperArchive.com - This site contains much of Google's news archives and more from around the world. Note: a free membership limits you to five search results per day.
Vlex.com - Has your ancestor ever been involved in a law suit or crime? You can get a free membership here and search thousands of court cases.
NYPL Digital Archives - This site may have old pictures of your family member's building or block.
Library of Congress - This site may have images and documents pertaining to your ancestor or their business.
Ellis Island database - If your ancestor arrived to New York City between 1892 ans 1924, there is a good chance they will be listed here.
ItalianGen.org - Despite the name, this database is not exclusive to people of Italian ancestry.
If you have exhausted your online resources or you still need more information, you may have to go directly to the source. If you can't make it in person, you can always hire a researcher to assist you. This is geared towards New York City, but applicable to any city, town or borough.
Municipal Archives - Prepare to spend some time searching through microfilm, but this building contains a treasure trove of city documents dating back to the 17th century. 31 Chambers Street, Room 103. Open Monday through Thursday 9 AM to 4:30 PM, Friday 9 AM to 1 PM. Call 311 for more info.
NYPL, main branch - Search thousands of old newspapers, phone books and directories, visit the genealogy and map room. Open various hours. Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, (917) 275-6975.
Schools, Churches, Synagogues - Do you happen to know what school your ancestor attended, or where they were baptised? Try contacting the institution directly. You can often recover school grades, marriage licences, and other interesting tidbits.
The "Old Country" - If you have an idea of where your ancestors came from, you may be able to contact a local institution for more information. Most likely, you will need a translator :)
Door to door - If you are researching a few generations back this might be a long shot, but you never know... There might be an old butcher on the block who remembers your family or their neighbors, or provide other clues.