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Genealogy can be considered a form of collecting - the collecting of ancestors and relatives.

Genealogists search written records, collect oral histories and preserve family stories to discover ancestors and living relatives. Genealogists attempt to understand not just where and when people lived but also how and why they made the life they lived.

The search for ancestors involves searching original records and published sources to establish relationships and family connections. This often requires knowledge of antique law, old political boundaries, immigration trends, and historical social conditions.

Even an unsuccessful search for ancestors leads to a better understanding of history. The search for living relatives often leads to family reunions, both of distant cousins and of disrupted families. Genealogists sometimes help reunite families separated by immigration, foster homes and adoption... The genealogist can help keep family traditions alive.

In most cultures, the name of a person includes in one way or another the family to which he or she belongs. In English this is usually called last name, but given that not in all cultures it is the last name, a more general form is family name or surname.