My 6 Tips To Help You Start Researching Your Family History

My Family History Documented

Researching Your Family History

The satisfaction of learning about our ancestors gives a perspective of the modern world that we are not unique in our daily challenges. Discovering names and dates of ancestors, putting names to old photographs or surfacing that special story is a satisfying accomplishment especially when you have to dig deep to get it. We can be inspired and encouraged by the determination we learn in the lives of those who has gone before us. Life stories can be fascinating, like learning about a great uncles heroics in war, they can be sad, the little boy or girl who died in avoidable circumstances and they can be shocking, like discovering the family “skeleton in the closet”? One thing is for sure it is always an interesting and sometimes an emotional journey for us the “armchair detective”. It would be remiss of me not to mention my uncle Malcolm and his wife Carole for starting me on my journey with the remarkable years of research they shared.

Sharing your family history and stories with your children is the most rewarding aspect of genealogy. I often wonder what my ancestors would make of someone investigating their lives 100 or 150 years after they passed. Whatever your reason is to begin this journey I hope you find the 6 steps below helpful.

Step 1: Record What You Know

Always, start with yourself and work backwards – buy a good note book and record everything you know as well as the things you think you know. Get that old biscuit tin down from your parent’s attic, yes the one stuffed with old photographs and documents and organize them. It is a good idea to start thinking about how you might digitize them for convenience (scanning etc).

  • Tip 1: You don’t need a dedicated scanner do digitize everything; you can take photographs of photos and documents with your camera (always do this during the day in natural light).
  • Tip 2: Keep an open mind as sometimes what you think you know may not always be correct.

Step 2: Talk to Living Relatives

OK, you are a bit older, you have your first grey hair and you are thinking “Why was I not interested in this stuff when I was younger when granny was alive?” Do not under-estimate the value of asking your relatives for information. Living relatives are a free resource who can provide a host of knowledge about your ancestors.

  • Tip 1: When interviewing relatives do not dive in with one question after another. Instead, ease into the conversation and let them “oil their brain” and share recollections of their youth etc.
  • Tip 2: Bring the old photos you found in the attic with you; it’s always a good conversation starter.
  • Tip 3: Organise your notes as they will come in handy when you interview the next relative.
  • Tip 4: Ask for any for copies of birth, marriage and death certificates and even old photographs.
  • Tip 5: Ask about where people lived as Parishes can be important information to narrow down an on-line person search.

Step 3: Know the gaps in your information

What are the questions you need answers to? Once you have gathered and organised your information, decide which branch of the family you’re going to start with then identify and list those information gaps.

Step 4: Online Research

It’s now time to switch on the computer but trust me, if you have not completed steps 1-3 you will certainly be frustrated by step 4. There are literally thousands of Genealogy websites out there . There are some really good free ones and others just want your money and the information you have to date. I recommend sticking with the free ones for your initial research and see how far you get. Start off with Cindi’s List

Cindi’s List is a website that has a categorised index of all genealogical resources on the Internet. It is free for everyone to use and designed to be your starting point when researching on-line. It allows you, the researcher to become familiar with the on-line Genealogy resources.

When you are ready to search for people I recommend starting with the free The primary benefactor for this website is the Church of the Latter Day Saints an organisation committed to helping people connect with their ancestors. This is rooted in their beliefs.

If you are Irish (like me) a great resource is the 1901 and 1911 census site – It’s by far the best place to get started: it’s free, intuitive and has images of all the original census forms.

  • Tip 1: As far as on-line research is concerned, the “rule of thumb” is that you start from what you know and use this to find out more.
  • Tip 2: Do not put any importance on the precise spelling of surnames you are searching for. While spelling matters today before the 20th century you will soon discover variations in different records types as illiteracy was widespread.
  • Tip 3: When saving information from these computer sources give your files a good naming convention. I use YYYY-MM-DD-[description] e.g. 1872-12-30-Robert Smith-Birth. This will allow you to sort your computer files chronologically irrespective of the file type.

Step 5: Digitise Your Research

As your research grows, you could end up with information on hundreds of family members. You may wish to consider recording this information on genealogy software. There are a lot of different software packages (Family Tree makers) available that will enable you to achieve this objective and selecting the right one can be daunting. One attribute to insist on however is that the software supports GEDCOM. This feature will allow you to easily move your family tree to another genealogy software program and even host it online for collaboration. I have been using Gramps for years. Its free, feature rich, intuitive and open-source . Gramps is an acronym for Genealogical Research and Analysis Management Programming System


Step 6: Don’t Keep it to Yourself (Publish it)

By now you have spent a long time researching your ancestry overcoming all sorts of brick walls, spending days looking through Parish records and microfilm etc. You have invested a lot of time and when you look back you wouldn’t do it any differently and even enjoyed the experience. All your research is in a folder on your computer and you have bulging lever arch files gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, so what next?

From my perspective I was was proud of what I had achieved and wanted to showcase it and I also wanted the information to be available to other researchers who may be connected to my family. So I shared my information online.

Publishing information online allows other researchers to contact me and start a dialog. Some think they are connected to my family, some just find the stories interesting. There is also the satisfaction that all the research I completed was not in vain and the fact I can add to it if I uncover more information.

You might think about creating your own website. It is all about what do you want to get out of it? Maybe some kind of self publication is more your style (photo books are cheap very accessible these days). Another alternative is to post your family tree to a hosted facilitator (this is where the afore mentioned GEDCOM capability comes in handy). You simply export the GEDCOM file from your genealogy software before importing it to the on-line service you choose. The more sites that you post your tree to the better chance you have of uncovering additional connections, a distant cousin maybe? Sites like Tribal Pages and My Heritage, are great places to start.

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