Researching your family is an absorbing and rewarding hobby. If you start on the right track, you will soon find yourself on a fantastic voyage of discovery: and that’s not just the people you’ll uncover, but also the places, jobs and relationships that all add up to a rich heritage. But if you’ve only just decided to start researching, where do you begin?
The first step is you. Think of your family tree as a collection of individuals, one of whom is you. Your aim is to discover as many easily identified life events for as many people that link to you as possible. These include birth, marriage, education, military service, employment and death. These are the kinds of things that are likely to have been recorded. Begin your tree by writing down all your own information, and then begin to expand with information about your parents.
You may know a lot of this off the top of your head, but it will always help to talk to living relatives if you can. They can confirm dates and records and will soon start adding more information about more distant family members.
With any records you find, whether certificates or facts that your family remembers, try and be as organised as possible.
- Write every person’s name in full, including middle names and titles.
- Spelling is really important! Family and place names can be spelt in lots of different ways – make a note of variations when you find them.
- Always write a female’s name using her birth name, and not her married name. If you only know her married name, then write this in brackets, i.e. Mary (Jones). This will act as a visual clue that you need to research further into her identity.
- Make a note of any nicknames relatives have, and write the names in quote marks. Some people may have been known by a middle name, or a parent’s name, for instance, which could be a fantastic clue for going back even further.
- Write down as many details as possible about the event. For example, if you’re listing a graduation, note down the level (BA, MSc, PhD, etc) and the subject, if you have those details.
- Use standard abbreviations so that future generations will understand your work (ie, b for birth and bap for baptism), and be consistent. You could even make your own glossary of abbreviations you are using.
- Record as much as you know about the location of the event. For example, a birth may have been in a hospital. In this instance, name the hospital, the town or city, the county, and even the country if necessary.
- It is important to remember that place names, like family names, might have changed or been misspelt over a period of time – record all the versions that you find.
- Write all dates as day/month/year – with all four digits for the year.
Make note of the sources you’ve used when writing down your family tree. For instance, a birth date entered from the birth certificate will usually be more reliable than one as taken down during a conversation with a relative. If you keep a note of where you got the information it can help you when you revisit your research. If you have a rock solid birth record you can move on, if you have spoken evidence you might want to pursue the certificate itself based on the information your relative gave you.
Writing your research
- Keeping your evidence and research online at Ancestry.co.uk is the easiest way to keep everything together. But you may wish to keep hard copies of your research as well. Index cards are a great way to record information on individuals, and gives you space to record as much information as you need.
- A hard copy of a family tree is also useful. You can create a tree online at Ancestry.ca to which you can add records and photos, and you can print it out from the site. Showing your rough family tree to your relatives when you discuss your research with them may even jog their memories, enabling you to find out a little more information than you started off with.
- A research log can be really useful. It’s time-consuming but incredibly valuable and will save time in the long run. If you work in this way, keep a log for each person you are researching. This should note what you were looking for, where you have looked and what you have found. Either pick up one from a library or online, or just create your own.