Getting started in family history

Researching family history has become one of the most popular hobbies, providing a strong sense of connection with your roots. The process requires logical thought and organisation, but can be a very rewarding experience.

These twelve tips will help to get you started in a positive way.

  1. Have a plan
  2. Work from the known to the unknown
  3. Use sources you already have
  4. Keep records and be organised
  5. Record your searches and document sources
  6. Learn about the area where your family lived
  7. Don't make assumptions!
  8. Use the Internet with caution
  9. Use all available sources
  10. Share your findings
  11. Join a family history society
  12. Write up your research


Have a plan

Start with an objective. Are you going to concentrate on one family only, perhaps the male line, or produce a detailed ancestry chart, showing all direct and collateral lines? Whichever aim you set yourself, it is best to start with one small section of the tree; you can always move to another part when you get stuck.

Work from the known to the unknown

Start with yourself and work backwards from known information, to your parents, then grandparents and so on. This will ensure that your research is supported by documented facts. Obtain birth, marriage and death certificates to open up lines of enquiry for previous generations. Working forward from a famous historical figure that ‘family legend’ suggests is an ancestor is rarely profitable, although it may prove to be literally true in the end.

Use sources you already have

Many families have old photographs, letters, family bibles, or documents that contain a treasure trove of valuable information. Talk to elderly relatives about their family memories, before they are gone for ever. Find out if other family members have done any research; it helps to avoid repeating work already done.

Keep records and be organised

As your research progresses, you will amass a lot of information. You will need to be organised so you can find what you need. Avoid writing notes on scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes (unless you immediately transfer them to your record keeping system). It is important to keep your system up to date, so you are not faced with a large pile of unfiled documents. Use standard tools such as pedigree charts and family group sheets to record your information. You might consider acquiring a specialised family history software package which will provide most of the tools you need.

Record your searches and document sources

You should keep a research log, listing all sources that you have consulted, the date of the search, names of ancestors investigated, and the time period covered by the records. How useful was the source; were new connections established? You may need to cite your sources or verify your research. Remember, others may need to follow the trail. Even if you found nothing, recording your search may save you from performing the same search in the future.

Learn about the area where your family lived

This adds the real interest to your hobby! Learning about the history, geography and industries of the area where your family lived helps to put the basic data about your family into a social context. Get a detailed map of the area, buy a local history book, or search the internet for information about the local area.

Don't make assumptions!

Don’t make assumptions about a relationship until you have proof. Make sure you can confirm your facts before you move back to the next generation; or you may find yourself researching someone else’s family tree! However, the concept of ‘negative proof’ exists; if you have searched all available sources without success, it may show that, because of lack of evidence to the contrary, a particular assumption could be correct.

Use the internet with caution

The internet has revolutionised family history. It has a massive amount of information, some free and some at a cost. But treat what you find with caution, just because it is on the internet doesn’t make it accurate. Data has been put there by people, and people make mistakes, which the web makes easier to perpetuate! Remember, not everything you want will be on the web. Be aware of scam sites; no website, despite its claims, will have your complete family history unless you put it there yourself.

Use all available sources

Perhaps the most valuable starting point for beginners is to acquire birth, marriage and death certificates, which puts dates to vital life events, and gives useful information for further research. But don’t neglect other sources. Every part of life is usually documented in some way, education, residence, employment, immigration, military service, trouble with the law. Information to add to your family story is available in a variety of places, newspapers, archives, museums, cemeteries. Make an effort to locate and use all the resources. Be aware of the difference between primary and secondary sources. In primary sources, data is contributed by someone directly involved in the event, and is preferable to less reliable secondary sources, where data comes from someone else.

Share your findings

One of the benefits of researching your family tree is that you can involve your family. Family history research in this technological age is not usually done in a vacuum. By sharing your research with your extended family and the wider genealogical community, you may discover cousins near and far, in both distance and relationship, who may also be working on the same ancestry. They may be able to provide information not available to your side of the family.

Join a family history society

Join a genealogical or family history society where you live and/or in an area where your research becomes concentrated. Membership gives you access to a specialised library with a wide range of resources, some of which are unique; resources impossible for an individual to afford. You will also have access to the accumulated experience of other researchers, who will be able to help you avoid the pitfalls, guide you to the records you need and put you in touch with others with similar interests.

Write up your research

Writing up your findings may be the culmination of your research. Aim to produce an account which tells the story of your family, rather than a dry list of genealogical facts. Such an account, either in book form or as a website, can be made available to your family, even those not interested in family history. Perhaps it will spark their interest! Make copies available to your family history society or library, so that others can benefit from your work. But don’t put off writing your story until your research is ‘finished’, or it will never happen!