Getting Started with Genealogy Research

Start with Yourself

This may sound batty, but the thing to do first is to start with yourself. Pretend that another genealogist is researching and needs information on you. Do a mini-autobiography or timeline and record as many key details about your own life as you can remember. Many books on studying your own family history have sample interview questions to help one interview one's older relatives. So, pretend some younger relative is interviewing you, and write down the answers you would give to those questions.

Ordering certificates can get quite expensive, I know, but even on a limited budget, if you don't already have copies, one can justify buying one's own Birth Certificate and Marriage Certificate. There are plenty of current-day reasons one should have them, so it is hardly an indulgence, and I encourage you to get them.

Then Your Ancestors

From there work backwards. If you can't get Birth, Marriage & Death (BMD) Certificates for your parents or grandparents for whatever reason, can you find substitute sources for that information, such as obituaries, marriage or birth announcements in the newspaper, and so on? Also don't overlook the national Census records that are taken every decade.

The other thing to do is to collect more general information about the areas in which your relatives lived. If you are still in the area where your father and mother lived, then don't neglect your local library, your local historical society, any family history societies, and so on. If you can't get out and about, these groups may have a free email newsletter you can subscribe to. In many places, having a local library card means you can get free access to electronic collections online, either on a library computer or your home computer. The important thing is not to focus on what resources you don't have, but to identify and use the ones you do have. The section on Useful Research Web Sites identifies a fund of online records, many of which are free.

The more you know about the places in which your relatives lived, the more you have the context for whatever information you may find, and it will be easier to pick up on small clues.

Study the History

In my opinion, people are often in such a rush to 'grow their family tree' that they neglect the pleasures of studying the history of the times and places in which their families lived, and if a history book about the town their relatives lived in doesn't mention their relative anywhere, they consider it a waste to have read that book. I think this is a big mistake.

Even if you can't find information specific to your own family, it is useful to study the general case โ€“ say, the history of the theatres in Scotland. Knowing more about Lord Holberry's rivals may lead you to information about Lord Holberry in a way you didn't expect.

Use Other Sources

If you have any information about your parents' friends, don't neglect them, because you may turn up unexpected information that way also. For my husband's family, we have one of the memory books from a relative's funeral, so I may be able to get clues from looking at the people who sent flowers or signed the book as attendees.

If you have any friends who are also keen on doing this kind of research, offer to help them look over their own findings. Doing research on other families in the area will be good practice for doing your own.

Try to set yourself interesting small tasks, such as locating a library or website that has newspapers from the month you were born, and enjoy learning what you can, even if it doesn't seem to make direct progress toward your goals. It is like sailing; you can't go directly into the wind; so you must tack back and forth to get where you want to go.

Record Your Findings

Having started your research, you will want to capture what you have discovered about your family history. This is where Family Historian (fh) comes into play.

There are several conventions that genealogists use when recording peoples' facts, and fh works best if you follow recognised guidelines. The following sections are an introduction to that advice, with references to further guidance.

Individual Names

The primary name recorded for each person is usually that given on their Birth Certificate. The name they used later may have changed if they were adopted, got married, or became a celebrity, but in family history records their birth name stays with them. See How to Handle People With Multiple Names for advice about capturing such alternative names.

Fundamental Facts

The most important facts recorded for each person will be their Birth, Marriage & Death events, plus any entries in the Census records. Those may be supplemented with facts about the person's Education, Occupation, Residence, and many others.

It may sound obvious, but on the grounds that someone can only be born once and die once, then only one Birth event and one Death event should be entered. Also one Marriage event should be created for each marriage ceremony, and one Census event for each census record. The section on Recording Facts and Sources goes into much more detail on this topic.

When various documents suggest conflicting birth facts, some genealogists like to record a Birth event for each one, but nominate one of them as the primary event. Currently fh does not support this technique very well, and you are advised to avoid it. This is discussed in the Forum topic Primary birth fact. Similar advice applies to all facts, and the recommended way to handle such cases is covered in the next section.

Source Citations

When you look back at the facts you entered, possibly years before, how will you justify that the details are correct? The answer is to use Source Citations, where each fact cites one or more documents that provide the evidence.

So for example, a Birth event would cite the Birth Certificate, which would be Primary evidence, because its details were registered soon after the birth. You may have also discovered Census records that give the person's Birth Place, and their Age at the time of the census and thus their approximate Birth Date. The Birth event could also cite those Census records, but would be assessed as Secondary evidence, as those birth details were registered long after the event, and likely to be less reliable, except perhaps in the case of infants. Note that it is the Citation that is assessed as Primary evidence or Secondary evidence for the fact details in question, rather than the Source document as a whole. So other more or less contemporary details in the Source document could have different assessments in its other Citations for other facts.

With multiple Source Citations there may be conflicting Source details, so the choice of fact details will need to be explained in Notes. This technique avoids the need for multiple facts of the same type, e.g. multiple Birth events.

Research Ancestral Records

Once you have captured all the details from family and friends, where do you go next? In the past you would have had to visit records offices located near where your ancestors lived, but now many records are available online. Both methods may have associated costs, so like any other hobby you have to pay to take part.

Online Web Sites

There are many Useful Research Web Sites and although some are free the majority require a subscription to view and download their records.

Most subscription web sites allow you to create a tree online, and attempt to make it easy for you to attach records from their site onto your tree, so that you have to visit the site again and again, and keep an active subscription. They encourage users to search for people by name, in the guise of making it easier, but this may be a bad habit. During a presentation from the US National Archives, one of the archivists was giving advice to listeners who wanted to find their people in the records she was talking about. Her advice was to think about a three-legged stool. If you have only one or two legs of the stool, you can't stand on it or it will tip over. If you have three legs, you have a stable place to stand. The three legs of the stool are a name, a location, and a time frame or date range.

So good advice to newcomers is to learn about the web sites before you decide to sign up for them. If they have free videos to watch that show you how to use the web site, watch them before you pay. If they have free collections you can search, practice searching with those records to understand how the search engine works and how it displays data to you. Sign up for any free e-newsletters so you can get tips, promotions, and news about free access periods. Familiarize yourself with the site, so that you know how to use features such as the Ancestry Card Catalogue or FindMyPast A-Z List instead of just leaping in to search for a name. If you don't know how to browse digital images which aren't indexed yet, take classes or get someone with more experience to learn how.

Keep some kind of research notebook, and note the record collections that are online, and make a wish-list of what you need to research, based on your name & location & time 'three-legged stool'. Soon you will know which sites, if any, you need a subscription for (or use at your local library or family history centre) because your wish-list will tell you.

What you don't want to do is purchase a copy of a genealogy program that comes with a web site subscription, or sign up for a free trial with a subsequent automatic subscription. You will waste most of the initial trial period just learning how the web site works.

Other Resources

If you haven't used the FamilySearch Wiki, take a look at their articles on the Research Process. If you're doing research in England, the Strategic Research Logs for England have tips on how to search. The England Record Finders can also help you think about what you want to search for.

One of the little used resources nowadays are the LDS Family History Centres. If you live close to one and finance is an issue, their resources cover the world, but you will need to learn how to use a film reader and/or a microfiche reader. Use Find a Family History Center to locate your local centre. If you can access a local family history centre, also consider trying The Genealogist โ€“ they have some clever tools that help the new user correlate information on the census with BMD indexes. They're a bit pricey, but sign up for their newsletter to get their feature articles.

Another site which gets overlooked is GenGuide. This site doesn't have records โ€“ it has guides which explain different record types and has links showing you where you can see the records.

When you start to research further you will need to look up such things as census records and parish records. If you live near where all your ancestors came from you will be able to do this for free at your County Archive Record Office, which is not the same thing as the Register Office.

The Stack Exchange discussion on using the new GRO Index Online offers a worked example of related research techniques.

Research Tips

You needn't keep an ultra-detailed research log with spreadsheets or specialized logs if that is not your thing, but simply writing down a list of possible questions and a wish-list of records and research tasks you want to do, and why you want to look for them, is a HUGE help. Writing down notes about your research process gives you an audit trail you can go back to later and see your progress as a researcher.

For example: Perhaps as a new researcher you search with only one spelling of your surname. Eventually you discover that spelling used to be much more fluid than it is now, and you need to repeat your older searches with variants. Maybe you take a class and learn how to use wildcards. If you kept notes about what you searched for the first time around, it is much easier to repeat those searches with the variants and put your new search skills to use.