Getting Started with Family History
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What is your goal?
Have an idea of what you want to produce before you start working. You can always change your mind, but it would help you focus your efforts. Do you want to:
Produce a “Family Tree”, following a line of ancestors back through time?
Produce an “Extended Family Tree”, showing all of the descendants of a particular ancestor?
Produce an “Ancestry Chart”, showing all of your ancestors through every line?
(For more information on these, see the section on Organising Your Research)
Start with yourself, work backwards, be thorough
Begin with yourself and your immediate family. Follow each line backwards one generation at a time and make sure you have the following information:
Date of Birth
Place of Birth
Date of Death
Place of Death
Names of Parents and siblings, (and the names of the siblings’ parents, should they have a different mother or father), and their dates of birth/death.
Make a note of any other details you find along the way, even if you don’t think you’re going to use them in the end. Such details could become useful:
Education (primary, secondary and further training)
Places where they were known to live
Memberships in clubs and organisations
Talk to your family
Ask everyone you know everything they know. Someone might have already done some research which you can use; others will be able to give information about that distant uncle who was in the Navy during WWI… Find out who your oldest living relatives are and visit them, being prepared to ask many questions and hear many stories. A lot of the family history is carried in the family, and will point you towards the official records. Be prepared to photograph or scan their photos and records, as they might not be willing to lend you the originals.
Wherever possible, find the names of the towns where your family members lived, as many useful pieces of information (such as census data) are based on address, rather than names. It will also point you in the right direction for parish registers and the like.
Think beyond birth certificates and death certificates
These are a relatively recent phenomenon, and many of your ancestors would never have had them. Others may have lost theirs as a result of some circumstance, such as a war or a fire.
There are other records that can be found instead, such as family bibles, parish registers, postal directories, almanacs and the like. Some of these will be online, others might only exist in microfilm or microfiche in a state library or national archives.
Keep records of everything – and keep them ordered.
Whether you use genealogy software, have everything on your computer in a spreadsheet, or on index cards in a box, make sure you take notes about each family member you discover, and update them with any new information you come across. Keep these in an order that is not only easy for you to search, but also easy for someone else to make sense of in case another family member wants to help with or take over the project.
Make sure you always write down where you got your information from! It may seem tedious to write down the web site’s URL or the books publication details on every print out or photocopy you make at a library, but you’ll be grateful you did.
Find someone who can help you with the technicalities
There are genealogy and family history organisations all over the world, and they are usually more than happy to provide you with help (although it may cost a fee). Some of these societies may have the resources you need to find more information about your family, such as postal records and various registries. You may even find that a distant relative you’ve never heard of has already done some work which crosses paths with your research. The family history organisations might be able to put you in touch with them.