Before you get started, get organised. ..
You are about to embark on your family history journey and we all know that journeys require planning. Take a few days to consider how you intend to research and store your family history information.
Some people prefer a ‘paper-based’ system of record keeping, without relying on dedicated family history software. Some may even plan to draw their family tree by hand (not for the faint-hearted!)
Others will wish to take advantage of every family history research and storage tool available, both paper based and digital.
Regardless of the method of record keeping you choose, if you are not organised from the very beginning, your family history research will quickly spiral out of control like a bad school project.
Print off templates
There are many paper-based family history templates available online. They can be very useful, regardless of whether you plan on using ‘pencil and paper’ or dedicated family tree software. At the very least, they can act as a useful checklist and ‘prompt’ when you are interviewing people ‘in the field’. The information you collect can always be uploaded later to your favourite family history software.
Visit our templates page for a range of forms and other templates that you may wish to run off. These include:
- Personal Record Sheet. One to be completed for each ancestor. This is a handy form for collecting notes on each relative.
- Documents Checklist. A reminder of the sort of certificates, papers etc. you should be aiming to photograph or copy. At the very least, try to copy your ancestors’ birth certificates and (where applicable) marriage certificates. They hold invaluable information to help you build your family tree back to the next generation.
- Family tree template and/or Pedigree Chart. These are handy, even if only for making notes that can be uploaded onto your chosen software when you get home.
- Research Log. This is like a reminders diary and ‘to do’ list. keep one for each ancestor so that you know what you’ve asked, what you need to ask, lines to pursue (and not to pursue) etc. Without it, you can quickly lose track.
Decide on a filing system
Consider how all your paper records can best be stored. This is down to personal taste but here’s a suggestion:
- Details of each individual could be placed in a clear plastic file. At the front of the file (so the details are visible through the plastic) you could file a personal record sheet. Behind this, you could insert all supporting documents/photos/photos of heirlooms etc. relating to that individual. At back of the file, facing outwards (so that it is also visible through the plastic) you could insert a research log relating to that individual.
- The files of individual ancestors could be grouped together in, say, a box file – e.g. one box file for each family group or surname etc.
- The family tree and/or pedigree chart should be stored separately as it would straddle all family groups – you could stick one on the wall. Run off a a few free family tree templates and keep a rough copy for note keeping. If you spoil a copy, give it a date, file it away (for possible future reference) and start a fresh copy.
Family History Software and family history websites
Before you leave the comfort of your home (or even desk) it is worth considering which family tree software package, if any, you plan on using. This can be a research project in itself! There are many family tree builders and software packages available which offer free trials.
Visit our family tree software page for more information of the types of family history software available.
Start building your family tree
Building your family tree is an essential first step in researching your family history.
Using family tree software, a family tree template or just pencil and paper, start building your family tree or pedigree chart. Fill in what you know regarding your parents, siblings, children and grandparents etc. Write in the dates of births, deaths and marriages, maiden names etc. Go as far back as you can, starting with you at the root of the tree. You may well be surprised at how empty your family tree currently looks: it is all too common to only know your grandparents as as ‘granny’ and ‘grandpa’.
Next step: start researching your family history…
Your family history starts with you
Start with low hanging fruit i.e. you. Family historians recommend that you start by writing down your own history. Although this can be a tedious place to start (as it is not very illuminating) it is at the root of your family history tree and the foundation of your personal family history. You can use the personal record sheet template to record information about yourself and serve as a checklist.
Start visiting: grandparents, great grandparents… going back as far as you can
Once you have finished writing down your own history, turn your attention to any living relatives. Write down what you know about them and then get out of the house and start visiting.
This is a great opportunity to meet up with your relatives, but if you haven’t seen them for a long while it may be daunting prospect. Luckily, researching family history can be a real icebreaker and give everyone something to talk about.
Remember to be respectful and also compassionate; you may not remember your great grandfather but your grandparents certainly will; you may find an incident amusing or trifling, whilst others may find it upsetting and (frustratingly) best forgotten. If you are working from a template, it can be sometimes tempting to act too formal as you run through preset questions (form filling does that to the best of us!) So try to keep it light and relaxed. Do not rush – you will hopefully be able to visit them again.
When visiting relatives, you have three main objectives:
1. Build out your family tree
Ask each of your surviving relatives if they can assist you in building out your family tree as far as possible.
2. Collect details of your living relatives
Then start collecting detailed information about each living relative in more depth. You are aiming to collect as much information as possible; not only dates and locations of births and marriage(s) etc. but also occupations and personal details, qualifications, hobbies, war stories, reminisces and anecdotes etc.
If you are using a personal record sheet as a template, this will help you ask the right questions. create a new one for each relative. If any piece of information is being supplied by someone other than the relative, be sure to note who supplied you with that information in the column provided.
Any missing facts (or facts that need checking/verifying) can be noted in the Research Log for following up.
3. Collect details of relatives who have passed away/are not available
After you have talked to your surviving relatives about themselves, ask them to tell you as much as they can remember about those relatives who have passed away or are not available. This would include parents/grandparents/great grandparents – going as far back as they remember.
Again, you can use a template such as the personal record worksheet for each deceased relative although some questions (e.g. personal memories) won’t be relevant. Remember to make sure you record the person who is supplying you with the information in the column/margin.
Already, you might start to find you have two conflicting accounts of one individual i.e. your father could have told you some information regarding his grandfather which may vary from that provided by your grandfather. You will need to decide how to deal with conflicting accounts of the same individual. You may find one ‘informant’ more credible than another. If in doubt, note down both versions of events and the names of the two people supplying the information in the margin/column as usual. Then, make a note in your research log to follow up the conflicting information.
Make sure you start completing a research log from day one. Most good family history software will provide you with an online version. However, you can also maintain a printed off version. Some sort of research log is useful for flagging up conflicting accounts that need further research. You can also make a note of details that your parents don’t quite recall, or half-remembered fragments of information.
Documentation or memorabilia
Your aunt says that her great grandfather was a commanding officer in the British army – but how do you know without proof? Family stories are often embellished as they pass through the generations. After researching your family history, you may find yourself breaking the news to Aunt May that her great grandfather was the assistant to a commanding officer in the British army. To build a credible history of any person, whether it is the Queen of England or your great great grandfather, you need documentary evidence.
If references are made to multiple family members in any of the documents (e.g. in a letter or family bible) take extra copies and file them in each family member’s file.
If your parents/grandparents are unsure what they do have stuffed in their loft/under the bed, ask if they are happy for you to investigate.
Once you have got back home, file everything straight away. If you are using family history software, upload all the information into your software and write up any notes.
Congratulations! You have started on your journey of creating your unique family history.