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Getting Started - by our guest blogger David Annal

Published on 5 Mar 2013 14:42 : 3 comments : 3614 views

Tracing a family’s history; carrying out genealogical research; investigating your family tree: whatever you call it, the moment you decide to set out on the trail, you’re almost certain to find yourself hooked.  Where else will you find a hobby that allows you to become a detective, searching for clues in faded documents written hundreds of years ago? Which other pastime can take you on such an amazing voyage; unravelling mysteries from the past and discovering how your ancestors’ lives were touched by some of the great events from history?

Now that so many of the key sources are available online, the first steps on your family history journey are somewhat easier than they used to be.  With a bit of effort, and perhaps a degree of luck, a novice researcher can quickly find themselves with a line of descent stretching back two or three hundred years; but there’s a danger that the easy access which we now have to these key sources can cause us to develop bad habits or, at least, to miss out on some potentially crucial areas of research.  The aged aunt in Tunbridge Wells is still a vital source of information and the box of old documents in Uncle Percy’s attic is pure gold dust, containing documents which no self-respecting family historian can afford to overlook.

Using Resources

The importance of good record-keeping can never be over-emphasised and with the wide range of software packages available to assist you, there’s no excuse not to get organised right from the outset.  There’s no better way to keep a grip on all those names, dates and places and no better way to retrieve and analyse the information that you’ve uncovered.

Of course, what we all really want to do is find our ancestors’ names in those remarkable old documents; remarkable, not just for the information that they contain, but also for the very fact that they have survived.  We should never lose sight of how fortunate we are that we can see these documents today, in some cases many hundreds of years after they were created.

And despite appearances to the contrary, it’s important that we understand that the documents that we use in our research were not designed with us in mind.  It’s easy to see how a census return with all of those family groups neatly packaged together, with ages, relationships and places of birth might seem to have been put together for the sake of family historians but they weren’t.  Successive governments have used the data from the censuses for a variety of purposes, usually to do with long term planning on education, health care and other public services.

In this digital age there is probably no greater skill for a family historian to develop than the ability to effectively interrogate a database.  There are a number of techniques you can use but none is more important than the concept that ‘less is more’.  Each of the websites works in much the same way: you’re presented with a search screen comprising a series of labelled boxes (known as fields) and invited to enter the details of the person you’re looking for.

It’s easy to understand why the novice might be tempted to complete as many of the boxes as possible, assuming that this will represent the best chance of a successful search.  But in fact, the opposite is true: the less information you enter, the better your chance of finding your target.  Of course you need to enter some ‘controlling’ data otherwise your results list will be too long but you should always try to limit how much you enter.

The Importance of Names

Names are the cornerstone of our hobby and as researchers we place an enormous amount of importance on them.  In many cases, it was a desire to learn more about our surname which inspired us to set out on the family history trail in the first place so it’s perhaps understandable that researchers find it so hard to let go of the idea that their name ‘has always been spelt that way’.

We need to accept that this is rarely the case: it’s not at all uncommon to discover that the surname you’ve lived with all your life has very little to do with your direct ancestors – so you would be well advised not to get too attached to it!

Extended Families

At its most simple, family history research is a methodical process.  We move from one generation back to an earlier one, proving each link as we go.  But there’s a risk that by concentrating too much on the direct line of descent we’ll miss out on the wealth of potentially useful information that our ancestors’ extended families can provide.

Brothers and sisters, in-laws, uncles, aunts and cousins were every bit as important to our ancestors as our relatives are to us today, and the records of these people’s lives can play an important part in telling our families’ stories.

Finding Context

And of course, a serious family historian should be so much more than a collector of names and dates.  To get the most out of our research we need to expand our horizons and find out more about the world that our ancestors lived in.

Many of the documents that we use as family historians are also key sources for local, social, economic and political historians and we can learn a great deal from how researchers in these closely associated disciplines use them.

It would be impossible to say how many miles of documents are held on the collective shelves of this country’s record offices but what is certain is that the shelves are crammed full of material which might just provide the answers to your problems.  And a large proportion of this material has never been subject to the detailed scrutiny of an expert eye.  Our archives’ catalogues are full of vague descriptions of documents and the truth is that, once we get beyond the familiar sources, we simply don’t know what we’ve got – which is an exciting prospect for future researchers.

Avoiding Leaps of Faith

Whatever you discover in the course of your research you should always ensure that you can prove the links between the generations.  You need to continually ask yourself the question, ‘How do I know that this is true?’

Resist the temptation to make great leaps of faith, assuming that two people of the same surname are necessarily related just because they lived in the same area.  As Jaggers, the lawyer in Dickens’ Great Expectations put it so neatly, “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”

A Last Word

Persistence is one of the greatest attributes that a family historian can possess and however long you’ve been researching your family history, one thing is sure: you will never finish it!   It’s inevitable that you’ll come up against what seem to be brick walls in the course of your research but this is exactly the sort of thing that makes our hobby so fascinating.

David Annal, the author of  Easy Family History, 2013


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by Robert on 21 Mar 2013 05:55 :
:-) Thank you for this. It confirms what I have found when perusing family trees that have been published on the web that a lot of assumptions have been made and incorrect conclusions drawn. The on-line access of records makes it easier for the casual researcher to assemble a tree but on the other side of the coin it can also aid in lessening the integrity of it if everything that is found is taken at face value.
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by john william on 12 Apr 2013 15:23 :
how to cancel memership
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by Robert on 18 Apr 2013 02:16 :
I Started my tree earlier this year and all these comments are totaly true, I am completely hooked and enjoying every aspect, I now have the time to spend doing this since retirering last year.
Robert Speirs.