|Discover where to go for clues to your own family's past, then continue your research by consulting public archives, by visiting local-history fairs, and by asking lots of questions.|
The first task that faces every family historian when they begin research into an individual is to collect basic biographical details about the person under investigation. The events that are shared by everyone - birth and death - are the best place to start. In many cases marriage will also be on the list. By compiling a skeleton of facts centred on these events from legal or parish records you can then continue to flesh out other aspects of that individual's history.
'... birth and death - are the best place to start.'
We have these records because, due to massive population expansion in the 19th century, civil registration for births, marriages and deaths was introduced in England and Wales in 1837, 1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland. It became a legal requirement for every birth, marriage or death to be officially registered and a certificate issued as proof.
Before this date, other records exist that contain information about these events. Usually these would be the registers of baptisms, burials and marriages that were maintained by each parish. It is important to know how to use these records to make a satisfying family tree, but you need to record the simplest information about your family first.
They can often provide you with details of names, dates, and key family events - although you should never take anything at face value, as it will be your job to investigate family myths. You may uncover skeletons in the cupboard as well - sometimes the most interesting part of your researches.
' You may uncover skeletons in the cupboard.'
Write all this down in your notes, as described in the companion article to this one, 'Before You Start Your Family Tree' (see right for link).
Now it's time to look through old family correspondence, photos, heirlooms and other material that can find its way into trunks, drawers, attics or cellars. You will be amazed how much information you can extract from these objects to obtain vital clues as to who exactly your blood relations were, when they were born, when they died, who they married and who their children were (or are).
While doing this, or even sooner, try to establish where key figures in your family were from originally, as this will play an important role when you start looking further afield for relevant records.
This background information is an integral part of family history, and should be your first task.
'If you are not used to these places they can seem daunting.'
Other articles (particularly 'Basic Research Tools', see right for link) will tell you in more detail where to go to look for these records, but relevant institutions are located throughout the UK. In addition, places such as the The National Archives and Family Records Centre in London, or the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research in York, have large collections of specialist records for family historians to view.
If you are not used to these places they can seem daunting, but the job of their staff is to help you, and usually there will be someone to get you started. Try to contact an archive before visiting, as they often require you to bring some form of identification. Also they may be able to help even before you get there. Many provide useful leaflets about how to use their resources - essential reading that will make your research life easier.
The sort of records you might be looking at when you have got past the beginner stage could range from the Domesday book, to old tax records and accounts of law suits - but that's for a later stage.
'Work from known facts and move backwards from the most recent piece of information. '
Many county records offices have compiled basic name indexes. Check these first, in case you uncover immediate references to an ancestor. Work from known facts and move backwards from the most recent piece of information. Then you can use other catalogues and reference works, to identify material that might contain information on relatives.
You can then ask to see the original documents and work through them, looking for the information you think might be there. Look for concrete proof of things you know a little about already, and avoid assuming a link between individuals just because the place or name seems right.
Family-history societies can also provide a ready-made support network of other genealogists working in your area, and the Federation of Family History Societies can provide useful contact details. Most family-history societies hold regular meetings and welcome new members. They hold activities and events, such as talks by members on their own research, visiting speakers and professional genealogists, and even excursions to record offices or other institutions.
Family History Centres, maintained by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, store printed or microfilm copies of genealogical sources - click on its link in the External Links column for further information. Specific material can be requested and ordered in, if your research takes you away from the local area.
'Consider attending an event in your area before you begin your research.'
Family history fairs are a popular way of finding out more about genealogy and are designed to allow researchers to meet representatives from major organisations. Many of the larger fairs are accompanied by lecture programmes and are great fun for beginners looking for inspiration.
Consider attending an event in your area before you begin your research, if only to pick up tips from other researchers. They might pass on information about local research services, or even help to arrange for research to be undertaken on your behalf, if you are not able to travel to a more distant archive.
Most local archives or family history societies carry publicity about local events. As do many family history magazines, available from many booksellers and newsagents. These usually feature nationwide fairs, lectures or other events, as well as useful articles on all aspects of genealogy.
Everyone will have their own reasons for using online genealogy websites. Some may want concrete data, others to see who is researching a particular family name. Whatever your reasons, you should always ask yourself how reliable the site is, before using the data it contains. Always check whether a source is given - such as an archive of origin or, better still, an archival reference - for any information provided. This will allow you to check the validity of the data.
'Unless your relative's name appears in the title of the document, it will not be found.'
Many archives, large and small, are placing their catalogues online and giving researchers the opportunity to search for information by typing in a keyword. Therefore you can, in theory, type in a relative's name and see if there are any documents relating to them.
This development is not as exciting as it first sounds, though, as usually it is only the document descriptions that are searched, not the document content. Unless your relative's name appears in the title of the document, it will not be found, even if that same name is constantly repeated in the text itself.
Remember to consider the question of copyright. Material that someone has placed online cannot simply be taken for your own use, especially if you are thinking of putting it on your own website. Attempt to contact the person who has taken the time and trouble to compile the site. In return you may find they can help you still further with your own researches.
People set foot on this same voyage of discovery every day. Most are surprised and delighted by what they find. Now it is your turn. Armed with these basic hints and tips, you are ready to travel back into the past, with your ancestors as your guides.
Don't forget to refer to your checklist - on the next page.
This article can be found on the Internet at:
© British Broadcasting Corporation
For more information on copyright please refer to: