Sometimes we get bogged down in our research, and don’t know where to go next. When this happens, it’s very easy to get disheartened and to abandon the hunt. So here are my Top Ten Tips To Kickstart Your Research:
Organise your findings: make sure that your trees, files or cards – whichever method you use – are up to date and cross referenced. This way you can easily spot what information is missing.
Make a note of all your sources – including sources that you have checked but which haven’t revealed anything useful – and make a note of the date when you checked them. There is nothing more frustrating than spending an afternoon looking through a set of parish registers and then realising that you searched them three years ago.
If you use a computer software system, make sure you have up to date printouts and keep a separate backup – I 0nce lost my entire family tree when my computer died and I hadn’t made backups. Fortunately I still had my cards and files, but I spent a fortnight recreating my tree…
2. Make A Shopping List
Make shopping lists of things to do and places to look – eg names to check on the 1841 census returns for Dudley.
Often you will need to check the same source for different family members, or for different branches of your tree.
I have shopping lists for each archive I need to visit, and for each type of source I need to check. Otherwise it’s so easy to forget.
3. Make The Most Of Free Resources
There are many free websites – such as FreeBMD, FreeCen, FreeReg, Family Search – where you can find information for nothing. These sites contain transcripts, so you will always need to check the original documents, but they are a good way to find information and clues in the first place.
You can also use the lookup facilities on sites such as Ancestry or Rootschat: often people will help you find those elusive ancestors if you only ask.
There are a lot of on-line family trees, which may include your ancestors – but take these with a pinch of salt. Many of these are genuine, but increasingly you will find that these are compiled by people who just collect names and have not verified the information. Contact the person who compiled the tree – if they’re serious about genealogy, they won’t mind telling you where they discovered the information.
4. Set Time Aside
Time – there’s never enough of it, is there? Set time aside each week for research, even if it’s only half an hour. It’s amazing what you may be able to do in comparatively little time – I once traced a family called ‘Smith’ from a marriage into my family in 1814 up to 1911 using only a printed transcript of a parish register and the census returns. And it only took me an afternoon.
If time is really a problem, you may care to do what I do – make myself a weekly timetable of everything I need to do (including things like shopping and housework) and tick the boxes off as I achieve things. My timetable includes my weekly commitments – Friday afternoons are teaching afternoons, Thursdays are archive research days – and in between this I slot everything else. It works for me…
5. Keep Up To Date
Once you’ve organised your findings – see (1) above – keep up to date. Make a note of your researches as soon as you get home. It’s very easy to lose that scrap of paper, or forget what your scribbled note actually means.
Always, always, keep your rough notes. The more times things are copied down, the greater the chance that mistakes will creep in.
6. Find A Research Buddy
Find a friend or relative interested in family history to visit archives with. They don’t have to be researching the same line as you – but it’s fun to have someone to go with. Alternatively, you may find someone living in a different part of the country – or even a different country – who is researching the same family – you can then help each other.
7. Visit An Archive
Internet resources are quick and easy to use, but you just can’t beat real documents… and, of course, not everything is available online.
Find out in advance whether you need to make an appointment, whether you need to book a fiche or film reader in advance and check the opening times. Sometimes you may find that the archive is closed for a week for stocktaking, which is extremely frustrating if you’ve travelled some distance to get there.
You will probably need a CARN card, if you don’t already have one – these are free, so just take two pieces of identification with you, and you’ll be given your card almost immediately.
Not all archives accept CARN cards, so check in advance.
Remember the archive rules and stick to them – these will always include no pens in the search room, no food or drink in the search room, bags and coats to be put in lockers – these seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at what I’ve seen…
You may be able to take a laptop or digital camera with you, but do check first.
Some archives run beginners’ courses in family history, and these are always worth enrolling for.
Your local archive may also have a ‘Friends Of The Archive’ scheme, where you can get involved in various projects, as well as meeting fellow researchers.
8. Join A Family History Society
Do your family’s eyes glaze over when you start to talk about family history? Mine do!
Join your local family history society – they will hold regular meetings, publish newsletters and journals and often run training courses. Many have a library of information which you can refer to.
Even if you don’t live in the same area as your family originate from, join the society in the area you are researching – you’ll find that there are members who will look up information in distant archives for a small fee (usually just their travelling expenses). You may even make contact with a distant relative.
9. Get Out And About
Now the Great British Summer is here (!) visit a site of significance to your family – a church where ancestors were married, a village where they lived, a workplace. I try to do this once a month, bribing my partner with the promise of a pub lunch.
Graveyards are great fun to visit, too, but you must bear in mind that a lot of our ancestors just couldn’t afford a headstone. Where you do find a headstone, however, they often contain information that you weren’t previously aware of.
Remember to take your camera!
10. Set Goals
Decide on your research goals for the next year – for example, tracing one particular branch. I usually do this in place of having New Year Resolutions (which I never keep anyway).
Setting goals really does help focus your research.
Okay so this really makes it eleven tips: join a class. As mentioned above, your local archive may run classes – or the WEA may – or if not your local authority may run an evening class.
I still sign up for the occasional beginners class, even though I’ve been tracing my tree for over 30 years and I’m a professional genealogist and teacher. Not because I don’t know what I’m doing – she says, rapidly – but because new resources and methods are emerging all the time, and this keeps me uptodate.
And, if you’re really stuck – and I’ve said this before – why not ask me, using the ‘Comments’ facility? All comments have to be moderated by me, and I edit out your contact details, so you’ll be safe from spam.