Family tree research

I’ve been offline for a few days over the bank holiday weekend catching up on my family tree research.  Whilst doing that I thought that it might be a good subject for a series of articles.

So, starting at the beginning with what I’ve learnt in relation to software and starting your research.

There are a number of sites out there that provide facilities for researching your family tree. Some offer free services – or at least free facilities for building your tree. You can search the census records and the birth, deaths and marriage registers, but if you want full details and a copy of the record you will be required to pay.

My Heritage provides a free tree builder, which is quite basic but is a good place for beginners.  They also have their own standalone software; the basic version is free but if you want to use any extra facilities you will need to pay $75.

Ancestry provides a very basic free service. More details on this site below.

Geni is another free tree builder.  There is no size limit imposed on your tree as well as unlimited storage space for photos, videos and documents.

Software and online presence

In my own research I use Family Tree Maker software because it is easy to use and provides numerous reports / diagrams to display the information you discover. It also interacts with the Ancestry website, making researching and updating information extremely easy.

It’s not a requirement but you may find it useful to invest in some standalone family tree software, even if you intend to use one of the online services. If you install it on your laptop or netbook it makes researching away from home – such as the local register office, county or national archive, churches, etc. – easier because everything will be there in one place should you need to access information.

I mentioned other sites in the intro above and there are others available – the best thing is to take advantage of free trials to try some of them out and find the one that you feel most comfortable with.

In this modern of age of instant communication connecting to other family members on the other side of the country, or even the world, has never been easier. One great way to get everyone in the family involved would be to set up a blog – it’s free and very easy to do. Most free blog hosting sites will give you option of keeping your blog private so that only those people you want to view it can have access.

The great thing about keeping a family blog is that you will be producing a fantastic archive that can be used by future generations of the family.

Ancestry – is it really “all that”?

I can only talk about what I know, and that’s Ancestry.co.uk.

I’ve used them for 8 or 9 years and I never had a problem until recently.  They certainly provides some of the best searchable material that I’ve found online and I have been able to expand my tree considerably.  This is mainly down to the fact that the site continually searches records and will flag up when it finds new records that may be of use.  That saved me a lot of time and effort, despite some of the “matches” not actually matching the people they were supposed to.

There are various levels of membership offered: “Essentials” – £10.95/month or £83.40 annual; “Premium” – full UK records access for £12.95/month or £107.40 annual; or “Worldwide” full access to all UK and US records for £18.95/month or £155.40 annual.  I think the prices are reasonable for the amount of information they have available, especially if you’re starting out and have a lot of research to get through.

As you get further into your research and have less information to search for it may pay to use their pay-as-you-go service at £6.95 for 12 records, but you have to use the entire allocation within 14 days.

Despite the issues that I’ll go into next time, I still think that it is the best site out there.

Start with what you know

The easiest, and least expensive, place to begin your research is to talk to your closest relatives. Parents and grand-parents may have records or documents containing family information, as well as some family legends that will give you a good head start.

Before you do speak to relatives it might help to jot down all the names and dates (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.) of all the people in your family that you know. If you’re unsure of the exact information rough dates and places of birth, marriage, death or residence are better than nothing and will be a good starting point for your conversations.

Once you start this exercise you will probably find many gaps appearing. Looking at those gaps will show you where you need to concentrate your first pieces of research.

Try to collect old Birth, Marriage and Death certificates – these can provide a wealth of information.

Asking questions

Preparing questions beforehand is a good idea, but don’t feel the need to stick to them. During the conversation other questions may naturally occur to you. They may also be a useful reference if you feel nervous talking to a relative you hardly know, or have never met before. Keep it informal and friendly – you’re not Jeremy Paxman after all.

Use open questions rather than direct ones to encourage the discussion flow. For example, asking “I’m really interested in your grandfather, what do you remember about him?” will help your relative feel valued and hopefully prompt them to share details with you.

You can get too caught up in finding out about your relatives’ parents and grandparents that it’s all too easy to forget to ask about the life of your relative. Finding out how they lived and what they did will add some good depth to your research which will be fascinating for future generations.

While you’re talking to your relatives, ask them if they have any family records or documents that they wouldn’t mind sharing with you. If they don’t have them, they may know someone in the family who does. Also, try to get hold of some old photographs (making sure to note the names of people in them). You can always hand them back once you’ve scanned them into your computer.

Dates can be a problem, especially if they’re not written down anywhere so try to use reference points, such as: “Was that before the war?”. Photographs can be a useful aid, so if they have an old album ask to see it and talk about the pictures in it – you never know what information may be imparted during those conversations.

It’s important to be aware of the possibility that not all of the information you’re given is correct. Some family stories can become embellished or even “fuzzy” in peoples’ memories over time so it’s always best to back everything up with research.

These stories will make great notes for your tree and will give you some nice material for your blog.

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