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  1. How To Start Your Family History

    As you start out on your quest to trace your ancestors its easy to be sucked in by the advertising of the commercial genealogy companies such as Ancestry and Findmypast. Ancestry’s current strap line encourages you to ‘Jump right in and Explore’. That, it says, will make ‘A Great Start’.

    In fact this is absolutely the worst way to begin your family tree and will, in many cases, lead to incorrect family trees. Far from jumping in, you should first take time to sit and reflect about what you know about your family already. Write down everything you know about your immediate family, including full names, occupations, places and dates of birth, marriage, death and burial, addresses and any other anecdotes you can remember being told about them. If you are unsure of a certain piece of information put a question mark next to it. It will need to be verified by other close family members or by documentary evidence at a later stage. Don’t worry about drawing out a family tree; just get the information written down so you can see what you have got and the information that is missing. Perhaps you don’t know your maternal grandmother’s name, having only known her as ‘Nan’, or perhaps there are certain dates missing from your list. All these pieces of information are vital for getting off to a sure and accurate start as they will form the basis from which you later go out and buy birth, marriage and death certificates and access census returns and from their grow your family tree.

    Starting notes for family tree research

    Working from known facts is essential. Even if you think your name is fairly rare there are almost always other people with the same, or similar, names out there living at the same time. Its important you identify the correct people in the records as you begin, and then progress, your research.

    Once you have written down everything you know then consult with other family members, especially older generations . Ask them to check your work to see if they agree with it and also to add anything else they know. Is there any disagreement about any of the information? If so flag this up for checking later. Older family members often have precious information about relatives who died many years before you were born and this may include information about their personalities and other events which happened to them which will not be recorded in documentary evidence. Make sure you write down what they tell you or (if they are happy for you to do so) record what they have to say.

    Next investigate to see if there is any documentary evidence to be found within the family. This might be copies of death, marriage or birth certificates, newspaper cuttings, or army service papers.Each of these records, and documents you may find, will provide important facts ranging from dates of birth, details of relationships and occupations, through to accounts of events in your ancestors’ lives. If there are copies of birth, marriage or death certificates in your family this will also save you money as buying modern-day copies costs £9.25 each.

    RAF Service Book

    Once you have done all this, you can then move on to exploring online records. You now have a sound basis from which to work and will be able to more accurately assess the long lists of results you will get when you access sites such as Ancestry and Findmypast. I will look at the best ways to search these sites in future blogs and Heritage on Heritage You Tube videos.

    Finally, if you are in the situation where you have very limited information about your parents or earlier generations and where there is no-one to ask and no family documents, then you will need to start with yourself and your own birth certificate. I will deal with how to proceed in this case in a later blog.

    Get the special offer on my online Family History e-Course when you watch my accompanying You Tube Video ‘How to Start Your Family History’ . This gives further details about starting your family history research and documents you may find within your ‘family archive’. Go to  https://t.co/ruy1y3tn5F

  2. Time to Improve Online Coverage Details

    It is my opinion that genealogy websites should provide full source details and coverage dates for each of their databases. They should also clearly state where a database is not yet complete.

    While there is a wealth of genealogical and historical data now available online courtesy of websites such as Findmypast, Ancestry, TheGenealogist and FamilySearch it is becoming increasingly difficult to accurately determine what exactly the various databases include and, in some cases where they came from, thanks to the inadequate or inconsistent detailing of their sources.

    This is caused by several factors but the main two are as follows.

    • A lack of information as to where the information came from and the coverage dates and any gaps within the coverage. Source data should be clearly visible for anyone using the database or at least for anyone who wishes to make the effort to check the details.

    • Inaccurate or unhelpful title names indicating complete coverage where coverage is not in fact complete are misleading.

    Let us take parish registers as an example. Neither Ancestry nor Findmypast has a complete county-by-county listing of what they hold. If I am searching for a missing baptism, burial or marriage I need to know exactly which parishes for a certain county or counties are available online and for which dates. Once I know this I can work out which are not and will potentially have to be searched in the record office. However, since neither company provides a county-by-county listing of which parish registers they hold it’s not easy to check this.

    I emailed Findmypast to ask if they had such a listing on their website as I know that they do sometimes issue such lists when new databases are released. This is the reply I received:

    ‘We are sorry but the website does not have a full list of coverage for the parish registers. You would have to check the search form for the parish and then carry out a blank search. Once you have done this you can change the results page by clicking the sort order at the top right – relevance. If you change this to ascending/descending you will see the years covered.’

    This seems a very long-winded way of established county coverage, especially when they must have such listings in existence! Ancestry collections are better detailed but they still have no means of checking county coverage in one go. Similarly, the Family Search Wiki is a quite good way of determining which parishes have online coverage, but I don’t believe this is entirely up-to-date and this is again not as useful as a county-by county- listing, as each parish has to be searched individually to determine online coverage.

    To my knowledge the only major commercial website to offer a county-by-county listing for parish registers is TheGenealogist which has its ‘List of all datasets’ at the bottom of its home and search pages. This provides a full list of which parish registers it offers and the coverage dates for each type of event and, for logged in users, this can also be accessed from the ‘Search’ tab, entitled ‘What’s included in my subscription?’ The list naturally covers all its other datasets too, not just parish registers, although some of the other categories are not as detailed as they should be.

    In order to prevent the online world of genealogical sources descending into chaos, I call upon the major genealogy companies to make it quite clear what information their datasets do and do not include. Surely this is not too much to ask?

    If you would like to join me in my campaign to encourage companies to improve the quality of their sourcing details and a new openness about which records they do and do not offer, please spread the word and encourage those interested in family history to email the companies concerned as well with this simple request. Let’s start with a request for full county-by-county parish register listings. Please share my blog with the genealogy world  and you can also follow my posts on the subject on Twitter @CeliaHeritage and Facebook. Your examples of inadequate source detailing and coverage are most welcome.