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Hints & Tips
Page last modified: May 27, 2008

This page is for all those little bits-and-pieces that I wish someone had told me before I started to research my family history. I donít claim to have any unique insights into the research process, but each of these items has been learned the hard way. Read and enjoy and when youíre done with my few, try this page of Genealogical Misconceptions. The latter have an American flavour, but many are applicable in the UK or elsewhere for that matter.

  1. Tracing your family history is totally addictive and can be expensive!
  2. Talk to you older relations before itís too late.
  3. Keep old family papers safe.
  4. Remember our ancestors were only human.
  5. Online indices are not always complete.
  6. Always buy birth, marriage and death certificates, donít rely on the index entry.
  7. Census data isnít always transcribed or recorded correctly.
  8. Triangulate your data.
  9. Develop a good backup strategy.
  10. Share your findings.

Tracing your family history is totally addictive and can be expensive! Be warned, once you start researching your family  you wonít want to stop. It is a very absorbing and rewarding hobby. However, do keep a tight control on your spending as the cost of buying certificates, data CDs, paying subscriptions, etc. soon mounts up. Try allocating a monthly budget to your hobby and stick to it. I keep a track of my spending in a diary.

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Talk to you older relations before itís too late. By the time I began my research almost all my older relatives had died. With them went a lot of knowledge that could have been very useful and which could have added Ďcolourí and Ďfleshí to the bones of my ancestors. Paper records are interesting but donít tell the whole story. Do make time to talk to your relatives about their families, their childhood, etc. With luck youíll all enjoy the experience. Even better, get out the old photo albums and get them to talk about the people in it. They will probably recognise many people you donít know and the photos will help jog their memory.

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Keep old family papers safe. I have long had a feeling that I would one day get around to tracing my family history. When my mother was drawing up her will in the early Ď80s, I asked her if she would leave me all the family papers and old photographs. Twenty years after her death I finally got around to looking at them and they have proved invaluable in getting my research started. Not only were there several certificates for births, marriages and deaths, they were also baptismal certificates, confirmation certificates, my dadís army certificate of service, etc. Several of the photographs had also been labelled on the back by my mum, which was very useful. So ... donít be shy about asking close relatives if they will leave you their papers and if youíre very lucky, they may even let you borrow them to take photocopies while theyíre still alive. Once you have the documents make sure they stay legible by storing them out of the light. Whether a box, book, file or  folder is appropriate depends on what you have. However, whatever you store your bits and pieces in, make sure everything is acid-free and of archival quality including any plastic pockets.

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Remember our ancestors were only human. I wasted a lot of time trying to find my maternal grandparents in the 1901 census. Since my mother was born in 1909 and was the eldest in the family, I assumed that her parents were teenagers during the census. Not so! Theirs was a shotgun wedding between 17 year olds just days before my mother was born. Once I stopped being so prissy and admitted that they might have been very young in 1901 I soon found them. You will find instances of just-in-time weddings, couple Ďliving in siní, illegitimate children and other Ďscandalsí during your research. Get over it! While we are on the topic of the black sheep of the family, do NOT sanitise your family history in either your own records or the data you share with others. Record what you find honestly, faithfully and completely - someone down the line will thank you for it.

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Online indices are not always complete. Although  FreeBMD is an essential online tool for finding the references to births, marriages and deaths, it is by no means complete. If a search fails to find the reference youíre looking for and youíre fairly certain of the year, try one of the web sites that has scanned pages from the GRO index to see if you can find the entry. The births of several of my relatives were not listed on FreeBMD but were found online. (See also hint  8)  While Iím on the subject of BMDs ... 

[List of Hints]

Always buy birth, marriage and death certificates, donít rely on the index entry. When I was looking for my great grandfatherís birth I assumed that it was a particular index entry that appeared to fit the year and place. Luckily I bought the certificate and found that it was for another person of the same name, born in the same registration district. Yes, it is disappointing to buy the wrong certificate, but itís even worse to find out later that youíve got an error in your family tree. Always obtain the certificate to check the details fit with what you already know. Youíll not only have peace of mind, youíll also find useful additional information on the certificate. If cost is an issue, and when isnít it?, use the GRO facility to check additional references e.g. fatherís name. That way youíll save £3 and wonít get lumbered with the wrong certificate.

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Census data isnít always transcribed or recorded correctly. If you cannot find the relative you are looking for in an online census, it may be because the entry was mis-transcribed or mis-recorded. Try searching for different spellings of their names. For example, Streatfield can be transcribed as Stretfield, Streetfield, Streatfeild, etc. Sometimes our ancestors were recorded under their nickname or a middle name. For example, Frances Ann Andrews was recorded in one index as Fanna, whereas the actual scanned page of the census clearly shows her as F. Anna. Common names like George or William are sometimes abbreviated e.g. Geo., Wm. etc. The place of birth can also be mis-recorded. Several of my relatives were born in Seasalter but are usually recorded as being from Whitstable. People also moved around a lot more than youíd think. One of my lot from Kent turned up on board a ship docked in Tyneside. Finally, sometimes our ancestors lied misrepresented the facts. See item 4! If you are having a really hard time tracking someone down, try using the minimum amount of information to do a search e.g. forename and place of birth, make full use of wildcards to pick up variant spelling, keep an open mind and see what comes up.

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Triangulate your data. OK, so what do I mean by triangulation? Nothing more or less than try to find multiple sources for each piece of information that you find out about your family members, so that you can be sure it is correct. This hint could also have come under 5, about online indices not being complete. It could also come under engaging your brain. Itís that embarrassing! Anyhow, when I first began my research I soon came across my great grandmother Ann Couchman in the various online censuses. The 1871 to 1901 censuses showed that she was born c. 1852 in Upper Hardres, KEN and her marriage certificate showed that her father was called Thomas Couchman. So off to FreeBMD and there I found a single entry for an Ann Couchman born in 1852. It had to be the correct person even though it wasnít in the registration district I expected. When the birth certificate came  sure enough the father was called Thomas Couchman but the place of birth was listed as Rolvendon. But it had to be the right person, after all it was the only one in the index. Wrong! Luckily a fellow researcher put me right. A further search in the online scanned images of the GRO Index showed another Ann Couchman born in 1851 and in the expected registration district. I purchased the certificate and it not only showed that her father was also called Thomas Couchman, it clearly showed her to have been born in Upper Hardres just as the various censuses said. Sigh! Well at least I finally found great granny.

[List of Hints]

Develop a good backup strategy. You will amass a huge amount of data very quickly and will need to keep track of it all. Paper records can be kept in folders or better yet in the largest lever arch file you can find - you will soon fill it and they are more secure than ordinary ring binders. I use one file for each surname I am investigating and then use a 20-part set of index pages to separate the file into sections. The first few sections are used one for each generation of my family. If you can go back more than 10 generations consider yourself very fortunate! The sections at the end are used to store copies of emails and other correspondence by addressee name. Items that donít fit well in this structure, e.g. printouts of parish transcripts for a given surname that donít have my ancestors on them, are placed between the index cover card and the first divider. Like most other people I use computer software to store much of my data. The paper and the computer systems effectively back each other up. However, I also backup all my computer genealogy files on a daily basis to an external hard disc using a fully automated system, which I check often to make sure itís working and the files are legible. This is a fail safe in case of hard disc failure on the computer. I also burn CDs about once a month and keep these in a separate place in case of fire. flood, etc. Do not use USB ďkeysĒ for anything other than transferring data between two computers. Many of them just arenít reliable enough as long-term data storage.

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Share your findings. What is the point of all this research if you keep your discoveries to yourself? Be prepared to share your findings with your family and (almost) anyone else who may be interested. Do NOT share data about living relatives with anyone other than close family! Identity theft is a real problem. That said, itís hard to profit from people who lived in the Victorian era or before. I have a general rule of thumb that if the data is already in the public domain itís OK. So anything that can be found or deduced from census data, civil registration data or other published records can be shared freely. One way of sharing data is to develop your own web site. Modern programs like NetObjects Fusion and Dreamweaver make use of templates, so creating a web site is as easy as using a word processing program. If you are lucky you may find older versions of the software being given away free on the cover discs of genealogy magazines. Where do you think I got NetObjects Fusion 7? Another way to share data is to use someone elseís web site to ďpublishĒ your data. There are several about, though most charge you for membership and limit access to other members e.g. GenesReunited, Ancestry. Many will take a GEDCOM file generated from your favourite family history program, thereby saving you from having to type in your data a second time. Make sure that you only share data on the people you choose by selecting your settings carefully. If you do publish your data in this way you may be surprised to hear from others whose own family links into yours. I have made many useful connections like this and found it a great help to my own research.

[List of Hints]

 

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