In my last post I offered my 5 tips for organizing all the information you’re going to get while researching your family history and in a minute you’ll begin to realize just how much information will be coming your way… but just before you get started there is an important decision to make:
Who and how much are you going to research?
I decided on a broad sweep approach of tracing all my family on both sides e.g. the tree starts with me and fans out to my parents, then my four grandparents, my eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents and so on….
Some people choose to concentrate on just their mother or father’s side, or one particular section/member of the family, or just follow their surname back. Whichever you choose, the first step is to write down everything you know already. And then the most important piece of advice I can offer you is this:
Talk to your relatives. Now.
Gather any information you can find – old photos, certificates, documents, family heirlooms, anything at all – and go talk to your family about them if you can. Find out names and nicknames, family members, birthdays, occupations, hobbies, old addresses, stories and anecdotes. Find out when and where people died. All these things and more will help you build a picture of your ancestors and put you on the path to discovering more.
If you need some inspiration, you need only do an internet search for “family history interview” and lots of ideas will appear.
Whatever information you uncover, record it carefully. All of it. Even the bits where the information or peoples’ recollections were fuzzy. At the time it may not appear to be that helpful, (and on some occasions you’ll come to find it wasn’t true at all) but down the line a throwaway comment or a vague recollection could really make a difference to a puzzle. You see now already how much information you could be gathering… and this is just the start!
Also, other relatives may be willing to share photos and documents so it really is worth asking them if they have anything useful, especially since your research is most likely going to encompass their family history too. Offering to share your findings could seal the deal.
Piecing It All Together – my example
All information, no matter how small, is helpful. Never feel defeated because you don’t have a lot to work with. In the vast majority of cases you will still be able to progress – you just need to be a bit more creative in how you do so. I had varying degrees of information to work with from my grandparents.
My nan had a lot of info – I was lucky that my nan was able to tell me quite a lot about her family and had a few old birth, marriage and death certificates and some old faded notebook pages on which her dad had written all the family birthdays.
My granddad had a bit of info – My granddad couldn’t tell me an awful lot about his family but he knew that his grandma’s brother was composer Albert Ketelbey. I found a book written by a cousin through which I learned a lot about that part of my family that I would otherwise never have known.
From granny I mainly had photographs only – I sadly never got the chance to sit down with my granny and grandpa on my dad’s side and talk about their families. I did, however, have a pile of old photographs that dad found from granny’s family that she and her mother had thoughtfully written on the back of to tell you who was who.
For grandpa I had next to no info at all – My grandpa’s family I have pretty much had to research from the outset, having little or no information to go on at all other than a few small details. This is the only case where I HAD to order some birth and marriage certificates in order to proceed with anything. It has been the hardest part of my family to progress with and the only part where two real brick walls are thwarting my progress.
I point this out to illustrate that, whilst you can still progress with little or no information, the more information option is always the most preferable. I can’t tell you how much I long to able to talk to my grandparents and to tell them all the interesting things I’ve found out. I’ve got so many things I want to ask them and no-one else will ever be able to tell me.
In my next family history post I’ll tell you how to start your internet research with some great free resources. I’ll tell you about some really useful websites and how to use them with different search techniques.
I hope this helps you think about how you’re going to start your research and if you’re already tracing your family, I’d love to hear your stories of how you started out, or if a random photograph or seemingly throwaway comment helped you to solve a puzzle in your family history.