Your handy 10 point checklist
To kick-start your family history journey, make sure you've ticked off the following 10 points
Step one: Work through the list
So you’re ready to get started? Are you sure you’ve gathered together all the information you need? A little bit of preparation can make all the difference in the early stages of family research. We’ve put together a checklist to make sure you cover all the bases.
- It’s all about family. Building on the information you know yourself with details remembered by your family can give you a great basis to start on. Remember - any detail can help. Why not use our handy 20 questions to ask your family.
- Was there a previous family historian? Remember that someone in the family might have started this journey before. There might be a list of names and dates somewhere or even a scrapbook or a diary hidden in the attic. Family bibles, old photographs or memento boxes can all tell detailed stories about your family.
- Create a paper trail. Gather any family documents together you can. Birth certificate, baptismal certs, marriage certificates, death certificates are all basic documents that can give you that framework. Official certificates of life events can also give extra information like the professions and names of parents or next of kin.
- Follow the golden rules of research. Start with what you know. Be flexible with spellings and dates. Cast the net wide to begin with. Make sure your facts add up – make sure you have the correct person by cross referencing with other facts and family members. Be patient, if you don’t find something – keep trying.
- Pick a starting point. Try to concentrate on one family story when you’re starting off. Perhaps there’s a mystery you’d like to solve or a family member you’d like to know more about. Aim to find both records relating to your story and newspaper archives. Search one story at a time rather than try to tackle the whole family tree at once.
- Start with the basics but don’t forget the rest. The basic building blocks of any family tree are birth, marriage and death records and census records and their substitutes but other records can reveal even more. You can follow your ancestors to a new life with our Passenger lists, follow their military career and medals, and even find photographs and physical descriptions of black sheep in our crime record. We also have school, university and professional records. And don’t forget our newspaper collection.
- Keep everything organised. Your family tree will help keep the records you find attached to the right person but sometimes you’ll need to track down physical records. You’ll also have all the documents and notes you gathered from home and from your family. Family trees can get large and complicated very quickly once you start adding to them. Keeping everything organised can save hours.
- Censuses and census substitutes. The earliest national censuses date from around 1820 but these earliest ones generally only record the head of the household. More detail starts to appear from around 1840 with even more in 20th Century censuses. If you are searching for UK or US ancestors the census will be one of your most useful resources. The census is taken every 10 years and you can find results up to 1939 for the UK and 1940 for the US. When it comes to 19th century censuses however, they are not so useful for Irish or Australian family research. In both cases, most of the 19th century records were destroyed so census substitutes including electoral rolls and land surveys are used instead. Bear this in mind as these records give different information.
- Newspapers can be a fabulous resource and you can search the whole of the British Newspaper Archive for free with a Findmypast subscription. Apart from finding your ancestors in articles you could also find them listed in birth, marriage or death announcements, public subscriptions or adverts.
- Join a family history society. Searching online will only ever take you part of the way. There will always be records that haven’t been digitised yet, that you can only see by going to the library or archive where they are held. Family history societies exist around the world and will often have transcriptions and local resources available to members which are not available anywhere else. Why not see if there is a family history society in the area you are researching?
Watch our simple getting started guide.
Find out how to start searching our records with our simple step-by step video.