Beginning your family history

Whether you plan to do your own research, employ someone else to do it, or a combination of the two, the beginning is the same: work out what you already know.  Most people will know their own place and date of birth, the date of birth and names of their parents, and usually the names of their grandparents.

It helps to add in extra information like the names and dates for siblings in each generation, the professions and addresses where known, and whether you hold any certificates for the people in your family, like birth certificates or death certificates.

The next step is to talk to your family, especially the older members of the family.  Obtain information about the wider family, any photographs or documents they may hold which have information that may be of help.  Old bank statements and insurance documents may not look that exciting, but they may contain information about addresses.  Old photographs may have information on the back, and old certificates may be lurking unnoticed in elderly relatives’ drawers.

Nominating yourself as family archivist can mean that you have a lot of things suddenly thrown at you – old recordings of dead grandparents singing, medals or trophies from long-past sporting triumphs and bits of broken jewellery that no-one knows what to do with.  and then they will be your problem instead!  You’ll need to decide what’s worth keeping.  But it can also mean that there is a central home for all those odd photographs and documents that should be kept for future generations, which people have had and haven’t known what to do with them.

The best thing for old photographs and old documents is to keep them flat in the dark.  An old filing box or shoe box is fine, although an acid-free box is better.  You should never label photographs with pens… if they’re very old and precious it would be best to put them in an acid-free sleeve with a pencil-written caption on a slip of paper, but I scan mine in, label the scanned version and put the originals in a box in the dark.

Once you have gathered your information, you are ready to start a first family tree. The illustration above is for a simple family tree with the main relationships.  There’s no right or wrong way, but there are some conventions, such as using an equals sign = to show a marriage.  But the main thing at this stage is to ensure that you can read the chart and know who goes where.  Ideally each person would also have date of birth, place of birth and profession written in their rectangle.


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