Genealogy 101: 4 reasons to Start With You
Start with you.
It’s advice that every family history enthusiast has said or heard, many times.
But is it good advice or no longer applicable in our technology-filled world?
Like all hobbies, you’ll never be more motivated than when you first start. Combine that motivation with a dash of curiosity, and it gives you the push to begin. So, do you want to waste that momentum on the one member of your family tree that you already know the best?
My vote is yes. Why? You want your research journey to start with you to
- Build a foundation for your family tree
- Help you develop processes and systems
- Teach you about the different types of information that can be available
- Level up your skills
Of course, you can achieve the same results researching any of your ancestors, but it’s a long and windy path. Because when you start with you, it’s a fast track to fine-tuning your genealogy research skills. Why? Let’s dive into that.
Start with you to build the foundation
When you know how the story turns out, it supports you to find out where it began.
A common perception of a family tree is it starts with the ancestor at the top. Then you work down to add branches (family lines) and leaves (individuals). And that is the best way to display many of your discoveries, but it’s not the most efficient way to find them. Instead, you want to build a pyramid.
- First of all, you start with you to build the foundation.
- Next, you’ll begin adding ancestors one at a time.
- Each ancestor is a single brick, and each generation is another level taking you towards the top. And the top is, of course, the ancestor/s as far back as you can trace.
The first step is to take a deep dive into your life and write down everything you know. Start by filling out something like the Ultimate All-In-One Worksheet for yourself. Of course, you won’t have an answer for every field as somethings haven’t happened yet.
You won’t only be gathering facts but also sharing stories, memories, and mementos. So you have to make the most of every conversation, and understanding the right questions to ask. Building the foundation of your pyramid is an opportunity to learn what some of those are.
Start with you to develop processes and systems
Creating a structure for your genealogy research will help you make discoveries faster. And make it easy to retrieve the details whenever you want.
- Getting organised early helps avoid wasting:
- time (either on retrieving saved files or re-researching ancestors)
- money (on database subscriptions you don’t use or buying records you already have)
Start with you and use the opportunity of a variety of records to decide on the
- tools you will use
- structure of your physical and digital filing system
- naming convention to create searchable files
- way you will approach each research session
A quilter has a sewing kit, a painter has an art kit, and a family history enthusiast has a genealogy toolbox. It’s not something you buy but rather something you put together based on your needs as a researcher.
Building a genealogy toolbox isn’t a ‘once-and-done’ task as you will keep adding to this over the years. Versions and variations will come and go, but there are staple tools that you’ll always need. Tools such as:
- worksheets (keep track of what you find)
- checklists (leave no stone unturned and follow all the steps)
- a research log (see where you’ve looked, and when)
- online database subscriptions (research around the world from home)
- family tree charts (see what you’ve discovered)
- family tree software (store your discoveries)
Use free trials to test different genealogy software so you can find the one that suits you best. And look out for free weekends for subscription-based databases. Check with your local library as well as they may have a subscription available for public use.
Digital filing system
Start with you as you mean to go, and streamline your genealogy research processes. Create a file management system that makes it easy to save and retrieve your discoveries.
Start with you to decide on
- Folder structure (e.g. all families together, one family line per folder, etc.)
- Naming conventions for files and folders (note there is a character limit)
- Back-up location and process (e.g. cloud storage after each session etc.)
Naming conventions matter because it needs to be
- obvious what the file is
You want it to make sense to you next week, next month as well as in ten years.
For example, my folder structure is set up by the family line, with subfolders for each person. Subfolders names are YOB-YOD Firstname Surname.
Inside each person’s file are four folders. These categories are
- Source files
The naming convention I follow for individual files is:
Date of Record–RECORD TYPE–SURNAME-Firstname or Initials–OPTIONAL NOTE
I write the date of record backwards, so the documents display in chronological order. So the date is ‘year month day’, all in numbers. For example, 10 August 1960 is 19600810.
Therefore a filename would be written as
And the record would be a death certificate for Walter Ernest Dwyer. So, other death documents, such as newspaper notification, would use a similar name. You could change the date and the note at the end. For example
So I can search on the year, surname as well as the first name. A surname search on the primary folder will give me a list of all my ‘Dwyer’ records, in chronological order. Searching on the first name will give me records for every ‘Walter’ in the folder.
RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: Find out more about creating searchable files.
Want to reduce wasted time and increase your chance of success? Start with you to develop a habit of using a research plan to find your ancestors.
Research plans are a great way to stay on track with your family history goals. To keep you making discoveries, and not fall into genealogy rabbit holes. They’ll also help you decide where to spend your valuable research time, either online or on a field trip.
A research plan is a list of questions and objectives that you want to achieve. You don’t need fancy software. It can be a spreadsheet, word processing document or text file. I use Google Sheets to create lists I can both search or filter.
Then add your genealogy goals as actionable steps. Remember, it can take many steps to achieve some objectives, so break those down into several entries.
For example, if your goal is to find out where your great-grandmother was born the break down might look like
- find date and place of birth
- locate/buy birth or baptism certificate
- search for a map of the location
- look for newspaper notification
- investigate historical information on births at that location
- check the weather and day of the week
Each step is one entry in your research plan.
Use the research plan to set your genealogy session objectives. I use the Daily Research Planner to organise my sessions It takes less than 10 minutes to get clarity on what I’ll be doing because I ask myself
- Who am I researching today
- What do I want to find out
- Where can I search?
Also, consider creating a checklist of the database you use. So, researching becomes systematic, and you get the most out of the time available.
Start with you to learn different types of information
Your ancestors are hiding in more places than BDM and military databases.
Start with you to gain insight into the variety of records that can exist. After all, the family member you’ll have the most information about is you.
By looking at where you can find information about you, you’ll get ideas of where you can search for your ancestor.
Some of the documents I’ve found my ancestors hiding in include
- school records
- land deeds
- inquest records
- cemetery records
- wills and probate documents
- phone books or city directories
- newspaper articles and notices
- passenger and crew lists
- local history books or exhibitions
- military books or exhibitions
- Government gazettes
- Council or local government notifications
- census or voting rolls
- patent records
- police records
Now, get inspired and create a checklist of records to start looking in for your ancestors!
Start with you to level up your skills
Practice makes perfect. Okay, that maybe not perfect but the more you do something, the better you will get at it.
So, start with you to get a head start in improving your research skills. Practice extracting data and gauging accuracy from some of your records.
For example, what does your driver’s license tell you? It may include
- Your full name
- Date of Birth
- Eye colour
- Date of issue
- State or country where valid
- Date of expiry
So, you should be able to gather some necessary details about yourself such as
- date of birth
- residence and time that address (e.g. are there new address labels over the original)
Depending on the place of issue, you may also get an idea of height and eye colour. If there isn’t a photo, then your descendants would use that information to create a picture of you.
Keep in mind that details are only as reliable as the person recording or supplying them. What is inaccurate or missing?
Now try this with other documents and create a timeline and map of your life. Again, what is inaccurate or missing? Are there other places that this information might be (e.g. sibling or children records)?
At the end of this exercise, you’ll have a good understanding of how errors can creep in, and that vital details may not be in records about you. Our sibling’s documentation can hold valuable information that fills in some of the missing gaps in our timeline.
Start with you to find your ancestors
Fast track your genealogy research skills with the one family member you know best. Start with you to learn about the types of information available and where to find it.
You’re not only creating a strong foundation for your family history but also starting to tell your story for the next generation.
Share your thoughts
Have you completed the Ultimate All-In-One Worksheet for yourself, yet? What discoveries did you make seeing a snapshot of your life?