Advice, Maintenance

Changing how you research family history

A good genealogist continually looks for ways to improve how they research, so that the family history they create is more accurate and the research is more enjoyable. When you attend a lecture or read a book by another genealogist, you gather a lot of ideas. So many ideas, that the task of making changes to the way that you research can seem a bit overwhelming.

The good news is that you do not have to implement wholesale changes all at once. And, you get to choose which changes you want to make.

To make the task more manageable it is a good idea to choose one or two changes that you think would make the most difference to your research practice, and concentrate on them for a period of time. It might be that you need a new filing system because your papers are all over the room and you have trouble finding things. Or you might decide that your priority is to start using research plans to give your research a focus. Concentrating on one or two changes gives you time to actually get them implemented and it might stop you worrying about all the other changes that you need to make.

I find that it also helps to keep a list of changes, in order of priority. I have included a list of my Top 12 Recommended Actions for a Retrofit in Chapter 7 of my book, The Good Genealogist. You can adapt the list to suit your needs and priorities, or develop your own totally different list!

First four of the Top 12 recommended actions for a retrofit, Chapter 7 of The Good Genealogist (Danielle Lautrec, 2022)

If the task of implementing change still seems too large for you, break the tasks down further – perhaps into four groups, based on your grandparent lines.

Since you are now thinking about changing how you research, it might also be a good time to set aside some time for maintenance. Looking after your research is like looking after your house or garden – it will benefit from some regular upkeep. Click the Maintenance category on the right of this post for more blog posts on the topic and you will also find additional ideas in my book.

Advice

Observations on downloading a family tree from Ancestry

Like most things in life, downloading your family tree from Ancestry is not as simple as might be expected. For it to work well, you need to prepare your tree first and tidy up afterwards.

How to download your family tree

Open the family tree that you want to download, then open the Tree Settings. Under the heading Manage your tree there is a button labelled Export tree. Click on the button, wait until it creates the file and you can then download it and save it to your computer.

A few important points:

  • You can only download your own family tree and you can only download the entire tree.
  • The file type is a GEDCOM file. Although it is a text file and can be opened in Word or similar programs, it is really only useful if you import it into family history software. I cannot speak for all the software, but for Legacy Family Tree, I have to import the file, not open it.
  • The file you download is a copy. It does not delete or remove your tree from Ancestry.
  • The GEDCOM file does not include all the images that are attached to your tree, but it does include the source citations.

Alternatives to downloading your tree

  • If you have Family Tree Maker (FTM) software, you can sync your tree on Ancestry with your tree in FTM.
  • You can print profiles of individuals or parts of your family tree from Ancestry to a PDF.
  • You can print the entire family tree using MyCanvas to create a family history book or chart.

Issues that I observed when downloading a tree

These observations are only relevant for Legacy Family Tree software, but similar results may also occur with other software.

While I have not conducted a thorough review of the tree that I imported into my family history software from Ancestry, the process does appear to correctly include all the people in a tree, including those with multiple marriages.

The imported file does not automatically select the starting person in the family tree, so you need to reset that after importing it into your software.

In Legacy Family Tree there is a field below births on each person’s profile where you can enter christenings or baptisms. The imported file moved baptism information to the Events/Facts section. I assume this occurred because I have the label in Legacy set to christenings, even though I also place baptisms there. If that is an issue for you, you might need to check that you have this field labelled as baptisms before you import the tree.

The imported file placed AKA names as Notes instead of recording them as Alternative Names.

AKA from Ancestry tree added as a General Note in Legacy, as well as the other unwanted text that appears in each profile.

Where I had put notes in the Description field of a birth death or marriage fact on my Ancestry tree, the imported file appropriately added these as notes to the relevant BDM entry in Legacy.

Notes that I had attached to a birth fact in my Ancestry tree were appropriately placed as notes to the birth fact in Legacy family tree.

The imported file left extraneous text in the General notes of each person (see the AKA image above).

Place names in the imported file are only as good as the information in the Ancestry tree. Ancestry sometimes adds incorrect place names when sources are attached – for example, for Australian electoral rolls it adds the electoral district instead of the suburb. Place names in an Ancestry tree should be tidied up before downloading a copy of the tree.

Source citations are also only as good as the citation in Ancestry. Unfortunately, the quality of citations is variable. This is probably the bit that needs the most work before you download your tree, as downloading information without adequate source citations is not very useful.

My tips for fixing source citations

Make sure that all of your sources are attached to the relevant facts in your Ancestry tree, as sometimes the link does not happen. If you click on a source or a fact, there should be a line linking the two.

The imported citation will only include the text that Ancestry records on the Citation Details tab. It will not include the text from the Ancestry Record tab. The details on the Ancestry Record tab may be essential for tracking down the source, so the omission is quite significant. To overcome this problem, you should edit the source citation to add these details before downloading the tree.

Example citation details tab for an Australian birth record. Note that it does not contain the date or reference number, so the citation will be incomplete.
Same source, with the date and reference number appearing on the Ancestry Record tab.
Click on Edit Citation (not Edit Source!) and add the details from the Ancestry Record tab.
Same source, after editing it to add the details.

This problem with missing details is not always an issue. For example, citations for census records do tend to include the details on the Citation Details tab (see below).

Citation details tab for an English Census citation.

Some citations in my imported files had extraneous information and gobblygook (see below). This appears to occur when the citation has text under the heading Notes in the Ancestry citation tab. I was unable to find a way to remove that text in Ancestry before downloading the tree, so it will have to be deleted from the imported file in my family history software. It appears to be a rare occurrence, but something to look out for.

Example of where Ancestry added text on the Citation details tab under the heading Note. This ended up in my citation after importing the tree into my family history software (see below).
The resulting citation in my software.

Final tips

Downloading a copy of your Ancestry tree and saving it on your own computer is highly recommended. However, be aware of these types of issues and resolve them first, so that the resulting file is useful for your research.

Download copies of source images to your computer before downloading your tree. It is a good idea to do this each time you attach an image to your tree, so that it is not such a huge task later.

Advice, Methodology

Overwhelmed by your research?

Researching your family history is a large undertaking. It is not uncommon for researchers to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it from time to time. Here are four strategies to help get you back on track.

Take a break

Put your research aside for a while and give yourself time to recharge. You could take half an hour and go for a walk, take a day, or weeks or months. Whatever time you need. Do not let yourself feel guilty for doing so.

If the reason you are feeling overwhelmed is that you just returned from a break and are having trouble determining where to start, then try one of these other strategies.

Break it down

Any large object or project is easier to manage if you break it down into smaller pieces. Never try to tackle a difficult research problem when you are feeling overwhelmed. Go for small wins to build your confidence again.

  • Focus on just one person for a while, or one family group, or one time period.
  • Write down three tasks (yes, tasks, not research questions) and complete them. When they are done, write down three more.
  • Spend time on something in your family history that you really enjoy – even if it is just reading old newspapers.

Get organised

The feeling of being overwhelmed will lessen if you organise your research and have a plan for what you want to do next. However, getting organised can seem like a huge task in itself, so you should break it down into manageable chunks and plan to address it over a period of months.

  • Print out a copy of your family tree and review where you are up to. Are there any obvious gaps that you need to focus on?
  • Conduct a Tree Health Assessment (THA) of your family tree to determine which parts you have substantiated and which parts need more evidence. You can download instructions for a THA on my Free Stuff page.
  • Review your research goals and identify your objectives. Which aspects your research are the most important to you?
  • Prepare research plans for the families that you want to research next. The blog series that I wrote on research planning will give you some ideas for this process. Search ‘research planning’ in the search bar to the right of this post.
  • Organise your papers, your files and the research that you have already done. Aim to do a bit of maintenance each time you sit down, or set a regular day – weekly, fortnightly, monthly. I have written many blog posts about this topic. You can find them by clicking on the Maintenance category to the right of this post.

Get help

Learning how to do something better is a great way to feel more in control. There are a lot of great lectures, workshops and books out there that provide guidance on the research process. Look for ones that are relevant to your research and your skill levels, or ones that seem like fun.

You can also get help by visiting a family history library or archive, joining a family history Facebook group, or by employing a professional genealogist.

Advice, Methodology

Three alternatives to publishing a family history book

There are many ways to compile and share your family history.

Reports

If you use family history software to document your research, you can easily compile your family history by using the reporting and charting tools in the software. The basic reports can be generated in a matter of moments, provided you have entered sufficient information to your family tree, such as source citations. With a bit more time, you can customise the basic reports and add extra content such as stories, maps and photo galleries. Through customisation, a report can be converted into a publishable family history book, if that is what you want, or you can keep it as an unpublished PDF document.

Table of contents for a family history report on Ivy Elizabeth Rusten listing ten generations.
Contents page for a standard report from family history software
Customise your report in your family history software to create a book

A lot of people use Ancestry to document their family history and the good news is that you can also generate reports and charts from that site. The LifeStory and Facts screens of individual profiles both have a print option, from which you can create a PDF document for an individual. The LifeStory is in the format of a timeline and it includes any photographs you have added to the Gallery for that individual. You can customise the LifeStory by editing text or by adding a biography. The Facts report includes any source citations you have attached to the information. From the tree view in Ancestry, the print option takes you to an external site, MyCanvas, which allows you to create a family history book based on your Ancestry family tree (for a fee).

The advantages of the report format of a compiled family history are that:

  • it is easy to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • it follows formats which are recognisable by other genealogists.

In my first article about compiling your family history I emphasised that there are different purposes for writing up your family history and different audiences. The report format is great for sharing your research with other researchers and for helping you analyse the research that you have done so that you can generate new research leads. Generally, report formats are not great for sharing your research with family, although the customisation options do go some way to addressing this limitation.

Scrapbook

By comparison, a scrapbook is a great format for sharing your family history with family or non-genealogists. I use the term ‘scrapbook’ loosely to mean a document that is built primarily from visual elements, such as photos and illustrations.

You could, for example, include the following in a family history scrapbook:

  • a simplified family tree
  • photographs
  • maps
  • extracts from official sources
  • lists of children and family members
  • images of family letters, signatures, and other family mementos.
Example digital scrapbook page

Scrapbooks are more aesthetically pleasing than reports and convey information in smaller chunks, which means family are more likely to engage with them.

You can create a scrapbook in the traditional way, using an album and adhesives. However, I prefer to create digital scrapbooks.

The advantages of this format are that:

  • it is fun to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • production of a digital scrapbook is cheap, you can customise it for different family members and you can make additional copies when needed.

Source citations are optional in a scrapbook, if the audience is family.

Website

Creating a family history website is another fun way to compile your research and share it with others. Blogging platforms such as WordPress enable you to create a free (or low cost) website to share your research.

Your website can be anything you want it to be. A compilation of stories, photo galleries, family tree charts, surname lists and a way to communicate with family and other researchers.

The advantages of this format are that:

  • it is fun to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • one website can contain elements for different audiences (both researchers and family).

Using a website to compile your family history does present a few challenges:

  • not all platforms allow family tree plugins
  • a website does not preserve your family history in the way that a published book or depositing with an archive does
  • information on a website cannot be printed unless you specifically include the means to do so.

Coming soon: More about the use of websites to share your family history.

Advice, Methodology

Writing for other researchers

When you write, it is important to think carefully about your purpose and your audience. Other researchers are a very different audience to family members, so you need to compile different products for each.

What is your purpose?

A compiled family history has many benefits for other researchers. Think about which of these you want to achieve, as they will influence the format, content and structure of your product.

Potential purposes:

  • help other researchers determine whether they are related to you
  • provide information that will help progress the research of others
  • provide context for documents and objects associated with the family history, such as photographs, certificates and heirlooms
  • synthesise your research and demonstrate a considered argument for your conclusions
  • present a different perspective or contrary view
  • demonstrate your genealogical research skills and knowledge, including the ability to analyse sources and evidence, and the ability to create family tree charts.

Audience needs

Based on the purpose(s) that you select, next you have to consider what other researchers will need so that purpose is achieved.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that other researchers will not be as familiar with your family or your research as you are. You will need to include details and explanations to help them understand your research and become familiar with the family structure.

What should be included?

The specific content of your compiled family history will depend on the results of your research and your purpose(s). However, here are some general tips.

A synopsis and/or introduction provides an overview of the family history and a concise statement of the purpose of your document. It introduces the family to the reader and explains how the document is structured. It describes the scope of the work, and the sources and methods of research used so that the reader can decide whether the document is likely to be useful to them.

Family tree charts contribute to most of the purposes listed above, because they provide summaries of key information and illustrate the relationships between people. They provide a recognisable structure for a family history and help contextualise the information provided.

Sources citations are essential, because other researchers will want to know where you got your information and may wish to consult the sources that you used. Citations allow others to confirm whether or not they agree with your conclusions, and they also allow you to acknowledge the work of others. Footnotes are the preferred method of citing sources in family history and a bibliography should be included at the end of the document.

Indexes are also essential, as they help researchers identify if your work contains information of relevance to them and they help them locate that information. Consider including a surname index and an index to places.

Other useful inclusions, depending on the nature of your compilation:

  • Tables allow you to present, organise and summarise key bits of information to help readers make sense of the data. For example, if the purpose of your compiled family history is to provide context for documents and objects associated with the family history, you might include a catalogue of photos in table format. Tables should have a clear title and labels on the columns and rows.
  • Figures, such as graphs, drawings and maps also allow you to present and illustrate information in a visual manner to assist in the absorption and understanding of information. Maps, for example, can help the reader conceptualise locations and distances. Like tables, figures should be clearly and appropriately labeled.
  • Photographs may be used to illustrate the text and add to the story, or merely to ensure that they are preserved. Photographs should have both a caption and a source citation, to provide information about the subject, date and location, as well as where the photograph was obtained and the copyright status. If such information is not available, photographs should be placed with associated material or in a broad family context, as this may help other researchers identify them.
  • Including too much detail in the body of the document can reduce the effectiveness of your message. Appendices can be used for helpful, supporting or essential material, such as detailed family tree charts, raw data, copies of source documents, transcriptions and perhaps even maps and tables.
  • To help readers navigate the document and find content relevant to them you could include a table of contents, and lists of tables and figures.

Structure

A compiled family history must be organised logically and be presented in a clear and readable manner. Done well, the structure you choose will guide the reader through your family history and make it easy for them to use it.

The most common structure is chronological. You can start in the past and work towards the present, or go in the opposite direction. In a chronological structure, the work is usually organised by generations.

An acceptable alternative is to structure your product based on surnames or family lines, and then apply a chronological format on top. Dividing your family history into four parts, each representing one of your grandparents, is a great way to help other researchers navigate through your work and focus on the people that interest them. If you are compiling your family history to donate it to an archive or library, the grandparent structure is particularly useful in providing context for documents and objects associated with your family history.

However you structure your product, take care to utilise good grammar and spelling, and focus on the accuracy of the information that you present.

Further reading

Five tips to make citing sources easier.

Society of Australian Genealogists, Diploma in Family Historical Studies Guide, 2020,

Australian Copyright Council, Family Histories and Copyright, fact sheet, 2012.

Even though you are writing for other researchers, you should still aim to make your writing enjoyable. Here are a few books on that topic:

Carol Baxter, Writing Interesting Family Histories, revised ed., St Ives, NSW, The Author, 2016.

Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath, How to Write History That People Want to Read, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2009.

Hazel Edwards, Writing a Non-Boring Family History, rev. ed., Alexandria, NSW: Hale & Iremonger, 2003.

Noeline Kyle, Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and Writing Women into Family History, St Agnes, SA, Unlock the Past, 2013.