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.

Advice, Maintenance

5 tips to protect your online privacy in family history

Sharing your family history online has significant benefits for your research but it also raises important privacy issues.

Here are my five top tips for protecting your online privacy while researching family history.

Privacy and data sharing policies

Always examine the privacy and data sharing policies of any websites or online services if you are providing them with personal information.

Collecting personal information and sharing it with third parties is very common on the web, not just with genealogy and DNA companies. By using their services you often agree to tracking cookies and having your information passed on for the purposes of targeted advertising.

Before you agree, just be sure that you are comfortable with their terms and conditions.


Typical clause in a Privacy Statement

Strong passwords

Yes, you’ve heard this advice before but it is worth repeating.

Use strong passwords. Don’t use the same ones on different sites. Change them periodically. Don’t use your mother’s maiden name – after all, you have probably shared that information in your family tree!

A strong password uses:

  • at least 8 characters (the more the better)
  • a mixture of upper and lower case
  • a mixture of letters and numbers
  • at least one special character, e.g. %#*

Emails

Assume that your email address will become public or be shared.

It is probably best if you don’t use your main email address or the email address you use on social media.

You might consider creating a separate email address just for family history. If you want anonymity, avoid any part of your own name in your email address.

Using inbuilt messaging systems instead of email are a good idea, if they are available.

Living people

It is good practice to protect the privacy of living people when sharing family history information online.

Many online websites used by genealogists have guidelines and systems that automate this. If you create your own family history website, such as a blog, you will need to do this manually.

You should not post information or photographs of living people without their permission.

Consider carefully what information you share on social media about you and your family.

On Ancestry, for example, all living people are private. If no death information is provided, people under 100 years old are considered to be living. 

Privacy settings

Learn how to adjust the privacy settings of any online website where you post information. Consider what information you are willing to share and adjust the settings to suit you.

Here are three examples

On Ancestry, you can choose to have your family tree public or private. If you make your tree private, no one can see your tree unless you invite them to view it. Private Ancestry trees will still appear in Ancestry search results, unless you prevent them from appearing.

Extract from the Privacy Settings in an Ancestry family tree

On Wikitree, the profile manager sets the Privacy level for the profile. What others can see and do depends on that Privacy Level. More information.

Wikitree privacy settings for profiles of individuals on the family tree

Blogging platforms, such as WordPress and Blogger, allow you to restrict access to your website, or to specific posts, by using a password. If you want to limit who you share your family history with, this might be an option that suits you.

Advice, Methodology, Sources and resources

Tips for creating a good family tree chart

When you create a family tree chart you are communicating – with your future self and with others. The effectiveness of this communication depends on how well you create your chart.

I used to work for the Society of Australian Genealogists as their archives officer and I still volunteer in the archives, processing donations of family histories. A key part of that process is making the donated family histories accessible to researchers. Unfortunately, the quality of most family tree charts makes that really difficult to achieve, because the creator paid little attention to what they might mean to future readers. So I have written this article to share my insights with you.

Creating a chart

You can create a family tree chart in many different ways. Here are the main ones:

  • Hand-drawn on paper
  • Fill in a template on paper or as a fillable computer file
  • Generated from family history software
  • Generated from family history charting software or generic charting software
  • Online trees
  • Generic programs such as Excel, Word and PowerPoint
  • Design software such as Canva.

None of these are inherently better than the others in terms of the quality of the chart, although charting software does prompt you to include useful information and helps produce a neat and consistently formatted chart.

The type also impacts on the survivability of a chart. Pencil-drawn charts on thin paper, for example, do not survive well and this affects legibility.

Extract of a fan chart generated by family history software showing the ancestors of Winifred May Saywell (1911-1999)
Extract of a fan chart generated by family history software

Things to consider

A good family tree chart must be relevant and appropriate to your purpose, as discussed in my first article, Different charts for different purposes.

A good family tree chart also needs to fulfil the principles of good communication:

  • Clarity and legibility
  • Consistency
  • Accuracy
  • Context
  • Precision
  • Readability
Extract of family tree in the Collier Diary from the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists Item 2-151, showing the family crest and four names.
Extract of family tree in the Collier Diary held in the archives of
the Society of Australian Genealogists Item 2-151

You can learn about what makes a good or bad family tree chart by examining charts that others have produced. Do they communicate well? Are you able to interpret the chart and learn about the family history of the subject?

Checklist

Label or title

A good family tree chart has a title or label that describes the subject, the creator and the date. This information helps the reader understand the content of the tree, and how it relates to the family history. It also provides a timeframe, which helps place that version of the family tree into a temporal context and assists with version control.

A title or label also provides information that can be included in a source citation, if you chart is used by another researcher.

Without a label or title, the value of a family tree chart to other researchers is vastly diminished. This is particularly important if you are contemplating depositing your chart with an archive, library or family history society; or sharing it with other researchers or family.

Family tree chart label 'Ancestry chart'
Not a useful label!
Family tree chart label 'Ancestor Fan of Barry Hawkins'
A more useful label as it identifies the focus person in the tree, but it could still be more informative

Standards

If you use standards that are commonly used by other genealogists, then they are more likely to understand your family tree chart.

Example standards:

  • Chapman codes as abbreviations for place names
  • Surnames in capitals (this is common but not universal)
  • Use maiden names for females
  • Date formats (day month year, with all four digits for the year)
  • Abbreviations, for example, see the list at Ancestry
Extract of Chapman codes for England
Some of the Chapman codes for England

Key

It is a good idea to include a key on your chart even if you use common standards, as the reader may not be familiar with the standards or may not be bothered looking them up.

Numbering

The usefulness of family tree charts can be improved if the people in the chart are numbered. Numbering helps the reader distinguish between individuals of the same name and you can also use it to cross reference the name in the chart to other materials and reports that document your family history.

Family history software provides unique identifier numbers for each person. There are also genealogical numbering systems that are familiar to most genealogists.

Details

My first article discussed the information that you need to include in a chart, such as names, dates and places, so I won’t repeat that here other than to emphasise that a good chart includes the right information and the right level of detail for the purpose of the chart.

Context

The value of a family tree chart increases considerably if it is associated with supporting material that provides context. This context helps the reader interpret the chart and, similarly, the chart helps the reader interpret the supporting material. Part of that contextual material might be a description of the purpose of the chart.