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.


Customise your family tree

Customising your family tree can help your research planning and improve the way that you communicate the results of your research.

There are many ways to customise your tree, but this post uses Legacy family tree software and Ancestry trees to demonstrate the main techniques.

Set your direct line

While it is important to research beyond your direct line, it is also useful if you can instantly tell which people in your family tree are on your direct line. This makes it easier to navigate up and down your line, and focus your research when necessary.

In Legacy, you can mark the entire direct line in one step by selecting the starting individual (usually yourself) and then choosing ‘Set Direct Line’ from the Tools tab. Legacy marks the names of people in your direct line in bold typeface.

In an Ancestry tree you have to mark each individual manually, by adding a ‘tree tag’. The direct line tag is called ‘Direct Ancestor’ and it is under the group called ‘Relationship tags’.

How are they related to you?

Knowing how someone is related to you is another useful bit of information as you work on your tree.

Ancestry adds that information automatically to individuals as you add them. With Legacy, you have to switch it on by choosing ‘Set Relationships’ from the Tools tab.

Divide them into your grandparent lines

Dividing your family members into groups based on your four grandparents is a great organisational tool. It helps with navigation, research planning, filing and sharing information with others.

Legacy uses the four-colour scheme and it can be applied by choosing ‘Set Ancestor Colours’ from the Tools tab. This adds a small block of colour on the individual’s screen and colour codes the box for each person in the pedigree chart. The colours can also be applied to printed family tree charts such as the one below.

Ancestry does not have a specific system to group your family by grandparent. However, you could create four custom Tree Tags for this purpose.

Identify research groups

You may find it useful to create customised groups of your family members for research purposes, based on common characteristics or common research questions. For example:

  • convicts
  • everyone who migrated to Australia
  • people born in Ireland
  • parents not yet identified.

Legacy has both two systems of tagging custom groups. The tag system uses the numbers 1-9 which appear at the top of the individual’s screen. The hashtag system allows a seemingly limitless list of tags.

Ancestry has ‘MyTreeTags’ under the categories of DNA, life experience, relationship and research status, and you can also create custom tags. The tags appear below the person’s name on their screen.

Both Legacy and Ancestry allow you to search your family tree for everyone containing a particular tag and create a list. Legacy also allows you to print the list in PDF format or a CSV file. The latter is great for research planning, as the file can be opened and modified in Excel.

Note the status of research

Noting the status of research on individuals may help make your research more manageable and help you focus on those individuals who need to be prioritised to progress your research.

Ancestry tree tags have the following pre-set tags: actively researching, brick wall, complete, hypothesis, unverified, verified.

Legacy does not have a specific system to note the status of research, but you could use the tags or the To Do List for this purpose.

Even if you do not want to use most of these tags, the unverified tag could be extremely useful because it draws attention to the inconclusive nature of the information which affects the accuracy of your family tree.

Record DNA conclusions

I have written before about methods for recording DNA conclusions, so I won’t repeat that here other than to emphasise that it is important to establish a system for doing so and both Legacy and Ancestry have tools to assist this process.

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. %#*


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.


Your origins

Knowing your ethnicity and where your ancestors came from is more than just an advertising gimmick for DNA testing companies. It is vital context for your family history research. If you know where your ancestors came from, then you know where to search for documents that might contain information about them. And if you know when they arrived in the country where you live now, you know when to start looking for documents there.

Photo by Jamie Morrison on unsplash

Here are some suggestions of ways that you can take stock of your ancestral origins and their arrival dates.

If you have had your DNA tested, check what your ethnicity results tell you. They can only give you a broad picture of your origins, but they may still provide an insight. My DNA results confirmed what I knew about my Chinese, English, Scottish and European origins but the one third Irish was a surprise because, as far as I knew, the only Irish I had was about four generations back. Since then I have discovered that my father was adopted and his birth mother was Irish. Ethnicity results can support your documentary research, or suggest research leads to explore.

Australian genealogists are lucky to live on an island continent. All of our ancestors, with the exception of any indigenous ancestors, had to arrive here on ships or planes which usually recorded their arrival. The date of arrival and their country of origin from shipping or air travel records are a vital piece of information. You can record these in a spreadsheet.

Another handy research tool is a table or chart showing the surnames in your family tree and their country of origin.

Maps are also useful. In a recent webinar about Irish ancestry we were discussing which parts of Ireland our ancestors came from and I drew up this map. It is just a rough map, made by pasting an outline map into Paint and adding colours, but it does the job. Maps like this give you a good indication not just of the locations where you need to look for records, but also the time periods and historical events that may have impacted on your family.

If you use family history software, you can also print out a location report or create a tailored report using the search functions.

Extract from search tool in Legacy family tree software

Managing vital records

Vital records of events such as birth, marriage, divorce and death are essential to demonstrate who is in your family and the relationships between them. Depending on the time period and location, vital records may include church records such as baptisms, marriages and burials; and civil records such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, divorce records, wills and probate documents.

Since these records are so essential in family history, we need to take steps to manage them efficiently.

Step 1: Review your documentation and determine which vital records you already have for each person in your family tree, or for each person in family groups on your direct line.

Step 2: If you use family history software, scan the records and upload them as media to the relevant person(s). If you have a paper based system, place a printed copy in the folder of the relevant person(s). Keeping vital records with other records and information about a person makes further research much easier.

Step 3: Create a centralised master list of vital records, or update it if you already have one. A master list helps you keep track of which records you have already obtained and which you still need to obtain. This list can help you prioritise which ones you want to purchase next and reduce the likelihood that you will accidentally purchase records that you already have.

Step 4: Update your research plans by adding tasks of obtaining the vital records you are still missing.

Step 5: Consider donating a copy of your vital records to your family history society to assist other researchers.