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.


What is a ‘Good Genealogist’?

My new book, The Good Genealogist, was launched at the Society of Australian Genealogist last Thursday. It was really great to see so many of my colleagues there – most of whom I hadn’t seen since before COVID and others that I had only ever seen through zoom. I am humbled by the enthusiasm that I have received for my book. I love to teach and I spend as much time figuring out how to deliver the information as I do figuring out which information to provide. So, it is always great to hear that people find it useful and that I have conveyed the techniques comprehensibly.

I think that most people will understand what the title of my book means, but nevertheless, a blog post about it will not hurt.

We all know that there is a lot of ‘bad’ family history out there, primarily online but it also appears in archives and sometimes in published format. ‘Bad’ family history is poorly researched, poorly documented and contains conclusions that have little to no evidence to support them. ‘Bad’ family history means that people are claiming the wrong people as family and it leads other researchers astray.

Why is there so much ‘bad’ family history around?

One of the greatest aspects of family history is that anyone can participate. You do not have to attend university and get a degree, and you do not have to be accredited. Most genealogists do not have a background in historical research, which means that they can find it difficult to locate relevant historical information and interpret the information when they do find it.

The purpose of my book, my blog, and the lectures and courses that I give, is to teach those who do not have a background in historical research how to research their family history. It is also aimed at those who may have a background in historical research but need to know more about family history, or those who have been researching their family history for some time but want to improve their skills.

It is my belief that with guidance and practice, anyone can be a good genealogist and create good family history. The expression, ‘good genealogist’, is aspirational for all of us.

The qualities of a good genealogist can of course be debated, but the key features that I have focused on are listed in this image.

From ‘The Good Genealogist. How to Improve the Quality of Your Family History’ (Danielle Lautrec, 2022)

Note: Accreditation is required in some locations if you want to work as a professional genealogist.

Methodology, Sources and resources

Study the locations where your family lived

Researching the places where your families lived can add depth to their stories but there is a more important reason for doing location research. Sources about your families vary by location and you can use your knowledge of locations to find sources and help you identify which sources are likely to supply the best information.

Researching locations

Wikipedia is a good place to start if you are unsure about the location of a place. In addition to maps, it also provides helpful information the history and geography of an area. However, it rarely has much detail about historical jurisdictions and genealogical sources, so you will need to dig deeper.

The FamilySearch wiki is, in my view, the best place to start when researching locations for family history. It has a page for each country, with maps, research guidance and information about how jurisdictions have changed over time.

Cyndi’s List is another great resource. It contains lists of websites by location. See for example, the list for Poland.

Recording information about locations

Where do you store all the information you gather about a location?

My preference is to incorporate as much of my research as possible within my family history software, as that makes it easier for me to find and use. Fortunately, I use Legacy Family Tree and it allows you to attach notes and media to each location. You can access this feature by clicking on a location then selecting Edit, or by opening the Location Master List and editing the location from there. You can then print out the Location Master List with the notes, by ticking the box that says ‘include location notes’.

Extract from a Location Master List in Legacy Family Tree software, illustrating how notes can be added to a location

I also have a folder on my computer called Places, with subfolders for each of the countries or continents that my ancestors came from or lived in. I store copies of documents about those places in these folders, such as maps and research guides.

You could use a spreadsheet in Excel (or similar program) to summarise the key information about locations, such as the commencement of civil registration, languages spoken and addresses of repositories. If you are not keen on Excel, Word or PowerPoint could also be used.

Recording your location research online has the added benefit of making your research available to you wherever you go, provided you have an internet connection. Online family trees tend to be person-focused with little to no scope for adding location notes. However, you could create a free-space profile on Wikitree, create your own website, store your files in cloud storage, or just rely on the FamilySearch wiki place page.

Whichever method you use, it is a good idea to have a standard format, as that makes the information easier to locate and compare information. The FamilySearch wiki place pages provide a good model for the types of information you might like to gather when researching locations, such as maps, a list of states/regions/provinces, record types available, gazetteers, history, jurisdictions, languages, social life and customs, local research resources, societies, online resources such as websites and Facebook pages. You might also like to include lists of books, journals, journal articles.

Sources and resources

Citing an archival source

One of the challenges when using archives is how to cite their materials as the source of your information. Archival materials are unpublished and come in a wide range of formats. In addition, each archive organises their collections differently, so you need to investigate their organisational system and the identifiers that they use in their catalogue.

Citation format

My usual method for citing sources is to use the following six questions and place the answers in that general order in a citation. This puts the author in first place, which is useful in a bibliography that is sorted alphabetically.

My six question model for source citations:

  1. Whose work is it (author)?      
  2. What is it?                      
  3. Who created it (if not the author)?
  4. Where was it created?
  5. When was it created?
  6. Are there any additional details required to find it again?    

This method does work for archival sources, as shown by the following examples:

An unpublished diary held in the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists:

John Augustus Milbourne Marsh, unpublished journal commences 1 September 1848 on ship from England to Australia, Item 2/301, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

A photograph held in the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists:

Anonymous, John Willoughby Bean (b1881 Bathurst NSW Australia), unpublished photograph in album of Edwin and Lucy Bean, Item 6/1165, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

However, some archives suggest a different citation structure. They suggest that the name of the institution or repository be in first place in the citation, followed by descriptor information such as the record series and alphanumerical codes used in their catalogues.

Some, such as the NSW State Archives and the UK National Archives, omit the name of the creator of the source altogether or suggest that the information is optional in a citation. I do not agree with this. It is important in family history to understand who created a source and naming them in a citation should not be optional. It is also important to understand the nature of the source and a citation without the title of the item does not meet our needs.

Putting the repository in first place is not a problem if the creator of the source is clearly named, such as in this example from the NSW State Archives:

NSW State Archives: Supreme Court of NSW, Probate Division; NRS 13660, Probate packets. Series 4-152266 James Smith Hollisen – Date of Death 15/12/1927, Granted On 26/06/1928.

Further guidance

If you are using material from a family history archive, you may be able to gather information to help with your citation by examining other material that was donated with it, and looking for a record of who donated the material and whose family history it belongs to.

Some archives provide guidelines for citing their materials. You should use their guidelines, but bear in mind my suggestions in this article about providing more information about the creator of the materials and a clear description of the materials.

When creating a source citation for archival material, remember the reasons for source citations and include all the necessary information to achieve those purposes. You might like to read my earlier blog posts on this topic: Four good reasons, Part 1; Four good reasons, Part 2.

A few archival guidelines:

National Archives of Australia Fact Sheet No. 7, Citing archival records.

NSW State Archives

UK National Archives