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.


How should you document a broader search?

The FFANs principle neatly categorises the people in a broader search as family, friends, associates or neighbours. Family can be included in your family tree, but how should you document research into friends, associates and neighbours?

What information needs to be documented?

First we must consider the type of information that needs to be documented. We are researching FFANs because that research may provide information which contributes to the history of someone in our family.

The key information, therefore, is:

  • name of the FFAN
  • vital dates and locations (birth, marriage death)
  • name of the person in your family that they are connected to
  • nature of the connection
  • information obtained from researching the FFAN that is relevant to the person in your family
  • source citations for that information.

Research plans

Including FFANs in research plans helps you focus your research on specific research questions that are necessary to progress your research and identify which FFAN is most likely to provide the best information.

You could include FFANs in the research plan of the ancestor that they are connected to. For example, I create research plans in Excel and add extra worksheets for FFANs. One worksheet lists all potentially relevant FFANs, then worksheets are added for more detailed research about those which have the potential to yield useful information.

Alternatively, you could create separate research plans for each FFAN or group of FFANs.

Family trees and associated documentation

When you research family beyond your direct line, you should add them to your family tree as this identifies their relationship to you. Friends, associates and neighbours can also be included in your family tree as unlinked individuals. You can then add their families, if that information is relevant to your research.

Another option is to create separate family trees for different family lines and for friends, associates and neighbours. I personally do not like having multiple trees. Family history software and online family trees have tools to help you with your research and I find that these tools work better if the people are all in the same tree. Having them all in the one tree also keeps all the information together, which minimises the risk that you will lose information or forget about some of the people that you were planning to research.

You should also extend your organising system for associated documentation to include FFANs. For example, I organise all my files by paternal and maternal sides, then by surname. I store documentation about FFANs under the surname that they are connected to.

How do you link FFANs to your ancestors?

Regardless of which approach you take to research planning and family trees, you need a system to document who each FFAN belongs to.

Using unique identifier numbers greatly assists this process. Family history software automatically adds a unique identifier number to each person. If you do not use software, you can set up your own manual system. The numbers are used to distinguish between people of the same name and as a short reference to a person.

You could use your master list of research plans to provide cross-referencing between ancestors and their FFANs, as demonstrated below.

Example master list of research plans using unique identifier numbers to cross reference to FFANs.

Another option is to add information about the FFANs and their connections on the profile of the relevant ancestor. Ideally they should appear with the information about the shared connection. For example, I added each of the men who were executors of John Townson’s will to my family tree as unlinked individuals, and then I added their names and unique identifier numbers to the fact about the will on John’s profile. I can use this information to search my tree by their names or their identifier numbers. Adding information about their connection to John on the profiles of each FFAN also allows me to trace that the link back to John.

DNA matches

DNA matches can be treated as FFANs, because the DNA results suggest that they are probably part of your extended family. DNA matches should be added to your family tree, if you have sufficient information and they are relevant to your research.

If you know, or think you know, the most recent common ancestor between yourself and your DNA match, you could include that DNA match in the research plan of that common ancestor. You could also list the DNA matches on the profile of that ancestor.

If you have not yet identified the most recent common ancestor, you might find it useful to have a research plan for a group of DNA matches who appear to be related to you in the same way, or have a DNA research plan for each of your four grandparent lines. A single DNA research plan would also be feasible.

You might like to read a post I wrote a while back, Research Planning with DNA.


How do you research beyond your direct line?

If just researching your direct line is the wrong approach to family history research, then how far beyond that line do you need to go and how do you decide who to research?

FFANs principle

Applying the ‘FANs principle’ involves researching the Friends, Associates and Neighbours of our ancestors. A variant of this principle adds an extra F for Family (the ‘FFANs principle’) to remind us to include the extended family. The FFANs principle is sometimes referred to as ‘cluster research’.

The basis of this principle is that sources about people associated with our family or a particular individual may contain additional relevant information that helps our research. This is because FFANs and our research subject may:

  • both have a relationship with the same person or person(s)
  • have participated in the same events, or
  • have a shared history or characteristic.

Shared relationship example: Siblings share the same parents. If the birth certificate of one child does not list the mother’s maiden name this information might be found on the birth certificate of one of their siblings.

Shared events example: Immigrants may arrive on the same ship. A diary by one of the passengers on a ship might provide information about the journey and their experiences, which can be extrapolated in a general sense to the research subject.

Shared history or characteristic example: If the research subject was a midwife, researching other midwives in the same place and time period might provide insights into their life and work.

Collateral research

‘Collateral research’ is similar to the FFANs principle, but it focuses only on researching the extended family. Specifically, people who are also descended from your distant ancestors – second cousins, fourth cousins once removed and so on.

Collateral research is fundamental to research that involves DNA evidence, as it helps to identify how DNA matches are related to the DNA test subject through a common ancestor. Once the relationship has been confirmed, the DNA test subject can then utilise the research of the DNA match (if available) to supplement their own research. For example, the DNA match may have photographs of the common ancestor that the DNA test subject did not have.

Family reconstitution

‘Family reconstitution’ goes beyond biological relationships and reconstructs all family units within a specific location. It has its origins in demographic research, but can be a useful tool in family history if you have difficulty identifying which person or family from that place are your ancestors, or if you need to clarify the relationships between different families. This method relies mostly on parish records, but can also be applied to census records and other sets of records that are spatially specific.

One-name studies

‘One-name studies’ examine all occurrences of a surname, even if the people are not biologically related. The objectives of these studies are to identify the origin of the name, relative frequency, distribution in place and time, patterns of immigration and name variants. Reconstructing families and the family history of all lines is not required but such information may be gathered during the study.  

More information: Guild of One-Name Studies.

Which technique and how far should you research?

The FFANs principle is often recommended as a strategy for ‘brick wall’ research, but I suggest that it should be a fundamental element of all research as it provides more information and increases the likelihood that the family history will be accurate. Collateral research is a subset of that approach and may be sufficient in some circumstances. Family reconstitution and One-name studies may also be appropriate approaches in specific situations.

However, you do not need to research every family member, friend, associate and neighbour. Nor do you need to research them to the same level of detail.

How far do you need to extend your research? As far as necessary to:

  • conduct a reasonably exhaustive search, and
  • answer your research questions.

Any source can contain errors, gaps and inconsistencies, so you need to gather sufficient sources to resolve these problems. In addition, different source types provide different types of information. Sources for a family member may not be sufficient to answer your research questions.

As a minimum, best practice involves researching entire family groups on your direct lines (i.e. the parents and all their children), not just direct ancestors. But how much research should you do on the family? Since the key to an accurate family history is the identification of the correct people and the relationships between them, start by examining the key vital records for each – i.e. birth death and marriage records. This may provide additional information, or it should at least provide corroboration of identities and family relationships.

You will need to go beyond these key vital records and research families in more detail if:

  • the sources reveal gaps or inconsistencies
  • the sources do not provide the necessary information to answer your research questions, or
  • you have tested your DNA.
It helps to think of FFANs in terms of their degree of connectedness to your direct ancestors

Extending your research beyond the family will be necessary if the sources about the family do not provide the information you need. For example, if you want to know more about the military career of your ancestor and none of the family shared that experience, then you need to research their military associates.

The key to identifying the relevant FFANs to research lies in your research questions and an analysis about the type of information that research into them might provide. Stay tuned for my next post where I examine this in relation to a specific ancestor of mine.

Photo: Squair family, from the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists

Methodology, Sources and resources

Study the repositories

Learning about the types of sources that provide useful information for family history is essential, but so too is learning about the repositories.

Identifying the repository

A repository is a place which holds sources. A genealogical source is anything that provides you with information for family history. Sources include books, journal articles, birth certificates, wills and records of land ownership. They also include items such as photographs, handwritten poems, advertisements, or something less tangible such as personal recollections.

So, if these are examples of the range of source types, how does that help us identify a repository?

Some are easy. Buildings, such as libraries and archives; places, such as cemeteries; and websites that are managed by an institution or organisation.

Others are a bit trickier.

What is the repository for a website managed by an individual? What about sources held in a personal collection? And what is the repository when the source is the memory of a person?

Another complication is that an institution or organisation may manage multiple repositories, and an individual can manage multiple websites. The NSW State Archives, for example, holds sources in buildings at various locations around the state and also holds some sources online.

Finding sources

Why is it important to identify the repository? The first reason is so that we can find the sources.

When we research, we develop research questions, think about the information we need to answer the questions, make a list of sources that might provide that information, then make a list of repositories where the sources may be held. In this process, we may research the sources to determine which ones are likely to be useful, but how much time do we spend researching the repositories?

As mentioned above, an institution, organisation or individual may have more than one repository. We need to know that before we go looking for sources. Have the sources been digitised and placed online, or do we have to visit in person?

We also need to know how the repository is managed. Each repository is different. They have different collection policies that determine the sources they hold. They have different methods for organising the sources, describing them and presenting them to researchers. They may even have different versions of a source.

For example, a state library and a state archive may both have collections of convict indents but they may cover different date ranges and they may catalogue them differently. In addition, one repository may have the original sources and another may have derivative copies.

Learning about repositories increases our chances of finding the sources that we need.

Citing a repository

Knowledge about repositories helps us cite our sources more effectively.

It is true that we cite our sources, not the repositories. A citation that just says the information came from Ancestry, for example, is not a good citation because Ancestry is a repository.

However, that does not mean that we never mention a repository in a citation. In fact, citations for family history research often do mention the repository. Why is that?

I have written before about how to craft a good citation. One of the key rules is that you need to include the information necessary to find the source. If a source is unpublished, for example, it is unlikely to be found unless the repository is included in the citation. This could be the name of the archive or cemetery and its location. In the case of a website, locational information in the form of a URL performs the same function; and for a personal collection or personal recollection the owner is identified in the citation. If the source used is a derivative source, it is good practice to include information about the repository of both the derivative and original versions.

Example, unpublished source in an archive:

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.

Example, online derivative source with information about the repository of the original:

FamilySearch, “England Bishop’s transcripts,” database ( accessed 21 Jun 2016), entry for Frances, daughter of Peter & Frances Hawkins; St Nicholas Church, Brighton, Sussex, FHL film no. 1,468,821, page 186, no. 1481; citing West  Sussex Record Office, Chichester, no.: EP II/16/27A-M.

Using sources

Information about the repositories also helps us use the sources effectively.

When the people who manage repositories gather sources together, store them and then present them to researchers they have an impact on the sources.

They may alter the sources – accidentally or deliberately. They may leave some parts of a source out or reorganise them, or group different types of sources together. They may provide explanatory material or material that presents their interpretation of the sources.

Learning about the repositories helps us understand these impacts and this understanding improves our analysis of the sources.


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.