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Start with yourself

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Family history research starts with you and works backwards and outwards.

First record what you know about yourself and your immediate family.

  • What is your full name?
  • When and where were you born?
  • Who are your parents, including step-parents and adopted parents?
  • Who are your siblings, including step-brothers and sisters?
  • Who is your current spouse or partner?
  • Who are your children, and your children’s other parent?
  • Who are your grandparents?
  • Have you or your family members been known by different names, including nicknames?
  • What are the dates and locations for important events for these family members – birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, death?
  • Where have you lived during your life?

Write down everything you know

Focus on writing down information you can remember or can find from documents you have at home. These documents might include birth, death and marriage certificates, wills, family photographs, newspaper clippings and family letters. Look especially for things that have been passed down through the family. As well as documents and photographs, these could be objects such as household items, books, jewellery or even furniture. Sometimes objects have names, dates and/or places written on them which may provide you with information about family members.

After writing down what you already know, you can see what information is missing and what more you need to find out.

Ask your family

Your family are likely to be a great source of important information.

Start with the people closest to you, particularly older relatives whose memories might span four or five generations. Ask them for the same basic information about themselves that you’ve already recorded about you:

  • full name and nicknames
  • date and place of birth
  • names of their parents, siblings, spouse or partner, children and grandparents
  • dates and locations of important events such as births, marriages and deaths
  • places they’ve lived.

At this early point in your research these conversations are fact-finding missions. You are looking for the names, dates and places that are held in your own memory and in the memories of family members or friends of the family who you can easily talk with. You may be surprised at how much information you are able to gather this way. If you find that a family member has many family stories you might ask them whether you could record an oral history interview with them.

Sensitivities about the past

Be aware that some family members might not want to talk about the past. It might bring up difficult memories or touch on sensitive issues they’d rather forget. This can be frustrating for you as a researcher, but you need to be respectful of their wishes. You can always try to talk to them again later, when you can show and tell them more about the research you’ve been doing.

Write down everything you find out

Your goal at this stage is to gather information that is fairly easy to get from home and family members. It won’t be complete, but you will need these basics to begin the next stage of your research.

Ask your family members whether they have any old family documents and photographs, and whether you can have a copy. Older relatives might have already written down some of the family history or begun compiling a family tree or created a slideshow for a family reunion or a commemoration. You can easily make a copy of items by taking a photo with a digital camera or smart phone. If relatives start to see you as the ‘family historian’, they might be happy to give material to you. People may be happy to know someone is going to put the things they have been saving to good use.

Looking at family records and talking to your relatives you might find just the piece of information you need. For example, one of your grandfathers or great grandfathers may have served in the First World War. You might never have heard about this, but once you start asking questions people will tell you many useful details.

Make sure you keep really good notes (or a sound or video recording) for each person you speak to. Also see if they can help you fill in information about other family members. You can also start to compare information you get from different sources. See Sources at home.

Last updated: 06 April 2021