Family History ACT

The Heraldry & Genealogy Society of Canberra Inc.


by Sue Pillans

If you want a story that you can defend because its facts have been tested at all stages, you need to follow a few simple rules. The alternative might be a collection of unverified stories from the internet that repeats other people’s errors.

Think about what you want to achieve, what started your interest e.g. a family mystery, a family reunion? Have a goal:

  • Trace your fathers or mothers line
  • Find out about an interesting sounding ancestor
  • Locate pioneers in a particular district
  • Trace all descendants of a particular pioneer or immigrant couple
  • Trace an occupation that was handed down in a family

Simple research rules:

  1. Start with the known and move to the unknown. This means begin with yourself and move backwards to previous generations one generation at a time, proving each step.
  2. Prove your work at each step. For the family historian this means looking at primary and secondary sources, verifying data and finding corroborating evidence.
  3. Keep accurate records about the sources and references you looked at and the results of this research. By following basic research principals you will have confidence in your research and your family history will be credible.

The process is to:

  • Collect all information about yourself, or your current topic
  • Look for all other things in your home that might be useful
  • Consider sources and information from other family members
  • Obtain the genuine certificates and primary documents
  • Search official records
  • Put your material in order
  • Join a research network
  • Contact people who may be able to help
  • Publicise your interest in family history
  • Report back to your family by word email or on paper
  • Visit if possible places where your ancestors lived
  • Write up stories, including your own story for your family.

Do your own research. Don’t assume any information given to you is correct without checking it yourself. This goes for all information that you find online.

  • Join a family history society or other professional organization.

Use a Pedigree chart, it shows the direct line of your ancestor only, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on- but no siblings, begin entering details in the space provided but only fill in what you have evidence about.

Also use a family group chart, is the place to enter in-depth details of individual families, so this is where you fill in the information about your parents and siblings.

Getting organized!

Family history can quickly descend into chaos. You will start to gather vast amount of data, in various forms from many sources. Having a system in place early on will help you keep track of what you know and what you need to learn.

Tools of the Trade:

You will most likely end up with a combination of paper based, scanned or downloaded images, word processor documents, spreadsheets and records stored in a family history program. Each of these record types needs to be managed so that you can find what you want when you need it.

Each has its issues of permanence, you are creating historical records which you want to preserve for future generations. A set of strategies that allow you to record, preserve and make your family history accessible is essential.

Storage of paper records- ring binders or display books.

Correspondence- a clear, polite and concise letter to distant relatives enclosing a pre stamped envelope is more likely to get a response. Keep a log of correspondence sent and received so you can follow up on information.

Emails – use a nested folder structure in your mail client (e.g. google) that reflects your contents i.e. Level 1 family history, Level 2 primary surnames

Keep a research log, filling it in whenever you begin a session detailing the date and place, noting both successes and failures so that you don’t waste time doing it again.

If you get photocopies, digital downloads or images write the source on them immediately, before you forget the exact details.

If you are copying part of a publication, copy the title page and perhaps the contents as well

If copying by hand transcribe in full not in a private shorthand, with names be careful and add question marks if unsure of spelling.

Use pre-ruled forms with the necessary headings for the record you are using if at all possible.

Consider using a reference management package such as Endnote or Bookends for recording your sources. These packages allow you to store your notes as well as source information.

Remember that indexes to sources of information are not evidence, always check the original source. Having said that never go past an index of any sort. Always carry a basic summary information with you such as a copy of relevant family group charts for reference when visiting family or on research visit.

Your research will, ideally culminate in a written family history but even if you don’t get this far don’t leave a pile of scrappy papers as your memorial, if you leave your stuff well organized then maybe a descendent will write “the book”.​​​​​​