09 November 2023
What is a family history and what should it include? Read on for inspiration on creating a family history that’s personal to you and can be passed down to the next generation with pride.
What is a family history?
A family history is the story of your family’s past – collected and displayed in a way that’s personal to you. There are no rules, and the project can be as simple or as extensive as you like. The story of your family is always changing and so this can be a long-term project that you build gradually over the years; easy to access history that you can share with family within a matter of days.
Read on for inspiration on what to include, how to put everything together, and the best ways to care for your family history treasures, from irreplaceable documents and photographs, to well-loved heirloom items that are still used in your home today.
1. Assess what family history items you already have
Whether or not you know it, chances are you already have the makings of a family history, without needing to set foot outside the door. Old photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, diaries and certificates are examples of paper- based family history material to get you started.
As you begin, think about what’s important to you and your family:
• Is the family history for your own use and enjoyment, or will you want to share it with others?
• Would you like to pass it down to the next generation?
• Do you want to commemorate an ancestor’s military service?
• Or trace your maternal or paternal line back as far as you can?
• Perhaps you have deep roots in your local area and want to find out more about the history of your house and town?
CLAIM YOUR FREE DNA 101 GUIDE!
Sign up to the Family Tree email HERE for weekly news and articles and receive your FREE DNA 101 guide!
Finding a ‘peg’ for the project is a good way to ensure you have a focus, will be researching topics that interest you. It will help you make decisions about what to include.
2 Think about how much time and space you have for family history
Consider how much time you have to devote to the project, and where you might keep your family history. Although some items, such as old furniture and garden tools once owned by our ancestors might be in daily use, you will probably want to have your own collection of documents and photographs too, and perhaps scan some of your precious originals, both as a safeguard and to share with others.
3 Will your family history be online or offline?
Next, think about whether you’d like your family tree research to be online, offline or both. Obviously your original documents and photographs are offline items and we’ll take a look at how to care for those in Step 4.
As you progress with your research, chances are that you’ll be doing a mixture of online research, and research carried out in archives, libraries and record offices, so have a think about how you’ll record this information. If you like working on paper, then a collection of notebooks and a paper family tree chart would work well.
If you like the flexibility of digital, you can easily use a laptop or tablet, both at home and at record offices etc, keeping your notes organised and updating an online family tree as you work. FamilySearch has a great free online family tree builder and commercial sites such as Ancestry, FindMyPast, MyHeritage and TheGenealogist all offer online trees and access to record collections that will help you trace your ancestors back in time.
4 How to care for family heirlooms
When it comes to storing paper-based documents and photographs, acid-free is the key! You can buy acid-free folders, boxes, tissue paper and photograph album pages from stationery stores. These have been designed to the standards used by archives and libraries for long-term storage.
Avoid storing any of your treasures in cold, damp spaces (such as the attic) or where they could be damaged by sunlight. Precious items such as war medals, clothing and china can also be stored in acid-free boxes and where practical, wrapped in archive-quality tissue paper to protect against dust.
Read our special home storage guide here.
5 Go way beyond names and dates
Family history is sometimes thought of as simply a collection of names and dates, but nothing could be further from the truth! You can bring the stories of your ancestors to life – and make things more interesting for yourself – by digging deeper.
Local newspapers, the census, old photographs, local histories and occupation records are just a few of the many ways in which you can put flesh on the bones of those names on your family tree. If you plan to share your findings with family members, have a think about what might interest them too. Do you have a nurse in the family? Perhaps you can find an ancestor who served in the medical corps in one of the World Wars.
When it comes to those vital birth, marriage and death dates, think beyond that specific life. What was happening during those years? Which monarch was on the throne? Was there a strike, war, famine, or far-reaching historical event? Any of these might have impacted on your ancestor’s life and as such, can be included as part of their life story.
6 Who do you want to include in your family history?
As with the rest of this project, the question of who to include is very much up to you. In general, it’s best to start with yourself and then work backwards, including your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on.
If you prefer to work down just one of the lines – maternal or paternal – that’s fine, and if you feel like a challenge, you can include the siblings of your parents and grandparents too.
Really don’t forget to include yourself and present-day family. Keep labelled photographs, birth, marriage & death certificates and so on, to create your own future archive for your own descendants to enjoy.
7 Sharing your family history
We hope that you’ll enjoy working on your family history so much that it’ll become a lifetime’s work. A family history is never really complete – there’s always something new to learn, new records to explore – and of course, your own life goes on, adding to the story of your family. So enjoy sharing your research with friends and relatives as you go.
Most online family tree providers have a facility to allow you to download your family history tree as a shareable file, or to share a weblink with others. You could even make copies of old photographs and documents for other family members. And don’t forget to record the stories and memories of your aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents too. If you’re really lucky, they might have photos and documents that you haven’t seen.
Enjoy making this project your own and connecting and sharing with others. We hope we’ve inspired you to start a project that will give you years of pleasure.