How to search smarter: find your family history more effectively


28 June 2024
How to search family history smarter. Genealogy skills with Dr Sophie Kay Family Tree UK How to search family history smarter. Genealogy skills with Dr Sophie Kay
Searching is the name of the game when it comes to family history - but, are you match fit? Do you ever find yourself going round in circles, coming up with … nothing… or too much? Do you feel that there must be a better way of going about things? Well there is! Kiss goodbye to these frustrating experiences and try out Dr Sophie Kay’s tactics today

Dr Sophie Kay is passionate about thorough, methodical research as it can, and will, make all the difference to the success of our search outcomes.

Here she shares 5 very practical, do-able steps for you to use to shape up your search skills right away. The full details of how to follow these very useful steps, along with a worksheet to copy, fill-in and keep to help your search smarter, are all available in the July 2024 issue of Family Tree out now.

Family history search skill step 1: Making deliberate choices

Aim for a deliberate search

Sophie advises: "In this modern world of digital research, it’s alarmingly easy to fire off searches online without engaging our brain to work out what we’re searching for. Aim for measured and deliberate instead. First, use your research question to guide you towards a specific record set which is appropriate for your time and place of interest."

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Family history search skill step 2: Staying mindful of context

Sophie asks: "how can we interpret historical records correctly unless we appreciate the circumstances of the time and place they were created?". Sophie continues: "Context is also important when evaluating search results." For instance, Sophie explains: "Appreciating how unusual our ancestor’s name was for its time and place can – used alongside other evidence – help us to evaluate the likelihood of a particular candidate being our person of interest, rather than a namesake."

Family history search skill step 3: Understand the records

"Time learning about the nature, contents and provenance of the historical records we’re using is time well spent, and can help us to use our research sessions productively," writes Sophie. "For instance, we don’t want to waste time searching a particular record set for parental names if such details were never recorded there."

Family history search skill step 4: Cast a wide net

Sophie shares her golden rule! "My golden rule for genealogical searches is that you’re not looking for a NAME, you’re looking for a PERSON – a person who may appear in historical records in any number of ways." Sophie continues: "If we are too restrictive in the names we use when searching for them, we risk casting such a narrow search net that our ancestor will never end up amongst the day’s catch." So - cast that wide search net.

Family history search skill step 5: Be curious about results

"A healthy degree of curiosity is an asset for any family historian, particularly when it comes to working through a list of search results," encourages Sophie. "Pause to consider and log your results, and whether there are more or fewer than you expected. Did you cast a wide enough search net? Or was your net so wide that you need to add in an extra search term to narrow down the options?"

Do you love Sophie Kay's methodical, practical approach to doing your family history searching better? If so, we think you'll love the Family History Research Skills Workbook by Dr Sophie Kay (£20). Buy your copy here.