05 June 2023
Diane Lindsay urges us to take a step back from those tempting family history hints that seem to promise the world – or a new ancestor at the very least – and instead go back to basics with our older research
I’ve often given thanks to various websites for family history hints, tips and suggestions, even when they’ve led nowhere in the end. Negative searches, as we all know are still useful in that we can record and cross them off. Or better still, return at some later date; in today’s fast-moving technological world we should never say never. New possibilities turn up all the time.
Searching for an Italian immigrant in a Welsh village recently, who I knew had Anglicized the family name, I found him through an address search in the 1939 Register, where a previously closed entry had been opened, and the old distinctive name annotated over the new one in red ink. I’d never have recognised it in a search, but then checking censuses revealed he’d also claimed Welsh birth, which his passport clearly showed was untrue.
Family history hints
My favourite hint for newbies and old hands alike has always been to return regularly to research and do a general housekeeping check. Such as daft dates that can’t work, mistakes in copied data, or a speculative note added in a rush forgetting it wasn’t fact unless proven… or is that just me?
Even more importantly though, go back on former searches occasionally, adding sources you forgot to record in early enthusiasm, find something missed the first time because you didn’t know enough to recognise it, or find something totally new that’s been sitting there waiting for you to find it and spring off into a great new line of enquiry.
I’ve personally made every mistake possible over the years, don’t always practice what I preach and have been guilty more times than I should probably admit to getting so excited over a find that when I return to the note I made of it, I find near gibberish. I certainly know what pitfalls to warn new family historians about! I suspect most of us are sometimes guilty of chasing a lead down a long and winding path without leaving some ‘breadcrumbs’ to mark the return route, far too easily done when you’re excitedly consulting volumes in a record office or following links in and out of websites.
Fortunately, I’ve always been both a paper and a digital recorder of practically everything, so I can usually retrace my steps and find most things again. I never feel it’s time wasted, as slowing down on a regular basic with this absorbing hobby of ours is always A Good Thing. Consequently, I always follow notifications of new records, hints, tips and finds that most family history websites add almost daily, even when it looks like something I already knew. I admit it’s quite eerie finding oneself flagged up as being born, though I was delighted to discover my christening record recently. I am though, starting to feel that the whole Is this your ancestor? thing might be getting a bit out of hand. What do you think...?
Diane Lindsay discovered her twin passions of family history and English (and her sense of humour) while training as a teacher and bringing up three small children in the 1970s. She's a writer and local and family historian and, although retired, still teaches anything to anyone who will listen.
Extracted from Diane Lindsay's column in the July 2023 issue of Family Tree magazine. Get your copy at Family Tree.