Shopping Cart -

Your cart is currently empty.
Continue Shopping
This website use cookies and similar technologies to improve the site and to provide customised content and advertising. By using this site, you agree to this use. To learn more, including how to change your cookie settings, please view our Cookie Policy
Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Pocketmags Digital Magazines
   You are currently viewing the Canada version of the site.
Would you like to switch to your local site?
Digital Subscriptions >  Blog > 20 easy ways to make an awesome family history

20 easy ways to make an awesome family history
Family Tree

20 easy ways to make an awesome family history

Posted July 6, 2016   |   4436 views   |   General Interest Make your research better than ever and have lots of fun along the way – Helen Tovey’s ideas will help you grow a family tree to be proud of.

For ideas on how to keep better family history notes, learn something new, and record and preserve the treasured labour of love that is your family history, read on.

Some of the ‘projects’ are extremely practical – like backing up your research (tempting to put off, but vital that you don’t). And others are indulgent and enjoyable, but nonetheless valuable in making sure that you create a well-researched, colourful family history, to enjoy today and to pass on to your descendants with pride. Let’s get started!

1. Keep a research log

Don’t let your research get in a muddle

Keeping a research log is the backbone of your research. It will help you keep track of what you’ve found, where you’ve found it, and why you came to the conclusions that you did about your discoveries. It’s easy to think – ‘With family history discoveries as interesting as mine are, how could I ever forget them?’ And you’re right, you will remember the gist of the story, the nub of your discoveries. As to the nitty-gritty, there’s no way (m)any of us could hold such precise details in our heads. So to make sure that you do have accurate records of your findings you need to keep a research log. This can take several formats:

· You could use a simple notebook and record who you’ve searched for, when, which websites you’ve looked at, what you’ve found – and what you’ve not found, so that you don’t traipse over the same barren ground next time you research.

· You can use dedicated record sheets which are very useful as the labelled columns will prompt you about the information you need to record.

· If you’re using family history software, make the most of the to-do lists and research notes features.


2. Begin a blog

Create an online home for your research and share it with family 

Writing a blog is a really enjoyable way to record your family history and will help your research in numerous ways. You can create a blog free and easily on sites such as and Keeping a blog will help you:

· journal your research

· publicise your findings

· share the information with relations

· get found by long-lost relations

· improve your writing style

· publicise your growing specialism in a chosen field

You’ll also gather a following (so that when you publish that family history book you’re working on, you have some potential customers lined up).


3. Scan & share your photos

Share pictures with your family and swap copies with your cousins and distant relations

Family photos often come out top of the list of possessions that people would most like to save should their house go up in flames. Scanning your photos means you can enjoy them in so many ways, and you means that you have copies of these precious family faces from the past. When you’re scanning your photos, you’re sure to get the whole family involved when they spot those nostalgic pictures coming out of the storage trunk. Once you’ve scanned your images, not only do you have the peace of mind of a back-up, you can also use these digitised copies in many ways – slideshows for family gatherings, popping a CD in the post to share with a relative, posting an old photo to Facebook for a trip down memory lane, or printing out copies to use in family history craft projects and posters. And you can let the children enjoy them, with no worry about sticky ­fingers!

 4. Label your photos

Make sure you know who’s in the photo

You might know who’s in the picture, but will your children be able to recognise them too? It’s well worth carefully recording the names of the people in the picture and the date it was taken. An old family photo means so much more when you know for sure which loveable old ancestor you’re looking at. Even if it’s obvious to you, ‘That’s Dad, age 6, in Gibraltar, as Grandpa was working out there in the RAF at the time’, how could your descendants possibly guess that?! So as well as dates and places, do record details about the occasion – Grandpa going off to war, Auntie Julie’s wedding and baby Harold’s ­first birthday – each picture is a precious and irreplaceable memento of the past.


5. Back up your research

Keep your hard work and precious family history discoveries safe

Family history is really absorbing, but don’t underestimate the amount of time and effort you put in, nor how valuable your records will become – so back it up. It’s never too soon to get into the habit. Each family’s history is unique, so you need to make sure it’s kept safe – both for your sake (so you don’t have to repeat precious research should it get lost) and so you can pass it on to a future generation. What’s more, if you’ve taken the time to record the memories of older members of your family who have now passed away, records such as these are simply irreplaceable, so all the more valuable.

How you back up will depend on how you work. Use a family history program? Create a back up of that, for instance, on a memory stick. Perhaps export it to GEDCOM from time to time (then should your computer die and your old family history program not work on your newly bought computer, you can simply get a new family history program and import your GEDCOM). Photocopy your notebook if you’re a paper-only person. Write up your notes and blog about them.


6. Keep your source citations

Research and record your findings like an expert

Make notes of the sources you search, and you will ­find that these notes help you in the future, so that you can retrace your steps and explain them to others. When something’s dif­ficult it’s tempting to put off doing it altogether. ‘Source citations’ is just that sort of phrase to make you reach for your mouse and go gallivanting off in search of new ancestors. But not so fast. Source citations can seem complicated but they needn’t be. The main things you need to record are exactly: l which record collection you searched; l where you searched them (e.g. the archive); l the date you searched them. These details (the more the better) will allow you (or someone else) to reconstruct the research steps you’ve taken to see how you arrived at the conclusions you did about your ancestors. If you’re keeping a research log (see number 1), it’ll be much easier to get in the habit of keeping source citations too.


7. Employ a professional researcher

Plan the research goal you have carefully, set a budget, and get some expert help if needed

There are three main obstacles that might deter any of us from asking for help with a family history problem that we’re stuck on. The ­first is because we feel the answer must be out there somewhere, we just have to keep looking. The second is that we might want to ‘do it ourselves’ and feel as though we’re wimping out if we ask for help. And the third is that we’re worried about how much it might cost. But it’s really worth looking at these points a little more closely. Certainly, if you keep looking you will grow in experience, and by exploring more records you may find that vital clue you need. Also you’d be quite right in thinking that perseverance does pay off. Equally we can’t all be experts at every aspect of family history, so don’t be ashamed to ask for help. If you’ve searched thoroughly and kept a clear research log of what you’ve done so far (see how useful a research log is?), you’ll be able to identify precisely what it is you wish to ­find out, and can show the professional genealogist exactly what it is that you’re seeking. This will enable them to work out a much more precise quote and will save them time and you money.


8. Go back one century further

Discover new sources to explore and help you expand your horizons

Set yourself a challenge to take your tree back into an earlier century and relish the opportunities it offers for your research. Whether it’s a lack of skills or con­fidence on how to tackle unfamiliar earlier records, you can ­find your research languishing at a certain point in history. For example, you’ve got back to the earliest useful census (1841) – where next? Paged back to the earliest available, readable and detailed enough parish register (much later than you might hope) – what now? By consciously deciding to trace back that bit further you’ll be opening the door to a world of family history learning opportunities. There will be new records to discover – e.g. manorial records, militia lists, the contents of the parish chest – and new skills to acquire, such as learning how to decipher old handwriting. What’s your goal going to be?


9. Map your ancestors

Gain a much better idea about where they lived and why they moved

Plot your ancestors’ details on a map and you’ll get a much clearer understanding about their whereabouts and their movements, the places they once lived and why they might have upped sticks and left. It can be a country-wide map, or one just showing your ancestors’ suburb, depending on how precisely you wish to record place details. You can either use a printed map, or create a digital one, for instance on Google Maps. A digital map can provide massive flexibility (enabling you to zoom out for the big picture and zoom in for the ­finer detail). You can also embed a link in your blog to share your maps there.


10. Note the brothers’ & sisters’ names

See a fuller picture of your ancestors’ childhood by studying their siblings

Discover whether your ancestor was an only child or one of a large brood, and use the siblings’ details to trace your family between the census years. Sometimes it’s easy to focus just on our direct line ancestors, but researching their siblings is both enjoyable and useful. Struggling to ­find clues about your ancestor in the record? Search for a sibling instead and they could lead you straight to your ancestor. The census records allow you to ­ find your ancestors’ whereabouts every 10 years. But by noting the birth places of the siblings, for instance, you might be able to see whether and where the family moved in the intervening years.


11. Organise a family gathering


Kick back and have a nostalgic knees-up with your relations


Choose a date and place and send out the invitations to the ‘clan’ gathering! Whether you go large or invite just a select few, spending time with family, poring over old photos, sharing family stories and reminiscences is going to be a special day. To set the scene, get your family history on display, with your family tree (don’t worry about gaps – perhaps your relations can help you fill them in), old photos and memorabilia.

12. Read widely


‘The more that you read, the more things you will know; the more that you learn, the more places you’ll go’ Dr Seuss


Read deeply and widely as you learn about your family’s history, and your understanding of their lives and the world they inhabited will be so much richer for it. You can treat yourself to a new book, but don’t forget the interlibrary loan service (by using it you can order almost any book you like to pick it up from your local library for a fee – expect to pay in the region of £5). And there is also a fascinating and growing collection of digitised old books online, see, for instance,



13. Plan a road trip


See with your own eyes, the places and things that relate to your ancestors


Visiting those places that have a connection to your ancestors’ lives will be rewarding and enlightening, and will mean so much more (especially if you’ve read widely on the area before making that trip – see above!). Having a day out at the town where your ancestors lived, walking the battle­ field they once fought over, paying your respects at the grave where they now lie buried... These are family history events certainly not to be missed.


14. Record voices & video stories


Save the family stories, as told by the ancestors, for future generations


There’s something unique and poignant about spoken memories, so grab your recording device and preserve those favourite family anecdotes – you’ll be so glad you did. The oldest form of storytelling is, of course, oral history. But with the written word, oral history was put to one side, perhaps seen as an inferior sort of history, subject to forgetfulness and inaccuracies. For years and years now, however, many of us have had ready access to recording devices, so that – even in this age filled with words – we can record our family’s precious spoken stories.


The main questions to ask

Who are you going to record and what stories are they going to tell?

· Earliest memories?

· Favourite family anecdotes?

· Tales of childhood and siblings?

· Experiences of migration or war?


Everyone has stories to tell, and with every passing year they only grow more precious, so make sure they’re saved.



15. Write your own mini-biography


Start with yourself & tell your story


It’s never too soon to start recording your own life story. It doesn’t have to be a weighty tome, but once you get going you might have more to write about your life than you think. Memories of childhood toys, games, friends and, of course, siblings, are all well worth recording along with ways of life now gone; holidays and home décor. The ordinary things of life become very intriguing once coated with the dust of history.



16. Trace living relatives today


Seek out long-lost family members, wherever they are living in the world


The internet is just waiting to be explored and, with the giant online family trees and social media sites out there, there are numerous places to search for and make contact with your distant relations from all over the world. What do you hope to gain by seeking out long-lost relations? By building bonds with family members near and far, you can share resources, stories and photos, find new clues and have the satisfaction of having found another branch for your family tree.



17. Closely examine BMD certificates


Glean every possible clue from these key, but expensive, family history records


Birth, marriage and death certi­ficates are extremely useful for sound family history research. But they are expensive, so study them carefully for every last clue. Get into the practice of studying every tiny detail and thinking about what light it can shed on your family tree. The witnesses’ names on a marriage certi­ficate, people’s middle names, their occupations, locations and former surnames – each of these might spark a light-bulb moment.



18. Get to know the neighbours


Learn about the people in your ancestors’ communities to find new clues


Make sure you explore the census records thoroughly as our ancestors’ neighbours can reveal valuable clues about the street where they once lived.

· Check out the names of the neighbours and you may be able to spot siblings, cousins, or future spouses living in the house next door.

· Examine their jobs and you may see your ancestors’ former colleagues.

· And take a look at the birthplaces – have the people in the neighbourhood dwelt there for long, moved around a lot, or perhaps migrated from far away?



19. Visit an archive


Hold the original records in your own hands


With the billions of family history records now online, there’s plenty to keep us occupied searching for ancestors long into the night. But the records online are just a selection of those we might search... Visiting an archive can give you the opportunity to explore an even wider range of records, perhaps the more specialised ones that have yet to be digitised (or may never be). You can also get the opportunity to see (and smell) the old pages, and even to ask the archivist for specialist advice on your query.



20. Set yourself a challenge


Get the satisfaction of learning a new skill and putting it into practice to find out more about your ancestors!


Family historians need many skills up their sleeves to become highly ef­ficient ancestor hunters. What do you need to learn how to do to become better equipped?


Perhaps you struggle with old handwriting, or wish you were more of a dab hand on the computer? Maybe you’d love to be able to understand military terminology? Or ­find out exactly what records were in the parish chest? Identify what you’d most value learning and set yourself the goal of accomplishing it. For ideas to help you find the perfect course for you, don’t miss our bumper guide on the top courses for family historians in the September issue of Family Tree!


Editor’s postscript: As I was writing this, I kept thinking, ‘This is my favourite project, or no, maybe this one is’. And certainly the projects that involve my family – passing round old photos, reminiscing, sharing stories, passing on tales about the ancestors to the children and recording memories are the things that really gladden my heart – poignant, funny, precious times. But to make sure we can do this, we need to treasure our family history, keep the light alive and the records straight. So I hope you’ll ­find these ideas helpful and I’d love to hear what you especially enjoy doing with your family history. Please share them with us at or email me at

For more great articles like this get the Family Tree August 2016 issue of Family Tree below or subscribe and save.

Single Issue - Family Tree February 2020 Replica & Mobile Edition included
Or 699 points
Annual Digital Subscription
Only $ 3.85 per issue
Or 4999 points
6 Month Digital Subscription
Only $ 4.92 per issue
Or 3199 points
Monthly Digital Subscription
Only $ 5.07 per issue
Or 549 points

View Issues

About Family Tree

For over 30 years, Family Tree has been helping amateurs and experts trace, research and discover the secrets behind their family history. In every issue, you’ll find practical step-by-step guides and helpful tips for researching your ancestry, with the aim of making the whole experience simple, interesting and fun!
Looking for Family Tree in print?
Unfortunately does not sell print copies of Family Tree, but all is not lost. Our partner at sells print subscriptions at the best prices online.
View all offers Print Magazines

More great content like this...

For more great articles like this subscribe to Family Tree today.

Family Tree
Annual Digital Subscription for $49.99 saving 45%
Looking for Family Tree in print?
Unfortunately does not sell print copies of Family Tree, but all is not lost. Our partner at sells print subscriptions at the best prices online.
View all offers Print Magazines

Most read articles this month

The 5 Best News Magazines

The 5 Best News Magazines

Keep up with the latest affairs across the world with a news digital subscription here at Pocketmags. More...
The 7 Best Fitness Magazines

The 7 Best Fitness Magazines

Discover helpful fitness guidance for all types of exercise as well as health and wellbeing advice with one of our 7 best fitness magazines, and get on track to a healthier you. More...
The 5 Best Women's Fitness Magazines

The 5 Best Women's Fitness Magazines

Whether you’re looking for a new exercise that you’ll love or expert advice on improving your personal best, we have put together a guide to the best women’s fitness magazines here at Pocketmags. More...
The 5 Best Fashion Magazines

The 5 Best Fashion Magazines

Take your wardrobe to the next level and stay ahead of the crowds with our guide to the 5 best fashion magazines. More...
How To Crochet For Beginners

How To Crochet For Beginners

Are you a crochet beginner? If yes, take a read of our helpful guide to understanding more about this craft, what tools you need and our best tips to get started. More...
The 7 Best Sports Magazines

The 7 Best Sports Magazines

Whether you love keeping up with the latest transfer news or being the first to know the best tips to perfect your skills, browse our wide range of the best digital sports magazines. More...
Empire Magazine Review

Empire Magazine Review

Get the inside scoop on all things Hollywood with Empire, the go-to magazine for film fanatics who can't get enough of the silver screen. More...
Photography for Beginners

Photography for Beginners

Thinking of taking up photography but not sure where to start? No problem! Our photography for beginners guide is packed full of tips to get you started. More...
Vouchers Gift Cards A magazine subscription is the perfect gift but you'll need something to show on the big day. View All
Ways to Pay Pocketmags Payment Types
At Pocketmags you get Secure Billing Great Offers HTML Reader Gifting options Loyalty Points