Genealogy in the age of coronavirus- Part 2, Online resources.

Following on from my last post (Genealogy in the age of coronavirus- Part 1, Interviewing relatives and more…), this week I am talking about researching your family history online. Whilst staying at home, online resources are something that we can easily explore.

When I was researching material for this post, it became very clear that I could be writing about online resources for weeks! There are so many, relating to many different areas of genealogy and family history. If there is a topic you are interested in, there is likely an online resource to match. So instead of trying to fit everything in, I want to share with you some online resources that I have found interesting.

The Commercial sites

For those who are just starting out or are family history veterans, websites like Ancestry, FindMyPast and FamilySearch might already be familiar. They hold large collections of records, from Census and Baptism records to newspapers, military and passenger lists. If you have subscriptions to sites like Ancestry, FindMyPast or TheGenealogist and MyHeritage, now is a great time to familiarise yourself with what they actually do have. You never know when you might find a really useful record set that you didn’t know about before. These websites are also constantly updating their collections. In my own family tree research, I have discovered that Ancestry holds Somerset (England) Baptisms, Marriages and Burials. But if I want to look at Baptisms, Marriages and Burials for Radnorshire (for my Welsh side), I have to go to FindMyPast. It is definitely worth getting to know which sites hold the records you need.

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View of the FamilySearch Research Wiki home page.

FamilySearch by comparison, is a free resource. It also holds much more than you might think. Not only can you search various UK and World records, but their Research Wiki page is incredibly useful. If you are unsure of what records can be accessed in a particular area (especially online), the Research Wiki can help. Some time ago, I was researching some Welsh ancestors who had travelled to Pennsylvania (USA) and later returned to Wales. FamilySearch was able to give me a better idea of what records I would be able to find about the family’s time in the USA. The Luzerne County page (which has been updated since I last used it), told me all sorts of useful information. For example, I discovered that I would not be able to find a record of Civil Births for my family’s children as they were born before Civil Registration began in the county (1893).

Another reason for exploring FamilySearch, is the records that have been digitised but not yet indexed. To find them, look under ‘Records’ and click on a specific area of the world and they should be under ‘Image-only Historical Records.’ In situations like the current one (when we have more time than usual), it might be worth having a look to see what can’t be found on other sites like Ancestry and FindMyPast. Having said that, FindMyPast have a similar facility for some of their records. So have a look there too. It might take some time (as it means scrolling through each page of a record), but you never know what you might find.

What else can I find?

Maps

So what other online resources are there? Well, that depends on what you are looking for. To give your research some context, how about map resources? The National Library of Scotland holds many different maps online. I recently saw the evolution of where I live, all the way from the 1880s to the 1940s. Tracking the changes over a period of time can give you a sense of how your ancestors would have experienced the area. If you live in or have ancestors from the west of England, then the Know Your Place-West website is very interesting. It covers Somerset, Gloucestershire, Bristol, Devon and Wiltshire. You can see various layers including:

  • Public contributions (e.g. drawings and paintings of local landmarks)
  • Entries from the Historic Environment record
  • Boundaries for local authorities
  • Local history and gazetteer entries
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Example of the kind of map that you might find online.

These layers are overlaid on a map, which shows both a modern and a historical one. You can view them one at a time or side by side. In the area around my road, I can see Second World War air raid shelters marked, an 18th century turnpike and a Roman Road and settlement. Also try Old Maps Online for earlier examples.

Biographical resources

Perhaps you have found an ancestor who was an important person or of a high standing in society? For British genealogists, this is where you should not forget the power of your library card. If you are a member of a library, then you can use your library card to login to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website. This allows you to access all of the biographies on the site. I recently found an entry for a client’s ancestor, who was a Victorian surgeon and social reformer. If you have Welsh ancestors, then consider looking at the Dictionary of Welsh Biography. This is completely free to use and allows you to browse by surname or search for a specific person. A lot of non-conformist ministers are included, so it is worth a look if your ancestor was a minister too.

The History of Parliament Online website can also be useful if an ancestor was a Member of Parliament. Not all periods are available yet, but you can get some biographical details and information about their time in Parliament. I will be writing more about this resource and how it has helped me in my own research soon!

The good news about the biographical sources above, is that they show full references. This allows you to go and find the original source of the information. Remember, it is always preferable to see the original where you can. As a researcher, you can also be more confident about the articles you read when they are properly referenced. You know that the author has been diligent in their research.

Let’s explore…

Another thing to think about when researching remotely right now, is any special access organisations might be giving because of the circumstances. The National Archives in Kew are working on giving free access to their online records. The British Newspaper Archive has a special offer on right now too (useful if you don’t have a FindMyPast subscription). Explore what your local library has to offer, whether that is e-books, audio books or magazines. TheGenealogist is offering a three month free starter package on their website and some local archives and family history societies already offer some records freely. Check out your local societies (or ones local to your ancestors) to see what they already have.

…and have some fun!

Finally, a fun website I have found is www.drawshield.net. The website offers resources to help you learn about heraldry and I have used it to help identity coats of arms from blazons I’ve already found (drawing them is not my strong point!). But the fun bit is the facility to create your own shield. It gives you the option to create one from the various parts that can be used in blazoning. The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert because the site shows examples of each part when you choose them. The possibilities are endless and it’s a fun activity- perhaps a way to get your children interested. As the website cautions though, using a heraldic device is often restricted by many countries and there can be copyright considerations too.

I hope you have some fun exploring what the internet has to offer. If you are looking for something specific, then many of the family history magazines have guides to good websites. Don’t forget that places like The National Archives (Kew) also have some very useful research guides on their websites. They contain a wealth of information about lots of different family history topics.

NB: All information correct at time of writing (Apr 2020).

Copyright © 2020 Shersca Genealogy

Genealogy in the Age of coronavirus, Part 1: Interviewing Relatives and more…

With the UK now in lock-down due to the coronavirus pandemic, you might ask yourself where does that leave genealogy? Is it still possible to carry on when you need to stay at home? The answer is most definitely, yes, there are still plenty of things you can do for your family history without leaving your house.

Interviewing relatives

If you are starting from the beginning and only just embarking on your family history journey, the best place to start is always talking to your relatives. Thanks to modern technology, this is something that is still easy to do in times like these. We have the option of telephoning, or using various online forms of communication (like Skype) to keep in touch with our relatives. There is a form of communication for those who prefer technology and those who do not. Speaking to our family members not only helps our genealogical research, but when we are unable to meet people in person, it helps both our relatives and us to feel connected still.

On the face of it, asking relatives about our family history seems quite easy. Get in touch, ask questions and find out things you didn’t know. But, if you want to get the most out of your conversations there are a few things to think about first:

  1. Draw a family tree of what you know
  2. Make a list of questions you would like to know the answer to
  3. Have some photographs or other items on hand to use as memory prompts

It is useful to have a family tree on hand, so that you can a) easily add any family members your relative mentions that you didn’t know about and b) so that you can easily work out the relationships of anyone that your relative does mention. Your relative may refer to someone with a nickname and not their full name and vice versa. With a family tree on hand, you can more easily pinpoint who is being discussed.

In order to guide the conversation with your relative, having questions ready can be very helpful. If you asked me to talk about my family history, I would find it much easier if you started with questions like ‘where were you born?’ or ‘what is your earliest childhood memory?’ (incidentally, it’s playing Pooh-Sticks on the bridge with my dad near our old house). If you need some inspiration for questions, here is a useful blog post that has all sorts of questions that you could ask relatives. Sometimes, one question will open the door to a whole host of recollections. Be aware though, there may be things your relatives won’t want to talk about. There might be things that they feel are too painful, or embarrassing. Views about things such as illegitimacy, mental health and a whole host of other issues may have been very different when your relative was younger. I would not push a relative to divulge a piece of family history if they were uncomfortable doing so. They may change their mind at a later date, or you may have to come to terms with the fact that the specific issue remains a mystery. Or, things may come to light with further research.

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Example of a photograph that could be used as a prompt.

Photographs can make excellent conversation starters. Seeing a specific person or place may remind a relative of a particular event or family story. There is a lot more you can get from photographs, which will form the subject of a later post.

Don’t forget that talking to relatives isn’t just for the beginner to family history research. A person is unlikely to remember even a small part of what they know in one sitting. So, if you are at home and want to let your relatives know that you care about them, contact them. You might find out some other family information at the same time.

What else can I do?

There are some other things you can do at home too. A little while ago, I was given some documents and research that had belonged to my great-aunt. Sorting through that would be a good project at the moment. If you have any papers, certificates or assorted family history documents at home with you, sorting through them is a good idea whilst you’re staying in. Sorting your family history documents into easy to use folders and categories is always a good idea. This can go for those of us who are a bit further down the line too. I know life sometimes gets in the way for me and I get out of the habit of filing my own family’s research. This goes for digital documents too. Having a system where you can locate things easily is so helpful in the long run. Just think about the people who might one day inherit your research. They will find it so much easier too. How you choose to file documents (either physical or digital) is up to you.

Different approaches

There are many approaches you can take when storing your documents and it depends on what works for you. I tend to store my physical documents by surname, then by generation, then by date. For example, starting with the Lloyd line, I have the birth, marriage and death certificates for my great-grandfather Philip James Lloyd. Then follows the marriage certificate of his parents Thomas Lloyd and Elizabeth Ellen Price from 1901, then the marriage certificate for Thomas’ parents Philip Lloyd and Ann Thomas from 1874 and so on. The birth and death certificates after Philip James Lloyd are all digital. They are filed by surname, then by type of event (birth or death) and are all named and dated. I have even scanned the physical certificates, so that I have a digital copy, should anything happen to the originals.

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Example of some family history folders.

How to file documents for the women in our families can be a bit trickier, due to surname changes after marriage. Do you file them under their husband’s surname or under their maiden name? I take the middle ground and file any documents pre-marriage under their maiden name and any post-marriage under their husband’s surname. This is why Philip James Lloyd’s wife Gwendoline is filed under Jenkins for her birth certificate in 1909, but under Lloyd for her death certificate in 1972. For a brief guide to storage and handling of documents, have a look at this post from FamilySearch.org.

Family history books

One final thing that I am sure all genealogists and family historians can do while they are staying indoors, is read. If you are anything like me, then your books about genealogy and family history seem to breed. The next time you look, you have acquired some more without realising it! This is an excellent time to catch up on your reading. Not only is it another activity to do, but you might just gain some knowledge that you didn’t have before. This makes us better researchers. If you are starting out and haven’t amassed a library of books yet, don’t worry there is still time. If you have a little money to spare right now, then publishers such as Pen & Sword produce many books to do with different aspects of family history. They also sell copies as eBooks, which is particularly helpful right now.

So don’t despair, there is still plenty you can do. Look out for my next post, which will talk more about other things you can do at home.

Copyright © 2020 Shersca Genealogy