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

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.

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