My Essential kit for a Research Trip

My Research KitAs part of a nostalgia season we’re having in the bureau this month, I thought I’d revisit some of my more meaningful blog posts. I hope you enjoy them:

I’m off on a research trip tomorrow. I’m hoping to glean lots of information from the documents that my client’s gathered, so I can start his family history. It occurred to me that you might be interested to see what I take with me on outings like this, as some of you may also want to visit your elderly or distant relatives on a fact-finding mission.

Here’s my checklist of essentials:

Research sheets

You can download a copy of the research sheet we use at Family Detective here: Research Sheet. It’s so important to record all the information you glean in a methodical and ordered way. See my blog post ‘Getting Organised’ for more.

Extra paper, pens, pencils and erasers

Use pencil for information that is hearsay or unconfirmed and pen for details you are sure of. Also, draw out a sketchy family tree on paper as you go along – this can help you visualise each generation as you find it.

Video/audio recorder

Will you be taking down stories and memoirs from your relative? It might be much easier to record them and transcribe your interview afterwards. You can use a dictaphone, phone with a message-recording feature, iPad or video camera. I use my iPhone’s recording app. It works like a charm. See ‘How to interview your relatives – Part 1’ for more. Don’t forget to charge everything before you set off. Or take spare batteries.

Scanner, camera or scanner app

This time I will mainly be copying documents, so I am taking an iPad with the Evernote Scannable app installed. This is so quick and simple to use – you only have to point it at the document, on a contrasting background, and the app will grab an image and clean it up on the spot. It’s also free, which makes it all the more amazing!

If not, a camera would do just as well, as long as you look out for flash glare from photographs.

Post-it notes

These are very handy if you are taking copies of photographs. Simply write a number or name on the post-it and attach it to the corner of the photo, or place it at the bottom, like a caption. Write a key with a full description of the photo including who, when and where. Don’t forget to follow the rules by using proper names for people and maiden names for women. See ‘Golden Rules before you start your Family History’ for more.


If you are conducting an interview, don’t forget to take along a list of questions that will be helpful in guiding the session. See ‘How to interview your relatives – Part III’ for more.

Right, well, that’s me all packed and sorted for my research trip. I’ll let you know how it goes when I get back!

Discussion: Any other tips you’ve got for when you’re off on a research trip? Drop them in the comments below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Family History breakthrough – Find the missing siblings

As part of a nostalgia season we’re having in the bureau this month, I thought I’d revisit some of my more meaningful blog posts. I hope you enjoy them:

Have you hit a brick wall in your family history research? Here is a very simple technique that we use at Family Detective, which can sometimes bring you a ‘Eureka!’ moment.

Hopefully you will be tracing your family history using a very methodical system (see ‘Getting Organised’) and you will have crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’, because the key to a breakthrough can sometimes be in the details.

One simple way of going back over old ground is to turn your attention from your direct ancestor, the one person in the family who continued your family line, and look instead at all the other children in the family. This can be of benefit in several ways:

1. Was there a child missing from a particular census? Perhaps you assumed that they had died young? Always check for these children by searching for them by name and recording their death date if you find it. Sometimes they hadn’t died at all but were staying with grandparents or uncles and aunts. You then have a new lead and might be able to trace further back using these new family members.

2. Even when children in the family had moved away and started families of their own, it’s sometimes worth following them forward in time. Perhaps you might discover that they gave a maiden surname as a middle name to one of their own children? Or maybe their marriage or birth certificate might record their parents’ name differently to your direct ancestor? They may have entered a different occupation or another address you could check out. One of my ancestors recorded her father as ‘Bill, a Cattle Dealer’ on her marriage certificate. Her sister said he was ‘William, a Veterinary Surgeon.’

3. Sometimes parents used traditional naming patterns (see Naming the Baby) and christened their children after their own parents. It’s only when you have found and recorded all their children’s names that you can see the pattern emerging.

4. If a child appears with the family who should have been on the previous census but wasn’t, it’s always worth going back to see if you can find them ten years before. Sometimes this can lead to the discovery of previous marriage or relationship.

5. Go back and check that your ancestor never had lodgers, boarders, visitors or even siblings staying with them on the night of a census. Try tracing these strangers back for a little way, to see if they were actually related. Leave no stone unturned!

6. If your direct ancestor is called John or Mary and you want to order in their birth certificate, consider ordering one for a sibling with a more unusual name. Hopefully you’ll find a Marmaduke or a Constance – but even a Benjamin or Lilian will give you a better chance of finding the right certificate.

In all your research, stay methodical – document everything and keep it in order. Be rigorous, and you’ll be successful!

Discussion: Got any interesting tales of research successes? Feel free to share them below. We’d love to hear about them! You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Getting the records straight

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Researching your family history can take years of hard work, so it’s really important that you can put it down and pick it up again after a break, without having to go over old ground. Here are 6 ways to be a great record-keeper, so you can save yourself time and have a clear and ordered document to pass on:

  1. Always use a research sheet. You can design your own, or download mine here for free. Use one sheet per generation of a family and give yourself clear indications as to which order the sheets come in. On mine, I put a downward arrow next to the child who was my direct ancestor and an upward arrow next to the previous generation. (See Fig. 1 above for details.)
  1. On the back of the sheet, record all the details from the census pages of the key person on the sheet. Using this system, you can see, at-a-glance, where the various generations were at each point in time, like this (Fig. 2):
Fig. 2

Fig. 2

  1. Don’t forget to record your sources, so you remember where the information came from, like this (Fig. 3):
Fig. 3

Fig. 3

  1. Add rumours, hearsay and undocumented stories to the notes section (Fig. 4):
Fig. 4

Fig. 4

  1. Consider drawing up a simple family tree as you go along. It will help you visualise the different generations. It doesn’t need to be perfect to begin with (Fig. 5):
Fig. 5

Fig. 5

  1. Beware of entering your research straight into a computer program or onto an on-line tree like the ones on Ancestry. Pen and paper are much easier to correct and you won’t lose all your hard work if your computer crashes or your subscription runs out!

7 ways to research your ancestry for free!

Man with empty pockets

1. Free trials

There’s almost always a 14-day free trial available for Just make sure you have a nice clear fortnight available when you can make the most of every free day, and read my article Top 10 hacks for using like a Pro.


This is a free website hosted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Search through the ‘Records’ section rather than the ‘Genealogies’, which are submitted by the general public and are unchecked.

3. Pick up the phone

Seriously, older relatives can be a mine of useful information about your family. Give them a call and find out what they know. Or set up an interview – see How to Interview Your Relatives Parts I, II and III.

4. Your Local Archives

Most useful if your family has stayed in the same place for a few generations. You should be able to find electoral registers, maps, newspapers and parish records as well as lots of other books and directories, which might be helpful.

5. The National Archives, Kew

Contrary to popular belief, the National Archives don’t hold many documents about ordinary individuals, such as birth, marriage and death certificates. They do have free access to the census records, though, as well as information on people who served in the armed forces, and some criminals. It’s definitely worth looking at their website before you go, to see what they have available to view on-line and on-site: National Archives

6. Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Another free website which records a little information about those who died during the World Wars. Access it here: CWGC

7. Google

A bit hit-and-miss of course, but it’s always worth entering a few combinations of names to see who else is researching your family line. I usually enter marriage names, for example: ‘John Smith married Elsie Jones’ to see what comes up. Sometimes you get lucky and hit the jackpot!

There you go – 7 ways to dig for genealogical treasure when you’re a bit skint! I hope this helps. If you can think of any other freebie methods, please drop them in the comments.