Golden Rules before you start your Family History

Photo by  Seongbin Im

Photo by Seongbin Im

If you are thinking of embarking on your family history research then you are lucky to have found this post first! I wish someone had sent this to me before I began my own family tree many years ago, because I fear, like lots of our clients at Family Detective, I’m going to have to start from scratch when I eventually have the time to finish my own research!

Follow these golden rules from the very beginning and save yourself hours of frustration and confusion.


  • Always use full names when you know them. We often get notes from clients along the lines of, ‘Auntie Nell said her Pops was a miner.’ An aunt could be from either side of the family, or even the wife of an uncle, unconnected by blood. Nell could be short for Ellen, Eleanor, Helen, Annabel, Penelope . . . you get the idea … and Pops could be her father or even a grandfather from either side of her family. Be as precise as you can.
  • Put nicknames in the notes, not on the tree.
  • Capitalise surnames. This makes it much easier to see at a glance which family line you are dealing with. It also saves confusion when there are people with names that are either fore- or surnames, e.g. ‘Thomas HENRY’. We’ve also found that in the past, some people had double-barrelled surnames that were not joined with a hyphen, such as John MONTAGUE SMITH. Capital letters help to clarify this.
  • Sometimes people change their names for a reason other than marriage. Perhaps their mother re-married and they took on their step-father’s surname or they were adopted, or wished to change their identity for some other reason. In these cases write ‘or’, as in, ‘John ROBINSON or PRITCHARD’. Alternatively you can use AKA, which stands for ‘also known as.’ We recently added our first transgender individual to a client’s tree. We recorded the entry like this, ‘John ROBINSON aka Lesley PRITCHARD.’

 Female Surnames

  • Whenever you add a female to your tree, always use her maiden surname – the one she was given at birth. When you mention her in notes or captions of photographs use this format: ‘Mary Alice FREDERICK née BODEN.’ Née means ‘born.’
  • Use ‘formerly’ to record other names used by the same woman such as other married names, e.g. Mary Alice JONES formerly FREDERICK née BODEN.
  • ‘Lately’ or ‘latterly’ can also be used to record a recent change of name, like this: ‘Mary Alice BODEN, lately JONES.’


  • Always spell out the month or use an abbreviation with letters rather than numbers, e.g. 6 Jan 2015. This is because in some countries people use a day/month/year format and others use a month/day/year format. So in one case the same date would be 6/1/2015 and in another it would appear as 1/6/2015. Be consistent.
  • Use all four digits for the year i.e. 1915 or 2015. Hopefully you will be recording ancestors from more than one century so it’s important you know which one you’re working in!


Place names should be recorded from most specific to the most general, e.g. street, hamlet or district, village or city, county and then country if your family lived in more than one.

Document your Sources

Always record where a piece of information came from.

  • If it was from a relative, then record the date on which you spoke and their full name and relationship to you.
  • If someone uses different names or ages on different documents, write down where each instance came from.
  • Websites can be very difficult to find again. So copy and paste the website address and keep it with your notes. That way you can easily re-find it. Record the date you found it on.

Be precise! Be consistent! Be thorough!

Discussion: Do you have other helpful tips for readers who are just starting out on their genealogical research? Please add your comments below: You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.