While we’re waiting for National Family History Month to roll around, let’s get a head start by exploring some crucial things to think about when researching your family history.

Diving in to the wide variety of different records available to family history researchers can be daunting – where to start? And once you’ve started, where to look next? Here are five key tips for ways of thinking about your research, to help you organise your search and break down those brick walls.

Building being demolished H2002.199/680

1. Person, activity, place, time

At all stages of your research, you can figure out your next research task by using this phrase. Whatever information you would like to know about your ancestor, think about that PERSON performing a life ACTIVITY in a particular PLACE at a particular TIME to determine what your actual research task might be.

For example, your task could be finding Fred Smith, enlisting in the Army, in Melbourne, in 1914.

2. Focus on an activity

Just like all of us, our ancestors’ lives could be complicated. Focussing on finding one life activity at a time will allow you to think clearly and logically about where you might find the information you need. Have a think before you begin about what kind of activities your ancestor might have been involved in (see our guide to Researching your Victorian ancestors for some hints!).

Examples of common life activities include being born, marrying, voting in an election, working for the government or an organisation, paying rates, and so on.

3. Identify the records

So you’ve got a person performing a life activity at a particular place in a particular time. Think about what systems might have been in place to create documentation of them performing that activity. For example, before civil registration of births, marriages and deaths commenced in Victoria in 1853, baptism, marriage and burial records were created and maintained by churches.

Documentation could be generated by a government department, the legal system, the church, a commercial enterprise, a professional or interest group, the media, or a combination of the above.

Wedding party leaving church H2015.118/18

4. Access to records

After figuring out what kinds of records might have been created, you need to find out where those records are and how you can access them. Resources may be held by libraries, archives, societies and of course, many are now available online through family history databases. We’ve created a range of family history research guides to help you figure out the method of access most suited to you.

5. Draw a timeline

Draw up a life timeline for each person being researched. As you find information about their life activities, add where in time the activities occurred (don’t forget to record your sources!). A timeline can be a useful visual tool for displaying life activities and the relationships and intervals between them, helping you make connections and to think of where to look next.

Family history is very rewarding, but can be challenging too! You’ll have days when you find a lot, and days when you find nothing at all. Remember you can always ask us for research advice online or visit us in the Newspapers and Family History Reading Rooms.

National Family History Month is coming up soon! We’ve got a great program of free events onsite and online – spaces are filling up fast so book now!

This article has 2 comments

  1. Thank you Kate,

    Well said.

    The only extra step I took was to interview my great Aunt aged in her late 80’s. I recorded everything she said – and – either it proved to be true or otherwise led me to look in different States, where I found more records, newspaper accounts etc., to build my family history story.

    • Hi Nancy,
      Thank you for your comment. Recording family memories through interviews is such a wonderful way to learn more about ancestors and the way they lived – especially their everyday life that isn’t captured through official documentation. That recording must be even more precious as time goes on!
      All the best,

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