Developing genealogy skills

September is just around the corner, and my brain still connects that month to new academic years and new beginnings.  So this seems as good a time as any to write about setting ourselves goals for becoming better family history researchers.

Goals don’t have to be huge.  They can be as simple as deciding to do something different, like visiting the National Archives to look at great great grandfather’s military medical record.  I regularly set myself these types of goals.  But some of my personal challenges do involve a lot more effort.  At the end of last year I realised there were two big issues I needed to spend time on: understanding Irish records, and developing my use of DNA for genealogy.  I decided to spend this year trying to develop my DNA application skills and leave Ireland until the following year.

I need to understand things on a deep level.  What will suit you wouldn’t necessarily suit me, and vice versa.  If you’re more of a visual thinker you might be able to work with less information than I need.  But whatever level you’re at, and whatever your learning style, here are a few ideas you might want to think about to help move yourself forward.

Practice makes perfect
In other words, just get on and do it, make mistakes, learn from them, and over time you’ll improve.  This is the best way to build confidence and get to know the records, how the software or the online site works, and so on.

Watch videos
Building on the last point, if you google your subscription site name + how to do XXXX, you’ll probably find a ‘How to’ video that answers your need.

But neither of these will help build your knowledge of alternative records, contemporary issues in society, and so on.  You’ll become a whizz with the tree-building, but to move you on to the next level as a researcher you’re going to need something else.

Ask for help
Your nearest central library might have a local history reference library with knowledgeable staff. Some of them even do short courses.
Your local County Records Office will have an archivist as well as librarians and other staff who can advise.
If you can get to your nearest FamilySearch Family History Centre, the volunteers there may be able to help.

Join a group
If you still live in the area where your ancestors lived, is there a local family history group?
If you can make daytime meetings, your local U3A might have a genealogy group (free to members of U3A).

I try to have one book related to an aspect of genealogy on the go at any time.  It might be aimed specifically at genealogy, at local history, focused on a specific historical period or event, or even fiction but set in a time and place of interest to me.  It all helps to build knowledge and understanding, and I’ve come across some completely unexpected nuggets of information that have solved all kinds of riddles in my tree.  As one example, I was reading The Real Oliver Twist, reviewed in a previous post, because I wanted to learn more about my great grandfather’s early life, growing up as an orphan in a workhouse.  But while reading I came across the name of one of the leaders of the Chartist movement, and realised another of my ancestors had been named after him.  This not only solved the mystery of why this person, with no Irish ancestry that I could find in any part of his tree, had a very Irish forename and middle name, but also indicated that his quite lowly parents were striving for a better life.  Then, towards the end of the book, I came across a very clear explanation of the position of a sizar at Cambridge University, which had been the status there of another of my ancestors.

Online courses
If you enjoy studying and respond well to structured learning with deadlines you might consider doing a genealogy course. There’s a range of options, from one-off short courses to programmes that build up to a qualification.

I know of three online course providers:
The one I studied with is Pharos Tutors.  They offer individual courses on a wide range of genealogy topics, and for many of them you can choose to be assessed or simply to study, take part in online group discussions, etc, but with no assessment.  If you want a qualification, there’s an Intermediate level course (which is what I did), comprising ten of the individual courses, and you just pay for them as you book each one.  There’s also an Advanced course.  At the time of writing they’re having a sale.  Until 31st August 2019, if you use the code AUGUST20, you can get 20% off any course not taken for assessment.  So if you wanted to give them a try before perhaps thinking about doing the certificated course, now is a good time to do that.

The other two course providers are not in England, but are both available online.  Strathclyde University offers an 8-week online Beginner to Intermediate Level Genealogy course, which they say covers sources from across the world with an emphasis on research within the British Isles.  If you have Scottish as well as English ancestry, it might be worth checking this out.  They also offer a range of more advanced courses.

If you have some Irish ancestry and would like to get to grips with Irish records, you might be interested in the online Certificate in History of Family and Genealogical Methods run by the Irish Ancestry Research Centre at the University of Limerick.

It’s also a good idea to keep a look-out for MOOCs.  These ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ are free and available online for anyone to do.  Sometimes they’re ‘self-paced’, while others have definite start and end dates with group interaction.  There was a brilliant one, much-loved by genealogy enthusiasts, offered by Strathclyde through futurelearn.  Unfortunately it’s not currently available (I suspect it may have been expanded and is now being presented as the certificated course above) but it would be worth googling ‘genealogy MOOC’ every now and then to see if another one becomes available. Just be sure any you choose relate to your country of interest.  e.g. I just found one about Understanding UK Birth, Marriage & Death Certificates offered (free of charge) by Lucy Hayden of Family Ancestry Tips.  I don’t know anything about it – you’d need to check it out for yourself and see if it meets your needs.


I’ll now be taking a short break from the blog.  When I return I’ll be reducing the frequency of my posts slightly, from one per week to three per month.  So I’ll be back on 1st September, and after that will aim to post on the 1st, 11th and 21st of each month.

Targeted searches on Find My Past

Last week’s post was about different levels of ‘taking control’ when searching on Ancestry, and this week we’ll try the same thing on Find My Past.

As with Ancestry, we’ll look at searches in the following order:

  1. A general search from an ancestor’s profile page
  2. A general search from the top menu bar
  3. Narrower searches, focusing on a particular category of record
  4. Focusing right down on one particular record set.

Again, the point is that by increasingly taking control of what your search focuses on, you’re improving the level of your own research.

As with Ancestry, you can follow a lot of what’s written here by working through it on Find My Past even if you’re not a subscriber.  Obviously, you won’t be able to see the actual records.

And finally – if you already know all about general searches and homing in on categories, skip to point 4.  There might be something new for you there. 🙂


In Find My Past, then:

1. A general search from an ancestor’s profile page
Simply click ‘Search’ from an ancestor’s profile.  I’m sticking with my GG grandfather, John Groves, born 1847 in Kinver, Staffordshire, and moving to Leeds, where he died in 1894.  This search returns 6,449 records for my perusal, but there is also a reminder of how many hints I have for this person.  Unlike Ancestry, this search filters only by name and dates, not by place, and only two on the first page of these 6,449 records are correct (although half of the hints are correct).

2. A general search from the top menu bar
From the top menu bar, click on Search, then Search All Records.  An ‘All Categories’ search form opens:


Here, you can input name, years of birth and death, and also a year for any specific event (which might be a marriage, a census year, etc).  For each year, you can instruct the search engine to search for that year exactly, or to search plus or minus 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 or 40 years.  Unlike Ancestry, FindMyPast will stick within those parameters chosen by you.  However, Ancestry allows us to add more events with dates, and a place for each one.  Here on FindMyPast, we’re allowed only one place name at a time.  Since my GG grandfather John lived in different parts of the country, what I have to do is search in stages.  My first search, for Kinver, returns only one record, and it’s not my John.  Changing the place name to Aston, where I know he also spent some time, returns 61 records, of which the first is correct.  Finally, changing the place to Leeds provides 128 results.  Four of the top five are correct.

The main difference here between Find My Past and Ancestry is that FMP does require a more targeted approach from the outset, focusing first on place A and years x-y, then on place B and years y-z, and so on.  Even so, my general searches returned a lot of records.

3. A narrower search, focusing on a particular category of record
Let’s now move to searching by category.  We can start with that first general search from the profile page, but this time when we get to the results page (the one with 6,449 records) we can refine the search using the categories at the left of the screen and by adding in the location.  Remember that in FindMyPast we need to keep changing the location if our ancestor moved around the country, and do a new search.

There are three things to notice:
First, you’ll probably find that far fewer records are returned.

Second, just as we can instruct the search engine to focus on a very narrow or a very wide span of years, we can also broaden the area of search, up to 100 miles from the named location. Although this doesn’t really help me with John, who migrated from one part of the country to another, it’s useful if, for example, you suspect your ancestor lived their whole life in Norfolk, but kept moving around for work.

Third, looking at the menu of categories to the left of screen, we can see how many records have been found within each category; and if we click on any one of those categories we can refine further, seeing exactly how many records there are in each sub-category.  So, for example, for John Groves, dates as above, and a location of up to 50 miles around Kinver, I’m offered 483 results, 4 of which are in the military category, and I can see just by looking at the categories on the left of the screen that these are all Regimental & Service Records.  This really helps us to home in on records that interest us.

As with Ancestry, we can also perform the same search by category from the top menu bar.  Click on Search and then choose your category.  Again as with Ancestry, the next screen will vary depending on the selected category.  For example, the Census, Land & Surveys category has an option to include another household member in your search, and the Travel & Migration category includes departure and destination countries/ports.  There’s also a dedicated category for the 1939 Register.  I’m going to search for John in the Birth, Marriage & Death category, using name, birth and death years, and the exact location Leeds.  There are 10 results: 1 death, 1 burial and 8 marriages.  The death and burial are correct.  Bearing in mind I hadn’t input any year for a marriage, I’m offered 8 likely dates between 1866 and 1893.  One of them is correct: 1874.  However, even though I performed my search in Births, Marriages & Deaths, I can switch to any of the other categories at any time, and I can see at a glance the numbers of records in each of those categories by looking at the list to the left of screen.

4. Focusing right down on one particular record set.
This targeting on Find My Past is very sophisticated, enabling a far more precise search than on Ancestry.  Because of this, I rarely need to home in on a specific record set (the equivalent of the Card Catalogue facility on Ancestry), but if you want to, you can do this.  Start with a search from the top menu bar.  You can do this in All Categories or in any of the individual ones, but for this exercise you’ll get more results if you stick with All Categories.  Towards the bottom of the page you’ll see there’s a box for inputting a specific record set.  You can type in the exact record set name if you know it, or just a keyword.  (Apologies for the image quality – I had to photograph the screen to avoid losing the pop-up record set suggestions when I clicked for a screen grab.)


Start to type in the name of your town, city or county of interest, and see what record sets there are.  You can do this even if you’re not a subscriber, so it’s useful if you’re deciding which subscription service to choose.  Of course, you can only view the actual records if you’re a subscriber.


So, I hope there has been at least something new for you as we’ve looked at targeting our searches over the past two weeks.  And having explored special record sets on Ancestry’s Card Catalogue and on Find My Past, I hope you’ve found something interesting to help you progress your research.

Targeted searches on Ancestry

In a previous post we looked at the usefulness of hints as a way of finding records, as well as at the difference between Ancestry and Find My Past, in terms of the quality and focus of hints.

What I want to move on to now is searches instigated by you, the researcher.  We’ll look at this over two posts, this week focusing on Ancestry, and next week on Find My Past.  In each post we’ll consider searches in the following order:

  1. A general search from an ancestor’s profile page
  2. A general search from the top menu bar
  3. Narrower searches, focusing on a particular category of record
  4. Focusing right down on one particular record set.

What I’d like to draw to your attention is that, by increasingly taking control of what your search focuses on, you’re increasing the level of your own research.  You’re saying ‘I already know all about X, Y and Z, but I have a gap around A and B, and this is what I want to try to find out.’  This moves you on to intermediate level genealogy.

By the way, you can follow a lot of what is written here by working through it on Ancestry even if you’re not a subscriber.  Obviously, you won’t be able to see the actual records.

And finally – just to say – if you already know all about general searches and homing in on categories, skip to point 4.  There might still be something new for you there. 🙂


In Ancestry then, let’s start with the kind of search most of us do when we’re just starting out as genealogists, or indeed when we’re just starting out with a new ancestor:

1. A general search of all records from an ancestor’s profile page
To do this, simply click ‘Search’ from an ancestor’s profile.  The search engine draws upon all the information you already have about your ancestor, using this as filters.  However, Ancestry treats all that information as ‘approximates’, resulting in years, places and even names on suggested records that are often way off beam.  It might also default to ‘Search all collections’ – including all overseas records as well as the UK ones.  And if you try to tighten up the search by moving the sliding scale to the right (see image below) to confirm you really do mean this exact surname, this exact place and year, more often than not it will tell you no matching records can be found.


So, from the profile page of my GG grandfather John Groves, a standard ‘Search’ automatically incorporating the search filters shown in the box to the left, returns 93,311 possible records.  Even if I change the filter from ‘All collections’ to ‘UK and Ireland’ only, I still get 34,360 possible records.  And whizzing down the first page of these 34,360 records, only two of them are correct.



2. A general search from the top menu bar
Go to the top menu bar on the screen, click on Search, and select Search All Records from the drop-down menu.  Sticking with John Groves, but this time typing in his name, birth year, birth place and place of residence, instead of allowing the search engine to copy over the info from his profile page, this time I’m offered a whopping 352,536 records from ‘All Collections’, or 127,706 if I amend the collections to ‘UK and Ireland’.

3. A narrower search, focusing on a particular category of record
Those first two searches have their uses, but I think we’ll all agree that a way of narrowing down would be useful.  We can start to do this by focusing on a particular category of record.  Again, we can do this from two places on the website:

If we’ve already started the general search by clicking through from our ancestor’s profile page, immediately below the search filters box to the left of the Ancestry screen we’ll see a list of categories.  Click on any one of these categories and you’ll see further options.  e.g. Click on Census and Voter Lists, and you’ll be offered a selection of decades to home in further; click on Birth, Marriage and Death, and you can select which of these three you’d like to focus on, and after that even specific record sets, and so on.

If, instead of starting with your ancestor’s profile page, you start your search with the drop-down menu at the top left of the screen (the place where we did that second type of general search, above), it works a little differently.  Now, depending on which of the categories you choose from the drop-down menu, you’ll be asked to input slightly different information.  For census searches you’ll be asked for name, birth, where they lived and details of family members; whereas for a military search the information required is just name, birth, death and likely years spent in military service.  Even though the number of records returned is still excessive, I find these more targeted searches a useful way of getting to the right record.

4. Focusing right down on one particular record set.
But there’s an even more focused way to search, and even if you already knew all of the above, this is something you may not know about.  You can actually search individual record sets.  The way to access these is from the drop-down search menu on the top menu bar.  Click on Search, and then from the drop-down menu select the second option up from the bottom: Card Catalogue.  This is where you can really get to know Ancestry’s record collections, find the ones more likely to help you and even develop your own favourites!  (Yes, I know that sounds very nerdy.)

So, you’ve clicked on Card Catalogue, and you have this screen (above) in front of you. As you see, you can still use filters (down the left) to help you home in on the record sets most likely to be of use to you.  And if you know the full name of the record set you want, simply type that into the ‘Title’ box.  You can then search just that record set.

But you can also use the keyword search, and this is really useful.  Try typing the name of a town or city of interest to you in that box.  If the town name doesn’t return any records, try the county.  Or you could also try specific words, such as ‘apprentices’ or ‘railway’ or ‘prison’.  Spend some time playing around and see what you can find that might be useful to you

This is one of my favourite functions on the entire Ancestry website, and some of the greatest breakthroughs in my family research have come from homing in on specific record sets and searching them to death!  My two very favourite record sets are Leeds, England, Beckett Street Cemetery, 1845-1987 – which includes so much information about the deceased that I never have to buy death certificates for ancestors buried there; and West Yorkshire, England, Select Apprenticeship Records, 1627-1894 – which includes many of my ancestors from the period and gave me a lot of insights into how apprenticeships worked in Leeds at the time, as well as helping to work out extended family relationships in one of my lines.  These are unlikely to become your favourite sets, of course, but wherever your ancestors were based, I hope you find something that will help you.

You can explore the Card Catalogue even if you’re not an Ancestry subscriber.  Something to bear in mind if you’re thinking of taking out a subscription and can’t decide which provider to go with.