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.

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