05 February 2011

Just Starting Out With Family History Research

Beginning family history research can seem daunting and time consuming, even in Australia, Britain or the United States.  In any type of research, including scientific research, the situation can quickly change from having not enough information to having too much to handle.

We begin with the vast unknown, or what we personally consider to be the vast unknown.

If we are lucky, we may soon discover someone who is quite familiar with what we may previously have believed to be unknowable. This is especially true in family history research.  We need to know how to find what is easily known, then to distinguish between that and what may be more difficult to find, and then come to terms with what may be impossible to discover.

Perhaps an older relative, or even a younger one, may know more than you, whether that relative fits on the same branch of your family tree, or on another branch, towards the top of the canopy or nearer the roots.  A few academic researchers may have been exploring aspects or your heritage, too.

I recently found the above image on Wiki Commons.  It is said to represent Tuscan emigrants leaving for New Zealand from Leghorn (Livorno) in the 1890s.  If you know more about the picture, or other paintings like it, perhaps you would could contact me.  Perhaps some of your own ancestors are in the picture!

As far as I know, my husband's Italian relatives left Europe for Australia through Naples, Genoa, Venice and London.  Have you looked up shipping records and passenger lists for your migrant ancestors?  Have you collected birth, marriage and death records from a variety of (no cost and low cost) sources?

Beginning your family history research 

Just like migrants going out into the world in search of a new home in a new land (I include myself here, as I am a first-generation migrant), taking the first steps into family history can often be the most difficult.  For anyone just starting to scratch the surface for information about the ancestors within themselves, I would recommend one basic way to begin.  It is to protect what you already know, and already have, in terms of family records and heirlooms.  This is so much easier with digital technology.

Knowing the questions you want to answer

Being able to judge whether a record is of any importance in helping you to trace the steps of history backwards, you may like to think about the who, what, where, when, why and how questions for what you already know, and what is still a mystery.

This picture, from the report of 1853 by John Cobden, called The White Slaves of England, may depict some of my ancestors, of even one or more of your own.  How much of your own family history do you already know about in a fairly general way?

Were any of your ancestors employed as hurriers?  Were they migrants?  Were they educated?  Were they healthy?

If you have British ancestors, you may find this link to the British Library quite useful.

Making copies of your records and findings

If you are yet to buy or borrow a document/image scanner, this might be the time to look for a good one, especially if you have a collection of old slide films sitting in a box in a cupboard somewhere.  The link above is to a Wikipedia page about the history of scanners.  We can discover all sorts of interesting things about cultural history while researching family history, especially about the invention and development of various tools and technologies.

Quite a few digital cameras these days can make fairly good copies of most pictures and documents, but slides (and cine film) can be more difficult to copy cheaply and quickly. A good scanner with have a feature that will turn your neglected slides into digital slide shows.  Here is a link about the history of cameras.


My main scanner (I have two now, for different purposes) also came with an easy-to-use photo editing program.  Above is my grandfather Harry, in a picture I enlarged from a very small original.  Being a non-technical person, especially as far as computers are concerned, the easier the better is my usual preference, as long as all the features I require are available and accessible.  Being able to enlarge little pictures is certainly a great advantage.

Protecting the originals and the copies

Making copies and collages of family records and pictures is so much easier with digital editing options.  All of my most precious photographs, old slides, cine film, videos, as well as the pictures I have taken of heirlooms and souvenirs, and digital copies of important documents, are now on dvd and cd in various spots, high and low, around my house.  They are also in my mother's house on the other side of the world.

Several of my most precious photographs are also on my blogs now, too - for even safer keeping (I hope).  Some photos are also kept online in a couple of my email accounts.


Insurance cannot replace the loss of unique records. I especially cannot imagine what it must be like to lose family photographs.  How safe are yours?

Still searching for those totally unique originals 

Perhaps it is even worse for people who have never owned any family records in the first place.

I wish that I had a photograph of my husband's maternal grandfather, who died of silicosis in 1945 after working for almost twenty years in the mines in Broken Hill.  My mother-in-law says that my husband looks quite like her father, an educated man who had trained for the priesthood in the Veneto region of Italy before the First World War.

Sharing the Lode:  The Broken Hill Migrant Story 

I also wish I had some photographs of my paternal grandfather's family (George was orphaned before the age of five), and more photographs of my maternal grandmother's family (Dorothy was also orphaned before the age of five).

Asking others for advice and support

If you have been researching your family history for some time, you may find that other people seek your advice on where to make a start on their own quest.  What do you say to them?

If you are new to family history research and are feeling at a loss, then I hope you will find this blog useful.

Have you joined a local family history group?  Have you joined a group associated with a place connected with your ancestry?

Have you gathered all of the useful information you think might be available from and about the family members you already know?

Gaining confidence and competence

If you have never done any sort of research before, the wonderful thing about family history is that it provides a range of skills that are applicable to many other areas of knowledge.  What you are mainly searching for is evidence, for facts, for the truth.  Some of your family members may feel uncomfortable about that, especially if aspects of the truth have been hidden for a generation or more.

You will become a genealogical detective, follow leads, weigh up whether findings actually relate to your family, or to someone with a similar name, and you may also find that you will have some difficult personal decisions to make.

More exciting than fiction

Unlike the predictable stories in many works of fiction, family history research can be far more interesting and entertaining than any film or television drama.  You will be in a starring role, with a hidden script that gradually reveals itself in all sorts of surprising ways.  It will take you on a fascinating journey.

Have you read my first ever blog post on the topic of family history?

Have you read my second blog post about identity across the centuries?

Some genealogical news

Ancestors Within has become quite well known to family history researchers, both professional and amateur, since I first began writing it.  My family history has become more known to me since then, too.

You may know that some time ago, I was nominated for a Kreativ Blogger Award.  Much to my surprise, I have now been nominated for an Ancestor Approved Award by Shauna Hicks.  It is certainly an honour as Shauna is a highly experienced researcher.

There are so many interesting connections and relationships within family history research, whether people are related or not.  I have just discovered that one of my family surnames - Gyseman - may be pronounced in many different ways.

I have always known the first syllable as Guys, as in the musical Guys and Dolls. Now I have just discovered that it may also be pronounced as Geez, thanks to some comments recently left on my 1870s Migration from Belgium to London blog post.

The comments were by Charlotte Gyseman, who is studying computer games design at university.  I wonder if a family history computer game has been developed.  Do you know of one?

Here is another of my blog posts that Charlotte, and other Gysemans, may find of interest:  Flemish Ancestors.  I have also listened to the sound of the original name, Gysemans, on Google Translate.  Unfortunately there is no Flemish available there, only Dutch.  In the latter language, Gysemans sounds to me like Hissy Mons.

Have you heard the sound of your family surnames as spoken by speakers of other languages?

Well, this is one of my longer blog posts, so apologies if it is keeping you from your own research, whether into family history, computer games design, or digital imaging. It has been keeping me from preparing dinner!


  1. Thank you to everyone who appreciates this blog - and my other blogs.

    You may also like to know about the Bisnonni Blogspot Award:


  2. Hello again. I meant to send you an email back when I first commented on your 1870s Migration from Belgium to London post. just over a year ago. I can't remember where I saved the notes I had been collecting!

    What I can tell you though, is that my grandfather was Robert Willam John Gyseman, born in 1934 in Essex. We do pronounce our surname like "Guys-" as in "Guys and Dolls", but numerous times in my life it has been mispronounced by people who have never heard the name before or by school friends for a nickname as "Geez-", which is where the name of my original blog came from.

    Also, the "Assassins Creed" series of games is a good example of family history being used within the story of a computer game, although I'm not aware of how much of the ancestry in the game is based on real families.

  3. I have just realised that a year has passed since Charlotte wrote the above comment. How time flies!

    There are so many sides to every family, and so many sides to family research.

    For anyone looking for my email address, it is:

    writetovia (AT) gmail . com


I especially appreciate historical insights.