Often when people decide to start to trace their family’s history, they may “jump in with both feet” and start looking for records with little idea of what to look for. This is perfectly understandable, such research provokes enthusiasm and can be exciting. The problem is that, without the right preparation, you may find yourself quickly “coming up against a brick wall” and becoming dispirited. You may also find, if you’ve started without preparation, that you end up having to go back “over the same territory” and redoing searches just make sure of things.
At the top are listed the things you need collect. They may all sound similar, but it’s important to realise how information can vary from black and white to lots of shades of grey. So, when we talk about facts, we mean information about which you can be absolutely certain, and that’s usually only facts you find actually on official documents and certificates. We then move through family recollections and reminiscences which may contain varying amounts of accuracy to anecdotes, e.g. “your great uncle George was a spy in the war”. All are valuable to collect, should never be dismissed and may help in some way to help you find the right persons amongst the historic records. And, incidentally, if you discover in the records great uncle George was awarded a medal during the war, but there’s no citation to tell you why...he may well have been a spy!! At the bottom are the key details that you’ll need to navigate your way through the records, as they are usually arranged by one or other of these. Because the main sources of information are Civil Registration, the Census and Parish records, together with such things as trade directories, these are details you need to find people and distinguish the right person.
Just a few suggestions/ideas on how to start your research.
Books – can vary from booklets (like the one illustrated – which is available for free from libraries and archives) to large tomes (e.g. “Ancestral Trails” by Mike Herber). The one thing to remember is to check how old the information in the book is, to ensure it’s still valid. Things DO change, for example, the locations where certain records are kept or available from, and, when it comes to information in books about the internet, that can change very fast, websites can come and go.
Online Guides – there are quite a few really useful websites to give you help and advice. We’ll show you the best later on.
Ask a Librarian – Library staff are not genealogy experts but, particularly in the Community History Libraries, the staff will have dealt with a lot of family history enquiries before and help a lot of researchers, so may be able to point you in the right direction.
Join a Group – there are lots of Family History groups and societies, whose members will have “been there” before you and seen most everything, so there’ll be lots of help and advice available.
Online records may not be complete – always check the “small print” when using online records. Somewhere, on most good sites, they will tell you about where the records come from, their scope and about any gaps or problems.
You may need to double-check – some online sources show you images of the original documents, some don’t, they are only indexes or transcriptions. So if there are problems or anomalies, you may need to find and go back to the originals. And if you can’t find your ancestors online, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Remember, and this is true for all written, printed and online records, whenever something is copied, there’s always a chance for “human error”.
You may need to travel/ unlikely to complete in home town – There is a long propagated myth that in “ye olden days” people didn’t travel very far, they stayed put in their village with maybe the odd trip to the nearest market town. It’s a myth! as the historical records show. Whether it was due to poverty or disease, land enclosure or looking for work, people moved about quite a lot and so their “footprint” in the records might be spread all over the country. A local example: between the 1861 and 1871 census, literally thousands of people just disappear from the Lancashire records. Why, the answer is the “Cotton Famine” (explain). The other reason you may need to travel is because of the vagaries of english archives. We’re not very organised and not very centralised. We have lots of local authorities, charities, academic institutions, religions, etc. and your records might end up just about anywhere. A local example: the furniture makers Gillows are important in the history of Lancaster, and their records are useful for local family history research. But they are not to be found at Lancaster Library, but the City of London! (because Gillows merged with S J Waring who’s headquarters were in London, and when they went bust the records were given to the ‘local’ library).
Stick to the plan – your first decision might be “which side of the family do I research?”. In the past, it was automatic that it would be the male line that would be traced (just look at the start of St. Matthew’s Gospel), but it doesn’t have to be that way. You may want to start with the side that you have most information on or you might want to decide based on the surname. If my surname was Smith and my mom’s maiden name Goonhilly, I think I’d start with my mom’s side!! On your first foray into family history, you’ll pick up a lot of knowledge and experience that will put you in good stead for tackling the more difficult challenge!
Don’t get sidetracked – historical records, particularly old newspapers, can be absolutely fascinating...mesmerising and be for you know it, you spent hours not researching what you came to do! Try to avoid speculative searches, even though the ‘characters’ look interesting, if they don’t “fit the bill”, leave that until you’ve exhausted all other avenues.
Make a note of everything – that seems relevant and pertinent, even if it doesn’t lead anywhere. A trail might peter out or go cold, but month later you might find something else that suddenly makes sense, like the piece of a jigsaw. If you note down everything and where you found it, it can save so much time NOT having to go back and re-research!
Just some of the things that are still only available offline. There are a few Trade Directories online, thanks to a lottery funded project at the University of Leicester, but it’ll be many years before all available directories are digitised. The biggest source of Parish Records online is from Family Search, but they’ve been added piecemeal over the years. In England, a systematic project called “Parish Clerk” has started has started to transfer the transcribed early register to the internet, but the only source of complete records are local libraries and record offices.
If you want to know what is available where OFFline in our Archives...The best place to go is ONline to our website.
If you want to know what is available where OFFline in our Libraries...The best place to go is ONline to our website and catalogue.
If you want to know what is available where OFFline in libraries...The best place to go is ONline to our website /libraries.
Our Image Archive contains thousands of digitized photographs from Lancashire Libraries’ collection. This is an ongoing project, more are being added every day and we will shortly be adding documents from the Archives and a local newspaper index.
Mario is Lancashire’s own mapping service which provides detailed up to date maps of the whole county. But it also has many more features including historic maps which can be overlaid on modern locations…
Plus old aerial photos and map links to photos in our Image Archive
Our Good Web Guide also includes a list of the most useful places on the web to find help with family history.
Starting your Family History ~ How Lancashire can help
with help from
Before you start your research
Find out what’s available
Find out where to go
Plan your research
Reminiscences and Anecdotes
Names, Dates, Locations
Note all the dates and events you are certain of concerning
your immediate family.
Ask as many people in your family as possible for their
recollections and make a separate note of what each
person says, so that you can make comparisons.
Beg and search for as many family records and
memorabilia as possible.
Show anything you find to your elderly relatives –
particularly old family photographs. You may jog a whole
stream of fresh memories
Don’t despair if you can’t find out much. The minimum
information you actually need to get started is your own
place and date of birth.
Find out what’s available and
Ask a Librarian
Join a Group
Many records are now available online...BUT
They may not be complete
You may have to pay to view them
You may need to double-check with Offline records
It is unlikely that you will be able to complete your
research just using online records
Many records are still not available online...
You may need to travel to view all the records you
You may need get used to using archives and
libraries and their equipment
It is unlikely that you will be able to complete your
research just from records in your home town
Where to Go ~ Online or Offline?
Plan your research
Stick to the plan
Make a note of
• Church Registers
• Wills and Probate
• Marriage Bonds
• 900 years of documents relating to people
and places in Lancashire
• Search the Archives
• Electoral Registers
• Old Maps
• There are Community History libraries
located in each of Lancashire’s twelve
• Lancashire Libraries
• Working life
• Military history
• Old Maps
• We have eleven museums, from a castle to
a cottage to a country house that illuminate
the history of Lancashire’s people
• Lancashire Museums