Researching your family history professionally

This is a golden age for family historians. Never has there been such an abundance of information available at one's fingertips. A few clicks of the mouse (with, perhaps, the passing over of credit card details) and an image of a record that documents your family is before you. That is not to say that many fruitless hours are not spent searching for elusive ancestors who do not appear in these wonderful online indexes. Indexing errors abound and the extent of finding aids can be limited. Conducting research the old fashioned way is, therefore, still a prerequisite in many instances.

Whilst acknowledging all the progress that has been made through the development of online resources, there is also a concern that many keen amateur family historians have not taken the time to educate themselves properly and are therefore selling themselves short. A thorough grounding in the methodology of good genealogical practice will, ultimately, enable them to achieve far more and in some cases, put them back on the right track. One of the main dangers is misidentification. It is so easy to fall into the trap of believing that a family is yours for many and varied reasons such as frequently recurring or heavily localised surname patterns, family migration leading to events such as baptisms and deaths not being recorded in the area where you expect to find them, and also ignorance of the many sources that are available to family historians but are sadly neglected by many of them. This danger is magnified if reliance is placed solely on internet resources. An understanding of how the records were compiled, their history and their purpose will also help to ensure that their contents are interpreted correctly.

A good adage is that documentary sources were not created for the benefit of family historians, and knowledge of social and local history in particular can be of great benefit. Furthermore, there are still many record sources that remain in the dusty search rooms of archives, waiting to be tapped. How many family histories stop in the early 19th century, or become mere listings of names because additional sources have not been consulted? Growth in online cataloguing can help alert one to the resources held in archives, and a much fuller picture of a family through the generations can be obtained if these are utilised.

The Institute's Correspondence Course which is available online or by post is, we believe, the best way to learn about genealogical sources and their location and availability. Through study, background reading and practical exercises, a student on the course can develop the expertise needed to become a first-rate family historian. A major benefit of this is that a student's personal research will come on by leaps and bounds, with far more success attained than would otherwise be achieved. One of the main skills of the family historian is the ability to know where to look for information.

Many people also earn their living through offering genealogical services. Their competence is often doubtful but, through completion of the Correspondence Course, a professional standard of research can be attained. Further confirmation can also be sought through taking one of the Institute's higher examinations, ensuring that one is properly qualified to practise professionally. As more and more family historians become armed with professional qualifications, the future looks bright. For further information on the Institute's courses and examinations please click here.

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