Monday, 31 December 2018

Doing family history online ...

As I've written both on this blog and my other website, I've been spending time on family history tracking down some unanswered questions I had about my antecedents.

Before I started on this quest, my images of amateur genealogists was that of people wearing tatty grey cardigans sitting hunched over an old computer surrounded by piles of mouldering scribble covered printouts in some dim and dismal corner somewhere, and not at all like these slightly glamorous ones you see on tv shows like Who do you think you are?

I don't own a grey cardigan, and my computer may be overdue for replacement, but I've come to realise that it's actually quite an interesting little research hobby to keep the grey cells firing.

That is, if you do the legwork yourself.

There a quite a few sites out there that want to provide you with an end to end service and make it easy for you to trace your ancestors, and I guess, if they were scattered across the world and you really didn't know anything about them it might be a start.

These services are however very reliant on existing digital archives of birth, deaths and marriages, not to mention newspaper archives, plus archives of useful things such as military records.

The assumption also is that your ancestors hail from somewhere with a reasonable functioning public records system that goes back a reasonable time in the past. As I found while researching the story of Robert Burns Clow, this can sometimes mean only to early last century. Paper burns, or people make unwise decisions about retaining information.

So, broadly speaking, your ancestors need to come from the UK, Ireland, Australia, NZ or the US and if you are looking for ancestor from much before 1850 you've really got to hope that the parish registers have survived, and even then it is not always an easy guess where they might be. Despite living his whole life in Dundee, my grandfather's first marriage was registered in a rural district of Angus, presumably because that was where Catherine's (his first wife) parents lived.

Likewise, I discovered, that as well as his sister Annie, he had another sister, Lizzie, but she was a schoolteacher in Perth.

In other words, you have to know the geography of the area, and also have search skills, such when I tried to work out whether there had been a farm at Clocksbriggs, only to discover it had been a rural railway station that closed in 1955. Google maps and Streetview didn't help, but fining online digitised copies of nineteenth century maps did.

However, based on my limited experience of working with a single family, my mother's, all of whom hailed from a fairly circumscribed area of Scotland, you can do it yourself without resorting to the expensive paid for services.

Scotland's People, the Scottish Government's genealogy site, charges to download copies of register pages, but the cost is quite modest, a little under A$3 a document, and then you have the fun of deciphering nineteenth century handwriting - usually straightforward, but sometimes less so.

The National Library of Scotland doesn't charge for access to its digitised town and post office directories, nor does Historic Environment Scotland charge for use of its Canmore database of historic sites and images.

The British Newspaper Archive, run by the British Library, doesn't charge to search its indices, only to view an article. The cost of forty prepaid page views is again quite modest, around A$35. (If you are looking for entries in Welsh newspapers, remember that the national Library of Wales's Welsh papers online archive is free and comprehensive.)

Given that newspapers really didn't take off until the mid nineteenth century as a mass medium, the practice of putting hatched matched and dispatched notices in the local paper didn't really become common until after 1860, and even then only the aspiring members of the middle classes did it.

If you're family was simply hardworking people trying to get on, they probably won't feature in the local paper unless they were someone in the community such as a minister, a bank manager, or a member of the kirk session - that is unless they were arrested for public drunkeness, theft, violence,  or some other misdemeanor.

The only other reason they might feature is if they had an advertisement - one example I've come across is a music teacher advertising their services - all these Victorian children being taught to play the piano - the other is if they had a shop.

Otherwise no, not unless you come from what Jane Austen would have called quality and other people genteel folk.

So, you don't need to use one of those paid for heavily advertised services. In fact it may be cheaper not to, as well as being more fun.

Keeping track of everything is a problem.

About the only decent software package I've found is Gramps, and as I've said it's not the most intuitive, but its worth persevering with - I started from a position of loathing to move to one of grudging respect - it's powerful.

However you also need to use something such as Evernote to organise all your suppletmental material - as you would with any research project, plus some sort of notekeeping solution - Evernote will do both.

There are other solutions, J's cousin, who is an amateur genealogist and a former museum cataloguer still uses 6x4 record cards, for the absolutely killer reason they are easy to reorder if some new information changes the order they should be in. A wiki would also let you do this if you want to be high tech about it.

So, it's fun, easy to do online if you have ancestors that conveniently came from the right place. Like any hobby it's going to cost money, but it doesn't need to be so expensive if you work with the primary sources yourself ...

No comments: