"INTPs are always so mentally active that they continually delve into new interests... The interests of an INTP would be enough to occupy him for several lifetimes if that were possible."

-- A description of the INTP personality type, Paul James.

I've been in need of a new hobby for a while now.  The mental challenges offered from getting married, changing jobs and moving home have passed, and my free evenings and weekends were becoming prone to bouts of restlessness and sighs of "I'm bored".  This is not a good thing.

I've been toying with the idea of buying a Digital SLR for a while, but the initial outlay for all the required kit would be close to four figures, a sum not easy to come by after the aforementioned marriage and house move.  Besides, I'm not sure that taking up a pastime which is essentially outdoor in nature is a good idea as the nights draw in and we enter the almost perpetual darkness of a British winter.

So, inspired by WDYTYA and the wife's purchase of a Martha Stewart genealogy fan chart, I decided that the time was right for me to do one of those "things I've always meant to do" and start tracing our family trees.

Like life insurance, dating, and selling unwanted tat to unsuspecting strangers, genealogy is one of those areas that has been radically transformed by the proliferation of the web.  I can't imagine how much slower it would be to undertake this research just ten or fifteen years ago.  Sites like Ancestry, Scotland's People, and even simple things like online certificate ordering from the GRO have really reduced the time taken to trace lines back, at least over the last couple of centuries.  A couple of months ago I knew the names of six of my direct ancestors (i.e. my parents and grandparents).  Today I know 66, with more potential lines of research still untapped.  My database currently contains 298 individuals, with more to be keyed in later tonight.  Virtually all of this has been discovered via an ethernet cable without leaving the comfort of my office.

But on some of my lineage I'm now starting to reach the limits of what is possible using the web alone.  It turns out that my great-great-grandfather, John Nelson, was born in County Monaghan, Ireland, in the mid-nineteenth century.  The Irish government are being somewhat tardy at putting their records online, so if I want to know more I'm going to have to find out in person.  Fortunately, we already have plans to visit Dublin later this month, so a visit to the Irish GRO isn't entirely out of the question.

I'm still very much a beginner at this game, but here are a few links and tips that I've amassed so far:

  • Decent genealogy software will make it much easier to keep track of your findings.  Amazon have the BBC-branded version of GSP's Family Tree Maker software for £19.99, which I've found to be more than adequate so far.  This comes with a free thirty-day subscription to the UK datasets on Ancestry.co.uk.  Of course if, like Jocelyn and I, you are interested in relatives from both sides of the pond, you'll probably end up buying a "World" subscription to Ancestry anyway.
  • If your software offers the ability to give each individual in your database a unique reference number, use it!  Half the folk in my tree seem to be called Benjamin, Joseph and William, and it's all too easy to get them confused!
  • From the earliest stages of your research, keep a note of your sources.  This can't be emphasised enough, as you risk having to repeat your research otherwise.  I failed to note my sources initially as I got caught up in the fun of the research, and now I look at some facts in my database and wonder "but how do I know that?".
  • If, like me, you have Scottish blood, then Scotland's People is an invaluable trove of information, with digitized BMD records going back to 1855, the Scottish census returns, and searchable parish records to 1513.
  • Don't jump to conclusions.  Just because a search only yields one result doesn't mean it's the individual you seek.  Datasets can be incomplete, or names can be spelled differently (William, Willm, Wm, Will, Willie; Benjamin, Benjm, Ben, Benny...).  I am now the proud owner of a birth certificate for an individual who shares the name and birth year of one of my ancestors, but isn't him!
  • OneWorldTree and other sites which allow you to link your tree to others can be a great way of sharing research and rapidly discovering entire branches of your family, but take everything with a large pinch of salt!  You don't believe everything you read on the internet, do you?  Before convincing yourself that you've traced your family all the way back to Adam, get sources for all the pertinent facts.
  • "The Genealogist's Internet" by Peter Christian is a mine of useful information for those using the net to undertake this kind of research.  I'm sure other books will prove useful for the next (offline) stages of my investigation, but I'm still waiting for Amazon to deliver a couple of those.