Courses, personal development

FREE ONLINE COURSE – Genealogy – Researching your family tree course – Week 1


In Week 1, our focus is on the importance of documentary evidence.

Lets start by considering the importance of finding and using actual sources to fill in your family tree and explore the differences between primary, secondary and primary sources.

You will begin to understand why the government, & other organisations created documents in the first place and how knowing this can help you get more out of what you discover. We’ll cover the varying amounts of information that different types of documents can provide. From there, we’ll consider what transcriptions, abstracts and indexes are and find out how providers of online databases actually go about creating these.

Family history research basics

These are the basics of where to start with family history research that every beginner’s guide will tell you. However, it would be remiss of us to leave it out entirely.

Genealogy vs. Family History

Genealogy is the retrieval of vital and familial data from records of various types, and its ordering into meaningful relationship patterns.

Family History is the integration of this data with social, economic, political contexts to develop a narrative.

Basic genealogy

At the very least you will want to find and record, for as many people as possible in your family tree, this data:

  • Date and place of birth
  • Names of parents
  • Date and place of marriage
  • Date and place of death
  • Names and birth dates of children

Knowing where to begin doing genealogy can be confusing – there are so many records to search for, so many databases to look at and so many ancestors to trace that one’s head can begin to whirl about.

Never fear…there are a few time tested ways to go about approaching the situation and we’ll explore them here.

Start with what you know

Begin by writing down everything you know about your family:

  • Names
  • Dates of birth, marriage, death
  • Places of residence
  • Stories of emigration and travel
  • Occupations
  • Family myths and mysteries
  • Anything else that occurs to you

Even if all you have are rough dates and more questions than answers, it’s a place to begin.

This is a good time to use a blank Family Group Sheet (FGS) and Pedigree Tree…use a pencil! These are handy ‘thinking tools’ and they are useful when you approach other members of the family for more information. CyndisList has a list of webpages with free downloadable FGSs and trees. Be sure to note if you are unsure of any fact – this will help guide your discussions with family members and to choose which ‘fact’ to begin searching for.

Interviewing family members

  • Talk to your relatives – do this sooner rather than later! If no one in an older generation is left, try any older siblings or cousins.
  • Use FGSs, pedigree trees, family photos, etc. to kick start your conversation(s).
  • Have questions ready but don’t feel like you need to stick to them if the conversation is flowing.
  • Ask ‘open-ended’ questions – ‘What do you remember about our grandfather?’, etc.
  • Take notes or better yet, record the interviews if that’s comfortable.
  • Go back for more…people often remember the good stuff after you are gone. Visit them again.

Searching for records

Now that you have gleaned lots of information from yourself and your relatives…it’s time to back up that family lore with documentary evidence.

Generally, you’ll want to try and find birth, marriage and death records for your ancestors and anyone else on your tree that is of interest. Plus, finding them on available census records is of primary importance as well…

It’s best to start as close to the present as possible and work your way back in time. That way you can usually verify facts (and that you are finding the ‘right’ people) with your memories and records or by checking with other family members.

old documents and seals

Exploring the nature of primary, derived primary and secondary sources

Genealogists use different types of sources to find the information needed to build their family trees; these are primary, derived primary and secondary sources.

Primary and Derived Primary Sources

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during or close to the event or time period in question. These can also be original, first-hand accounts of an event or time period. Primary sources are typically deemed to be the most reliable for providing quality information however; they can contain errors so any information should be corroborated.

A derived primary source is a source based in a primary source but with a level of intermediation; for example, a transcription of a census record, an abstract of a will or an obituary. There is a good deal of discussion in the genealogical world over what exactly constitutes a derived primary source. However, the main thing to realise is that any time someone copies information from one source to create another source (as in a transcription of a birth certificate) there is the chance that mistakes will be made. With the best will in the world wrong information can be copied and unless you can check the original document, there is no way to be totally assured that the transcriber has not made a mistake.

Primary sources include:

  • Original documents: Diaries, birth certificates, census records, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, government legislation, and there are many more.
  • Creative works: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art
  • Science: Reports of scientific discoveries, social and political science research results, results of clinical trials
  • Artefacts: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Examples of primary and derived primary sources include:

  • Newspaper or magazine articles which are factual accounts of events published at the time of the events. (primary source, though you could argue derived!)
  • A transcription of a Scottish census return (derived primary source)
  • Photographs by Dorothea Lange of migrants to California (primary source)
  • A DNA test result (primary source)
  • An abstract of a probate record such as those found in the book Mayflower deeds and probates by Susan E. Roser. (derived primary source)
  • A WWI diary created by a Welsh Army Private in 1915. This diary presents evidence that a second ‘Christmas truce’ did occur which has been debated by historians for years. (primary source)

Secondary Sources

A secondary source interprets and analyses primary sources and may be based on primary sources, other secondary sources or a mixture of the two. Secondary sources are one or more steps removed from the event and are often written at a later date than the events being described. However, secondary sources may present pictures, quotes or graphics from primary sources.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • A history book such as Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick.
  • Encyclopaedias such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • A newspaper article written in 1980 about the long term economic effects of WWI.

Genealogical research conclusions are also a type of secondary source, and here we mean specifically the conclusions that we as researchers have drawn based on the examination of primary sources. These conclusions will concern the identification of individuals and linking them together into family groups, biographical notes on individuals, or full family histories which will be dependent on primary and secondary sources.

punchcard machine for census

Importance of knowing the history of a source

Learning about a source can reveal a great deal and can provide you with a wealth of information on the data you find on your ancestors.

It can also help you understand why you might not find someone or help you find the resource in the first place.

What type of information to expect

Unfortunately, sources were not created for genealogists; they were created for the use of and in response to the needs of the originating organisation. This means that we might not always get information included that we would find useful (such as the relationships between individuals in a household on a census form). Understanding what was meant by particular terms used, who exactly was to be included in a family group or what geographic area was to be covered can all be helpful.

How reliable the information might be

Particular sources that we use which appear to be straightforward primary sources having gone through no changes from the time your ancestor provided the information are often no such thing! The information on them can actually be copied from information provided or may have been recorded through someone helping an individual provide information. For example census enumerators often worked with people who were illiterate to fill in census forms thus giving lots of opportunity for first and surname spelling changes as a result.

In some places copies of church records were made by individual parishes and sent in to a central office; these copies look like normal primary sources but are actually copies of what was written in the original registers and thus should be considered derived primary sources. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them just that there was extra opportunity for mistakes to be made thus you need to approach them with extra caution.

Why you might not find someone in a particular source

There may be a very good reason why someone does not appear in a source which, with modern expectations, we wouldn’t even consider as being a reason not to appear. These include such things as women not being able to vote, men who didn’t hold property of a certain value not being able to vote, etc. If someone was not eligible to pay taxes then you won’t find them on a tax roll and so on.

Where you might find the source

In particular, if you want to use a source which has not been made available online you will need to identify where to find it. Sometimes knowing a bit about the history of the source can help with this.

For example, until 1906 in the USA, any court of record (federal, state or county) had the authority to deal with the varying steps taken towards naturalization and each court kept its own records. People were much more likely to go to a local court to cut down travel time and thus to find these records you will want to know which courts were in the area that your ancestors lived and where those records are now held.

How can you find out this information?

The resources in the ‘See Also’ section below can be consulted for more information on the topic. There are a huge number of books, websites and magazines that discuss genealogical sources and the books on this list are examples of classics of their type.

Discussion: the nature of documentary evidence

We’ve learned about the differences between primary, derived primary and secondary sources and some of the issues around using documents to provide evidence on a family tree.

Later we’ll hear more about particular types of sources such as census and church records but before we get into that detail, we want to ask you what types of problems might arise from using primary, derived primary or secondary materials.

Briefly post in the discussion below the main issues you can identify, we’re looking for your initial thoughts on this, knowing that these may change as you advance through the course.

What are transcriptions, abstracts and indexes?

The information from primary sources we use is often presented to us as transcriptions, abstracts and often can be searched through the use of indexes.

Commercial bodies, volunteer organizations and individuals work to create these tools and they give an ease of access to genealogical data that would be the envy of researchers in the past. It is helpful to know the differences between them so that you know what to expect from a particular source.

Definition of transcription

A transcription is a copying out of words (and information from) a document; this copying out can be done by hand, by using word processing software or onto a Internet based platform. There are different styles of transcription, such as full diplomatic, a faithful word-by-word reproduction of what is found in the document including misspellings, grammar errors and so on. Semi-diplomatic transcription style allows the transcriber to expand contractions and update spellings into a modern format.


Definition of abstract

Abstracts summarise important bits of information within a document. Abstracts can contain extracts from documents; these are exact quotes from a document and should be enclosed in quotation marks.

Definition of index

An index in a book is an alphabetical list of names, subjects, etc. taken from the text of the book which serves as a guide to the page(s) on which that name, etc. can be found. In a genealogical database an index is a set of keywords transcribed from documents or records which can be searched to reveal information of interest.


Examples of T & I projects that you can get involved with

You can get involved in creating transcriptions, abstracts and indexes which is a great way to become comfortable reading old handwriting and to get more familiar with different types of documents. It’s a good way to give back to the genealogical community and help make records more available.

How are transcriptions, abstracts and indexes created?

Graham and Emma Maxwell run a genealogy research company based in Scotland called Scottish Indexes.

They began transcribing Scottish censuses in 2001 and realising that these resources would be useful to other people, have made them available online. They have also indexed prison and court records and are hard at work transcribing never-before-indexed parish records from southern Scotland. Their Quaker registers and mental health institution records cover all of Scotland. You can visit their online indexes at:

How do you choose which record sets to transcribe/abstract/index?

The first consideration is which unindexed records do genealogists consult most frequently? Then we look at the practicalities of indexing the records, this includes considering how long it would take to index a record set and what we would be able to charge, the question being; is it profitable? Another consideration is how easily we can access a record and if we can have permission to index/transcribe the record.

What type of software do you use?

Much of the indexing is done in Microsoft Excel or Access, although we have made use of Google Sheets for collaborative projects with volunteers.

Do you take images of the records to work from or work from them directly?

We have done both. We find it much more efficient to take photos in an archive then index them later, it also makes proofreading much easier. Through good communication we have been able to come to agreements with some archives to do this.

How do you decide what to allow people to search by in your indexes?

We have three ways to search on our site to cover the levels of our differing clients. Our home page has just three search boxes, forename, surname and keyword. This works well for quick searches and is also useful to people who are just starting out. We also have a more detailed search for all our records, the results are shown in categories.

The third search option is to search by record type. This option allows the most control as you can search by specific record set and is particularly useful for more challenging searches. On our site it is therefore possible to make very specific searches which are appreciated by advanced users but the home page is kept simple for those who have just found our site.

What is the process of creating a transcription?

We have three ways of indexing/transcribing. For the commercially viable records such as prison records we set aside time to index them ourselves and then make the indexes available on our website. For records which are slower to index, such as the paternity cases found in the Sheriff Court records, we use volunteers. We also have a ‘sponsor an index’ option, which allows people to pay for us to spend a set number of hours indexing a specific record set. We have been able to index more complex records, such as deeds, under this programme.

What is the process of creating an index?

The first stage is to decide which data will be transcribed/indexed. Occasionally we will transcribe all information on a record (e.g. census returns), but in many cases we select key information which give the user the best possible opportunity to determine whether the individual is the person they are looking for. Key information such as age, birthplace and residence is always indexed if available.

The next step is to create an input form or a spreadsheet in which the data can be entered, using fields determined from the decisions made in the first stage.

Finally, the data has to be imported into our online database, and integrated into the existing search facilities on our website. We also create a new search page on the site for that specific index, with accompanying help pages.

How have you found it working with archives? Are they generally happy to have you index and transcribe their records?

Communication is the key to success. Archives have various projects of their own and there is no point in two indexes being created simultaneously. By discussing our plans with archives we have built up good relationships with them.

Any tips for our readers on using online indexes?

Don’t fill in every search box and use wild cards! Taking a few minutes to wade through some extra results is a far better use of time than eliminating the correct result by filling in too many search boxes.

What records would you like to see made available online?

We’ve now learned what transcriptions, abstracts and indexes of records are and how they are created.

These tools make digitised records searchable by genealogists and are crucial for the research we do.

However, the records that are available online are just the tip of the iceberg and there are many other sources that could be helpful which are still only available in paper format. Archives and libraries around the world are working (often in conjunction with volunteers and businesses) to digitise records and make them available.

We will explore some of the major types of resources used by genealogists in more detail in week three and learn where some of these can be located online. For the time being we are interested to hear from you about what sources you would like to see digitised and made available online. You can learn about what is already available by looking at CyndisList, a categorized & cross-referenced index to genealogical resources on the Internet.


What have you learnt in Week 1?

Question 1

What is a primary source?

A source which interprets and analyses other sources
A source which is created much later than the event in question
A source which is fictional in nature
A source which was written or created during or close to the event or time period in question

Question 2

What is a full diplomatic transcription?

A word-by-word reproduction of what is found in the document including misspellings and grammar errors
A transcription created by a diplomat
A style that includes modern spellings
A style that allows contracted words to be expanded

Question 3

Which one of these is a secondary source?

A 1911 English householder return
An encyclopaedia entry on President Theodore Roosevelt
A DNA test result
A blog posting reporting on the events of the uprising in Cairo in 2013 as they were occurring

Question 4

Can all of these points be considered indirect evidence found on a record?

  • Place of birth noted on a census form.
  • Someone being shown as a ‘widow’ on a census form
  • Age on a marriage register

Question 5

What can knowing the history of a source tell you? Tick all that apply.

Knowing the history of a source can tell you how reliable the information might be.
Knowing the history of a source can tell you what type of information to expect
Knowing the history of a source can tell you why you might not find someone in a particular source
Knowing the history of a source can tell you where you might find the source

Answers will be posted in next weeks course

Time to reflect

Well done for reaching the end of Week 1. I hope that you are enjoying the course so far and have learned something new.

The course team from Future Learn would be particularly interested to hear if anything specific this week has captured your imagination: did anything surprise you? Have your existing views on this topic been confirmed or contradicted?

Please feel free to add your comments to the discussion below.

Next week we will be looking at different searching techniques including some ways to think laterally for your information on your family. We will be thinking about how to create a research strategy and the importance of defining what it is you are looking for. Names will be explored as well; their history, how changing spellings can cause problems and how different pronunciations can contribute to confusion and transcription differences.

What’s next?

Tahitia McCabe, your lead educator, is the Course Leader on the MSc in Genealogical Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies. If you would like further details about this particular programme you can register your interest here.

This course is brought to you by the University of Strathclyde, which offers a range of taught Masters and research degrees, individual modules and short courses. We’ll also be holding a YouTube Live Stream event if you want to find out more information about the genealogy courses the University runs – you’ll find out more about this in Week 6.

Next week we will be looking at different searching techniques including some ways to think laterally for your information on your family. We will be thinking about how to create a research strategy and the importance of defining what it is you are looking for. Names will be explored as well; their history, how changing spellings can cause problems and how different pronunciations can contribute to confusion and transcription differences.

Week Complete!


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