Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree- Futurelearn -Notes

I have just completed the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree on The course ran over six weeks and was hosted by the University of Strathclyde. I have found this course to be incredibly useful and as such would like to share some of what I have learnt. I definitely recommend anyone interested in learning more about genealogy to look into taking the course next time it’s run. My notes follow this structure: definitions, evidence, research methods, and presenting research.

Course description from course page:

This free online course will help you develop an understanding of basic genealogy techniques and how to communicate your family history. We will consider how to effectively find and analyse sources and explore the potential of DNA testing as applied to genealogy. We’ll help you add historical context to your family history and discuss how to record and communicate research findings in a clear fashion. The course is primarily designed for people at beginner to intermediate level.

Course link:


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.

Descendant Chart- Shows one couple and all of their descendants


Direct evidence is evidence that stands on its own to prove an alleged fact.

Documentary evidence is written evident of an event or relationship. (Including: Censuses, BMD certificates, church records, diaries, letters, etc.)

Indirect evidence is evidence that establishes immediately collateral facts from which the main fact may be inferred

Negative evidence is evidence for a theory provided by the non-occurrence or absence of something

Family History- integrates genealogical data with social, economic and political contexts to develop a narrative or story

Genealogical databases- Collections of official data, collections specific to a geographical area, collaborations with data owners, collections of user data, online family trees, variable veracity

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

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.


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.

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.

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.

Spinster- Someone who’s single

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.


Basic information to include when researching an individual:

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


In-depth information which can be included when researching an individual:

  • Occupations- What, where, changes?
  • Environment- Housing, neighbourhood, etc.
  • Hobbies, past-times, what did they do for fun?
  • Character of a person


Three major source types to use for evidence on individuals:

Church: created by a religious body (churches, mosques, synagogues, etc.) to record the events of its members such as baptisms, marriages and burials . However, they can also include other types of records such as pew rentals, records of rabbis visiting the sick, the calling of marriage banns, pilgrimage records, religious court records, congregation membership lists and so on

Civil: Created by government entities to record the vital events of its citizens. These events most typically include birth, marriage and death but can also include divorce, adoption, legitimisation, annulment of marriage, and foetal death.

Census: created by government entities to count (or enumerate) the people living within a particular area. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a census as, ‘an official count or survey, especially of a population’. They can include information on occupations, parental origin, year of migration, ability to read and write, religious affiliation and much more.


Questions to consider for each source are:

1) What information can be gained from this source?

2) How reliable is that information? Can we trust that the source is telling the truth?

3) After looking at the source what research could we undertake next?


Adding context to family history

  1. Useful types of secondary sources: local histories, ‘regular’ books on history, film, etc.
  2. Other sources of context: newspapers, maps, images
  3. Finding these sources; useful online databases.


Research Methods

A Boolean search is when you refine your search using particular phrases, which can combine or limit your search terms. Below are some of these phrases:

AND- requires all terms to appear in a record

OR- retrieves records that include either term searched for

NOT- excludes terms found within records


Similar to the Boolean search, wild cards aid in fishing out the relevant information.

* shows name as spelled to fish out spelling variations, for example M*CDONALD for MacDonald or McDonald

? shows names that are only different by one letter so Johns?n for Johnsen and Johnson

*is a query for up to 5 unknown letters. Bolan* returns Bolander, Bolanger, Bolandre, etc.


The FAN (Friends Associates and Neighbours) technique is, as is implicit within the title, where you search for friends, associates, and neighbours of an individual to gain more information about said individual. This is especially helpful when you’re stuck at a brick wall in your research. The FAN technique reveals much about an individuals social and economic relationships.


Mindmapping a single record can visualise all the evidence given in the record. Furthermore, it can be used to expand research on individual pieces of evidence found. The mindmap can become like a path used to follow a particular research interest.


DNA Testing is great for proving relationships as well as discovering new ones. Furthermore, once a relationship with a cousin genealogist has been discovered it can be beneficial to work together to explore family history.


Genealogical Proof Standard-

  1. that at least two independently-created sources are in agreement
  2. that you have looked at all sources competent genealogists would examine for that particular question
  3. that you have included some primary information
  4. that you have included some original records (ie. you have looked an image of a birth certificate instead of just viewing the transcription of that certificate)
  5. that you have used the primary and original documents where these are findable instead of relying on transcriptions or secondary sources which refer to these sources.
  6. that you use all findable sources listed in an index or mentioned in a related source.


Presenting Research

Conclusions- There are three options for presenting a conclusion and which one you choose will depend on the complexity of the question and answer.

  1. A proof statement: this could be a sentence contained within a larger report on a family or a piece of data.
  2. A proof summary: this could be one or more written pages containing lists or narratives stating facts that support or lead to your conclusion
  3. A proof argument: this is a documented narrative that contains an explanation of why the answer given to a problem should be considered to be proven.


Common conventions on charts and reports

  • an = mark denotes a married couple. Example: William Blount = Julia Herrick
  • proved ancestral links are shown with a line, those that are conjectural are shown with a dotted line.
  • illegitimate children are often shown by dashed lines decending from the known parent or parents. Dashed lines – – – are also often used to show ‘non-marriage’ relationships. Example: William Blount – – – – Elizabeth Wonder
  • question marks are used to show that the information is in question. Example: born 1846?
  • use b. for born, c. or bp. for christened or baptized and bur. for buried. Example: bp. 6 November 1945.
  • Dates If you only have an approximate date for an event, add “about” (abt.) or “circa” (ca. or c.) before the date. Examples: c. 1851, ca. 1873, abt. Nov 1881.
  • You can use before (bef.) or after (aft.) a specific date; for example when you know someone was still living at some time, or was born after a certain date Examples: aft. 12 Jan 1880; bef. 9 Apr 1881


Final Notes

There’s a lot more that I gained from the course that I didn’t take notes on, which is why I recommend anyone who’s interested to look into taking the course. The course isn’t difficult and there’s no assignments- just an easy (and optional) weekly quiz. Furthermore, I haven’t included any of the resources they provided over the course, which have been AMAZING.

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