A professional freelance researcher since 2005, I was delighted to be asked to contribute an article to help beginners to family history to a new website for the over-50s at .

I hope you’ll be inspired to begin today!

Patricia O’Neill 







Start by drawing up a rough tree showing yourself, your parents, your siblings.

Add your parents' siblings.

Add your grandparents and their siblings (if you know their names).

If possible, ask your parents for further details of their parents, their aunts and uncles and their grandparents – any recollection may prove useful, even the name of an eldest or youngest aunt or uncle, or the year when someone died.

Arrange to meet up to look through family papers and photos – on the day, take a notebook, slips of paper and camera.  

Photograph anything which might be useful, including in the photo a label recording the subject of the photo, the approximate date, the possible location and who has it in their possession.  Use your slips of paper for the labels; don't stick labels to the photos.

Now revise your rough tree and continue.


  • Contact any elderly relatives, explaining you’re researching the family tree, to ask whether they can tell you anything about their own family group: parents, brother, sisters, aunts, uncles and especially whether they can remember their grandparents or any great-uncles or great-aunts.  
  • Can they remember where relatives lived or any occupations?
  • Do they know of any relatives who died in unusual circumstances or in war-time?
  • Do they have any old photos, family bibles, marriage, birth or death certificates, memorial cards, war memorabilia, newspaper cuttings, memorial cards, school records or photos, or any family papers which might provide further information?
  • Arrange to visit – don’t forget your camera!
  • Get in touch with relatives ahead of any family gatherings, celebrations or in the run-up to Christmas to explain you've begun researching your family history and would love to see anything they feel may be of interest.


By contacting other family members you will avoid duplication, as you may find a relative has already started researching your family. 


By now, hopefully you’ll have a mass of notes and photos or copies of documents.


Update your rough tree, taking care to differentiate between facts which are backed by documentary evidence and information which is currently based on oral family history (if you’re using paper, record facts using pen and non-proven information in pencil).


If you don't want to continue with researching yourself, please contact me with your preliminary findings, attaching a copy of your rough family tree, for a free initial assessment and a detailed quote to research your family.




You might want to consider purchasing a genealogy computer program, so that you can easily build your family tree as you go along, adding facts, notes and to-do lists and producing charts.  With so many on the market, try before you buy to see which one you prefer.  Some companies offer a trial or demonstration; others showcase their products at family history shows.  Some products are offered in different packages:  you may not need everything offered in the more expensive versions and may find that some of the data subscriptions you’re paying for are time-limited.  


If you prefer to continue on paper, that’s fine.  Card indexes can be used to keep track of people and ring binders and dividers to file your research notes.  Number your notebooks and always record the notebook number on your research notes so that, if necessary, you can double check the data.




Now you’re ready to trace your family tree!  It’s tempting to research all lines at the same time.  It’s far better to begin with one branch, working back as far as you can before switching to another.  When choosing the line with which to begin, try to select a name that’s neither too frequently-occurring nor too unusual.  A very unusual name is likely to be constantly mis-spelt.  A name such as Brown or Jones is more difficult to research, especially for a beginner.  Check the Guild of One-Name Studies before you start, in case your name is included.




Next steps - more information on sources for genealogy research.