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Keith's simple written record system

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I will start this thread by detailing what I think is the best way to get started (assuming that you have never done this before). The real essence to this work is to establish a simple system which, when put to use, follows exactly the same routine every time you find a record. I am starting this way because it is important to establish a routine

By following the same routine all the time, your record keeping will become second nature and you will always know where you are up to. My system is so closely interleaved with the method of information gathering that I feel it necessary to cover both aspects at the same time. Please forgive me if what I write is already obvious to you.

Two pieces of advice (and I know that some people won\'t follow them).

1) Restrict your researches to one family name at a time. Any more than that and you can start to become blitzed by information and lose your place.

2) When you go somewhere like the library to check St Catherine\'s House indexes, or to a church to view Parish Registers, the following rules are a must to follow:
a) NEVER take a pen. Always use a pencil.
b) Do NOT eat or drink whilst working on the records. If you must have a drink etc., ask if it will be alright for you to take a break. And go outside to do so.

What do you need?

1) You will need a couple of A4 ring binders (at least)

2) You will need a supply of narrow ruled A4 refill pads. They must be narrow ruled and punched so they can go in the binders. Narrow ruled is important because you will need all the lines you can possibly get. Ruled because they will help you keep your writing in straight, neat lines.

3) You will need a couple of boxes of hole reinforcing rings. You must apply these to the holes in your A4 sheets before you put them into your binder. They will prevent the pages from ripping loose over time. Putting them on one side only is quite enough.

4) You will need a box of student wallets - plastic holders that you can put things such as certificates and photos in. These can go in your main file, or in a separate binder of their own. Keep all dated documents in chronological order.

5) You will need a supply of pencils - HB is best. You may be tempted to get some erasers. A word of warning, do not use erasers for any reason whilst you are looking through records. They leave bits all over the place, no matter how careful you are to clean up.

6) You will need a reporters notebook. Something you can carry in your pocket, ready to write down such things as monumental inscriptions. Or, to make notes on ideas you may have. If you do have any ideas, write them in your notebook immediately.

7) It would also be handy to have a camera so that you can photograph such things as gravestones, or (with the permission of the current occupant) to photograph a house where one of your family used to live.

That\'s it. That is really all you need.

Remember, never carry pens. Never mark any paper records you may be looking at. No eating, drinking or smoking at your workstation. Leave the workstation clean and tidy when you leave.

Have fun.



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Get yourself an A4 ruled refill pad (a nice big one because you are going to use a lot of paper). A couple of pencils,a pencil sharpener and an eraser.

Now you are ready to interview your first subject. Yourself.

Sit down and write out (on a separate sheet of paper for each person) all you know about yourself and your brothers and sisters (if any).

When giving a woman\'s name, always use her FULL given name. Never use her married name.

So, for each individual you write down their full name - no initials.

Next, write down their date of birth, where they were born, the father\'s full name, the mother\'s full maiden (given) name.

Next, if you have it, right down the details of their baptism - date, church etc.

If the person is, or has been married, write down the full name of the spouse (given name in the event it is a woman); the church or registry office (or other place) and the date. If the person has been married more than once, write down all marriages in chronological order.

If the person is deceased, write down the date of death; where the funeral service was held and the date; whether cremated or buried and where. Write down the cause of death.

Write down their relationship to you. If it is you, put something like \"self\". If there are five children in you family and you were the second, write \"2nd of 5 children\". If you are writing down the information for a brother write \"brother\", \"x of n children\". You get the idea.

Next, write down what you know about each persons education, including any qualifications gained, giving the years each school or college was attended.

Next write down what you know about the person\'s work - what occupation they followed and during which years. If they did military service, detail that. If they won any decorations, include that.

If the person had children, write down the full given name of each child and their date of birth.

Next, write down any other information you can think of which isn\'t covered by the paragraphs above.

That should complete what you know about that person. Don\'t worry if you haven\'t got everything. You will soon realise what information you still need.

Now, do the same for all your other brothers and sisters.

Now, do the same thing exactly for your mother and father.

When you have done that, sort the pages you have written into order of the youngest on top and the oldest on the bottom. Immediately behind the eldest child\'s page, place your father\'s page and, behind that, your mother\'s. You\'ll be surprised at just how much information you have gathered. The next thing will be to transfer that to a permanent file in a cohesive form.

One important aspect of record keeping is to cross-reference everything, so that any given record can be found easily.

When I go into record keeping, I will explain how I do that.


Active member
Although many people use computer software for record keeping and, it is fair to say, there are several very good packages available. I believe that the best way to learn the mechanics of Family History research is to keep written records. Personally, I would never use a computer programme for this purpose. My main reasons are listed here:

1) I find it highly impractical to carry my computer around with me. Don\'t say anything about laptops. :laugh:

2) Computers are prone to breakdowns. These can vary in degrees of severity. As per the old law, the more important something is, the more serious the breakdown. In December of 2003, my computer had a catastrophic failure in the registry. In the process, however it did it, my hard drive was severely corrupted and all files on it were permanently lost. Some people say you should back up your files regularly. Well, just how regularly should you do it? Once a month? What about all the information you have added between back ups? Once a week? And what kind of removable media do you use? Floppy discs? They are unreliable at best. I have found they develop faults frequently and, on many occasions, the fault results in not being able to open the files stored on them. CDs? A much better option but, over an extended period of time, they can oxidise, rendering them useless. Apart from which, very frequent back ups will ultimately result in you having boxes full of them. And quite a lot of expense in doing it.

3) A binder filled with handwritten pages can go anywhere with you. It is permanent. You can add information anywhere in it. No matter how much or how little, and it doesn\'t cost anything for backing it up. And it is not prone to breaking down.

So, I always use handwritten files.

Below are two thumbnail images of the way I lay out my pages in my permanent file. Click on each image to see the full-size version. When you want to return to this page, simply close the image by clicking on the red X in the top right of your screen.

The pages are designed to be facing pages in your file. The beauty of this is, when you are looking at the record of any given individual, you are looking at the record of their entire life, without the need to turn pages.

To keep my records, I use a narrow-ruled A4 refill pad. It needs to be narrow ruled because, quite often, you will need all the lines you can get. For the left hand page, make sure that the punched holes are on the right hand side. For the right hand page, the holes should be on the left hand side. Use hole reinforcement rings immediately to prevent the pages tearing out of your loose-leaf binder. ALWAYS lay the pages out exactly the same. This means that, even for those still living, you should include the section regarding death. Someone may well fill that section in one day.

I am a firm believer in keeping written records and, I have found that this system will never let you down. It is portable, so you can take your entire file with you wherever you go. And, you can add information to it at any time. So, it is always up to date. It\'s portability means that, should you be in a library, or other such place, and something catches your eye, you can check any part of your file and, if necessary, note down the information you have just found. Versatility is the key. You have gone out with a set task in mind but, you are able to vary what you do according to what your file is telling you is still needed.

Now that you have written this information down roughly, it is time to start transferring it onto your record pages. If you use my system, it tells you exactly what information to write, and where to write it. You must use a left and right hand page for each person. Even if there is nothing to put on one of them.

Let\'s say that your parents had five children, including yourself. At the very top centre of the left hand page for the youngest, write \"Page 1\". On the right hand page for that person, in the same place, write \"Page 2\". The next to youngest will be pages 3 and 4, and so on until you have numbered the pages for the eldest child.

You have now laid the foundations for cross-referencing you entries. I will expand on this as we progress.



Active member
This step still requires no more than what you know.

You have now put the record pages for yourself and any brothers or sisters into your loose-leaf binder. Write on the front of the binder, very carefully so it looks good, \"File 1\" followed by the family name you are researching. Do the same on the spine of the binder. This is an important step best done now. You could end up with an unknown number of files and, if you establish the habit at the very beginning, you will never go wrong.

Now to begin step two.

Just as you did for yourself and any brothers or sisters, write down all you know about your father and mother. Once again, it is important that you use your mother\'s full maiden name, not her married name.

Next, do the same for each of your father\'s brothers and sisters. When you have done this, transfer the information to the record pages exactly the same way as you did for yourself etc.

Your father\'s pages go in to the binder immediately after his eldest child. Your mother\'s pages after that. Those pages can now be numbered as well.

This is where you start developing your cross-referencing. On your father\'s right hand page, you list all the children, this time in the order of birth. Write down their full given name and date of birth. Then alongside that, on the same line write \"see page number X\" make sure that you put down here the number of that child\'s left hand page. It is important to note that children are always listed on the father\'s page, not the mother\'s.

Now go back through your own and your brothers and sisters pages and, against the father\'s name, write \"see page X\" and write in the number of your father\'s left hand page. Against your mother\'s name, write \"see page X\" and write in the number of her left hand page.

Now, you can put your father\'s brothers and sisters pages in the binder. You do not have two sets of pages for your father. Any individual only ever has one entry. So, you put them in starting with the youngest first, after your mother\'s pages, and continue to the eldest. You will now notice that these pages indicate a missing place. This is because of where your father\'s page is in the binder. When writing on these pages, the individual\'s relationship to you, never write \"uncle\". That could indicate your father\'s brother or your mother\'s brother. So, you write literally that - \"My father\'s brother\". On the right hand page, it will show him as being the Nth child of X children. This can then be only one person. There is no confusion about who you mean. Make this entry appropriately for each person.

Because your father\'s mother has a different name to the one you are presumably researching, you would write in see file (leave the number blank), page (leave the number blank). Do the same thing for both of your mother\'s parents.

This is because, each family name has it\'s own file. The reason you don\'t know the file number is that it will depend on which line you follow when you have done all you can on the one you are currently researching. Until then, you will not know which file will have which number.

Keep working back like this until you have written down all the information you know on every family member you can think of. Fill out the record sheets for each person exactly as before and put them in your binder in the same way. Only number the pages when you are sure that you have pages for every individual in that generation.

Only when you have written down every piece of information you know yourself are you ready to go on to the next step.

So, you\'ve done that. Now, you want to find any birth, marriage and death certificates your family has. Ask them if they are prepared to allow you to keep them in your binder. Use student wallets for this job. For each certificate you have, write on the appropriate line for each person \"certificate in file\". Put the student wallets in your binder in the right place. Or, use a separate binder for them. But, keep them in student wallets, keep them as flat as possible, and keep them dry.

If there are any photographs you can have, do the same with them. Never write on the back of a photograph with anything other than pencil - a soft one at that so as not to indent the paper. Write the persons name on the back and an approximate date when it was taken.

If you now have pages for someone who is deceased, find out if there is a gravestone. if there is, and it is feasible, visit the grave, write down the memorial inscription, and take a photograph of the grave so that the inscription can be seen in the photo.

Write the inscription on that individual\'s page and put the photo in your binder with the other documents.

You are now amassing quite a bit of information which is brought together in one place, probably for the first time. there is every likelihood you have now gone back about 100 years without moving from your chair. And, more importantly, it has cost you nothing but the price of your stationery.

This is the end of this part.

The next step will follow soon.


Active member
Now it is time to conduct your first interview. Note that you are still not referring to any of the records available in libraries or other depositories.

If you are comparatively young, your next task will be to approach the oldest living relative of the name you are researching.


What you do is phone them, or write to them, explaining exactly who you are and what you want Make an arrangement to go and see them, preferrably at least a week later. Ask them if they could get any family papers and photos out ready. It will give them time to think about things and bring back half-forgotten memories. When you go to see them be prepared to have a little chat. This is more effective the older they are. Elderly people love to reminisce. After a suitable period of time, start to turn the conversation to why you are there. What you want is exactly the same as the information you wrote down from your own knowledge.

Something well worth remembering is that, especially the elderly, associate some things with family events. This applies especially to elderly ladies. In the days before the advent of radio and TV, they used to talk about many family matters when they met up with other relatives. So, given the chance to explain things in their own way, they can provide a mountain of information. You can feasibly expect a conversation to go like this:

You to your relative: \"Can you tell me when such and such a thing happened?\"

Your relative: \"Now, let me see. That was just before little Johnny came down with whooping cough. Now, he was three when he had that.\"

You to your relative: \"Can you tell me when Johnny was born?\"

Your relative: \"Yes. That was in 1910.\"

You now know that this event happened in 1913.

So, let your relative talk and you will get the information.

You may need to visit this relative several times to get everything. Be patient with them. Make the visits and, if visiting an elderly lady, take her a bunch of flowers when you go. She will appreciate it. And, when you have got all the information your relative has to give, don\'t just forget them. Visit them periodically. They will look forward to your visits if you do it right, and it will really give them something to look forward to.


There are many families that have skeletons in the closet. It is always possible that you run into a problem and your relative won\'t talk about it. Tell them you understand and explain that, ultimately, it will be in public records somewhere. You will eventually find it but, if your relative will tell you, it could save you some time and effort. They may tell you. They may not. Accept what you can get and be grateful for that.

There is every likelihood that you are now back to the middle of the 19th century. And your researches have still cost you virtually nothing.

When you have got your information, go home and write out your record sheets as before. Enter them into your binder. BUT DO NOT NUMBER THE PAGES UNTIL YOU ARE SURE THAT THERE IS NO ONE MISSING.

By this time, you will be amazed at just how much information you have gathered.

Never throw away your rough-written notes. File them carefully. You may need to refer back to them at some time in the future.

The next step will take you to the library, or other such depository.


Active member
Now you have completed your interviews with your relative, and you have entered all the information on your record sheets and put them into your binder in the correct order, as explained earlier.

I repeat here, NEVER change the way you do anything. Make it a habit and you will never make a mistake.

If you now start looking through your pages, you will see that there are gaps in the information on some of them. This is the information you are looking for on those individuals next.

It is time to start asking yourself some questions.

1) Have you been able to number ALL the pages you have in your binder? If the answer is no, it means that you are not sure that you have all the people in a given generation. This will probably mean that you need to consult the St Catherine\'s House Indexes. These are available at many regional Central Libraries. Ask at your local library where the nearest one is that has them. In many cases, you need to make an appointment to get on to a microfilm reader. So, phone up the library and make the appointment. ALWAYS arrive a little early because the person before you may have finished early and you might be able to get on the machine quicker. This is important if the library limits each appointment to 1 hour. They certainly used to in Liverpool, whereas, if I travelled to St Helens, I could have the machine all day if I wanted. So, check how long you can stay on for.

The librarian will show you how to use the machine when you first start.

The rolls of microfilm are per quarter of the year, usually one (possibly two) for each quarter, for each of the births, marriages and deaths. So, take you file with you and a notepad and pencil - NO PENS. Look at the individuals pages in the generation you are looking for more dates on. This will give you a guide to the period you want to concentrate on. Most marriages, especially early 20th century and before, occurred when both parties were over 21. Parental permission was required for marriages at ages younger than that. Now, consider that the woman would probably be able to bear children for a period of roughly twenty years.

Look at the eldest child you have a date for, take a couple of years off the date of birth. This will give you a probable start year. Add about 20 to that and it will give you a probable end year. This is your research period. Now, look at the various birth dates you know for the other children in that family. For those born pretty close together, there are unlikely to be any others during those years. So, they can be eliminated from your search. You are now refining your search criteria.

If you find that there is a preiod of a number of years with no children, concentrate on them as your search period and look for birth registrations with the same parents names.

The records are by the year, by the quarter and then, listed alphabetically by surname. This makes checking a roll of microfilm very quick and easy. The microfilm will give you the child\'s name, the parents name a record number and a Registrar\'s District. You now also have the year and the quarter of the year. Write all this down for each record you find. You will find a list at the library which gives the Registrar\'s District number - such as 8A and will tell you which district that is. If this corresponds with the information you already have for the family, you will probably know the parish name by now as well. Get as many of these records as you can in the time you have available. You might even be able to complete the search for all the possible years for any given parents. If the youngest and eldest child were born at the same address, the likelihood is that those in between were as well.

My next course of action would be to make an appointment with the incumbent of the parish to view the Parish Registers. Armed with the information you now have on time scale, you should be able to pin down the date of baptism very quickly for each of the individuals you are looking for. Remember, take your file, a notepad and a pencil - NO PENS. Once you have checked a period of about 25 years from the marriage of a couple, it is unlikely that there would be any further children. You can now consider that generation complete.

If you have time and the incumbent is willing for you to continue, start looking for some of those names turning up in the marriage and burial registers. make sure you get as many records per outing as you can. But don\'t gather records for the sake of it. Take only those which are relevant to you. When your time is up, as you do every time, go home and transfer your information onto the relevant pages of your permanent file. The gaps are starting to fill in. But, your file will always tell you what next, because of the gaps that still exist.

Always be polite, respectful and friendly when you visit anywhere which has a source of information. You will always be welcome back again that way. Make yourself a nuisance, or cause offence, you can wave goodbye to that opportunity. And you may well damage the prospects for those coming after you. That will most certainly not be appreciated and you could find yourself in difficulties with the other enthusiasts.

Now, you are fairly sure you have a record for every child in a given generation. But, have you? If the period you are working on is about 1900, your next course of action will be to consult the 1901 Census Returns for the district in question. If you are back to a period before that, consult the Census Returns immediately following the period. Find the address you are interested in and there, you will find everyone resident at that address on Census Night. Listed with ages, occupations and relationship to the head of the household. When it is no longer possible to find any name you have not already got, then you KNOW you have them all.

Go home and transfer all your new information to your record sheets. And now you can number the next set of pages going back.

You will have noticed by now that the routine is always the same. From this point, you should be able to refer to any information source, extract the relevant information, and enter it in your record sheets. You will now be able to get back as far as written records will allow.

This system works. I have used it for over 25 years, and have passed it on to quite a lot of other people, all of whom have found it effective.

If you hit problems after all this, you can ask questions on this forum for guidance within matters concerning the operation of the system. For more complex research problems, you can ask for help on the relevant board, or you can ask at your local Society. One way or another, most problems can be solved with help from others.

My final piece of advice is. Follow only one name at a time. And ALWAYS work back in time. Trying to work forward is problematic and, it is very easy to lose your way. Once you lose the thread that way, you may never get back on the right track. Come forward only when you really know what you are doing and there is no other way of doing it.

Good luck with your researches.


Active member
It seems long winded, I know. But, it really is very simple to follow the system. The method of record collecting and record keeping is so closely related, I have done it this way to demonstrate the routine that is used.

The only remaining thing I have to say is to stress again how to indicate relationship to yourself.

Words like uncle, aunty, grandfather, grandmother, great grandfather, great grandmother are NEVER used.

My uncle = is he your father\'s brother or your mother\'s brother. if he is your father\'s brother then his relationship to you is \"My father\'s brother\"

My Grandfather = there were two of them. Which one are you talking about. If it is your father\'s father, his relationship to you is \"My father\'s father\"

My Great Grandfather = there were four of them (and that number doubles for each generation you go back). If he was your great grandfather by male descent, then his relationship to you is \"My father\'s father\'s father\".

These definitions can only possibly refer to one specific individual. there is never any room for misunderstanding.

One thing I haven\'t covered, which you may have already thought about. The use of abbreviations. Put an extra page at the front of your main file and write down upon it all the abbreviations you use and their full meaning. Be careful here. It is no good using the abbreviation \"B\". That could be a baptism or a burial. So, \"Bap\" would be a baptism and \"Bur\" would be a burial.

Once you have established your list of abbreviations, always use the same abbreviation for any given meaning. You see, routine again.

If you would like to ask questions about anything which is not clear, please feel free to do sThat\'s it. That is my system - a variation on a theme I cam across many years ago, adjusted to suit me.
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