Tuesday, 26 December 2017


I'm by no means an expert in the use of DNA in genealogy.  As a professional genealogist, however, I am trying to learn as much as I can about the subject.

On the face of it, it seems a wonderful idea - take a quick and easy DNA test to find out who your ancestors were without all the hard work of doing your tree.  There are so many stories about adoptees who have found their birth families as a result of taking a genealogical DNA test and it is now relatively cheap to do so.

DNA tests - the reality check


The reality is of course a little different.  Most companies offer you a broadbrush view of your ethnicity and a matching service with other DNA samples which have been submitted BUT if your close match has not tested with that company then you will not find them.  You can download your results in the form of "raw data" and submit them to another site such as GEDMatch to widen your search  but for most of us struggling to get to grips with the matches we already have this may as yet be a step too far.

One thing becomes very clear as you get your first matches - you do need to have already done quite a lot of documentary research already in order to establish your joint ancestor.  In general the longer the matching sections of common DNA you have with a possible match the closer the relationship BUT if your ancestry largely consists of people from a fairly small geographical area who have intermarried for generations those assumptions of closeness are skewed.  That common ancestor may be a lot further back than indicated!

AND if your matches are anything like mine the link is probably in that line you haven't yet researched thoroughly or where you have hit a brick wall.

DNA Ethnicity estimates

As for the ethnicity estimates - that is exactly what they are - ESTIMATES - and they can vary and be updated further along the line as more samples are added to the database.  My daughter and I both tested with Living DNA which does not as yet offer DNA matching but does offer a more detailed breakdown by region for UK ancestry.  In general both sets of results fit fairly closely with the documentary evidence and in fact have presented a few areas for further research on MY tree as there seems to be a bit of West Country ancestry I had not foreseen.  (When it appeared in my daughter's results I had ascribed it to my mother in law's ancestry.)

Would I recommend taking a DNA Test?


Yes on the whole I would recommend it  BUT

  • DO get your tree in order first as without a tree to check your matches are pretty useless
  • DO check out the privacy policies of the company you intend to use
  • DO learn at least the basics of DNA for genealogy before you start - there are plenty of webinars and videos about it on Youtube for instance
  • DO treat the ethnicity estimate as just that - an estimate


  • DON'T expect  miracles or immediate matches
  • DON'T offend your siblings who have different results to yours - the DNA mix we inherit from our parents is unique to ourselves and siblings may have a different mix
  • DON'T become a DNA bore - it can be very technical and most people really don't want to hear the details
  • DON'T be upset if the ethnicity estimate throws up something unexpected.  So many different ancestors contributed to the mix we inherit and that unforeseen result may lead to exciting discoveries when you follow it up with documentary research.



Monday, 28 August 2017

Archives - Top-Drawer or Bargain Basement?

Last week I rang a Record Office (an Accredited Archive) to check on their parish register holdings.  The registers have mostly been digitised for a subscription website but some appear to be missing and can't be accessed via the browse function.

Unfortunately my call was answered by a new member of staff who checked the online catalogue and announced that they did not hold the original registers before 1903 only the microfilm copies.  I know this to be incorrect and that she was looking in the wrong place but I didn't argue not wanting a confrontation.  In hindsight I should have insisted she check the paper catalogue.

Steady attrition of experience and knowledge


 What is most worrying is that this was not a new experience for me.  It is something I encounter more and more as I go around the country visiting Archives and Record Offices.  As the cuts bite ever deeper the more experienced staff leave to be replaced by those who (to put it politely) have a lot yet to learn.  Like those who witnessed the destruction of Palmyra and other ancient treasures we are witnessing the wanton destruction of years of archival experience and knowledge by those who do not value knowledge, history, heritage or culture and only seek to balance the books.

Libraries and Archives are fighting for their very existence now.  We may soon reach the point where regular users know more than trained staff.  How many times have you witnessed staff telling users something which you knew to be incorrect?  I know I have and have agonised as to whether to interfere, only to decide to keep my head down.  Those occasions now weigh heavily upon my conscience.

I am a representative on The National Archives User Advisory Group and a professional genealogist.  I feel strongly that it is my responsibility to do all that I can to ensure the future generations continue to have access to the records I have been privileged to enjoy.  In these days of increased digital access it seems as if Archives are delegating responsibility for opening up access to their collections to the commercial websites where the bottom line will inevitably be making enough money to break even and provide profit for their shareholders on the expenditures of digitisation - licensing, preparation, scannning and indexing.  BUT what price accuracy, context and completeness?

Online is not Forever

And online is not forever.  Commercial websites purchase a licence to use a dataset for a set number of years.  At the expiry of that term what then happens?

Websites come and go and are bought and sold on.  Family history is no longer a hobby but a product for sale.  Datasets continue to disappear completely, or move to other websites with the same ownership, and having to pay extra for a separate subscription to view records you viewed as part of your original one 6 months ago is becoming the norm.  Free databases become subscription websites or are taken over by them.  We have all seen this happen since the first exciting and wonderful 1901 census digitisation.

User attrition

If Archive staff misinform a user as to their holdings - not deliberately but through lack of staff training - then that is one user who won't visit.  If a hard-won new user, attracted by online or outreach exhibitions visits the Archive and the guidance given to them is inaccurate or misleading or they are left to flounder alone then that is another user lost. If Archives close their doors at weekends, reduce their opening hours or close at lunchtimes that is more potential users lost.

In these tough times where usage is measured mainly by footfall Archives are shooting themselves in the foot by reducing experienced staff and opening hours.

We know that cuts are inevitable.  Times are hard.  We may need to make a bunker from which to defend at all costs.  BUT at a time when family history is still lucrative and interest in local history seems to be growing what we need is to make Libraries and Archives easier to use for research.  Yes encouraging children on school visits is good - they are important for the future - but if there are no archives or libraries to speak of in 10 years time for them to visit then it is rather pointless generating an interest in a 10 year old isn't it?

Archives need to attract adults - adults who are new to research but are keen - who need help and experienced advice to guide them to the less easily accessed sources.  They are the ones who will pass on their love of research and how to do it to their children.

We need Archives to be welcoming and inclusive places for adults with Finding Aids prominently displayed, proper Signposting of Resources and lots of "how to" guides.  We need their websites to tell users what they actually want to know and not just point them to an incomplete online catalogue.

And most of all we need knowledgeable staff on the front line - the reception desk and phone. 

We want our Archives to be TOP DRAWER not Bargain Basement!

Friday, 28 July 2017


As family history researchers we all like to do our own research.  It is hard to hand our tree over to someone else even if only to look something up or obtain a copy of a document.  Which is probably why if we have to, we tend to ask for copies from the Archive or Record Office rather than employ a researcher to do it for us. 

As a professional genealogist I do this too but only for single copies where I can give an exact reference or where it is too small a job for me to employ a fellow professional.  Otherwise I use the cheaper option and employ a pro.  Archive research hourly rates seem quite expensive to me certainly usually a fair bit more than I or my colleagues charge.  

I would like to think that archive staff have an extensive knowledge of their own records but sadly this is not always the case in these days of staff redundancies.  Archive staff sometimes don’t last long enough to even begin to know their collections.  Their only advantage is that they have access to the more usable under-layers of the online catalogue.  Which is not necessarily any help when it comes down to slogging through quarter sessions papers, muster rolls or workhouse minutes.

I know that professional genealogists have spent years learning their trade:

- learning about all the different kinds of records available both locally and nationally, the context in which they were created, and how to use them to find family members as we trace back generation by generation.

- learning how to apply logic, critical analysis and lateral thinking to a problem

- learning how to search the different databases effectively and cope with their individual foibles

- learning about online catalogues and their differences 

- familiarising ourselves with the different archives and libraries we visit in the course of our work, building relationships with staff and learning about their individual collections and cataloguing styles

- taking courses to improve and upgrade our skills and knowledge in areas such as Genetic Genealogy 

- learning how best to help our clients as cost effectively as possible

- learning how best to quote sources and label documents for clarity

- learning how to use family tree software, photograph documents, create websites and employ social media for genealogy

And learning how to read the different styles of handwriting encountered as we move from one period to the next.

So I feel comfortable asking them to research for me in an archive some distance away or in records I am not familiar with.  After all why get a dog and bark yourself?  

I know that they will carry out my task diligently and offer advice if I ask for it.  I know they will tell me of likely costs up front and that they will devise a suitable research plan and stick to it unless they find something which makes a different approach necessary.  I know that they will not make assumptions without facts to back them up and that they will probably work more hours on my project than they charge me for. 

So if I employ professional genealogists for my family history problems why don’t you?