April 2008

Family History Research in the 1980s

When I started delving into my family history research in the early 1980’s the information was initially committed to paper records – handwritten notes taken on visiting relatives or at the County Record Offices (CRO’s). This quickly needed to become more formalised and a series of record cards was made up with one card for each family member. A master file subsequently became created to display the “tree” in a more formalised way which enabled me to show the linkages between all the family members, and it was about the time that the Royston Family History group came together. Early members may remember me showing the A3 file I used at one of the groups early meetings.

It was about the same time that “home” computers were coming into use. I thought it might be a useful reminder to everyone to realise that the home computer we use today has come a long way in the last thirty years and its use has materially affected the way that current family history research is often done today. Information is more quickly available today but (and this is a big BUT) that doesn’t necessarily mean it is any more accurate. One still needs to establish corroborative evidence for every piece of information gained. I’ll explain what I mean by that later on but for now let us consider how home computers have developed.

In 1980 Clive Sinclair brought out the Sinclair ZX80, a truly home computer at just under £100, followed a year later by the ZX81 and few years later by the Spectrum. The memory sizes of these computers were 16 Kb, 64Kb and 16/48/128Kb (Kilobytes of storage) respectively – very small by comparison with home computers today where memory is measured in Gb. (A gigabyte is 1 million times the size of a Kb.) The Spectrum introduced a colour display whereas the ZX machines were just monochrome! In those days you needed to have some knowledge of computer programming, the “language” being used for Sinclair machines was appropriately named “Sinclair BASIC” – a version of the BASIC language in use elsewhere. These early machines also set the scene for home computer based games too!

In order to use the Sinclair computers you also needed a TV screen, and some means of storing information, a cassette tape recorder often being used. A printer was also available for the ZX81 and Spectrum machines. Separate “disc” storage systems subsequently came into use with the 5¼ inch floppy disc during the 1980’s. IBM, Apple and Commodore computers of the time were more orientated to business use although small numbers of computer literate people used them for home use too and as the 1980’s progressed computers became smaller, more powerful and more “friendly”

I was lucky in that I used a computer at work and quickly saw the advantages of being able to program in BASIC language to facilitate considerable improvements in efficiency. The spin off was that I was able to use those skills on our home computer too to start to build up a “database” of family history information. Fortunately I have been able to transfer all the data each time I have changed computers. However, I have also kept all the paper records and recently this has proved invaluable to be able to identify when, and where pieces of information have come from.

Had I actually checked the parish records for some events, and if so where had I done it, and in what format was the information I was using? 

This brings me back to the need for verification of information. In those early days one used CRO’s to access Parish Records, sometimes even handling the actual original Church Record. Nowadays this is a rare event in CRO’s, now mostly using microfilm or fiche copies, but it is still nice to get the feel of parchment – try looking at Tithe Maps. When you look at actual Parish Records, or film/fiche copies it is your interpretation of the hand writing that you see. You can sometimes trace whole families through those records where a family did not have to move to find work and you sometimes see subtle (or not so subtle) spelling differences as you look at the total picture for that parish. So in terms of verification in these cases you saw it for yourself from the original record or its direct copy.

In the 1980’s we also relied a lot on the International Genealogical Index from the Church of Latter Day Saints. This is still available and is still a useful “transcript” record, often overlooked now we have the likes of Ancestry.com and Findmypast.com  The IGI is an example of where someone else (invariably not following a particular name) has made their interpretation of the hand writing and “transcribed” the data into form that can be more readily accessed. This is also what we in our society have done with the data in the Monumental Inscription, Burial Register and Royston Crow publications, etc. that we sell. Transcripts can be liable to copying error, even though great care is taken in their preparation, and these should always be considered secondary sources of information. Note also that when we copy hand written information into our computers or files we are then creating “transcripts” too, that we begin to rely on as fact! How many times have you looked back on something and said to yourself “That can’t be right” when you find you’ve type 19xx instead of 18xx, or something similar. It is important to double-check any transcript you make.

Now we have Genes Reunited and other similar systems where people “post” their family trees on the internet and there is a tendency to treat these new pieces of information as real – after all if it is on the computer it must be right mustn’t it? I have come across such a tree that has a whole generation missing – something that would not have happened if they had actually looked at the Parish Records. It is not about how many “family members” you can identify or lay credit to. Should we think of these as transcripts of transcripts, i.e. with twice the possibility of error, or perhaps more than twice, depending on how many processes of copying have occurred?

In summary, I am not disparaging new ways of gaining information. Simply be aware of the need to verify data you add to your trees.



Royston and District Family History Society