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How Genealogy Works

Genealogies and the Internet

The convenience of the Internet has changed how genealogists research their family tree. Most now check the Internet first -- before looking for traditional records and repositories. Genealogy has become one of the most popular subjects on the Internet.

Researching a Genealogy on the Internet


Over the past decade or so, there has been a major shift in how genealogy is researched. Before there was such a thing as the Internet, everything had to be done on site, through visits to libraries, archives, and courthouses. Today a lot of the preliminary research can be done from the comfort of your own home at your convenience. Consider the Internet a library that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. This library that never closes is now the first stop when it comes to family history.

What You Need to Know Before You Start

To find ancestors from recent generations, you may need only a few basic facts to start searching online. When looking for information on earlier generations, however, it's best if you have a little more knowledge before you begin.

It's a good idea to keep the information you know beside your computer, easily accessible in case you need it. If you have entered data into any of the genealogy programs discussed on the previous page of this article, use the report feature in the program to print out your pedigree chart and appropriate family group sheets. Having your notes close at hand makes it possible to quickly check what you already know, or suspect, as you search for information online. As you visit various sites, keep in mind that negative results, especially this early in your research, do not automatically mean you've hit a dead end. You may need to go back and ask family members a few more questions before you are able to make any headway online.

Remember that the Internet contains information about everything: There are times when searching for a specific name may lead you to a site that has nothing to do with your research. This is usually an issue only when using general search engines. However, when you travel to family history sites, you may discover that your name is a lot more common than you originally suspected.

As you search for your family on the Internet, try to use as many hard facts as you can. Searching for just a surname may quickly bring frustration. Many people share the same surname without sharing the same ancestry.

Keeping Pace with Your Research

Keep track of the sites you visit and the information you do or do not find. Research logs are the best way to do this. The research log templates created over the years were designed primarily for traditional research with books and documents; however, they are also useful for research done on the Internet.

Be sure to record every site you visit. When surfing the Web, it's easy to lose track of the sites you visit as you click one link after another. Three hours later, you may not remember how you got to some of them. Some sites will yield useful information; some will be a bust. Still others may not contain anything directly relevant but will lead you to a more useful site. Recording even those sites that yielded no information will save you a second fruitless visit in the future.

Don't forget to list the names you were looking for when you conducted the research. Why? Because ten years from now the only aid you will have to refresh your memory is the tips you include in the research log or in the notes of your genealogy program.

Whenever you find information about your family online, print it out immediately. The Internet is an ever-changing entity. Often when you try to return to a site, it has vanished. Printing a hard copy is a guarantee that you can refer to the information at a later date. Even better, if you return to that site you'll be able to compare the current information on the site with the pages you printed out previously. If you find that any data has changed, you can make note of it on your printout or, if there are extensive changes, print a new version and file both of them.

Internet Genealogy Citations

As you venture onto the Internet, look for source citations. In a compiled family history, look for superscripted numbers after dates, places, or sentences. Check to see that the Web page compiler has supplied the identifying information about a source. For instance, if the site is devoted to the records of a specific cemetery, did they:

  • include the name of the cemetery?
  • identify where the cemetery is located (address or town)?
  • include the date they walked the cemetery abstracting the tombstone data?
  • tell you who abstracted the data?

These facts help you to know how complete the information is. If the cemetery was originally walked in 1967, it's possible that some tombstones included in the Web site's pages no longer exist. By the same token, it's possible that the information was not taken from the cemetery itself, but from papers created in 1967. If this is the case, you have to consider the possibility that errors were introduced when it was uploaded to the computer.

Remember that the Internet is a great resource because it offers an inexpensive way to publish your family history. Before the Internet, many researchers put off publishing their family histories to ensure they had everything about the family identified before committing it to paper and paying to have it printed. Today, you will find many "works in progress" on the Internet. Because they are not etched in stone, it is not unusual to discover upon revisiting a site that the researcher has either changed the pages dramatically or removed them entirely.

You should ask questions about every Web site you visit. The Internet makes it extremely easy to share information, but nothing should be accepted at face value. Make sure to verify the facts before downloading and adding the information to your genealogy program.

While the Internet is a great tool for genealogists, it doesn't house all the information you'll need to complete your family history. You'll have to visit libraries for some types of records. We'll discuss library research next.

To learn more about specific Web sites to consult in building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.