Researching Your Roots
Using the Internet

Cyndi Howells says that the Internet may not be what you think.

THERE ARE CURRENTLY at least two schools of thought when it comes to the opinions people hold regarding the use of the Internet in genealogical research. At one end of the spectrum is the expectation that the Internet is the answer to everything and that a person will never have to step foot in a library again, while people at the other end of the scale feel that the Internet is a black hole and a vast wasteland made up of irresponsibly shared, random data. Both groups are wrong. Both groups are looking at the Internet and seeing what they want to see there, as opposed to what actually is there.

The Newbies
Many people who are new to genealogy and genealogical research on the Internet come to this relatively new facility with very high expectations for what they expect to find. Many hope to be able to plug their surname into a database somewhere online and have a completed family history pop up in front of them. This is not a new misconception when it comes to genealogical research. It has long been assumed by people new to genealogy that you could do the same at a library, or at an LDS Family History Center, through a society or with the mysteriously, magical help of a professional researcher (who, it is usually assumed, has a large pile of documentation lying around for every person’s family history). Anyone who has been exposed to the basics of genealogical research knows that this isn’t possible under any circumstance. The solution to this is to encourage those who are new to genealogy to educate themselves by pointing them to articles, books and tutorials that will get them started down the right path for their research.

The Oldies-but-Goodies
A large group of genealogists, made up of long time, seasoned veterans who perform careful, documented, methodical genealogical research, have followed the growth and popularity of the Internet with concern and trepidation, some even with loathing or a sense of foreboding. This group has been skeptical about the resources found online. They have seen the overwhelming surge in the popularity of the Internet and in genealogy. They have read the wild claims that you “can find everything you need on the Internet” or that you “won’t ever need to go to a library again” and they, quite rightfully, cringe and shriek. Further, they have investigated some of the examples of personal genealogical research that are being published online, and they find a great majority of those examples to be lacking in documented source citation, thus apparently lacking in quality background research to begin with. These devoted researchers have tended to condemn the entirety of the Internet based on the poor quality of the few examples they have seen. To light a candle rather than curse the darkness, this group must open up their minds a bit and explore the Internet, ignore the mish-mash of undocumented research, and instead delve into the quality resources that abound.

The Internet — A New Tool for Your Genealogy Toolbox
Genealogical research entails a process of methodically locating and documenting each record available for each individual in your own personal family tree. The Internet does not contain a scanned image — a digital copy — of every record or document that pertains to each one of your individual ancestors and to each of those people’s lives on this planet. Until it does, you will still need to use traditional offline research facilities and methods. However, the same can be said of traditional offline research facilities. None of them contains a copy of every record or document for each of your individual ancestors. They never have. Genealogists have always had to use a combination of family sources, libraries, archives, LDS Family History Centers, societies, professionals and a variety of miscellaneous resources in order to cover the entire gamut of records and sources necessary to document the lives of your ancestors. Now you must add the Internet to that mix. It is merely a tool that you add to your already existing set of tools. It is the most powerful tool that you have to date, because it helps to expedite many of your current processes and has been proven to save time and money, as well as energy in many instances.

Not All Sources are Perfect
Historically, genealogists have been reminded often that we cannot trust everything we find in print. Humans create, write and publish data, and humans can make errors. Books can have errors. Transcribed or extracted records can have errors. Genealogical research — methodically documented or quickly slapped together — can have errors. The same can now be said of electronic media, including CD-ROMs and the Internet. The fact that the media is electronic, rather than pen and ink on paper, does not change the fact that humans generate the data. This means that not everything you find online is guaranteed to be correct, in the same way that not everything you find elsewhere is guaranteed to be correct. ’Twas ever thus — the speed at which we find information (factual or error-ridden) is all that has changed.

Primary and Secondary Data
The objective has always been and continues to be locating primary and secondary source data whenever and wherever possible. Primary data is that which is known or recorded by a person who has direct knowledge of an event in a person’s life. For example, the information on a birth certificate is primary data because the parents of the child are there, providing the information about the birth of that child. Secondary data can be seen as something that is basically second-hand knowledge. A death certificate would contain both primary and secondary data. The date and circumstances of the death are primary data because the record is being created at the time of the death. Other information, such as the birth of the person who died would be provided by someone else (i.e. a child or spouse), and would be considered secondary.

Finding Aids
We must use a variety of finding aids to help us locate the primary and secondary source data that we need. These finding aids include:

  • Personal resources (i.e. diaries, letters, photographs, family Bibles)
  • Libraries (i.e. books, microfiche/film, newspapers, journals, newsletters, magazines)
  • Archives and other records repositories (i.e. vital records, census records, ship passenger lists, naturalization records, military records)
  • The LDS Family History Library and Family History Centers (i.e. the IGI, Ancestral File, the FHL Catalog)
  • Genealogical and historical societies (i.e. journals, quarterlies, newsletters, locality-specific publications)
  • Miscellaneous sources (i.e. ethnic collections, church records, fraternal groups)
Now, the tricky part for both groups of researchers described above: redirect your thinking so that you now view the Internet as a finding aid as well. The Internet will help you locate each of the resources described above and will help you learn how to make the best use of those same resources.

In What Other Ways Can the Internet be Defined?
Now you know the Internet doesn’t have every piece of genealogical material you need for your own personal family history. You also know that everything you find online isn’t just a mish-mash of hastily slapped together misinformation. So, what is the Internet? For genealogy, the Internet is: a classroom, a meeting place, a library or archive, a reference library, a shopping mall, a forum on which you can publish your own family information and research findings.

You Learn Something New Every Day
Traditionally, in order to learn about genealogical research, much of the learning process would take place remotely. Genealogists, rookies and veterans, gather together at genealogy society meetings and seminars in order to teach, to learn and to share. Many aids to learning about genealogical research can also be found in magazines, journals and books. However, the audience for such publications has always been narrowly defined until recently. The Internet has opened up many possibilities for people to publish articles and tutorials and for genealogical researchers to locate and learn from these important resources. As you come across a new topic or a new locality in your genealogical research, turn to the Internet to see if there is any information about that topic or locality. Take the time to educate yourself and use the expertise being offered by others online.

A Global Meeting Place
One of the most productive uses for the Internet is as a meeting place for genealogical researchers and long-lost cousins. People are using message boards, chat rooms, newsgroups and mailing lists to exchange information on common localities, genealogical topics and specific surnames. Imagine exchanging e-mail with a group of a few hundred other people, from all around the globe, who are researching in the same region that you are, or who are focusing on the same surname. Take it one step further and imagine being able to share what you know with these people and then learning from them in return.

Mailing lists are by far the leader in making the Internet a global, 24-hour-a-day, virtual genealogy society meeting place. There are currently more than 16,000 genealogy mailing lists. These mailing lists are free for you to subscribe to via e-mail. Mailing lists are very easy to participate in, once you know a few of the basics. First, there are usually two or more e-mail addresses used for mailing lists. There is generally one specific address used for you to send your initial “subscribe” message, which is also the same address you use when you want to unsubscribe or leave the list. There is a different address that you should use to post messages to the mailing list. Once you subscribe to a list successfully, you will receive a confirmation and a welcome message. Read the welcome message to learn what you need to know about the list. Save a copy of the message for future reference. After that you will begin to receive copies of messages that other subscribers send to the mailing list. You can choose to read them, answer them, delete them or save them. When you first join a list you should try to “lurk” for a while. This is a common reference online, which basically means that you can eavesdrop on conversations that take place on the list. This gives you time to get acquainted with how mailing lists work and how the people on each list interact with one another. Once you feel comfortable with the basics of the list, jump right in and post a message introducing yourself. Let everyone know about you, your genealogical research and what you hope to gain by participating in the mailing list.

Mailing lists are made up of the same sort of people that you know elsewhere in your daily life. You will find every sort of personality and every level of genealogical expertise represented by the other participants of your list. Some mailing lists are very active and others have long dry spells without much traffic. Some mailing lists have very active “list owners” — the people responsible for setting up and maintaining the list — and others do not. However, when it comes right down to it, mailing lists are only as good as the participants of the list. Would you expect to show up at a genealogy society meeting, then have everyone just sit and stare at one another? I suspect you wouldn’t. Instead, each of the people in the group interacts, shares, discusses and responds to one another. The same idea should be applied to participation in mailing lists. Interact with others, share what you know, offer to help and ask your own questions. As you do this, you will find that your time spent online is much more productive and every bit of energy you spend in participation will come back to you tenfold.

The Internet as a Library
Still in its infancy, the possibilities are endless for the publication of records on the Internet. At some point in the near future, it is easy to imagine the Internet becoming a vast and comprehensive genealogical library or records archive. There are already many projects online, the product of government agencies, volunteers and commercial entities alike, with the purpose of making records available to the online community. Anyone with access to the Internet and permission to publish or re-publish genealogical data, can transcribe or digitally scan data and create a website to house that data.

When You Need to Know Something, Look it Up
At your fingertips, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you have access to genealogy dictionaries, foreign translation tools, historical maps, and a myriad of quick reference sites of every sort imaginable. What is a soundex? How do you use it? Is there an LDS Family History Center close to your home? How can you order a copy of a birth certificate from Illinois? And how much will it be? What does “dower” mean? What is the original parent county for Rockingham County, Virginia? Instead of saving your question for the next trip to the library or the next genealogy society meeting, use an Internet resource to find the answer to your question.

Shopping in Your Bathrobe and Slippers
Vendors have also found in the Internet a whole new marketplace in which to advertise and sell their genealogical products. Consumers can shop, compare, sample and purchase everything necessary to stock their genealogical research toolbox, including books, magazines, charts, forms, maps, software and an assortment of other odds and ends. Just as the Internet is making the average consumer much more savvy, it is helping to prepare the genealogical shopper before they spend their money. Friends and colleagues online share advice with one another via mailing lists and chat rooms. Many websites for genealogy software offer demo versions so that you can try before you buy and shareware vendors have an even easier method by which to make their programs known. Customarily, mail order through paper catalogs was the way for people to learn about and purchase genealogy books. Now many people are finding the Internet to be a great tool for helping them to learn about what sorts of books and other published materials are available to aid in their genealogical research.

Become an Author and a Publisher
For most genealogists, the ultimate goal is to be able to publish their genealogical research and share their years of work with their family and the world. In the past this has meant that most people waited as long as possible before publishing their work. They wanted to have it as complete as possible before finally committing it to paper for all eternity. Often there is quite an expense involved in publishing a book, so there are usually a limited number of copies made. Once the work in published in book form, it might be quite a while before any new or updated information would be gathered in order to print a revision of the book. The Internet has changed all that. The goal is still to publish and books will always be one of the mainstays of genealogical research. But now some of the rules and expectations have changed, not to mention the difference in expense and energy involved to publish one’s work on the Internet.

Publishing a website is something that everyone has the opportunity to do. Most people have web space available to them as part of their monthly Internet connection fee. There are also many facilities online which allow you to publish your family history for free. Websites can be as simple as you like or as complex as your imagination can make them. Begin with one simple web page. Include contact information and a brief list of your research efforts to date, including names, dates and places. As you progress in your research, add more and more material to the site. Include scanned images of records, documents and photographs. Write articles and include them on the site to share your own bit of expertise with the world. The limitations of money and time are no longer an impediment to you being able to share what you have done.

Because information can be shared so easily on the Internet, everyone who participates in online research has become both an author and a publisher. Many people aren’t aware of that. Messages posted on a website with queries or message boards are published material. E-mail messages to mailing lists end up in archives on Internet servers around the globe. These archives can be searched by anyone at any time from that point forward. Now, all these people who are electronic authors and publishers need to familiarize themselves with the many aspects of this new facility.

All the same rules apply to online publishing that apply to offline publishing. Copyright, source citation and privacy are among the chief concerns that devoted genealogical researchers have regarding online publications. The copyright that others hold on published materials must be respected. Do not publish copied information without the permission of the original author. Citing your sources and documenting your research, aids in responsible publication of your genealogical research. Indicate in all your publications where you found a specific piece of data, giving explicit references. If you have included undocumented data in your electronic publication, clearly indicate that the data is your ‘best guess” or yet to be proven. Finally, in honoring your ancestors, make sure you honor the privacy of your living family members. In general, don’t publish any information about anyone after about 1920.

The Internet is a powerful tool in a genealogist’s toolbox. It should be viewed seriously, with respect for what it truly is and what it can be. Now it is time for everyone to look at the Internet and see what really is there, then learn how to use what is there with efficiency, productivity and responsibility.

Cyndi Howells owns and maintains Cyndi’s List, the consistently top-rated website for genealogists (including Family Chronicle’s own survey). She is the author of the best-selling books Netting Your Ancestors and Cyndi’s List.

This article originally appeared in our January/February 2000 issue.

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