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Internet Genealogy

What you CAN and CANNOT Do

by Jan McClintock

Updated March 30, 2006 by Leister Productions.

What You CAN Do

Let's focus on the positive side here. Even though you can't yet punch in a name and date and download the entire history of a family branch, there are lots of very productive things going on through your modem port.

Find People and Businesses Search Collections of Other People's Data
Search Indexes or Abstracts of Vital Data Search Library Catalogs
Join Mailing Lists and Newsgroups Learn Genealogy Techniques
Find Locality Information Use Reference Materials
Maintain Your Computer Order Goodies

Find People and Businesses

This is the perfect example with which to start, since it shows a terrific way that computers are used to save time and effort. It's easier than ever to find people and businesses nowadays. Although I am concerned about privacy, the data you can find online is either submitted by the individual voluntarily or is available in local phone books. You can use services like this via an online service or the world-wide web. Caveat: accuracy varies, to say the least.

Example 1: You know that your second cousin lives in Chicago, but you don't have an address or phone number. Enter the surname and the city, and the list is there for you to save as text.

Example 2: You would like to know which funeral home was responsible for your grandfather's burial. First, you must find the funeral homes that exist today, and hope that one of them performed the service, or that they hold records from defunct funeral homes in town. Enter the type of business and the city, and the list of advertising funeral homes is given.

The example above is the result of a search using "Funeral" in the Name field of BigBook, and the city of Boise and state of ID. After searching through the Category names and finding "Funeral Services and Cemeteries," I searched again, leaving the name field blank, but using that category and the same city and state. I got a total of 16 funeral homes, memorial services, and cemeteries in Boise. Moral: it pays to be as specific as possible.

Search Collections of Other People's Data

Yes, genealogical data is definitely out there (the trick is to find the stuff you want). The vast majority of family data has been compiled by other researchers just like you. What, you say, there's nobody just like you? Well, there's no data like your own, either...

WARNING - RANT APPROACHING... Just as each person has individual characteristics, so does their research. Everyone chooses their own words (and inflections) in notes; everyone cites their sources differently, if at all; everyone learns different family traditions; everyone does not do the leg-work that so much of our research involves.

One the other hand, there are some darn good people out there doing thorough family research, and it would be a shame to duplicate someone else's work, right? Right, as long as you meet your own research goals - the level of authenticity that you set for your own research. If you're satisfied that another researcher has verified the family line, then go for it. Otherwise, use it to find possible leads.


There are scads of GEDCOM files for download or to receive from others via e-mail or on disk. Online services also have large libraries of files, usually with the prominent surnames given in the file description.

  • GenServ - Cliff Manis' project includes 12.2 million names; you must submit a GEDCOM file of your own to participate

WWW Home Pages

Check the Online Genealogical Database for researchers who have posted their findings on the web.

Don't forget our own database of Reunion users with home pages.

Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet's list of personal home pages

Subscription databases

Evertons' Online Search offers several databases at a subscription fee of $15 for one month and $49.50 for a year.

Search Indexes or Abstracts of Vital Data

Yes, there really is vital data online. Slowly but surely, genealogical information is being plugged into databases throughout the world. Many enterprising and helpful individuals have spent a lot of time and effort to collect and enter this data, and I applaud them. However, until your search yields a digital photograph of an actual original record, remember that indexes and abstracts can include errors.


Search Library Catalogs

Local, State, University, and National

I really need to see that book about the lives of copper miners in 19th century Michigan. It's out of print, so I need to borrow one. Hmmmm...


Even if you aren't travelling to Washington, D.C. anytime soon, you can check out the holdings of the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Record Administration. If you're like me, most of your research is done long-distance, and knowing exactly what to ask for is the only way to obtain copies or film from these bastions of bureaucracy.

Join Mailing Lists and Newsgroups

For ongoing discussions and the latest news, there is nothing like a mailing list or a newsgroup. Both are lists of e-mail messages about particular topics sent by other researchers. When you "post" a message, you are simply sending it to the list or message board. Mailing Lists send e-mail to your in-box, while newsgroups post to a central location, from where you read the messages. Some are specifically targeted, like our very own mailing list ReunionTalk for discussions about our favorite genealogy software, while some are more general, like the newsgroup soc.genealogy.methods. Search for a mailing list or a newsgroup at Cyndi Howell's web site.

The usual and sensible advice: don't just jump into a group without checking it out. Read the Frequently-Asked Questions (FAQ's) and acquaint yourself with the appropriate topics and the style of the postings.

Example: here is a sample message that was posted to the newsgroup soc.genealogy.surnames:

Subject: RUTLEDGE: PA>NY>1865
Body: Seeking parents of John Rutledge, b. 1865, Quinton, Percy Co, PA, m. Rose Leahman in New York city, 1889.

Soc.genealogy.surnames asks that posts follow a specific format to keep the newsgroup uniform and thus easy to read. Read the instructions first and you'll have much more success.

Learn Genealogy Techniques


The correspondence course comes of age. In addition to the online services' great genealogy forums (AOL keyword "roots"), classes are available on the Net from individuals, non-profit organizations, and colleges and universities. Some classes correspond totally through e-mail or even meet online, while others use snail mail. Prices range from about forty dollars to several hundred dollars for graduate studies.

Find Locality Information

Learn more about the place your ancestors lived (see the article "Beyond the Placename"). These pages run the gamut from government office locations and hours to photos of the famous local landmarks. Look for a specific placename using a search site like Alta Vista or YAHOO.


Use Reference Materials

Yes, you CAN find the definition of that obscure Italian phrase on the bottom of your great-uncle Luigi's naturalization record. You can also search through the bible, look up acronyms, read biographies, get technical support, peruse road maps, and of course choose from the ubiquitous dictionaries, thesauri, and gazetteers.


Maintain Your Computer

Keep your computer healthy and helpful with the tons of available geekness tools and advice.


Download utility and helper apps -

Get help with hardware and software foibles -

Download files for fun and research -

Order Goodies

This is the fun stuff. Purchasing that book about New York in the 17th Century, that new CD on Arkansas marriages, or some notebook paper raincoats was never as easy.

What You CANNOT Do (yet)

OK, well, you can't search through county courthouse record books or the state archives' dusty vaults. You can't flip through card files in small historical societies from your desk. You can't strain your eyes trying to read microfilm online (what a horrible thought - it's bad enough on the machine at the library!). However, look at it this way: why spoil all the fun?

Remember--the vital data that we are creating today, as well as our computerized research findings, will be available online for future researchers.