The Genealogist’s Internet

CC BY-SA 4.0

1. Introduction

Genealogy and the internet

Offline genealogy


Genealogy and the internet

The steady growth in the number of people interested in family history in recent decades no doubt has several causes. Certainly, television series like Who Do You Think You Are? and Heir Hunters have exposed a larger audience to the fascination of family history and to some of its sources and techniques. The availability of DNA testing to establish family relationships or trace migration patterns has also contributed to a surge of interest. But neither of these could have had as much impact without the growth of the internet and the inexpensive and increasingly widespread access to it among the entire population. While the internet has not changed the fundamental principles of genealogical research, it has changed the way in which much of that research is done and made a huge difference in what the individual genealogist can do with ease.

Indexes to primary records, in many cases linked to a digitized image of the original document, are now widely available online. Even where records themselves are not online, the ability to check the holdings of record offices and libraries via the web means that a visit can be better prepared and more productive. Those who have previously made little progress with their family tree for lack of time or mobility to visit archives can pursue their researches much more conveniently, with access to many records from their desktop. Likewise, those who live on the other side of the world from the repositories which hold records of their ancestors’ lives can make progress without having to employ a researcher. Online data is a boon, too, for anyone who has difficulty reading from microfilm or original records.

Archives have realized that the internet is also a remedy for some of their pressing concerns: lack of space on their premises, the need to make their collections available while preserving them from damage, not to mention the pressure from government to provide wider access. In addition, there is the obvious commercial potential: online record transcriptions can attract distant and, particularly, overseas users in large numbers, while even those living less far away will use a charged service which saves them time and travel costs.

Genealogists also benefit from the ease with which messages and electronic documents can be exchanged around the world at effectively no cost. It is easier than ever to contact people with similar research interests, and even to find distant cousins. It is easier than ever, away from a good genealogy library or bookshop, to find expertise or help with some genealogical problem. And if you need to refer to a book, there are genealogy bookshops with online catalogues and secure ordering, while for older books you may even find the whole text online.

Any information stored digitally, whether text or image, can be published on the web easily and at relatively low cost to publisher and user alike. This has revolutionized the publishing of pedigrees and other family history information. It has allowed individuals to publish small transcriptions from individual records, material which it would otherwise be difficult to make widely available. Individual family historians can publicise their interests and publish the fruits of their researches to millions of others.

The internet has enhanced co-operation by making it possible for widely separated people to communicate easily as a group. While collaborative genealogy projects did not start with the internet, email and the web make the co-ordination of vast numbers of geographically distributed volunteers, such as the 11,000 or so involved in FreeBMD (see p. 70), much easier.

Offline genealogy

Over the last few years the internet has matured as a resource for family historians. There is now hardly any aspect of the subject which is not catered for online. In some cases, such as census records, the online facilities have made their offline predecessors more or less redundant. I’m sure it is now the case that anyone starting out on their family history assumes that most of their research will be carried out online. Inevitably, however, this has given rise to unrealistic expectations in some quarters. Stories of messages posted to mailing lists asking, ‘Where will I find my family tree online?’ are not apocryphal.[1]

The fact is that if you are only beginning your family tree, you will have plenty to do offline before you can take full advantage of what is online. For a start, because of privacy concerns, you won’t find much online information about any ancestors born less than a century ago. Scotland has some more recent records online for marriages and deaths (see p. 77), but for England and Wales there are so far only indexes to twentieth-century birth, marriage and death records online. This means that in tracing the most recent generations most of the work must be done offline, though for living people you may well be able to find addresses, phone numbers and perhaps Facebook pages. But even if recent primary records are not online, you can still expect to make contact with other genealogists who share your interests. To do this effectively, however, you will need to have established a family tree for the last three or more generations. The reason for this is as follows: you presumably know or knew your grandparents and their siblings (your great aunts and uncles), so you know or are at least aware of your first and second cousins. On the whole, then, any new relatives discovered via the internet will be no closer to you than third cousins, descended from your great-great-grandparents, who were born perhaps 100 or so years before you. Unless you know the names of your great-great-grandparents and where they came from, you will probably not be in a position to establish that you are in fact related to someone who has posted their pedigree online.

Of course, if your surname is unusual, or particularly if your family has not been geographically mobile in recent generations, you may be able to make contact with someone researching your surname and be reasonably certain that you are related. Or you may be lucky enough to find that someone is doing a one-name study of your surname. In this case, they may already have extracted some or all of the relevant entries in the civil registration records, and indeed may have already been able to link up many of the individuals recorded.

But, in general, you will need to do work offline before you can expect to find primary source material online and before you have enough information to start establishing contact with distant relatives.

However, one thing that is useful to every family historian is the wealth of general genealogical information and the huge range of expertise embodied in the online community. For the absolute beginner, the internet is useful not so much because there is lots of data online, but because there are many places to turn to for help and advice. And this is particularly important for those who live a long way away from their family’s ancestral home.

All the same, it is important to remember that, whatever and whoever you discover online, there are many other sources for family history which aren’t on the web. If you restrict yourself to online sources you may be able to construct a basic pedigree back to the nineteenth century, but you won’t be able, reliably, to get much further, and you will be seeing only the outline of your family’s history. On the other hand, if you are one of those who refuses on principle to use the internet (and who is presumably reading this by accident, or to confirm their worst fears), you are just making your research into your family history much harder than it need be.


We now take the ready availability of genealogical records and information on the World Wide Web for granted. But most of the sites we rely on are of relatively recent origin. Before 2002, there were no UK censuses online, for example; before 2003, no civil registration indexes. Indeed, only a handful of genealogy sites can trace their history back to the twentieth century: FamilySearch was launched in 1999, Cyndi’s List in 1996, Genuki in 1995. But in fact the web is only the latest electronic medium for genealogy resources, and ‘online genealogy’ has a longer history that those facts suggest.

On the internet itself, before the web had been invented, online genealogy started in 1983 with the newsgroup net.roots and with the ROOTS-L mailing list. Net.roots became soc.roots, and eventually spawned all the genealogy discussion forums covered in Chapter 18. ROOTS-L gave rise to RootsWeb <>, the oldest online genealogy co-operative, now hosted by Ancestry.[2]

But in the 1980s internet access was still largely confined to academia and the computer industry, so for many people online genealogy meant bulletin boards run by volunteers from their home computers and accessible via a modem and phone line. A system called FidoNet allowed messages and files to be transferred around the world, albeit slowly, as each bulletin board called up its neighbour to pass messages on. The only commercial forums were the growing online services which originally targeted computer professionals and those in business, but which gradually attracted a more disparate membership. Of these, CompuServe, with its Roots forum, was the most important. One significant feature of these commercial services was the ability to access them from all over the world, in many cases with only a local call. Even so, to keep costs down, people would make sure they kept their time online to a minimum.

These systems had the basis of what genealogists now use the internet for: conversing with other genealogists and accessing centrally stored files. But the amount of data available was tiny and discussion was the main motivation. Part of this was down to technical limitations: with modem speeds something like five hundred times slower than a modern broadband connection, transferring large amounts of data was unrealistic or at best painfully slow, except for the few with deep pockets or an internet connection at work. No government agencies or family history societies had even contemplated an online presence, though genealogical computer groups were starting to spring up by the end of the 1980s.

What changed this was the World Wide Web, created in 1991 (though it was 1995 before it started to dominate the internet), and the growth of commercial internet services. The innovation of the web made it possible for a large collection of material to remain navigable, even for the technologically illiterate, while at the same time the explosion in public use of the internet was providing the impetus for it to become more user-friendly.

The result of these developments is that the internet is now driving developments in access to genealogical information — just as computers had done in the 1980s, and microfilm before that. This in turn is drawing more people to start researching their family tree, which increases the chance of encountering distant cousins online, and motivates record holders to make their material available on the web.

We are also seeing a change in online culture brought about by a new wave of changes, often referred to as ‘Web 2.0’. Until recently, the internet was treated by most people as a combination of library and postal service — you used the web to retrieve information and email to correspond with friends and family. A relatively small proportion of family historians actually used the web to publish their own family trees. But the last few years have seen the development of a much greater level of interactivity, whether it is in social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube, in the ability to run a blog which people can comment on, or in the move towards ‘cloud computing’ where the software you use is hosted on a website and not on your own computer. The combination of these developments and the rise of the always-on broadband connection means that the internet is less a special place to go and get information, more just part of the research environment of anyone tracing their family tree.

The role of computers and the internet in the history of UK genealogy is discussed in more detail in Chapter 8 of Michael Sharpe’s Family Matters (Pen & Sword, 2011). This book’s Internet Genealogy Timeline offers an overview of some of the more significant online developments for family historians in the British Isles and gives starting dates for many key websites and online facilities.

Next chapter: 2 First Steps

1 See ‘Internet Genealogy » Cyndi’s Soapbox’ at <> for a look at some of the common misconceptions about what the internet can do for the genealogist.

2 For a history of the newsgroups, see Margaret J. Olson, ‘Historical Reflections of the Genealogy Newsgroups’ at <>. For the history of ROOTS- L and RootsWeb, see <>.