The Genealogist’s Internet

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2. First Steps

Beginners’ guides

Online lectures

Getting help

Genealogical terms and abbreviations

Your first online steps in genealogy will depend on how much research you have already done on your family tree, and what your aim is. If you are just beginning your family history, you will be able to use the internet to help you get started, but you shouldn’t expect to find much primary source material online, i.e. original records, until you get back to the early twentieth century.

The box below shows a simplified outline of the process of constructing a family tree, which is the foundation on which your family history will be built. For the first two steps, you will find indexes to certificates online (see Chapter 5), but not the certificates themselves, and online materials won’t help you work out which is going to be the certificate you need. This stage is mostly about interpreting information from family members and trying to verify it. It’s only once you get to step 4 that you will find a significant amount of source material online. In the initial stages, the internet will probably be more important as a source of information, help and advice. The material in the Beginners’ guides and Getting help sections below should help you get going.

If you are not new to family history, but have just started to use the internet, your needs will be rather different. You will already be familiar with civil registration and census records, and know what is involved in researching your family tree, so your initial questions will not be about constructing a family tree but: what’s online and how do I find it? Who else is working on my family?

  1. Interview your elderly relatives and collect as much first- or secondhand information as you can (and continue doing so, as you find out more in subsequent steps).
  2. Get marriage and birth certificates for the most recently deceased ancestors.
  3. From these, work back to the marriages and then births of the parents of those ancestors.
  4. Keep repeating this process until you get back to the beginning of General Registration (1837 for England and Wales, later for Scotland and Ireland).
  5. Once you have names and either places or actual addresses for a date in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, refer to the censuses to see
    1. whole family groups;
    2. birth places;
    3. ages, from which you can calculate approximate birth years.
  6. Once you have found a census entry for an adult ancestor who was born before the start of General Registration, use the birth place and age information in the census to locate a baptism in parish registers.
  7. From this, work back to the marriages, and then baptisms, of the parents of that ancestor in the parish registers.
  8. Repeat for each line of your ancestry until you hit a brick wall (at which point you will need to consider other approaches and other sources).

Beginners’ guides

One area where internet resources still have a great deal of catching up to do is in tutorial material for the new family historian. It will be some time before you can start your family tree without a good reference book. If you are a relative beginner, you might start with Simon Fowler’s Tracing Your Ancestors, or Nick Barrett’s Who Do You Think You Are? Encyclopedia of Genealogy. If you have already made some progress, Mark Herber’s Ancestral Trails should be on your bookshelf.

Nonetheless, while individual web resources cannot compare in scope to these printed works, there is a great deal of helpful material online covering the essentials of genealogical research in the British Isles.

British Isles

The Society of Genealogists (SoG) has a number of introductory guides at <>. Though they are not designed as a coherent introduction to family history, they include ‘Starting genealogy’ and cover the queries most often raised by newcomers to genealogy. The Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS) has ‘Research Tips’ at <>. GenDocs has a substantial page for those ‘New To Family History’ at <>.

The BBC has long had an excellent family history site, part of its extensive coverage of history, at <> (Figure 2-1). There are two main tutorial sections linked from the current home page, ‘The Basics’ and ‘Next Steps’, both of which have very comprehensive coverage of all the main aspects of family history research. The ‘Timeline’ pages, which you might be tempted to ignore, have sections devoted to occupations, the military, migration and ‘family secrets’. BBC Wales has its own family history site at <> with some material specifically relating to Welsh family history. One important source for such materials is Genuki (described more fully in Chapter 3, p. 18f.), which has a page devoted to ‘Getting Started in Genealogy and Family History’ at <>. There are individual pages on major topics, such as that for ‘Civil Registration in England and Wales’ at <>. Roy Stockdill’s concise but comprehensive ‘Newbies’ Guide to Genealogy and Family History’ is available on Genuki at <>.


Figure 2-1: The BBC’s Family History site

The National Archives (TNA) has extensive family history material on its website. Most of it will be found by following the link for ‘Looking for a person?’ on the ‘Records’ menu on the home page at <>, which will take you to <>. The problem with this material for the absolute novice is that the articles tell you about what records there are and where they can be found, but not how you actually use the information they hold or how to plan your research around them. However, a previous incarnation of TNA’s site had a ‘Pathways to the Past’ section with much more guidance for the beginner, and this is still available in the UK Government Web Archive: <>.

Probably the most comprehensive set of guides to British and Irish family history are the materials on the FamilySearch website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) at <>. The ‘Help and Learning’ page at <> offers two main resources: a wiki with reference material for genealogical sources and research in a wide range of individual countries; and around 300 video tutorials on general research techniques and research in particular countries. The videos are discussed below, with other online lectures.

The Research Wiki at <>, like all wikis, is a work in progress, so there is some unevenness in coverage, but there is a considerable amount of material for each of the nations of the British Isles, with less detailed pages for individual counties. There is no list of articles, and you can find relevant material either by searching for a subject or browsing the list of countries. Each main country page has a list of topics for which there are separate articles. These cover all the main types of genealogical record as well as a few more general subjects such as history or place-names. Particularly useful if you are just starting are the ‘Featured resources’. In the case of Scotland, for example, there are links to articles on ‘Getting started with your Scottish Research’, ‘Researching Your Scottish Ancestry Before 1855’ and the ScotlandsPeople data service (see p. 50). The wiki includes guides on research strategies, i.e. how to approach finding a particular type of information for a particular country in a particular period. These articles are not linked from the country pages in a consistent way, so if you cannot see a ‘research strategies’ link, just do a search.


Figure 2-2: The Scotland article in the FamilySearch wiki.

Other introductory material specific to Scottish research includes the ‘Getting Started’ section of ScotlandsPeople — go to <>, select ‘Help & Other Resources’, then ‘Getting Started’ — and the Scottish Archive Network’s family history pages at <>. Genuki has an ‘Introduction to Scottish Family History’ at <>.

For Ireland, the Irish Ancestors site has an excellent range of introductory material at <>, including information on the counties and emigration (see Chapter 11) and good pages on the various Irish genealogical records. (This is the site for John Grenham’s book Tracing your Irish Ancestors.) Also by John Grenham is the ‘Irish Roots’ section of Moving Here (see p. 165) at <>. The Irish Genealogy Toolkit at <> offers guidance on getting started in Irish family history.

On Cyndi’s List (see p. 24) you will find a comprehensive ‘Beginners’ page at <>, and a collection of links on ‘Researching: Localities & Ethnic Groups’ which will be useful if you need to start looking for ancestors outside the UK and Ireland. Cyndi’s ‘How tos’ section at <> provides an outline of all the introductory materials on seven major genealogy sites. These sites are US-based, so much of the material on specific records will not be of use unless you are tracing American ancestors. However, Cyndi’s links are a good way to find some of the more general information buried in these sites.

ThoughtCo has a collection of introductory articles at <>. Although, again, many of the articles on specific records are intended for those researching American ancestry, there is useful material on general topics, such as ‘Top Ten Genealogy Mistakes to Avoid’ at <>, and links to articles on the British Isles will be found at <>.

Wikipedia’s ‘Genealogy’ article has links to articles on the major types of record used in genealogy and a number of other introductory topics. The material is not specific to any one country.

Researching from overseas

If you are trying to research British or Irish ancestry from overseas, Genuki’s ‘Researching From Abroad’ page at <> will be useful. The SoG has a leaflet ‘Notes for Americans on tracing their British ancestry’ online at <>.

Among its useful video resources, FamilySearch’s Learning Center (see below) has two video/slide presentations by Audrey Collins of The National Archives which are particularly useful for those from outside the British Isles: ‘What is Britain?’ will explain exactly the differences between terms such as Britain, Great Britain, England, and the United Kingdom, while ‘The English Parish’ explains the nature and significance of this geographical unit for genealogical research.

If you are unfamiliar with the administrative subdivision of Britain into counties and parishes, you should consult Jim Fisher’s page ‘British Counties, Parishes, etc. for Genealogists’ at <>. This also explains the meaning of names for regions such as the Peak District or the Wirral, which are not those of administrative divisions and are not necessarily well defined. Genuki’s pages on ‘Administrative Regions of the British Isles’ at <> is also worth consulting. See also the section on ‘Counties and towns’ on p. 259.

Research methods

Most of the material on these sites relates to genealogical research specifically in the British Isles, but the principles of genealogy are universal and there are a number of resources online for advice on how to manage your genealogical research, wherever your ancestors came from. The key issues are how to draw reliable conclusions from genealogical records, how to organize and record your research and how to cite your sources so that your conclusions can be verified by others.

The Society of Genealogists has a set of ‘Standards and Good Practice in Genealogy’ at <>. The US National Genealogical Society developed a set of six standards relating to various aspects of genealogical research, now available from <>.

Good advice on note-taking is provided by the SoG’s leaflet on ‘Note taking and keeping for genealogists’ at <> and in’s ‘Taking Notes’ page at <> (that’s seven zeros).

ThoughtCo has a concise guide by Kimberley Powell ‘Cite Your Genealogy Sources. A Guide to Documenting Your Genealogy Research’ at <> and ProGenealogists have an ‘Internet Citation Guide for Genealogists’ specifically dealing with the issue of how to cite online resources at <>.

If you are using a genealogy database to store your family tree, the online help will almost certainly have pages devoted to showing how to use the software’s source citation facilities and offer guidance on how to document particular types of source.

Cyndi’s List has around 80 links to relevant material on the ‘Citing Sources’ page at <>.

Online lectures

The widespread availability of broadband has meant that making audio and video available over the web has become straightforward and commonplace. Apart from the general improvement in the availability of material that is already being broadcast in other media, it allows lectures by family history experts to reach an audience far beyond the lecture hall or conference.

Originally, internet broadcasting meant downloadable audio and was called ‘podcasting’, but now streaming is the norm (i.e. playing live on your computer without downloading a file first) and includes video, so strictly this is ‘webcasting’. However, the BBC and many other services treat ‘podcast’ as a term for ‘audio only’, however it is delivered.

All the main UK broadcasters have a selection of past programmes available on the web, though these tend to be only those that have been broadcast fairly recently and they are generally not accessible outside the British Isles. Among the radio programmes available on the BBC podcast site at <> are eight programmes from Radio 4’s ‘Tracing Your Roots’ at <>. The BBC provides video by means of the iPlayer at <>. This will usually have the programmes of the most recent series of Who Do You Think You Are? and Heir Hunters.

The most significant collection of podcasts relating to British genealogy and history, by far, is that of The National Archives, with over 200 audio lectures, going back to 2006. All audio and video material is available from TNA’s Archives Media Player at <> (Figure 2-3). The material is split into broad categories, including ‘Family history’, but within each category items are simply listed in reverse order of date, so you will need to use the search facility to find recordings on a particular topic.


Figure 2-3: The National Archives’ Archives Media Player

As mentioned above, FamilySearch has a growing range of online lectures and courses at <>. At the time of writing, there are around 80 covering UK and Ireland topics, though perhaps 50 of these are audio lectures sourced from TNA. The lectures tend to be video only, but items described as ‘online lessons’ typically comprise video of the speaker synchronized with presentation slides and accompanied by a hand-out.

YouTube at <> is the site for amateur video publishing, but it is also used by professionals, and a number of organizations and groups are using it as a way of broadcasting online. FamilySearch in fact has a channel on YouTube at <>, though so far the material is mostly about FamilySearch’s own projects and material aimed at US beginners.

The Family History Show at <> is presented by Nick Barrett and Laura Berry as a genealogy magazine programme, with several separate brief items making up a single ‘show’.

In 2011, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (see p. 214) launched its own channel on YouTube at <> with a series of lectures on ‘Exploring Local History’.

Among individual contributions on YouTube are Robert Raglan’s range of five-minute genealogy lessons available at <> and Mike O’Laughlin’s 15 videos relating to Irish genealogy at <>. The Genealogy Guys use podcasts as a way of broadcasting monthly programmes of genealogy news. The home page at <> gives a detailed synopsis of each bulletin.

There is a brief listing of relevant sites on the ‘Podcasts for Genealogy’ page on Cyndi’s List at <>, while webcasting comes under the heading ‘Video & Audio’ at <>.

Getting help

Even with these materials, you may still have a question you can’t find an answer to (though the sites discussed in Chapters 5 to 7 should answer most questions you are likely to have about the first documents you encounter — civil registration certificates and census records). One solution is to use a search engine to find pages devoted to a particular topic (see Chapter 19). However, this can be a time-consuming task, since you may end up following quite a few links that turn out to be useless before you find what you are looking for. Also, if you are new to family history, it may not at first be obvious how authoritative or comprehensive the material on any site is.

The various discussion forums described in Chapter 18 are ideal places for getting help and advice. Before posting a query to one of these, though, look for a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) — see p. 328. This will give the answers to the most common questions.

A useful mailing list for beginners is GEN-NEWBIE-L ‘where people who are new to computers and genealogy may interact’. Information on how to join this list will be found at <>, and past messages are archived at <>. A list with a similar purpose but a UK focus is UK-GENEALOGY-NEWBIES at <>, but it seems to be moribund and is unlikely to be very helpful. More useful is the ‘Genealogy Beginners’ forum on British-Genealogy (see p. 324) at <>.

If you are already a member of a family history society, it may have a mailing list where you can turn to other members for assistance.

Genealogical terms and abbreviations

Whatever your level of experience in family history, you’re very likely at some point to come across unfamiliar terms and, especially, abbreviations. Internet resources for legal terms are covered in Chapter 16 (p. 294) while words for obsolete occupations are covered in Chapter 9 (p. 129). But genealogy as a discipline has its own specialist terms, which may baffle at first.

GenealogyPro has a Glossary of Genealogy Terms at <> with around 130 entries, while Sam Behling has a page of about 400 terms at <>. Gareth Hicks’s page on Technical Words/Expressions at <> is arranged under a number of key topic headings, which is useful if you’re not sure of the distinction between a vicar, rector and parson, for example. This provides quite detailed explanations of historical terms, and is more or less an encyclopedia. Dr Ashton Emery’s ‘A-Z Of British Genealogical Research’ at <> covers about 100 important terms presented as a dictionary rather than a connected account. As this has not been updated in the last 10 years, references to organizations will often be out of date, but the other material remains useful.

In the long run, the most comprehensive online reference work of this type will probably be the collaborative online Encyclopedia of Genealogy at <>, started by Dick Eastman in 2004, which has articles on a wide range of topics, entries for abbreviations and acronyms for genealogy organizations. The advantage of this project is that it allows users to comment on and correct the entries, as well as submitting new entries of their own.

If you have to read documents written in a language other than English then the FamilySearch Research Wiki at <> has wordlists of key genealogical words for 20 European languages. These lists are split into two main parts: key words, i.e. words like ‘husband’, ‘parish’ and ‘baptism’, which are essential to understanding genealogical records, and a more general wordlist, which generally includes numbers and dates as well as a selection of the general vocabulary. You can get a list of all these articles by entering ‘word list’ in the search box on the wiki home page. Web resources for Latin, Scots, Welsh and Irish are discussed in Chapter 16 (p. 219ff.)

One frequent question from those getting started is about the meaning of phrases like ‘second cousin once removed’. To help you with this, ThoughtCo has a Genealogy Relationship Chart at <>.’s article ‘What is a First Cousin, Twice Removed?’ at <> explains all. Irritatingly, if you try and access this page via a UK ISP you will get an intervening page which asks whether you want to remain on or go to the Ancestry UK site — select, otherwise you will end up at the Ancestry UK home page.

For making sense of abbreviations and acronyms, there are a number of sites to help you. Most of the glossaries mentioned earlier include many abbreviations. Mark Howells has a page devoted to ‘Common Acronyms & Jargon’ found in UK genealogy at <>, and N2genealogy has around 600 entries on its ‘Terminology, Meanings and Descriptions of Genealogical Abbreviations’ page at <>. But by far the most comprehensive is GenDocs’ ‘Genealogical Abbreviations and Acronyms’ page at <> with over 2,000 entries.

For links to other online dictionaries and lists of abbreviations, look at the page on Cyndi’s List devoted to ‘Dictionaries & Glossaries’ at <>. The Oxford English Dictionary is discussed on p. 186, and can be helpful for establishing the meaning of terms at particular historical periods — it is well worth looking at the various definitions of ‘cousin’, for example. Dictionaries for other languages are discussed on p. 291ff.

Next chapter: 3 Online Starting Points