The Genealogist’s Internet

CC BY-SA 4.0

Preface to the 2012 Edition

The statistics tell us that a large and increasing majority of the UK population have internet access at home,[1] and many others no doubt have access from work or a local library, so this book assumes a reader who has at least basic familiarity with the internet, using email and a web browser. However, I have not assumed any experience of other internet facilities, nor any technical knowledge, so even the absolute internet novice should not be unduly baffled. The book is about what you can do online rather than on the technology behind it. All the same, there are one or two areas where it’s useful to have some understanding of how things work (and why they sometimes don’t), so there is detailed discussion of search engines, mailing lists, and web publishing in the later chapters. The experienced internet user will no doubt want to skip some of this, but the queries and problems which are raised in online discussion forums suggest that even quite seasoned internet users do not always exploit these resources as fully as they could.

This book also does not assume you are already an expert in genealogy, but it can’t pretend to be a general introduction to researching your family tree, nor provide guidance in how to organize your research. The basics of family history are covered briefly in Chapter 2, ‘First Steps’, along with some recommended internet resources for the beginner, and the chapters relating to records explain briefly why you might want to look at those records. But if you are completely, or fairly, new to family history you’ll need a good book on offline genealogy as well (see p. 6 for recommendations).

Disappearing resources

Internet resources are in a constant state of flux. Each revision of this book finds around 20 per cent of the links in the previous edition no longer work or, even worse, take you to quite different material. All of the URLs will have been checked just before the book goes for printing, and if you’re reading this as a newly published book, you will find, with any luck, that none of the URLs have gone out of date while it was at the printers. After that, you’re certain to find some dead links; at some point one of the major sites will undergo a complete overhaul and a dozen links will expire overnight.

Of course, we should be grateful when out-of-date material is removed from public view, and it is only to be expected that personal sites will move or vanish without warning. In a number of cases, valuable material is preserved only in web archives (see below).

Official and commercial sites are less likely to disappear as a whole, but are regularly being improved by redesign and reorganization, as one would wish. Unfortunately, their consideration for users does not always extend to redirecting you from the old pages to the new. Too often they simply tell you the old page is not there — actually not even that, they simply say there is no such page and don’t indicate whether they’ve moved the page or you’ve mistyped the URL. They then expect you to use their search engine to see if the material is still anywhere on the site. To those responsible for such sites: sorry folks, I know that maintaining a large website is hard work, but this is bad practice, and doesn’t do much for your image either!

Web archives

A website or page that is no longer present at its original home may nonetheless have been archived online and still be accessible. This is perhaps most useful for sites run by individual volunteers, where valuable material may disappear simply because the person concerned no longer has either the time or the funds to keep it going. For sites that are still up and running, it might seem there is no virtue in accessing an old version with, presumably, outdated information, and in general this is true—an old version of Cyndi’s List or a Genuki page may have curiosity value but is not of practical use for family historians. But major sites that undergo a redesign often abandon useful material not because it is out of date but simply because it does not fit in with the way the site has been reorganized.

There are two web archives relevant to the material in this book:

The British Library, incidentally, also has a Web Archiving Programme which is described at <>. However, it archives only selected significant UK websites and at present has very limited value for family historians.

What’s new in this edition

The many resources that have moved or disappeared since the previous edition of this book at the start of 2009 are one good reason for revision. Some of the most important sites have undergone major reorganizations: both the UK National Archives and the National Archives of Ireland have a completely new look, as does the Royal Navy’s site. The General Register Office no longer has a distinct site at all but its material is now split between three different sites. Closures include the Family Records site in September 2009 (a poor decision, leaving no single official starting point for new family historians) and Geocities, which was widely used by individuals for putting genealogical material online, only some of which has reappeared in a new location.

But there are also some more positive reasons. Probably the most important is the launch of a brand new FamilySearch site, replacing the old site originally launched in 1998, and bringing a significant expansion in the UK records available online, not to mention at least some Irish civil registration indexes. The launch of the British Newspaper Archive in November 2011 (p. 198) is a major advance in making historical newspapers more accessible.

Digitization of the 1911 census is now complete for the whole of the British Isles, and we are at last in a position where there are several different indexes available for almost all the censuses of England and Wales, and Scotland. The Irish census material has been completed, too, with the 1901 household schedules joining those for 1911.

With the censuses done and dusted, the commercial data services have been turning their attention to other records for digitization, and all of them are now offering a much wider range of material. There have been some very welcome developments for those with Irish ancestors, with the Irish government’s launch of an official site for church records (p. 107), the Irish Family History Foundation’s RootsIreland site (p. 57), and Findmypast’s dedicated Irish data service (p. 54). But alas, at the start of 2012, we are still waiting for the General Register Office to make up its mind about the digitization of civil registration records for England and Wales, whose future seems no clearer than it did in 2009.

In the commercial sector, the pace of takeovers and mergers has slowed. The only significant change is that in 2010 Genes Reunited was purchased from ITV by Brightsolid, the company behind ScotlandsPeople and Findmypast, and most of its data collections replaced by the equivalents from Findmypast.

This edition again has some extra pages to cope, in part, with this expansion — there are now over 1,700 web resources mentioned. However, as before, there are an increasing number of useful websites that simply could not be fitted in. This applies particularly to the material in Chapters 8 to 11 and to resources that are of purely local interest. The text will alert you to the sort of things that are available and highlight some of the best examples, but you will need to see for yourself whether there is equivalent material for a particular village, regiment, church, etc., that is relevant to your own family’s history.

One other relatively recent development is that many organizations and online projects now have not just a website and an email address, but pages on social networking sites (Facebook is the most popular) and a Twitter account, which allow them to disseminate announcements and interact in real time with their clientele. Some of the more generally useful Twitter feeds are discussed on p. 386, but I have generally not seen any reason to mention that a site has a presence on Facebook or Twitter, since this is usually indicated by the appropriate icons on the home page.

Changes, of course, are ongoing. In particular, The National Archives will be launching its new Discovery service (p. 210) while this book is being printed, and the new FamilySearch site is still constantly being tweaked. New datasets are being added to the range of online genealogical records all the time. The best way to keep up with such changes is to follow some of the blogs mentioned in Chapter 21.


Since this is the first edition of the book under a new imprint, it is perhaps a good place to record my thanks to the publishing team at The National Archives (alas, disbanded in the reorganizations of 2009) and to my editor Sheila Knight for seeing the first four editions through the press.

Many of the new sites covered in this edition are here because someone drew them to my attention. While I can’t thank everyone who has ever made me aware of a new site, there are some regular sources of new material to which I am particularly indebted: Dick Eastman’s online newsletter (p. 382), Chris Paton’s British GENES blog (p. 384) and the Cyndi’s List mailing list (p. 24), have all been invaluable. Peter Calver’s LostCousins newsletter (p. 236) and the GeneaNet newsletter (p. 383) are notable for carrying useful news about a lot more than their own companies’ activities.

Again, I have to thank John Dawson for suggesting a number of improvements over the previous edition. Thanks are also due to Guy Grannum of The National Archives for help with the changes to TNA’s site, which will be rolled out while this book is at the printers. Linda Clare offered some helpful suggestions on Chapter 18.

Finally, I am grateful to Nigel Bayley of The Genealogist, Debra Chatfield of Findmypast, Ian Galbraith of Origins, and Robert Woods of Familyrelatives for giving me advance notice of planned new developments on their sites. Some of these will undoubtedly already be live by the time you read this.

Next chapter: 1 Introduction

1 At the beginning of 2011, according to research from Ofcom, 77 per cent of UK adults had internet access at home, and 74 per cent a broadband connection (see <> — these statistics are taken from Figure 4.14 in the full report). More recent reports will be found linked from Ofcom’s “Communications Market Reports” at <>.