Many experienced genealogists know that the internet is a great source of family history information, but for a beginner it can seem daunting and frustrating. This article is an introduction to the resources that are available on the internet as well as some sites that will help you get started.
Your family history search should begin with information that you already know or can easily access from your records. Start by recording information (date and place of birth, marital information, etc.) about yourself and your immediate family members. There are some resources on the internet that can make even these initial steps easier. Downloadable forms can help you keep your information neat and orderly. If you have more information to store and organize, there are also various genealogy software programs, some of which are available as shareware or as free demos to try out before you buy the complete package. In addition, many of the larger directories have sections for beginners that include a variety of useful tips, articles, reference books, and links to other internet resources.
Once you have recorded and organized all of your readily available information, the next step is to fill in the gaps. The internet offers a variety of ways to gather additional family history information. Using general search engines to search for your family surname (last name) often produces an overwhelming list of results, many of which will not be useful to you. However, there are some better places to start that are more likely to produce valuable information. Genealogy experts often suggest starting with census records and vital records (birth, marriage, and death certificates). Although not every census record is available on the internet, many have been entered into internet-accessible databases and several projects are working towards making all census records available in this format. In general, only older vital records (prior to 1900) are available on the internet. However, there are sites that offer forms, instructions, and contact information for obtaining newer records.
Additional internet sources of family history information
In addition to census and vital records, there are numerous genealogy-specific databases, directories, and search engines. The directories provide indexed lists of other internet sites with genealogical information. Specialized databases contain diverse sources of additional family history information including cemetery transcriptions, church records, military records, land records, and lists of ship's passengers. Genealogy-specific search engines allow you to search only genealogical sites. This can help you narrow your search and avoid sorting through the hundreds of irrelevant sites that can be produced by using general search engines.
The internet also offers opportunities to expand your search by exchanging information with other individuals who are doing genealogical research. Mailing lists and message boards allow individuals to post questions or queries to a wide audience. On these message boards, you can get answers to general genealogy research questions or even get answers to specific questions about your family history from other individuals researching the same surname.
Finally, if you are still unable to find answers to your family history questions, you can expand your search by using general search engines. To make this experience less frustrating and more fruitful, visit some of the genealogy websites that give tips for more effective use of general search engines for genealogical research.
For additional information, please see the genealogy-related websites in our resources section.