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Researching Family History Online

A guide to useful resources and how to use
the internet to discover more about your family history
Adapted from an article by Giles Turnbull for the BBC Online 10/00

Help to research your family tree and genealogy in general

Anyone wanting to find out something about the history of their family or their local area should be warned: it's going to involve a lot of legwork. And that's even if you use the latest tools available on the internet. There's a huge amount of historical and genealogical data on the Net, and family tree research has become one of the most popular pastimes for people with home computers in the US and the UK. But that doesn't mean it's all going to be easy, just because you have your PC and your modem. There's still going to be a lot of work to do. Dr Christopher Currie is consultant editor of the Victoria County History, a publication of the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). The Institute is no stranger to the benefits of using the internet, and first set up its website way back in 1993, before even web browser standards had been set. Following Dr Currie's transformation of the site in 1994 into a standard HTML format, the site ( became the world's first large online resource for historians, and remains a very important one.

By far the commonest way the Net is used by family and local historians is for catalogues. In other words, they tend to use the Web to store data about data. You can search many different Web resources to find when, and in which paper publication, the information you want appeared. But then you have to switch off your computer to go and actually read it. Dr Currie says: "There is a great deal of historical and genealogical material on the Net. "But people have to understand that they will need to be prepared to put their boots on and do some legwork. "That said, the internet can save serious researchers an awful lot of time and effort and help them avoid wild goose chases in search of information that won't help." Sometimes, adds Dr Currie, the simplest solution is the best one to start with. "On the Web, one can do brute-force searching for a name or a place, with appropriate qualifiers if necessary." There's a simple way to test his theory. Go to Google ( and type in your name. This kind of behaviour has been known as "ego surfing" by some people, but it can bring up some interesting results.

Another idea would be to type in your parents, or grandparents names and birthplaces. Remember that you might not be the only person in your family who is researching the family line - someone else may have already placed a request for information about your grandparents on the Web, and if you can get in touch with them you will both be able to pool resources. Not to mention catch up with a whole new set of relations. Dr Currie also recommends a look at the Public Records Office website ( This site has details of catalogues and web versions of many printed leaflets handed out to family tree hunters. It's a very good place to start and to work out what to put on your "to-do" list. Don't forget that you are unlikely to find the actual data you need on the internet. What you are most likely to find is information on who has that data, or where it is likely to be found. That's the case at the moment, but hopefully it will be different in a few years. The internet will ultimately make a huge difference to the way people research their family history, according to Else Churchill of the Society of Genealogists ( She says: "Primary data like births, deaths and marriages records remains in paper format in most places, but more and more catalogues are being put online, and they can be an enormous help. "The vast majority of primary sources are not available in electronic format. The Familysearch database collated by the Mormons ( is a useful one, and has a couple of hundred million names in it. But it has not got records from all parishes or local areas. "The way people use the internet for family history research will change beyond recognition in a few years. "There's a thriving community of family historians on the internet, which has changed the way we can all communicate with each other. Since having a website, our society has had many more enquiries from all over the world, and we plan to put some of our own data indexes on the Web later this year. "One day there will be the political will and the money available to digitise the nation's records, and that will completely revolutionise the process."

The Genuki site ( is "the best gateway to genealogical information for the UK," says Ms Churchill. Cyndi's List ( is "an excellent US source that lists many useful websites," she adds. Like Dr Currie, Ms Churchill has a warning for people planning their own research: "There will come a time when you will have to do some hard work. The Net will only really tell you where the records are, then you will have to go and find them." Except, perhaps, if you know or think that you had Scottish ancestors. Scottish births, deaths and marriages index data has been put online at the Origins site ( One team of hard-working volunteers has begun the task of putting English and Welsh births, deaths and marriages indexes on the Net. The task before them is an immense one, and information about how the project is progressing can be found at So far, about two million records have been put into the database, and there is a total of 100 million records dated prior to 1900. Another interesting website is that of the Historical Manuscripts Commission ( which contains a useful database of where people might find various archives and libraries around the country, and what will be contained in each one.

Peter Christian, editor of Computers and Genealogy magazine ( and author of "Finding Genealogy on the Internet" (, says that before anyone considers switching on their computer, they need to talk to their living relatives. "The first step is to talk to every living member of your family and find out as much as you can," he says. "There is almost nothing available in any records online of anyone living after the end of the 19th Century, so try to trace your family back at least that far if you can. Talk to grandparents and great-grandparents and write down names. "You have to be able to connect what you find on the Net to your family, so those names are important." Local history is less well-served on the Net, adds Mr Christian. "There are lots of local groups of volunteers beavering about to put bits of local history online, but they are patchy and not always easy to find. It's a case of doing some hard internet searching to find what you want." "Sometimes there will be a lot of information that has been collated for you. The Powys Digital History project is a particularly good example of local history on the web, but not all local authorities have the time, money or inclination to make such a site. "Public records offices have a primary duty to ensure the safe keeping of their records. Building websites would probably help many of them in the long term because they would reduce the number of calls coming in to enquiry desks, but they tend to be low down on the priority lists."

Mr Christian's checklist for the budding family history researcher is...
1. Talk to relatives first.
2. Search for British data sources at Genuki (
3. If you have information that stretches back to the 19th century, try Familysearch (
4. If you are looking for global records, search at Cyndi's List (
5. To progress to more websites, check out the list of our genealogy links




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