Getting a Look

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

Over the last few years, data-packed CD-ROMs have hit the genealogy market at a brisk pace. For $20 or $30 a pop, you can buy CDs containing marriage and census indexes, compiled genealogies, military and land records or pioneer biographies.

With luck — and a couple of hundred bucks — you’ll find an ancestor or two, or a clue to an earlier generation. But most genealogists can’t afford to buy every CD that sounds promising. Fortunately, you have an alternative.

On the Internet, you can find many genealogists who already own the CD-ROMs or reference books you’d like to search. And they’ll do lookups for you for free — all you have to do is ask. Of course, you may have to wait a few weeks for a reply, but it beats plunking down your hard-earned dollars for a CD you may use only once.

Here are eight of our favorite free lookup sites:

1. USGenWeb

5 Forget-Me-Nots
1. Lookup volunteers have real lives. Expect to wait a few weeks for a response.
2. When a volunteer answers your request, remember to thank him or her.
3. Don’t request a lookup for “everything on my family.”
4. Do request a lookup for a specific piece of information.
5. Send only one request per e-mail, unless otherwise specified.


The USGenWeb is one of the premier sites for US researchers. Here you’ll find Web pages for every US state and county. On many of the county pages, you’ll find a list of lookup volunteers and the reference books or CD-ROMs they own.

Volunteers often own rare or out-of-print books that would be difficult for you to access — books such as History of Kentucky, written in 1847, or the 1883 History of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Other typical offerings are county histories and biographies, books recounting the lives of early pioneer families, newspaper obituaries and compiled genealogies.

Each USGenWeb lookup page clearly lists any instructions and request limitations, as well as the e-mail address of the volunteer.

2. Genealogy Helplist


Genealogy Helplist is a group of volunteers, all of whom are willing to look up specific information at research facilities near them, or in personally owned reference material. Volunteers live all over the world, so if you’re stumped with foreign research, this site may get you over the brick wall. In addition to volunteers here in the United States, you’ll find help from the UK, Brazil, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Iceland, Argentina, Belgium, Papua New Guinea, Ireland and more.

Detailed instructions are posted on the site, including how to fashion your e-mail request and the number of free requests you can make. You’re also strongly encouraged to become a volunteer yourself, as the ratio of requests to researchers is high. If the information you need is in a book, the volunteer is allowed to charge you for copy and postage costs; otherwise, the lookups are free.

To find a US volunteer, click first on the state, then the county. There you’ll find a complete list of available resources. In Lincoln County, Kan., for example, a volunteer will do lookups in the death register, the cemetery index and Lincoln County history books. If your ancestor lived in 1850 Durham County, NC, a volunteer will check the census. Having trouble with UK research? Ask a volunteer to look in the British Vital Record Index, 1538-1888.

3. Books We Own


Wouldn’t it be great to search the index of an out-of-print genealogy book in the hope that your ancestor is mentioned? Now you can, thanks to the volunteers at Books We Own. The site was launched in 1996 as a way for Roots-L mailing-list members to share information. Today, the 1,500-person volunteer site has drawn close to a quarter-million visitors.

To request a lookup, you can use either the library or on-site search engine to locate the reference work you’d like searched. The library resources are organized by section: General Genealogy, Resources by Country, States and Family Histories. Within each category is a list of the resources and a link to request a lookup.

For example, if you think you have a Revolutionary War ancestor, you might request a lookup in the Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications. A link will appear next to the name of the reference work. Click the link to go to an e-mail request form. Read the guidelines, then fill in the form and click Send. The form will automatically be sent to the book or CD-ROM owner. Some volunteers receive more than 300 e-mail requests daily, so you’re asked not to overuse their services.

4. AncestralFindings


AncestralFindings may not own every database you’re interested in, but its collection is impressive. Holdings include CD-ROM records of births, deaths, marriages, census indexes, land records, passenger lists, immigrations and’s entire World Family Tree collection.

This Web site makes it easy to request a lookup, as long as you follow the posted guidelines. For example, you must select the database you want the staff to search and limit your lookup requests to one per day. Don’t bother asking AncestralFindings to check for every occurrence of a surname — those requests are automatically deleted.

5. GenSwap


GenSwap lists people who are willing to search their personal copies of CD-ROMs or books. Under each record type (census, directories, cemeteries and so on) is the volunteers’ contact information as well as the sources they’re willing to search.

For example, under Passenger Lists, you’ll find offers such as “Will do lookups in Passenger & Immigration Lists: Boston, 1821-1850” or “CD 238 — Genealogical Records: New York, 1675-1920.” To request a lookup, just click on the e-mail address of the volunteer, then write the information you’re seeking and the resource material you’d like the volunteer to check.

GenSwap asks that you not swamp volunteers with requests or ask for “everything” on your surname.

6. Free Arkansas Lookups


If your ancestor settled in the land of Razor-backs, trot immediately to this Web site to request a lookup. The volunteer asks that you give as much information as possible, including date ranges.

Among the searchable databases are an early Arkansas census index, mortality schedules, a pensioner’s book, a 1911 census of Confederate veterans, passenger lists and land-record indexes.

7. My Genealogical Library


“Genie Angel” Kathleen Burnett established this Web site to help other family tree enthusiasts. Burnett, who is employed full-time, a grandmother of nine and the “list mom” of 195 mailing lists, still makes time to do lookups in her extensive personal library.

Her collection encompasses books and CD-ROMs on several US states, as well as categories for surnames, Native Americans and Slave History. To request a search, send an e-mail with the word Lookup in the subject line and the name of the reference book or CD-ROM and the name or subject you’re researching in the body.

8. Obituary Lookups


Obituaries can contain a wealth of genealogical information — children and their spouses, a place of birth, even a church group.

Obituary Lookups is manned by volunteers who have offered to search obituaries in their area. The volunteers are listed by county, with the name of the newspapers they’ll search and any special instructions, such as putting Obit in the subject line of your e-mail.

On your first visit, be sure to read the section called Making An Obituary Lookup Request. Besides specific instructions on what to include in your e-mail request, you’ll find site guidelines and helpful tips on the Social Security Death Index and the search capabilities of the LDS Web site <>.

Now that you’ve discovered the benefits of lookups, what do you do with the stash of CDs that’s been collecting dust on your shelves — the ones you’ve gleaned for every last family fact or those you bought and only used once? Surf back to your favorite lookup sites and sign on as a volunteer. Not only will you be putting those CDs to use, you’ll be helping other genealogists access a wealth of data without spending a fortune.

From the December 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine