Out on a Limb: WWWow

Out on a Limb: WWWow

What hath the Web wrought for genealogy?

The online genealogy world has changed in the three years since our first “101 Best Web Sites” — perhaps as much as the Internet itself. In those heady early days of the Web genealogy boom — this was in only our second issue — it was still pretty amazing that you could use your computer and modem to research your family tree at all. Many of our picks were not much more than lists of links. The queen of such sites, Cyndi’s List, boasted 50,000 categorized links; today, you’ll find 180,000-plus links at <www.cyndislist.com>. Others among our 101 best were really only the online outposts of various organizations; while one-click access to these genealogical groups remains convenient, the Web sites themselves aren’t necessarily all that useful to your research compared to what’s out there now. We had a lot more sites with historical background in that original 101, too — useful grounding for your genealogical quest, sure, but now crowded off by sites where you can find real records about your ancestors.

The FamilySearch site <www.familysearch.org> was still new then, and the genealogy world was reverberating with excitement over online access to the Family History Library’s Ancestral File, International Genealogical Index and research guides. But look at how just this one site has evolved in three years: Today, you can click for free searches of the 1880 US census, 1881 Canadian census and 1881 British census.

Are we getting spoiled? If we can’t find it online, will Web-addicted genealogists not even bother getting up from their computers to trek to the library or the Family History Center? Heck, we’ll just wait until those records do find their way online …

Well, not quite — but I do find myself thinking longingly about the pilot project I saw at last year’s Federation of Genealogical Societies conference, digitizing Swedish church records. If I could research my Swedes online instead of cranking microfilm … OK, go ahead and spoil me!

This year’s “101 Best” list recognizes several sites from that first honor roll, with a special “Hall of Fame” designation for those that have made our list at least three out of four times. These sites have kept pace and evolved into “classics” in a period of blistering change and growth.

What changes will the next three years bring to online genealogy? Certainly more of that “spoiling” I referred to. But I suspect we’ll increasingly have to pay for the privilege of doing our research in our pajamas. Though genealogy largely escaped the dot-com shake-out, the free ride can’t go on forever. (We’ve noted sites in this year’s list where users must pay for a substantial portion of the content.)

In particular, the recent merger of Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com raises troubling questions about the concentration of so much online genealogy under one roof. Virtually all the most-visited genealogy sites — except FamilySearch and <www.ellisisland.org> — will now be either owned or hosted by one corporation. (Don’t forget Ancestry owns the all-volunteer RootsWeb, which hosts USGenWeb and Cyndi’s List.) The two competing databases of US census images suddenly no longer compete.

We’re avid users of both Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com, and both make this issue’s Hall of Fame. We hope their “marriage” leads to more exciting online offspring. But we worry that the elimination of competition may invite price hikes and customer-service cutbacks. Meanwhile, nonprofit and government agencies keep feeling the squeeze of a sluggish economy, slashing such free alternatives as the Library of Virginia’s Digital Library Program <www.lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave/gene>.

It’s been an amazing three years for online genealogy. Let’s just hope that when we’re doing this list three years from now, it’s still “101” sites — not “1”

From the August 2003 Family Tree Magazine

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