By Rick Crume Premium

In the last few years a huge volume of material for genealogists has been published on CD-ROM. You can choose from hundreds of discs with everything from family histories, census indexes and passenger lists to clip art, maps and complete runs of rare genealogy journals going all the way back to the first issue. Books that take up several feet of shelf space require only a few inches in electronic form. Best of all, CD-ROMs usually cost only a fraction of what you’d have to pay for the same material in print.

But which to choose from this outpouring of shiny new genealogy resources? How can you tell which CD-ROMs are worth their weight in gold and which are better used as Frisbees or drink coasters? Try to answer several questions before you buy:

  1. What are the program requirements? Nearly all genealogy CDs run under Windows 95 or later, but some will also work with Windows 3.1 or a Macintosh.

  2. Does the disc contain material that you will refer to again and again or do you just need to look up a single name? You might be better off waiting until you get a chance to visit a library that has the CD or the original book.

  3. How comprehensive is the disc’s index? Beginning in 1850, for example, US federal censuses list every person. Some CD-ROM census indexes for 1850 and later, however, list only heads of household, while others cover every single name.

  4. What is the CD’s scope? Some publishers bestow CDs with titles that suggest far broader coverage than the discs actually contain. For instance, you might reasonably expect the CD called Civil War Confederate Pension Applications Index to contain a fairly comprehensive list of Confederate pension applications. As it turns out, the CD covers only veterans who lived in Tennessee.

Find out if the data on the CD is also available through online subscription services such as ($24.95 for three months, $69.95 annually), Genealogy Library ($9.99 per month, $49.99 annually) and the Heritage Books Online Library ($30 per year). Each of these annual subscriptions costs the same as one or two CDs, yet gives you access to much more data.

You may still find it worthwhile to purchase a CD-ROM even if the data’s online. The CD-ROM versions of some databases such as the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) give you more search capabilities than their online counterparts. Other CD-ROM databases actually contain more information than the online version. And accessing a CD-ROM you own can be faster and surer than logging on.

By taking advantage of CD-ROMs to quickly search through huge databases, you can uncover the clues you need to make a breakthrough in your research. But keep in mind that just because something appears on a CD-ROM (or in print or online) doesn’t mean it’s true. Always try to document the information with original sources. For example, if you find a reference to a marriage on one of these CDs, see if you can get a copy of the original marriage record to verify that the information was copied correctly and to find additional clues.