Ten years ago, researching your family history meant scrolling endless rolls of census microfilm, traveling to genealogy libraries far and wide, and corresponding extensively with courthouse clerks. You still do those things at times, of course—but today’s genealogist has evolved into a lean, mean, multitasking machine. Without our powerful Internet search tools and indexes, we might as well be browsing through stone tablets and scribbling Ahnentafeln on parchment.
As Family Tree Magazine marks its 10th anniversary, we’ve been reflecting on just how genealogists got to this point—and we arrived at this countdown of the 10 online tools that have done the most to transform genealogy research over the past decade.
10. Online photo sharing
Then: You go down to the local drugstore to have prints made of your negatives, then head to the post office to mail the snapshots to family and friends.
Now: You upload photos to a website and e-mail the URL to everyone you know.
Photo-sharing websites are poster children of the digital age. You just upload photos from your computer to one of these sites, and your pictures are backed up and shareable. Most websites offer some storage space for free and have premium services with more room for a fee. You can share some or all of your images with friends and family, and order prints, calendars and posters. Among the most popular services:
- Flickr, owned by Yahoo!, has editing features including red-eye removal, cropping and special fonts and effects. You can organize your photos and videos in collections, and add tags and captions. With a free account, you can upload 100MB of photos a month, but a premium account ($24.95 a year) allows unlimited photo and video uploads and storage.
- Google’s Picasa Web Albums work well with the free Picasa photo-editing and -organizing software. There are no ads, and you get 1GB of online photo storage for free—enough room for thousands of photos.
- Photobucket offers 1GB of space for free. (A Pro account gives you 25GB of storage for $24.95 a year.) You can make an album public or private and control who gets access, as well as use titles and tags to organize your photos. Photobucket integrates well with social networking sites, so it’s easy to display your photos on Facebook and MySpace.
- Shutterfly offers free online storage for unlimited photos and up to 10 video clips. You can edit your pictures, choose from more than 400 borders and add personalized captions. Prints you order can include a short message on the reverse side for free.
- Smugmug boasts more features than other photo-sharing services, for a price. A Standard account ($39.95 a year) includes unlimited storage, and attractive online albums and slideshows. A Power account ($59.95 a year) lets you share videos, too.
- Snapfish, you get unlimited photo storage, and free photo-editing tools and slide shows. You can mail in rolls of film to add to your site, and you can let friends add comments to your albums.
9. Push technology
Then: You search the web every morning for new results about your favorite surnames.
Now: Websites e-mail you whenever a new article matches your specifications.
Repeatedly going back to check Google, scour eBay and read your favorite blogs can consume your whole day. Fortunately, “push technology” brings the news to you.
RSS (really simple syndication) feed readers, a classic example of push technology, are an efficient way to follow news and blogs. The reader regularly checks the blogs and news sites you specify and retrieves updates, which you can view whenever you want. To use RSS feeds, you’ll need a news reader (also called a news aggregator). Two of the most popular are Google Reader
and My Yahoo!
. Once you’ve registered with a news reader, add the news you want it to retrieve. For instance, to add one of Family Tree Magazine
’s blogs to your reader, go to <familytreemagazine.com/blogs
>, visit one of the blogs and click on its orange RSS button.
Instead of running the same search every day to stay up-to-date, Google Alerts <google.com/alerts> sends you a message with search results. Just enter your search terms and e-mail address and specify whether you want to be notified weekly, daily or whenever Google finds a new match.
on subscription site Ancestry.com
works in much the same way. You can register to be notified by e-mail whenever someone you’ve granted access to makes changes to your family tree, or when there are new DNA matches or obituaries for names you’re researching. Having trouble finding a rare genealogy book? Submit a request to Alibris Book Fetch
. and you’ll get an e-mail when the book is added to its inventory.
You never know when memorabilia pertaining to your family might go up for sale on eBay
. To set up an alert, you need an eBay account. In the Basic Search box, type in a last name or a place name and check the box “Include title and description.” Click on the Search button to display matching items. Then click “Save this search” at the top of your search results. Name the search and request e-mail notification whenever new items match it. You’ll receive one message a day with up to 20 items.
8. Online translation tools
Then: You track down native speakers who are willing to translate for you and hope they have some understanding of genealogy.
Now: Cut and paste and click Translate.
Whether you want to translate a web page, an e-mail message or an old document, you can probably find an online tool that can handle your language. Most translation sites offer basic, automated translations for free. Although they don’t approach the quality of human translation, automated translations can give you the gist of the original text’s meaning—which, in some circumstances, is all you need.
Google provides several translation tools
. The first option, Search Across Languages, lets you use English to search foreign-language sites—a pretty nifty feature. Enter a search phrase, select your language and the language of the pages to search. The results page has one column with the results translated into your language and another column with the original foreign-language version.
Other Google Language Tools let you translate text (type or copy and paste the text to translate) and translate a web page (type in the URL). When you do a Google search, you’ll also see a link to Translate this Page beside matches on foreign-language sites.
The Google Toolbar
<toolbar.google.com> is a handy add-on for your web browser, but you need to activate the translation functions. After installation, click Settings and then Options and check the Translate Menu box. That adds a button to the toolbar, which you can click on to translate pages.
Other free translation websites include FreeTranslation.com, Yahoo! Babel Fish and Systran.
7. DNA databases
Then: You donate a blood sample in hopes you’ll be able to make ancestral connections in the future, once more people get tested.
Now: You swab your cheek or swish some mouthwash, and the DNA testing company adds you to its database, alerting you to potential genetic connections. You search for people with matching DNA profiles in a half-dozen online databases, and join surname studies online.
In the past decade, DNA testing seemingly came out of nowhere to become a key tool for genealogists. When traditional sources fail to prove a connection between two likely relatives or to reveal your ethnic origin, DNA testing might at least help bolster or disprove your theories.
Y-DNA, passed through the paternal line, is the most widely used test for genealogy. If two men have the same surname and identical or similar Y-DNA, there’s a good chance they have a common ancestor within several generations.
Family Tree DNA
, founded in 2000, was the first company to use DNA testing for genealogical purposes. Initially, it offered a Y-DNA 12-marker test, but now it offers a 67-marker test, which more precisely shows how closely two people are related and identifies your ethnic and geographic origin. The company’s testing volume has jumped from 10 people a month in 2000 to several thousand a month; it’s now tested more than 500,000 people.
People sometimes ask me if I’m related to Emily Anne Croom, another writer for Family Tree Magazine. I used to answer no, but since taking a Y-DNA test, my answer is yes. I got close matches with two Crooms, both related to Emily. Those results suggest that my ancestors Daniel and Elizabeth Crume were the same couple as her ancestors Daniel and Elizabeth Croom in 18th-century Virginia. At the very least, they were probably close relatives.
6 Online family tree software
Then: When traveling for research, you take your family tree with you—on a floppy disk.
Now: Log in and edit your family tree anywhere with Internet access.
Compared to traditional desktop programs, online family tree software offers several advantages: You can access your family tree from any computer connected to the Internet, it’s saved online so you won’t lose it if your computer melts down, and you don’t have to worry about installing software upgrades.
Most online software lets you build your family tree online or upload a GEDCOM file created with a desktop program. You usually can document sources, attach photos and print reports, but most online programs don’t have the full range of features you’ll find in desktop software. You may have the option of making your tree public or restricting it to relatives. Some sites even let you collaborate on an online family tree.
- Arcalife is a tree-building site based in Britain. Fill out Life Experiences for your ancestors and use them to generate a scrolling timeline set to music. You can search FamilySearch and other sites within Arcalife.
- Ancestry.com Member Trees are free for registered users whether or not they subscribe to Ancestry.com. A Public Member Tree is searchable and available to subscribers who can contact you for more information. A Personal Member Tree is private, but names, birthplaces and birth dates still appear in search results. Ancestry.com automatically searches its databases for information on the people in your family tree—a waving leaf indicates a match.
- British subscription site FindMyPast’s free Family Tree Explorer lets you create two family trees, each with up to 25,000 names. Eventually you’ll be able to collaborate with others on your online family tree and automatically search the databases for names in your tree.
- SharedTree works much like desktop genealogy software and comes close to matching its functionality. This program creates excellent printed reports, and it has one big advantage over desktop programs—it lets you collaborate with relatives on your online family tree.
5. Social networking sites
Then: You seek out local genealogy clubs and societies to meet with in real life.
Now: You connect with genealogists all over the world from the comfort of your own home.
Social networking has changed the way we interact with people. Since the advent of Friendster (founded in 2002), MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006), personal web pages have become a snap to set up, and it’s practically impossible to lose touch with anyone anymore (even if you’d like to). With an eye on the popularity of Facebook (which has its own family tree apps), several companies have created social networking sites geared toward genealogists.
These websites often let multiple users collaborate on an online family tree, complete with pictures and videos. Most let you make your site public or private, which is especially useful if you don’t want to make information on living people available to everyone. You also can control who can contribute information, make edits and add photos.
- Footnote lets you create Story pages focusing on documents or people. A Story page focusing on a grandparent’s biography could include newspaper clippings, snapshots and old letters. Other researchers can view your documents and pictures and add comments.
- In addition to letting you work with relatives on a family tree, Geni offers a calendar, birthday reminders and messaging.
- MyHeritage has an excellent online genealogy program and works in 34 languages. The free Basic plan supports up to 250 names in family trees, 15 members and 250MB of storage.
4. Union catalogs
Then: You trek to multiple libraries before finally finding a specific book.
Now: You do a simple search online.
Though family history and local history books, newspapers and records are increasingly being posted online, a wealth of important genealogical resources is still available only in bound volumes or on microfilm at libraries, archives and courthouses. Online library catalogs are useful for finding these items, but you never know where a rare genealogy or family history manuscript might turn up. Rather than search dozens of library catalogs one after another, try a more efficient way: Union catalogs contain the combined holdings of many libraries, so you can search them all at once.
, the largest union catalog, includes 1.4 billion books, microfilms and manuscripts, from 10,000 libraries worldwide. You could do a keyword search for a surname plus the word family to find family histories (Roche family
), a town or county name plus the word history to find local histories (Morristown history
) or a place name plus the word genealogy to find published records (Lancaster County genealogy
). If the place name is common, add the state name or abbreviation (Morristown Minn. history
). Keep in mind that WorldCat doesn’t cover the Family History Library catalog
Another important union catalog, the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections <loc.gov/coll/nucmc>, lists nearly 1.5 million manuscript collections at libraries around the world. To do a search, click on Searching on OCLC WorldCat. If you have British ancestry, try Access to Archives
, which covers about 30 percent of archival collections in England and Wales.
3. Online books and newspapers
Then: You head to the library and scroll through years of microfilm to track down a single news article about your elusive ancestor.
Now: You type in a name and click search.
Two of the best sources of family history information, books and newspapers, used to be the most inaccessible. Published genealogies and town and county histories often contain generations of information, but most of these books are rare and held by only a few libraries. Newspapers are terrific sources of news items that shed light on our ancestors’ everyday lives, births, marriages and deaths, but few are indexed, and browsing past issues is time-consuming.
In the past few years, digitized versions of thousands of books and newspapers have gone online. Most of the websites hosting these resources let you search the entire book or newspaper collection—so you might find a reference to an ancestor in a publication you would never have thought to check.
Ten great places online to look for publications related to your pedigree:
Ancestry.com has more than 20,000 family and local history books, and a large collection of historical newspapers.
- Chronicling America offers both online newspapers and a newspaper directory.
- GenealogyBank’s books and newspapers are accessible by subscription ($69.95 a year).
- Google Books is free and gives full access to books out of copyright, but shows just snippets from copyrighted works.
- HeritageQuest Online, free through subscribing libraries, has more than 25,000 family and local history books.
- NewEnglandAncestors gives members ($75 a year) access to books and three collections of historical newspapers.
- World Vital Records lets you search about 5,000 family and local history books for $39.96 a year, or $99.96 a year for World Collection membership.
2. FamilySearch Indexing and Scanning
Then: Find your local Family History Center and send away for reels of microfilm to scour.
Now: Search the Family History Library catalog—and some of the library’s records—on the FamilySearch
The Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City has the largest collection of genealogical records in the world, with 2.5 million rolls of microfilm containing census, vital, probate and church records, and other documents from more than 100 countries. For a small fee, you can rent a roll through one of 4,500 Family History Centers
around the world. That’s more convenient than traveling to various courthouses, archives and churches to find records—but even easier access is in the works.
In 2005, the FamilySearch Scanning project began converting the 5 billion documents on these microfilms to digital images that eventually will be accessible online. (Recently acquired records are being captured with digital cameras, so no conversion will be necessary.) Since the digitization process started, the technology has already improved substantially. Now it takes only about 20 minutes to convert a typical microfilm into about 1,200 digital images—meaning that much of the FHL’s record collection may be online by 2020.
FamilySearch Scanning is only part of the monumental effort to put the Family History Library’s collections online. FamilySearch Indexing
, also introduced in 2005, is an Internet tool for indexing all these records. Volunteers around the world view digital images of records and extract names and other data that will be published in online indexes linked to digitized records. FamilySearch has more than 35 US and international indexing projects underway at a time, including state census records, European church records and Latin American vital records. Volunteers transcribe about a million names a day and reached their 250 millionth record in April 2009.
Why does FamilySearch rank so high on our list when there’s so much work still to be done? Its efforts have become the model for other indexing projects, such as the Ancestry World Archives. FamilySearch’s partnerships with commercial ventures, libraries and government agencies are bringing more records online, and improving the quality of indexing and digitization across the board.
1. Digitized and indexed US census records
Then: You scroll through census microfilm at the library until your eyes glaze over.
Now: Type. Click. Done.
The US census, taken every 10 years since 1790 and open to the public after a 72-year privacy period, is the most
important resource for American genealogy. No other record matches its comprehensiveness, usefulness and accessibility.
But until recently, you had to go to a large library or archives to access census records on microfilm, or order them on interlibrary loan and wait weeks for them to arrive. Most indexes were incomplete, so you often had to spend a long time scrolling through page after page of census records in search of your ancestors.
Earlier last decade, three rival companies—Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and HeritageQuest Online—had announced plans to digitize and index all US federal census records available to the public. On June 21, 2006, Ancestry.com
officially won the race, announcing it had finished digitizing and indexing all census records from 1790 to 1930. It was a monumental project, requiring 6.6 million hours to transcribe 540 million names from 13 million census pages on 15,000 rolls of microfilm.
The federal census was the first major genealogical resource to come online with digitized page images linked to an every-name index. Ancestry.com’s census database sets the standard for online records access, paving the way for how we’ll expect to search for our ancestors a decade from now.
Ten more technologies we didn’t have a decade ago but couldn’t live without today:
- Wi-Fi and high-speed Internet for faster ancestor searching online
- mobile devices, such as PDAs and smart phones, to stay organized on the go
- flash drives for taking your files anywhere
- YouTube and other free online video sites for sharing tips and information
- Google Maps for looking up ancestral hometowns and research locations
- desktop search tools, such as Google Desktop, for finding that census image buried on your hard drive
- MP3 players, such as the iPod, for listening to genealogy podcasts and sharing family photos
- cheap (under $100) all-in-ones for printing digital photos, scanning old documents and images, and copying research materials tabbed Web browsing so you can surf from genealogy site to genealogy site without cluttering your screen with browser windows public records databases, such as Intelius and USSearch, for locating living relatives
From the January 2010 Family Tree Magazine