- Historic Sites
Tracking Your Family Through Time And Technology
Genealogy is vastly different today from just a generation ago. Here’s what the changes mean to you.
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
Just as college had gotten in the way of my passion, so did earning a living. A full-time job didn’t leave many hours to spend visiting libraries or archives. Being newly married and living on a fixed budget also meant I couldn’t do any extensive traveling. So I did what I could to talk to my aunts and uncles and interview my husband’s relatives as well. I faithfully entered the data I got into the genealogy software program on my dad’s computer. More in-depth research would have to wait until time and money became more plentiful.
Meanwhile, as personal computers became part of everyday life, computer interest groups sprang -up. Genealogists were quick to form special-interest groups within these organizations. Networking with other genealogists is an important part of research, and it was only natural that genealogists would make use of computer bulletin-board systems (BBS). In 1987 there were more than 4,000 bulletin boards around the world. Through a BBS genealogists could meet others doing research on the same family or in the same area. They could trade advice, tips, and help; they could access data files and shareware programs. The sometime prowler of far-flung cemeteries now needed only a computer and a modem to reach out to the world.
In the mid-1980s, as commercial on-line services, such as CompuServe and GEnie, came into being, they provided new resources. In 1986 GEnie established the Genealogy RoundTable, which at the height of its popularity managed 2,000 messages from 200 users a day. Next came graphicalbased services like Prodigy and America Online. In 1988 AOL established the Genealogy Forum. It consisted at first of a chat room, a message board, and a library of computer files; it received barely ten hours of use a month. Today more than 200,000 people use it each month to access surname centers, articles, scheduled chats, and an events center. The ability of on-line services like AOL to effortlessly connect so many people has done a lot to fuel the rise in interest in genealogy.
While thousands were jumping on the BBS and on-line service bandwagon, a handful of pioneers were looking ahead to the Internet. From 1,000 host computers in 1984, the Internet grew to 1.5 million in 1993 and more than 20 million today. The Web was popularly launched in 1991. Genealogists have been, as usual, in the thick of things. The LDS Church estimates that genealogy is the second most popular subject on the Internet today.
The first major genealogical resources on the Internet, beginning in the late eighties, were the soc.roots Usenet newsgroup and the ROOTS-L e-mail mailing list—two ways of accessing the same forum—and the Roots Surname List database. By 1994, when ROOTS-L and soc.roots split, they had 2,000 participants. The mailing list continued to grow, and now it has more than 10,000 subscribers and carries more than 200 messages daily. The Roots Surname List is a database of more than 450,000 surnames, submitted by some 60,000 Internet users since 1988. As modems and Internet software became standard on new computers, more and more people began to explore their roots on-line. Genealogy Web sites appeared, and coordinated efforts to put genealogical research materials on-line took off.
When I first went on the Internet, I began to share what I found with my local genealogy society. Many of the people there grumbled that Cyberspace was a waste of time, hard to use and hard to find things on. I thought they were right—and wrong. The Internet is not the final answer for genealogical research, and many people first stepping out onto it have unreal expectations. But then, most of these people are new to genealogy and haven’t yet explored the methodology behind it.
Research requires many different tools, and you must familiarize yourself with each of them before you can get the most from your research time. You always begin with yourself and work back. You talk with each of your oldest living relatives and glean as much as you can from family stories, photos, letters, and the family Bible, if there is one. Then you visit your local LDS Family History Center to explore its vast resources. Attend a genealogy society meeting, and seek out nearby libraries with genealogical or historical collections. Each of these is a traditional essential in the genealogist’s toolbox.
With the Internet we have added to that box the most powerful tool yet. There are now more than 4,000 e-mail lists for genealogy, and you can subscribe to any of them free. They cover specific ethnic groups, surnames, localities, religions, and software programs. There are also tens of thousands of genealogy Web sites. You can find historical reference works, maps, and gazetteers; hundreds of helpful how-to articles on various genealogical topics; Web sites for countries, states, provinces, counties, and parishes; the personal Web sites of thousands of genealogists around the globe, containing everything from genealogy databases, complete with names and dates, to census indexes, ships’ passenger lists, cemetery transcriptions, wills, and tax records. The volume of resources grows daily. Cooperative group efforts, such as those at RootsWeb, and recordspreservation projects, such as that of Heritage Quest, make it increasingly possible to access scanned images of records and reliable indexes of those records.