Month: October 2010

Ancestors and Family Trees, Part One: Laying the foundations

Over the next several days, I’ll be featuring a series of posts here in this blog that are all about genealogy and family tree research. I’ve got a lot of information to share and will hopefully create an interesting space for discussion.

But before I explore those details, I wanted to start at square one: Why are we searching? How are we searching in today’s social media landscape? And what is Ancestry.com, anyway?

As people, we’ve been creating family histories and genealogies for centuries. Families in China and in some European countries regularly have genealogies dating back to the 12th century, while some date back even farther.

But there’s no doubt that researching your family tree has become a popular trend over the last few years. That’s probably due to one of several shows on television raising people’s awareness of the art of genealogy.

This year, there was NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are, an adaptation of a successful British series that’s been running for a few years. That show profiles notable public figures and traces their family histories. This past season profiled Susan Sarandon and Lisa Kudrow, among others.

There’s also several shows that have been done for PBS by Professor Henry Louis Gates. He’s done a series on African-American family histories, and in this past year, also profiled (in the show Faces of America) notable figures – Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert and American-born Queen Noor of Jordan among them – tracing their histories back centuries.

But if you didn’t see either of those shows, it’s almost impossible to have missed the commercials for the primary Web site for genealogists: Ancestry.com. In the last year, commercials for Ancestry.com have been a constant fixture on TV.

I’ve seen a lot of material for beginning genealogists that teach you some of the traditional methods and try to give you tips on how to search online. But I wanted to discuss what people’s expectations are when they begin searching – and whether Ancestry.com is a good tool for everyone.

What is Ancestry.com?

Ancestry.com has been around in one form or another for about 30 years. They’ve become more visible on the Web, and evolved into the site we see today, in the last five to ten years.

In its current state, it’s pretty user friendly, especially for beginners. (I briefly tried the site in 2005, and it didn’t seem to have nearly as much information nor was it as user friendly.)

There are mixed opinions about some information on Ancestry.com, particularly the information that draws from other users. (While a substantial amount of Ancestry’s information comes from the Census as well as death indexes and other government databases, a significant portion also draws from the family trees of other users.)

I draw the comparison to Wikipedia: Wikipedia is a wonderful project, and it’s got a great deal of information that’s really, really useful. But it’s best used as a starting point – if you’re a kid doing a book report, it would be unwise to use Wikipedia as your only source.

Ancestry.com is a little different than Wikipedia in that it’s also a repository for information. So you really have to be careful what you save to your tree – and verify those details. (We’ll get into that in greater detail in another post.)

I don’t want to discourage anyone from using Ancestry.com – I’ve made some really great finds on it and have probably saved hours of time I might have otherwise needed to spend sifting through microfilm in a library.

How Serious is Your Search?

Another thing you should really think about before jumping into a search is what you’d like to accomplish.

Why? Well, Ancestry.com is a useful site, but it’s also about a dollar a day to use and access all of its resources as a paid member. Information from other sources can also cost money as well. It’s not always terribly expensive – I’ve ordered obituaries from libraries for $3 a piece – but if you’re searching for hundreds of people on your tree, those costs can add up.

Some people just want to be “casual” genealogists. They might just want to go a generation or two back in their own immediate family. Maybe they’re trying to find Grandpa’s WWII service information, or want to see grandma’s name in the census. In that case, it would probably be easier to go to a local library. Many libraries have free access to Ancestry.com. Libraries also have other resources that come with a library card, like access to HeritageQuest.

You can also use (from home) FamilySearch.org, which is a database used by Ancestry.com and that was created (and is maintained) by the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

Local libraries might also have a yearbook with pictures of your parents or grandparents.

But if you get the “bug” to do a more serious search – and it’s pretty contagious – you’re going to want to go farther back. Just understand a few things:

  • It’s an investment – of time, of money, of a lot of reading and analyzing.
  • If you’re looking for a project with a definitive flow, or a definitive ending, this one is NOT IT.

When I really jumped into this project five months ago, I knew I would be immersed in research and putting the pieces together. I had no idea that only five months later, I would have almost eleven hundred names on my tree!

For me, though, what I get in return is worth the effort. I’m learning more about my family every day, and seeing and understanding new things about my parents. I’ve learned of the existence of family members that prior to this year, I didn’t even know existed!

And I’m creating something that my siblings, their children, and all of my extended family can draw from.

At the end of the day, understanding and learning about other members of my family also makes me understand a bit more about myself. And that’s a great gift, too.