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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000
Bob Bamford knows his Bamfords all the way back to 1720, but he still spends hours online trying to collect more information about them and what their lives might have been like.
"A genealogy is like a phone book unless it has the history, how people lived and what was going on around them," he said.
The Internet allows Bamford to continue his research, centered in Essex County, Mass., even though he lives in Lecanto in Citrus County. He maintains contact with hundreds of distant cousins through Web sites and electronic mailing lists and runs an online bookstore, Essex Books, specializing in area records and family histories.
Bamford is part of a large and growing company of people who are using the Internet to research family history and share what they've learned with others. A General Motors retiree, he started exchanging information through an electronic bulletin board, then moved onto the World Wide Web, where he maintains several genealogy-related sites.
"Genealogists are the nicest people in the world; they are so willing to share what they've learned," said Pat Richley, a Bradenton computer teacher who took her family research online in 1985. She writes a daily "Dear Myrtle" genealogy column that is e-mailed to 80,000 subscribers. She also has a Web site (www.dearmyrtle.com) and has written a book on online genealogy that Adams Media Corp. will publish this fall.
Richley says genealogists still need to consult paper records, but going online makes research easier and often uncovers information not available from traditional sources. In her own case, she says she was stymied in her search for a birth certificate for her stepgrandfather. A query she posted on an electronic message board brought a breakthrough response from a distant relative: The grandfather she knew as Mike had been named Dana at birth.
"The Internet has opened up a whole new world for genealogy," said Pat Vause, a Daytona Beach homemaker. She found the answers to questions about her great-grandmother's family by posting queries on genealogy message boards and an electronic mailing list.
"I even found pictures of two of my great-grandparents that already were on the Internet," she said.
Melbourne elementary school teacher Lois Childers, the granddaughter of Swedish immigrants, used the Internet to find fourth cousins who were still living in Sweden, then went to visit them last year.
There are thousands of Web sites devoted to genealogy. Most are personal family pages and other modest not-for-profit ventures, but a growing number are elaborate commercial sites with search engines, databases, message boards, "how-to" lessons and other features. A few charge for subscriptions.
One of the most popular sites, the free RootsWeb.com, recently was acquired by San Francisco-based MyFamily.com, which has raised more than $75-million in private equity financing. MyFamily.com also owns subscription-based Ancestry.com. Together, RootsWeb and Ancestry claimed more than 300-million page views in May, according to Nielsen NetRatings.
The vast amount of information online means it is no longer unusual for a Web-surfing genealogist to hit the jackpot by discovering a previously unknown ancestor or even uncovering an entire branch of the family tree. RootsWeb's WorldConnect project, which invites genealogy software users to upload their family trees, contains 35-million names.
But genealogists warn against incorporating somebody else's research into your family tree without documenting the information yourself. Both online and printed family histories commonly contain errors and should be considered leads rather than definitive information.
Thousands of genealogy-related databases are available on the Web, with more being added every week. Some are very comprehensive, such as the Social Security Death Index. Others cover very specialized areas. For example, the Pinellas Genealogy Society Web site (www.geocities.com/Heartland/Plains/8283) offers a listing of accidental deaths reported in Pinellas County newspapers between 1901 and 1939.
Many online databases are compiled by volunteers who tromp through cemeteries reading crumbling headstones or pore over tattered papers and out-of-focus microfilm trying to decipher spidery handwriting. An inventory of the tombstones in Clearwater's Rousseau Cemetery is online (www.rootsweb.com/cemetery/florida/pinellas.htm) because Ron Harn, whose relatives are buried there, compiled the information and submitted it to the USGenWeb Tombstone Project.
A growing number of Web sites offer digital images of records rather than transcribed versions. Census records gradually are being made available, and individual Web sites frequently contain family photos, birth, death and marriage certificates, wills and deeds. Some genealogy software includes tools for Web site creation.
And for those who are beginners, many genealogy Web sites also give step-by-step lessons on shaking the family tree.
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