Tracing your lineage online
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 24, 1998
he path to the past, genealogically speaking, used to be dusty tomes, courthouse records and overgrown cemeteries. Now, it's digital.
The technology of today, particularly the Internet and computers, is allowing more people to find more information faster about their ancestors. It doesn't eliminate all the details of what can be a time-consuming, enervating and often expensive venture, but it makes it more accessible.
"The Internet has really been a boon to genealogy," said Bob Bryan, a member of the Pinellas Genealogy Society. "The value of the computer is its ability to sort, change and transfer all the information you've accumulated. It is amazing how much you can find on the Web. Sometimes there is too much information to keep up with it."
Groups such as the Genealogy Society often can be called upon for beginners' advice. At last month's society meeting, however, Bryan's tips for getting started sounded more like a seminar on Net surfing.
Due in part to its budding accessibility, online genealogy is one of the hottest interest groups on the Internet. One of genealogy's main periodicals, Everton's Genealogical Helper, now lists hundreds of Web sites. Virtual universities offer classes on using the Internet for genealogical studies. According to a recent survey of AT&T; WorldNet subscribers, one-third of those polled said they were using the Web to investigate their roots.
With an ever-increasing amount of data -- centuries of records, birth and death dates, baptismal dates, maps -- the Internet is one of the most comprehensive reference sources for genealogy outside of a library, with individual and commercial sites competing for hits.
But even the longtime hobbyists at the Pinellas Genealogy Society caution that the glut of information can, especially for the inexperienced, be equally frustrating as rewarding.
Matthew and April Helm, co-authors of the book Genealogy Online For Dummies, first used the Internet for their hobby in 1994. Dismayed by the number of sites and lack of organization, Matthew Helm decided to build a comprehensive site -- Helm's Genealogy Toolbox -- which has become one of the busiest sites for online genealogy.
"We started the toolbox with links to 134 sites. Now we have over 42,000," Helm said. "One problem these days is the sheer number of sites out there. People who don't have background in researching get swamped. They'll click on a link, and then another, and the next thing you know, they are lost somewhere."
As interest in genealogy grows, so does the amount of information on the Internet. Records offices save time and money by posting frequently requested documents. Genealogical texts with expired copyrights are being digitized. Whether it's the federal government's Social Security Death Index, or a list of cemetery occupants posted by a funeral home, these sources are potential gold mines for genealogists.
"We suggest that you begin at a comprehensive site that has links to other places, Helm said. "You might want to look at other types of resources, such as geographical areas. If you have an idea where someone lives, it is easier to track that person down. It is also good to know a little something about that person before you start."
For local neophytes, a good starting place is the Special Collections department of the Largo Library, where the area's largest collection of genealogical information is kept. Along with Internet access and help from volunteers, the library has documents that can't be readily found on the Internet, such as books of local history, passenger ship lists, microfiche, and large regional and racial data bases. The library staff estimates 450 people use its genealogy facilities each month.
"There are several reasons why people are exploring genealogy," said Helm. "Historians like to find personal ways of getting into history. Even though their relatives weren't kings, queens or presidents, they were participants in history. Other people use genealogy for medical reasons. People can now trace genetic problems back through the generations.
"Genealogy traditionally takes a lot of time, but with the Internet, younger people are getting involved. It is more convenient for people who don't have lots of time. After the kids are in bed, you can do some base level research on the computer."
Some of the Internet's drawbacks are obvious, especially if your name is, say, Smith. Privacy is also a concern. Detailed information on living relatives should not be posted. Just as the latest available U.S. census records are from 1920, so most genealogists like to maintain a three-generation freeze on family information, a measure that protects against fraud. For legitimate genealogists, this means looking elsewhere to get the most current data, according to Helm.
"Another piece of advice I can give to people using the Internet is to verify your sources," said Helm. "We recommend that even though the person who has posted the information has verified that it is correct, you should do it also. Most likely, you will pass your information on to others, and one piece of incorrect information on the Internet can really cause problems down the line."
For seasoned genealogists, the Internet has become a critical tool, especially with the ability to network with other genealogists all over the world. Surname mailing lists can connect thousands of potential relatives.
Pinellas Genealogy Society treasurer Howard Jensen says he has compiled names of more than 6,000 people who are related to him -- a task that has taken at least 15 years. The Internet has helped him fill in "dead ends."
"It is a great thing. If you have questions, you can e-mail someone and find out information, and vice versa." Jensen said. "People are so grateful. Sometimes I get 50 e-mails a day, and I can send them a copy of what I have compiled on my tree. Maybe it will help them out. It really has connected the whole world together."
Recently, Jensen has contacted European relatives descended from a remote branch of his family tree. Other members of the Pinellas Genealogy Society have used the Internet to translate foreign documents. Many discoveries spark the imagination: an ancestor who died in the French Revolution, a great-great-great-grandfather who helped tame the Old West, or a distant cousin living next door.
"The Internet won't give you all the answers," Helm said. "But it is one of the best tools a person can use."