Genealogy is a hobby of numbers. Perhaps the most important number of
all is the number of researchers working on a line. The more
researchers there are, the more likely one may find a common ancestor or
someone concentrating on one of the same lines. In the past,
such connections were made through periodicals and genealogical
societies. Researchers made the most of the information that they found
in such genealogical journals as the New England Historical and
Genealogical Register, the New York Genealogical and Biographical
Journal, and The American Genealogist, and they posted
queries in newspapers such as the Boston Transcript. Prior to the
advent of the Internet, researchers had no choice but to spend many
long hours at libraries and other repositories to get their information.
Owing to the many published family histories, researchers were shown
the trail of an ancestor, but the time and effort it took to find
further information helped researchers develop good research techniques.The
Internet, while bringing an astounding number of researchers together
through the instant communication offered, has been responsible for a
number of incorrect trees traveling faster than the speed of light from
one researcher to another. Of course, genealogical misinformation did
not begin with the Internet. While incorrect conclusions have frequently
been published in past family histories, the speed at which the
information is now traveling is almost incomprehensible. The big problem
is that many researchers have stopped researching. Instead, they spend
most of their time downloading GEDCOM files from the many online
database sites available and fail to check primary source material to
back up the information that they find. They then proceed to upload new
files containing the same potential misinformation to these same
databases or to a personal family history website.
Of course, misinformation has always been an issue in New England
research. After admitting to researching New England ancestors, a
colleague offhandedly remarked, "New England research is easy.
Everything is available." While it is true there is an abundance of
information out there for New England researchers, this wealth of
material is actually a double-edged sword, made sharper still with the
Internet. In the past, a researcher had to gain access to published
family histories. Now much of that information is readily available on
Some family historians get so excited by the Internet that they
forget one of the most important rules of research - verify the
information. Researchers with all levels of experience have published
genealogical information on the Internet. Newcomers to the field are
simply eager to share what they have found, and many accept this
information as fact. They are unaware of the necessity of such steps as
citing sources or looking for original records to verify information
found in the past. Even more experienced researchers who should know
better sometimes find themselves caught up in the heady experience of
finding ancestors, especially if those lines have proven stubborn in
more traditional research methods.
Harness the PowerThe Internet, and computers in general,
offer family historians a power previously unimagined. However, one must
not sacrifice careful research for speed and convenience. Maintaining
an even balance between "traditional" and "technology" enables the
researcher to use the speed of the Internet to rapidly gather
information while verifying original sources to ensure the accuracy of
In addition to the compiled family histories that abound on the
Internet, transcribed records and digitized documents offer the
researcher the ability to access records they may not be able to see
without traveling great distances. A perfect example of this is the
census. While some have easy access to repositories that house the
microfilmed pages of the census, others find that they cannot get to
them as often as they would like. Taking advantage of an online
subscription to the digitized images of the census, through Ancestry.com,
for example, brings the pages into the researcher's home. In some
instances, the digitization has enhanced the page, making names readable
that previously were illegible.
While transcribed databases do offer the potential for additional
errors, they should not be ignored either. What they offer is the
initial step in what is a detailed research process. Careful researchers
do not stop after locating an ancestor in a published family history at
the local library; likewise they should not be satisfied with the
research they find on the Internet. However, through the power of the
present technology, the researcher can search through many volumes at
once, perhaps through the Genealogy Library subscription available from Genealogy.com,
which features digitized versions of a number of family history books.
Some of these books may not be available in any other format.
Working with TechnologyWhen researching on the Internet
one should never assume that the information found should apply to the
family in question. While not a new concept directly related to Internet
genealogy, such assumptions are certainly more prevalent, often because
the researcher does not have a good working knowledge of the family in
question and the resources available. Before launching into the next
research trip online, there are some questions to ask before and during
such a search.
Actually, these three questions can and should be applied to any
aspects of research, regardless of the record type being used. However,
they are more important than ever when working with the Internet and
CD-ROMs. The temptation is sometimes too strong to just accept at face
value the information found electronically. The researcher has been
removed from the traditional research environment, and sometimes forgets
to question what has been found.
With the exception of those web pages or electronic documents that
feature digitized images of the original, the researcher should always
make it a point to go the next step - checking the original records.
When it comes to New England research, many of these records are
probably available on microfilm.
These questions also serve to slow researchers down, making it
necessary to be more careful. Researchers are able to access so much
electronic information at one time that they often forget to stop and
take stock of what information has been found.
What is Already Known?For some reason, many online
researchers do not bother to find out what is already known about a
family or individual. Instead of searching for Thomas Acland Lawford,
born in Peckham, Surrey, England, in 1816, an online researcher might
search for Thomas Acland and then try to push the square peg into the
round hole on the family tree. Before a researcher can know if an
individual found online is part of the family tree, it is important to
know just what the family tree consists of already.
If the family line stops with Thomas Acland Lawford, then the
researcher needs to look at what else is known about Thomas, his spouse,
and his children. Then armed with this information, conscious
evaluations can be made from the information found online through
published family histories and compiled databases.
For instance, knowing that Thomas Acland Lawford was married to Janet
Turing Bruce and that they had at least three children born between
about 1858 and 1865 may lead the researcher to consider the 1881
British Census CD-ROM available from the Family History Library .
What is Available?The researcher needs to be familiar with
what is available electronically. Usually this requires visiting the
individual sites. Even subscription sites will allow the researcher to
run a search to see what hits materialize in the data. Generally, these
sites also have a listing of the databases that they have available,
allowing the researcher to scan the list looking for those databases
that would be of the most help in their present quest.
For instance, if you were researching a John Thayer in colonial
Massachusetts, it might prove useful to search the Massachusetts
Soldiers in the Colonial Wars databases available to members
here at the NewEnglandAncestors.org website. Or you might want to
try the searchable, digitized version of Pope's Pioneers of
Massachusetts on Genealogy.com.
To know what is available, researchers need to take the time to
learn what a specific site offers. Sometimes this means bypassing the
general search feature of a genealogy site and digging deeper to find a
list of all the available databases on that given site. This is a common
problem when searching on the Internet in general. Because the Internet
is so fast, it is easy to not take the time to look around a site.
Jumping from a general search engine to a highlighted web page and back
to the general search is a habit that may prove disruptive to the
research. Few general search engines catalog every level of a website.
By taking the time to look around, the researcher may discover that
there is additional useful information on the ancestor or line in
question buried deeper in the site.
Going the Traditional RouteAfter finding information
electronically, the researcher should not consider the search complete
until original records have been exhausted. Returning to the research of
Thomas Acland Lawford, a search entered in the Vital Records Index -
British Isles CD-ROMs (published by the Family History Library)
revealed a number of children of Samuel Lawford and Margaret Sarah
Acland, the parents of Thomas Acland Lawford, at least according to a
family tree uploaded at WorldConnect on RootsWeb.com.
The British Isles vital records index did not include Thomas with the
other children. However, when turning to the original records, in this
case, the birth records of the Nonconformists, a search revealed a
certificate for Thomas Acland Lawford along with those for the siblings
found in the British Isles index. Information on Thomas Acland Lawford
would not have been found if the research had stopped with the
Of course, even going to the Family History Library is not the end of
the research road. There are many records that have not been
microfilmed or are not available through the Family History Library and
its many branches of Family History Centers. While it may not be
possible for some researchers to view these records personally, through
online communication they may find another researcher willing to do
limited searches in the records.
Genealogical Societies are Still RelevantWhile the
Internet has become the more popular avenue in which to find fellow
researchers, genealogical societies still provide an invaluable service
to those interested in family history. Membership in the societies
includes published periodicals, sometimes including a journal, and free
access to their libraries. The periodicals share methodology, allowing
the researcher to learn from research tricks and tips of others.
In the case of New England researchers, the New England Historic
Genealogical Society, via this website, allows members to access many
searchable databases pertinent to the research of a descendant of New
Englanders. Just having The Register available for searching from
1875 to 1994 is a major benefit to New England researchers. While some
researchers are fortunate enough to have the bound volumes available
through their local public library or genealogy library, many others
have gone without them, thus adding a roadblock to the research. Better
still, having them online makes them available at any time of the day or
Computers are Only HumanWhile electronic research offers
new avenues, it is important to remember that the index created to allow
a search directly affects the results of a search. Typing in the name
of an ancestor and coming up with no results does not mean the
individual is not in the database. It simply means that the index did
not find the person. While it is true that researchers must rely on
indexes, especially when working with online databases, a negative
result simply means the index does not include the exact spelling of the
name as entered into the search box. As was shown with Thomas Acland
Lawford, his omission from the index did not mean that a record did not
exist for him, just that he was not in the index or electronic resource.
Computers and the technology that comes with them offer many
opportunities to find new ancestors or new limbs for the family tree.
The key is in knowing what has been found and evaluating it honestly.
When researchers do not slow down long enough to analyze what they are
adding to the genealogical database stored on their own personal
computer, then misinformation is destined to fly around the world, and
researchers will find that they must eventually perform that most
unpleasant of tasks - the chopping of a limb from the family tree.
Downloading GEDCOM files can save time, but researchers need to
remember that it is a lot like grafting a limb onto a tree. Sometimes
the graft takes and the tree bears delicious fruit. Sometimes the graft
takes, but the fruit isn't so delicious. Other times the graft doesn't
take at all. Family trees and the research available electronically
offers many of the same positives and negatives, especially if the
researcher hasn't taken time to evaluate the information downloaded or
turn to more traditional records to verify the information.