3 An Internet search example

3.6 Tracing your family tree

In order to show some of the possibilities provided by the Internet, we have gone straight to searching for material online. A careful family historian would take a more measured approach, starting with the evidence to hand within their own family, and researching offline materials as well. Tracing your family tree involves repeating these steps:

  • start with what you know
  • record it
  • decide what to pursue next
  • research and query
  • analyse the results to see what's needed next.

We have provided some links in genealogical resources section that offer background and more tips on how to get started.

3.6.1 Recording what you know

While researching your family history you will need to keep records. Some of your material will be on paper, especially copies of original documents. You can also find standard charts on the Web to record family information – look in one of the large genealogy sites such as FamilySearch or Cyndi's List.

Activity 26

Go to FamilySearch and follow links Search > Research Helps > Sorted by Document Type. Download a pedigree chart and family group form. You can use these to gather information on your immediate ancestors.

You may also want to use your computer to store information to make the most of the searching and cross-referencing provided by electronic data. You can keep good records using nothing more than a word processor and organising documents into a good folder structure, for example one folder per person arranged as a family tree.

Alternatively, you can use specialised software that has tools to browse through family relationships, search for dates, produce charts, etc. There are a number of packages available, for example:

  • Family Tree Maker is possibly the market leader and is available in several versions, often combined with a subscription to the online service at Genealogy.com.
  • Brother's Keeper is a shareware product that can be freely downloaded for evaluation. In addition to the current version, it is possible to obtain an earlier version (v5) which is considerably faster to download (about 5 minutes by modem).
  • Personal Ancestral File is available for free download from FamilySearch or can be purchased with other products from the UK branch of the Church of Latter-day Saints. This includes some features intended for use by the Mormon temple but is still a good general-purpose package.

Optional Activity

Obtain a genealogical package and use it to collect information about your immediate family.

Now read the discussion


One advantage of using a software package is the possibility of sharing data with others. There is a widely supported standard (GEDCOM) that allows genealogies to be be exchanged between all these packages, although you may find that the supporting material such as your notes or images are not so easy to transfer.

Remember to keep backups of data!

3.6.2 Recording your sources

Historians distinguish between primary and secondary sources. A primary source is an original document of an event – for example, a birth certificate or a marriage licence. A secondary source is one that may cite the original, for example a published family history. There is a range of possible secondary sources and you should be aware of the possibility of error or misinterpretation at every step. We will consider how to evaluate information on the Web more generally later in this unit, but you may like to spend a few moments considering the following.

Note the possible errors and misinterpretations that could arise in:

  • A newspaper notice of birth, marriage or death
  • A newspaper obituary
  • A published transcription of a parish register
  • A record from the 1881 census obtained online
  • A family researcher's personal web page

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated

(A cable sent by Mark Twain after his obituary had been mistakenly published.)

Source: http://www.bartleby.com/59/6/reportsofmyd.html [Accessed 10 Oct 2006]

When you record information it is very important that you also record the source so that it is possible to follow the chain of evidence back to the primary source for checking and reinterpretation. You should use the methods of referencing sources you met previously.

3.6.3 Copyright and privacy

Researching genealogy and family history is often a cooperative enterprise, and greater progress is made when people share their information.

You should give due credit for the work done by others and be aware of the issues of plagiarism and copyright discussed previously. Note that facts, such as someone's date of birth, cannot be copyrighted, but the expression of those facts – the words describing them – are copyright.

Family history is also an area where you need to be aware of privacy concerns. As a rule of thumb, you should never publish information about living individuals. Be aware that even information about deceased individuals can cause distress. Consider your feelings and those of your family if you were to discover from careful study of dates that a member of your family was born out of wedlock.

3.6.4 Publishing

Once you have some family history, why not make it available to others? There is a chance that your interests will overlap with those of others and you will be able to share information.

There are several ways in which you can publish your information. You can use a weblog to record your search – that may be of great interest to your relatives and spark reminiscences. You can contribute to discussion groups. You can create your own website.

Do remember that the Internet has only been around for a few fast and furious years compared with the generations you may uncover in your family history. Your own blog or website may not prove to be that permanent, so it is still worth keeping paper copies of material – a tried and trusted technology to hand down to following generations.

Another possibility is to contribute your data to large hosted sites such as FamilySearch or WorldConnect. Although the Internet and Web will change out of all recognition over the next decades and centuries, the data in these sites are certain to persist in some form.

Last modified: Thursday, 2 August 2012, 12:30 PM