RESEARCHING FAMILY HISTORY ON THE WEB
Family historians traditionally have been among the largest user constituencies of archives and libraries. The enormous capabilities of the World Wide Web (WWW) for family history research expand these opportunities to nearly unlimited possibilities.
Many researchers come to the web with the anticipation that they can type a few key words and find their ancestral charts and family group sheets all completed. While the lucky few may be so fortunate, most researchers will need to spend painstaking hours of methodical research not unlike the time spent in the pre-electronic age. Strategies and tactics may change, but the basic principles of research design, analysis, evaluation, and documentation remain relatively constant. Researchers need to recognize that family history on the web can be at least as fun and just as complicated as family history with the original sources.
While much of the best and most comprehensive information on the web still consists of information about records, more and more actual records are being posted to it. These may consist of transcriptions of records or actual reproductions of the original records. Researchers should continue to evaluate the trustworthiness of indexes, transcriptions, and similar data just as they would for the original record. Who did the transcribing, abstracting, or indexing? Was the organization or individual adequately prepared to read the handwriting? Was the complete record transcribed or only certain parts of it? As with other research, family historians should verify all data with the original sources.
In addition, researchers may need to adopt new or revised research methods. Because family history sites and library/archives catalogs are being updated and augmented constantly, it is necessary to revisit certain sites on a regular basis. What was not available in electronic form last week may now be accessible. It is advisable to keep a research log, probably itself in electronic form, showing which sites were visited when, which records were searched, and what results were received.
Researchers should note that the web may be most helpful in accessing the catalogs and finding aids of libraries and archives. This strategy may yield something as simple as the hours, location, and access procedures of an archives. The electronic catalogs may contain not only brief descriptions of collections and holdings but also full texts of narrative inventories. Many institution's web sites contain “frequently asked questions” that will point a researcher to the most valuable famliy history resources. All these data will enable the researcher to plan efficient field trips, to write concise letters (or e-mails) with records queries, and to evaluate the cost to benefit ratios of contacting many repositories.
Finally, the web holds unique opportunities to make an individual's family history research results available on his or her home page or on the pages of firms that specialize in hosting family histories, ancestral and descendancy charts, and related research queries. Many printed sources exist that will assist the researcher beginning their internet research. Cyndi Howells' Netting Your Ancestors: Genealogical Research on the Internet (Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore: 1998) is an excellent introduction to the basics. Two periodicals, Ancestry's Genealogical Computing and the National Genealogical Society's Newsletter, are useful sources.