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Discovering your roots

01 Sep 2009

I remember, as a child, looking at a map of the world and finding all the pink bits – the British Empire. Those countries are still there today – just not all still pink! Today, we don’t just look at a map of the world; we can visit the world – in our pyjamas if we wish! We can zoom in and see the sights. We can read the newspapers; see what is held in museums and libraries; we can ‘visit with’ the people; we can have a video phone call; we have social networking – lots of terms not used when much of the world was coloured pink.

Computers and the Web now offer us a vast resource to find out who we are and where we came from. Let me show you just some of the tools now available to the 21st century genealogist.

Although the basic Getting Started rules (see tinyurl. com/o8nxgs for more) have not changed, many of the ways we can follow those rules – and even why we have those rules – certainly have changed.

Let’s look at Jan’s Rules – no, Jan’s Suggestions:

1. Use your computer to create your Family History Seeker. (Don’t have a computer? Find a relative, friend, or local  library.)

Create a Word, OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org), TreePad (www.treepad.com), Publisher or Evernote (www. evernote.com) file. Start a page for each of your four families (eg: your four grandparents; your parents and a spouse’s parents). You can do it with more or less families if you wish. Write any stories, hints, tips, possible dates, places,  occupations, etc. on each family page – those you can remember and those you learn about from others. Add photos,  and set up pages for family holiday memories, Christmas get-togethers, special birthdays, wedding anniversaries, etc.

Plan to ‘visit with’ any relatives – in person, via email, via VoIP (www.skype.com), with cameras, telephone or snail mail.

It’s easy to print just the pages you need before visiting those without a computer, or posting by snail mail. Send the file, via Skype, before you talk; or email ahead of your conversation, then you can both refer to the information. Save the file on a USB stick or at docs.google.com and hope whoever you are talking to has a computer. A netbook,  BlackBerry, iPhone or similar mobile device is a very handy tool for such occasions, as is a mini projector to display documents and images for others to view (see www.3m.com/ mpro/index.html).

Make notes as you speak with family members – straight to the family page is good. Take a digital camera/scanner and copy photographs, certificates, newspaper cuttings, etc. Have a tape recorder (see www. dictation.co.nz) or a  videocam to record (with permission) your chats with your relative.

Why create a Family History Seeker? This gives you one place for all your quick notes, memory joggers, questions to ask – a place to find everything when you to talk/email/Skype your relatives or search the Internet. What are you doing? You have started on the ‘What to Seek, What to Keep’ project. You have created Your Family History Seeker. Your next step is to enter the information into your genealogy computer program.

2.Choose a genealogy program.

You can get a free download of the Standard Edition of Legacy Family Tree at tinyurl. com/qa8sj8 or visit www. rootsmagic.com and www. family-historian.co.uk to download trial versions. Email info@genealogy.net.nz for information about a $7 Helplets CD containing 45+ programs (free and shareware, includes trial versions). Don’t worry if you are not too sure which program will suit you best. You can change to another if you wish – all programs export and input GEDCOM files (www. albrojournal.com/GEDCOMs.htm). See tinyurl.com/o8nxgs for an introduction to some popular genealogy programs, and go to page 5 for your chance to win a copy of Family Tree Maker 2010.

Enter what you know. Enter what you learn from speaking with family. Go to your Family History Seeker and enter the relevant information into your program – copy and paste where appropriate. You may decide to keep updating your  Seeker file, or perhaps just use your genealogy program.

Why do this? For the reasons under 1) plus the self-discipline of entering information into a program; of being consistent; of finding the gaps to fill; of being able to find your information. You also have the satisfaction of seeing a  chart at the touch of a key, printing a book, even seeing your sources neatly displayed. Scan all your documents and photos and upload to the program. What to Keep? At this stage – everything! Extract information and file the document.

3.What to Seek – looking

for information to fill the gaps. Print a Pedigree Chart from your genealogy program so you can see the gaps. Usually your gaps can be filled by information from Civil Registration (see tinyurl.com/o8nxgs). Civil Registration is a government record. In New Zealand and Australia, the governments have provided online indexes. These are mostly free to access and provide enough information to help you place your order. I always have a Registrar General’s Index as a master source because often just to record that an event is listed and the reference, are all you need to note in your genealogy program for eg: your great grandmother's siblings.

How do we have access to this information? An index is created – usually by people for whom English is not their first language. The fatness of the index (the number of fields extracted) is always a commercial decision (remember none of these records was created for genealogists, but usually for keeping track and/ or taxing the population). You’ll generally find just enough data so that you need to purchase further information, to be sure you have the correct person and to obtain all the information given. You don’t have to purchase every registration (certificate), but it can save hours of searching and wondering if you have found your family in the census, for example, by purchasing the marriage registration and knowing who the father of the bride is.

When you go to an index site, it is so important that you read the Help or FAQs file. This is because you need to know how the index was created; if there are any restrictions, what information was collected, what changes there were and when. Perhaps your ancestor is David Wilson, the son of Robert Wilson and Margaret Holehome. He has a younger brother, Robert. You have no idea where the family were living, except that it was England. David was born c1910 –  so many possible entries on the birth indexes. However, you know that Robert was younger and that from September  Quarter1911, the mother’s maiden name is on the index. So, look for Robert in 1912, find the entry with the Holehome mother and now you know where Robert’s birth was registered.  Try www.bdmrecords.dia.govt.nz for NZ historical births, deaths and marriage indexes (see tinyurl.com/ o8nxgs for more). Go to www.coraweb. com.au/ bdmindex.htm for information about the Australian States Civil Registration.

We come across those words: subscription, vouchers, pay -toview when seeking Civil Registration Indexes for the UK. There is a work-in-progress free site: www.freebmd.org. uk which is fully searchable by forenames and surnames, districts, time frame, etc. There’s also www.ukbmd.co.uk which lists any access to births, deaths or marriages by  county and includes some free access to the indexes.

To take advantage of worldwide genealogy, to seek around the world quickly, to seek Civil Registrations, you have to pay. A subscription is a great gift idea! Always enquire at your local library – many have subscriptions, which gives ratepayers free access.

Here is an alpha list of the main pay-to-view sites: www.ancestry.com (also .com.au, co.uk etc.), www. familyrelatives.co.uk, www. findmypast.com, www. originsnetwork.com, www. scotlandspeople.gov.uk, www.thegenealogist.co.uk, www.worldvitalrecords. com, www.1901census. online.com (covers 1841-1901 census)  and www.1911census. co.uk These also cover my next suggestion: to not only seek for Civil Registrations, but also church registers, census returns and cemetery records. Many of these sites also offer whatever they can find: telephone books, directories, non-conformist records, passenger shipping, etc. You’ll have to do your homework to find just what is there.

Do look for:

Fat Indexes and flexible search requirements

You need to be able to search without a surname; to search with a wild card, eg: Ann* to find Ann, Anne, Annie, etc; to search with good sensible variants and choose the level of wider searching to find different spellings of your names,  eg: Macdonald/McDonald, etc; to search for others in the household; for occupations with census; to search for parents with births; spouses with marriages. Can you search all the database in one search, but still search single resources if you wish?

User-friendly results – is the index worthwhile?

Can you sort each column? Can you sort the ages from youngest to oldest and vice versa? Can you sort by county? Are the results easy to read? Can you highlight/ copy/paste to documents or a spreadsheet? Are your search results and purchased images saved so you can look at them again? Most important: how accurate is the index? Can you easily advise errors for correction?

Good quality images and printouts.

Always use a graphics program (eg: www.irfanview.com) to crop, caption, rotate and straighten your image. Here are  some more free sites to check before you go pay-to view: www.familysearch.org (advanced search/international genealogical index; pre-1900 births, marriages worldwide); pilot.familysearch.org/ recordsearch (FamilySearchRecord  Search/New Family Search – index, images); www. Geneactes.org (in English: French birth, death and marriage  transcriptions); www. freecen.org.uk (work-inprogress on census extractions);www.freereg.org.uk (work-in progress extracting from parish registers); digitalarkivet. uib.no (click on Norwegian,then click on English – digital archives of  Norway); www.collectionscanada. gc.ca (Canada Archives); www.emiarch.dk (Danish emigration archives); www. nationalarchives.ie (NationalArchives of Ireland); www.nationalarchives.gov. uk (National Archives UK); www.archway.archives. govt.nz (Archives New Zealand); www.naa.gov.au (National Archives Australia); www.scottishdocuments. com (Scottish Documents); www.historicaldirectories.org (early directories for England and  Wales); www. immigrantships.net (Immigrant Ship Transcribers Guild); www.jewishgen. org/jgff (Jewish Gen Family Finder); tinyurl.com/oem8bk (Libraries and Museums [US] –heavy going, but you could find some very worthwhile links);

www.nzmuseums.co.nz and www.nzlibraries.com (all you need to know about museums and libraries in NZ);  librariesaustralia.nla.gov.au and www. museumsaustralia.org. au (libraries and museums in Australia);  tinyurl.com/op4rf4 (alpha listing of UK museums); tinyurl.com/pnn47h (list of Libraries on the Web in England);  paperspast.natlib.govt.nz (covers over 52 early newspapers in NZ); librarytechnz.natlib.govt.nz (news about digital libraries around the Web); newspapers.nla.gov.au (old Australian newspapers).

These are just a few for you to try. What is exciting is that many of the big guys are working together – ‘collaborating’  is the ‘in word’, so many of the databases will be on many of the Web sites. What will be different is the way we can access information. Each site will have its version of those things I suggested you look for. Hopefully there will be real competition to achieve accurate fat indexes, great search tools and clear images. There are lots of opportunities for us to ‘happen upon’ unusual footsteps left by our ancestors and tucked away where we would never think of looking.

But do remember that these indexes have to be created, and this is best done by Englishspeaking genealogists, so think about going to www. familysearchindexing.org or community.ancestry.com/wap/download.aspx to sign up to an indexing project. This is simple to do, no pressure. I am indexing for FamilySearch!

Seeking others

Researching your families, seeking compiled resources, seeking collaboration where you can upload your GEDCOM  files, seeking creating your family tree online (without a personal genealogy program). Seeking social networking.

Such is the size and scope of worldwide genealogy that these suggestions overlap – even some sites mentioned in iii) could be in iv) and v). I can see where, eventually, most of the larger, multifunction sites will be just that – meeting many needs, with collaboration, corroboration, and compiled resources: a onestop shop and we will have many shops to choose from.

We can still use search engines (see tinyurl.com/ o8nxgs ), mailing lists (www. rootsweb.com), message boards  (www.genforum.com , www.ancestry.com.au – click collaborate/message boards), genealogy/family history societies  (www.genealogy. org.nz , www.genuki.org.uk) when seeking others researching our families.

There are numerous ways of networking online: blogs, podcasts, wikis (makewiki.familysearch.org your first stop for any genealogy query), intranets, sharing photos (www. flickr.com), sharing libraries, one-name societies (www. goons.org.uk) – and there will be many more!

Let’s just look at some of the sites that may cover online family tree building, mapping our family events, collaborating to create merged families with charts etc, provide worldwide access to databases we have created, give us access to worldwide data we would never have found otherwise, and give us a chance to get together and keep in touch with family/ club newsletters, calendars, databases, etc. FaceBook  (www.facebook.com), MySpace (www.myspace.com) and Twitter (www.twitter.com) are just about household words.

So let’s look at a New Zealand genealogy site: www.nzgdb.co.nz It features free registration and free searches,  although a subscription or GEDCOM upload is required to fully use the site. And once logged on (free), there is access to the New Zealand Family History Network – sharing information and expertise. Here is a site that has everything mentioned above – except for mapping! You can upload your GEDCOM files for access to over 13 million names, and instant publication, shared access, and links to fellow researchers.

Ancestral Atlas (www. ancestralatlas.com) is the Web site for mapping your family’s heritage. Create a visual database of your family tree maps, plotting your ancestors’ life events. Upload GEDCOM files here and see what happens.

You can seek others researching at Rootsweb World Connect (wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com), Rootsweb Surname List  (searches. rootsweb.ancestry.com) and Genes Reunited (www. genesreunited.com). It was most exciting to have Paul  Allen from WorldVitalRecords/FamilyLink here in January. Free FamilyLink (www.familylink.com) helps genealogists to connect with other researchers and/or preserve their family history. You can upload GEDCOM files and connect by location, or search for a common shared name, and send Skype messages to network with other genealogists. You can also make contact with genealogists who live in your family cities – perhaps they will photograph the family home for you.

I have met the folk from MyHeritage (www.myheritage.com), so it’s interesting to see this site develop. It has free genealogy tools and lets you create your family’s own meeting place. You can share your family trees and photos,  work together on research and track important family events. There’s also free genealogy software and a metasearch engine to help with your family history research. Do you remember GenCircles? That Smart Matching process is now with MyHeritage, so you can compare family trees for duplications. (Internet Explorer required.)

GeneTree is interesting for those who contributed a mouthwash sample of their DNA some years ago, or for those interested in DNA and genealogy. Go to www. genetree.com and click on About Us to read the background and vision. Online software helps to build and collaborate with family trees, and share digital videos, photos and memories. Take part in the genealogy DNA testing service, learn of DNA connections with others, and make a contact. I paid to receive my DNA test results from the mouthwash sample and they are entered here.

Geni (www.geni.com) concentrates on building your family tree online. Invite family members to join the family tree and add other relatives, share photos and work together to research common ancestors (password required). Other features include a family calendar, family timeline and family news (new additions and upcoming events).

WeRelate (www.werelate.org) is an example of a wiki and is free because it is sponsored by the Foundation for  On-Line Genealogy Inc. in partnership with the Allen County Public Library. Here you can create profile pages for your ancestors, then other people can view these pages and add information, or add their own ancestors’ information.  Source citations and scanned images can be added. You can receive and respond to emails, and in this way create online family trees and personal research pages, as well as collaborate with others. However, there is no way to have a private family Web site.

One of the first ‘networking’ sites, MyFamily 2.0. (www. Myfamily.com ), offers a new generation of free family Web sites for sharing photos, stories, news and family history. You can upload photos and create photo books, family photo calendars and narrated slide shows. There is unlimited storage space (100MB per member per month of uploads) and content backup is free. A subscription offers extra features such as templates and themes, and up to  10GB per month of new photo and file uploads.

Something a little different: Story of My Life (www. storyofmylife.com). Because family history is about so much more than charts and GEDCOM files, Story of My Life offers a way to preserve your family’s life and memories through writings, pictures, videos and voice recordings. Stories can be private, or available to people that you choose. Your stories are supposed to be “kept forever” although there is a fee for permanent storage. The free story service comes with 250MB of space, which is accessible as long as your account is active –I would not use this as my only storage place!

There is no doubt that using at least one social networking site (there are many more) will help preserve your family history for future generations. Uploading all documents, from all family members, will create a living, growing site, with new family photos, scans from newspapers, new branches and twigs to be added. Do make sure that your site is password-controlled unless you are careful not to include any mention of living people.

It does not matter where in the world, or when in the world, your family did live, is living or will live; once you start using the sites mentioned here, the sun will never set on your family history!