Finding and Researching your Family History on the WEB
By David Ferdinando member 1921So youve set up your ISP and computer and the Internet is at your mercy. How do you go about researching your family history using the web?
You can use a number of different tools to help you in your search including: Search Engines, Directories and Portals, Newsgroups and Discussion Groups/Forums.
Searching can be a pain as you often get lead down paths that take you nowhere, so you should work out a plan to systematically hone in on the information you are after. For instance, using a search engine and just typing in my surname (which is not particularly common) leads to about 50,000 returns of Web sites that contain it! If it takes 3 minutes to look at each site then it would take me a working year to view them all. Sometimes, this haphazard approach can pay off but to be really sure you should tackle searching the web using more than one keyword or phrase. My advice, as always, is to start using any tool that you want to use by going to its online help page. Here the site will explain how you can best use the facilities available. Not all tools use the same commands so please check this out first. In Alta Vista for instance you can use different strings of words and symbols to narrow down your search.
An example could be Ferdinando+GEDCOM, this will look for any downloadable GEDCOM files that are connected with my surname. Alternatively the search engine may be able to handle phrases, for instance, an engine may take the phrase "Ferdinando+Genealogy." Which combines Ferdinando and Genealogy as a single phrase search argument. Results should be displayed that match both criteria, however they may just search both names and produce a list of both. Some search engines may use the words "and", "or", "plus" etc., or have a check box that you can click to ensure the search finds what you want. Search engines are very powerful tools and using combinations of words in this way will allow you to hone in on the information you want. Because Search Engines use logical arguments they do not handle questions very well (even if they say they do). Typing "where can I find family history resources for the Ferdinando family" provided me some of the best laughs Ive had for ages. So search engines are useful if you know how to use them and be specific in what you are asking. Some Search Engines are also case sensitive and typing in mixed lowercase and capital letters will only bring up "hits" that are spelt exactly as you have typed them.
Having said that, a search engine will look for the exact name i.e. Ferdinando. What if I want to find variants on my name? Ferdinand, Fernando etc? Well, with a search engine you will have to try typing in the exact word you are looking for or try wildcards. A wildcard could be Ferdi* where I am looking for anything that starts with Ferdi and has any combination of letters after that. You should again check the "help" section of the search engine you are using to see 1). If it accepts the use of wildcards and 2). What format the wildcard should take. What this will do is increase the number of returns you will get unless you narrow down your search using the suggestions already made.
Genealogy Search engines work differently. Some use Soundex that returns all names that are phonetically the same. Ferdinando has the Soundex of F635 and would return Ferdinando, Ferdinande, Ferdinand and many others that are similar. A full explanation of Soundex can be found on the Later Day Saints site http://www.familysearch.org and a number of genealogy specific sites use this or similar calculators to assist your search for relatives. I will write a separate article dealing specifically with the Later Day Saints site at a future date.
Your initial searches really ought to start from a solid base and I can think of nowhere better to start your search than the GENUKI web site. http://www.genuki.org.uk/ this provides links to all sorts of information and makes a good bookmark to start your searching. From here you can access links to resources from the UK and around the world.
Directories, of which Yahoo is one, use a different format to a search engine and categorise sites into useful headings. These are very much like Library indexes. In this way you can search by subject and continually drill down into more detail. Portals are normally subject specific and so going onto a portal like www.gengateway.com gives you specific genealogy information and nothing else. However, I have found many of these sites are USA specific or have links to Pay for information material often based around US Census returns so please take care when using this type of search facility.
Newsgroups, Discussions and Forums are different ways of assisting your searches. A newsgroup is a collection of messages posted by individuals to a news server. News servers are computers maintained by companies, groups, and individuals that can host thousands of newsgroups. Although some newsgroups are monitored, most are not, and messages can be "posted" and read by anyone who has gained access to that group. When you post a message it is systematically copied to other newsgroup servers around the world so other people can read it and reply with their views. To get a flavour you can look at an archive of newsgroups through a Web interface such as http://www.dejanews.com/. The network of newsgroups is known as 'Usenet'.
Forums are more restrictive in the way that they work where you can subscribe to a group that discusses say, in my case, Spanish and Portuguese surnames. This is useful as I can ask a question about how to search for my surname or for a location in Portugal where they came from and there are usually knowledgeable people who answer my mail and point me in the right direction to continue my research. This has yielded some useful results for me and also opened up some most helpful and interesting avenues and correspondence with some extremely knowledgeable contacts. Forums can take two forms. One is only hosted on a web site and you are automatically e-mailed to say someone has answered your query. In the other type, all discussions can be e-mailed to you. I belong to three that mail all discussions to me and one that only notifies me when something that I am interested in appears. Of the e-mailed versions I get between 10 and 30 e-mails a day and these are not always relevant to my interests and so I would advise you only use this option if you aren't too worried about your phone bill! The other method is quite good but you need to keep going to the Web site to check what is happening. I do not use Newsgroups finding too much idle "chit chat" and where un-moderated, less than savoury comments on them and not a lot of relevant information. Forums have moderators who ensure that the content is applicable and relevant. This keeps the discussions in context and relevant to what you are interested in. I would also suggest that you log on as a visitor or guest to start and read what is available before deciding to subscribe to these.
I would again point you to the excellent Webwise area of the bbc.co.uk pages that go into some depth on these subjects and to the help pages on yahoo.co.uk and altavista.co.uk where you can find how to improve you searches.
Finally, a word of warning about information you get from the Internet. Always check the source of the information. The online IGI contains many mistakes in the information it provides and spelling and date mistakes are all too easily propagated. You should therefore ensure that you confirm these against known documents and I am indebted to Dr. Peter Ferdinando for pointing this out on a number of the sources and comments I have found using the internet.
Happy surfing and searching thank you for your comments to date and do please keep sending me your suggestions on areas you would like me to explore and write about.