Last week’s @ANZAncestryTime chat on twitter focused on the topic of “Researching online”.
Each week we have four sets of questions relevant to the topic, which people can respond to. Being one of the hosts, I get to pre-schedule my responses so I can focus on commenting on the answers, comments and replies from others. Each week you can read a summation of the chat on O’er the Seas, the blog by Sue Wyatt…it’s a great aide memoir of our conversation.
I thought I might put my own responses into a blog post here for posterity as online vs offline research is one of my hobby-horses.
The questions and my responses (expanded/collated) were:
What are the main genealogy websites you use in your research? (subscription and free)
I have subscriptions to the big genealogy sites: Ancestry, FindMyPast and My Heritage. I use Family Search regularly but not as often as I used to years ago when I borrowed microfilms and before the growth of the big three already mentioned.
My favourite sites, though, would be Trove, ScotlandsPeople, and IrishGenealogy.ie and Catholic Parish registers at the National Library of Ireland (as well as Ancestry and FMP). If I had to choose I’d give up the big sites in favour of these which include first-hand information. Trove remains a treasure chest of hidden delights about our families that we would never otherwise have known and takes us well beyond BDM and obituaries. It also lets us build up reference information for particular interests including One Place Studies and the communities where our ancestors and families lived.
I also have to acknowledge the wonderful work being done by the Ryerson Index, which lets us follow up more recent deaths, funeral and obituaries. And then there’s the grave register searches possible via many regional Councils – what an innovation that’s been!
I know that Trove is limited by copyright restrictions, but being greedy I’d really love to be able to search forward into the decades of my youth. How spoiled we’ve become, not having to trawl through microfilms, hour after hour.
What features do you find helpful?
FindMyPast has two key benefits for me especially the wide availability of Irish records, often not available outside Ireland. They have made this their niche market and it’s invaluable. I also use the British and Irish Newspaper Archives which is included in that subscription. Of course, those who don’t have FMP can access the British Newspaper Archive by obtaining a National Library of Australia card and accessing the e-databases.
It’s important to realise that the big sites have indexed data found in archival records or via society index activities. While having a one-stop access point, fully indexed, is invaluable, it’s important to understand that you can access this information directly if needed. For example, I go directly to the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages of a particular state, or the relevant archive, if I want to know what’s available.
Shaky leaves are generally easy enough to verify or reject because I’ve done the research offline many years ago. Help I use as/when but not often. The Family Search wiki can be very helpful for a new location you’re researching.
Do you have a family tree on any genealogy websites?
Ancestry has my most comprehensive tree because of DNA. I was reluctant to upload one for a long time but given so many others had already put details there, it seemed pointless to keep hiding away. While we often mumble about the state of family trees, they can still be very helpful to identify potential cousins with or without DNA testing. Similarly, My Heritage provides me with interesting links to German trees….I just need to do more about following them up.
Having said all that, my tree is there so others can see names but I don’t include offline research I’ve done. That goes into my narratives.
What are the pros or cons of putting your tree online?
The biggest advantage is that people can contact you, though to be honest, I haven’t had much success with that.
Cons: the sheer volume of follow-up action that I could take but don’t get round to. Also, that sometimes you contact and share info with people and then next thing you find their tree locked down and private. I’ve learned to take screen shots first.
Have you tested your DNA? Is your DNA attached to a tree online and has this been helpful in your research?
Because I have DNA on all the main testing sites, and with the size of the Ancestry database, that is usually the most helpful to me, though I also pick matches up on the others. I’m fortunate too, that my mother is still alive and was willing to test, even though we had to use the artificial saliva method to collect her sample.
My extensive tree on Ancestry is helpful to me because it reminds me of the surnames of collateral kin – it’s easy enough to remember your direct line but sometimes those farther branches can get forgotten. I’m hopeful too that it lets others see where they might intersect with my family.
The greater numbers being tested have made it so much easier to see where matches connect…a big difference from when I had one close cousin match.
DNA Painter is invaluable when you’re dabbling in DNA to help you identify where your matches fit and then paint which segments come from which ancestor.
What genealogy gems have you found researching on genealogy research websites?
Most of my primary discoveries have come through archival research but Trove has turned up totally unexpected gems including near-drownings, a few scandals, and fires. I’ve found many instances of my grandmother’s brothers competing in Caledonian competitions and playing in pipe bands. Bankruptcies and sales of property give clues about why an ancestral family may have moved places. No one in my family had known my maternal great-grandfather had played a significant role in the Longreach band. All of these gems bring life to the stories of our ancestors and kin.
Where something in the newspaper clues me into a potential archival source, I’ll go hunting on their website to see whether any primary documents still exist.
I love the convenience of being able to rapidly look something up while sitting in casual clothes in my study without having to drive somewhere, but nothing beats finding the original story or record in the archives. It’s been an absolute blessing to be able to keep searching from home during covid lockdowns because I’m convinced that our research is good for our well-being.
For me, the downside of online research is the sheer volume of information with which we’re inundated and the speed at which it comes. It’s hard to stay focused on what you really want to follow up and not disappear down a rabbit hole. It kind of makes me think of going for a quiet surf then finding yourself in a dumper, upside down with sand in your swimsuit. I keep talking to myself about the concept of Slow Genealogy (like Slow Food or Slow Travel) and despite planning to do better that dumper in the surf keeps taking me under.
What’s your favourite thing about researching online and do you prefer it to offline research?
Anyone is welcome to join us on #ANZAncestryTime at 7pm Australian Eastern Standard Time on Tuesdays. Tomorrow night’s topic will be “Why do Family History?“