A lot of people find the prospect of researching their family history online slightly challenging. It can be difficult to know where to start. But the seemingly endless resources now available online should not frighten you off. The genealogical resources available on the internet offer an incredible opportunity to research hundreds of years back into your family history without ever leaving the comfort of your home – it’s an opportunity previous generations of genealogists could only have dreamt of…
Of course there is no one way to do this and researching your family history online is a massive topic, changing day by day as ever more information is made available via the internet. Naturally, the results you can achieve will depend on what kind of answers you are looking for, where your ancestors lived and the time and money you are able to dedicate. The examples we have used here are mostly British, but thanks chiefly to our interest in Jewish genealogy, we also have considerable expertise in using a wide variety of international sites – particularly US-centric and European resources, so if you have a specific question about research in another country, please get in touch.
Irrespective of the particulars of your search, it’s useful to bear in mind a few golden rules when researching your family tree online whether you are just setting out on the journey or a more experienced researcher.
Our top tips for researching your family history on the internet
- Prepare well – think about what you want to know, what you want to achieve, write it down! Check out our guides to getting started and interviewing your relatives.
- Research whether available records are likely to answer your questions especially before paying for them!
- Determine the best online tools for the job at hand – different sites are good for different things. There is much overlap (see our favourite sites below).
- Be logical – keep notes about what you have done, where you have searched to avoid duplication.
- Revisit revisit revisit! – be prepared to retrace your steps with the benefit of new information especially when tackling ‘brick walls’
- Think laterally – Google it! Use secondary resources such as Google Maps, Wikipedia, Old London Street names and British History Online to help you understand ‘the territory’
- Think about the story of your ancestors’ lives – the balance of probabilities – to tackle brick walls (in most cases they are where you expect them to be!)
- Make sure you have the right family! Don’t carried away… Heed fundamental inconsistencies which may indicate you are working on someone else’s family!
- Beware of non-primary sources (transcription errors, masses of false/copied information online)
- A lot but not everything can be done for free (make use of Library resources, look out for special offers!)
- Much depends on location (town, county, country) – in terms of what info may/ may not be online
- An awful lot, but not everything is available online, especially pre 1700 – but it doesn’t have to end there! There is no substitute for ordering/accessing original records and they can often extend your research significantly.
Our favourite websites for UK genealogy
- Ancestry – for building a family tree, sheer volume of records, international research, access to biggest archive of public member trees on the internet
- Find My Past – great for British records including records of Britons overseas, easy to use indexes, excellent collection of parish records, brand new access to the British Newspaper Archive
- Scotland’s People – for Scottish vital records, census returns, valuation rolls and much more
- RootsIreland – for Irish vital records, church records, 1901-1911 census returns
- FamilySearch – for the International Genealogical Index (IGI) (parish records pre-1837), international research, and an overview of available records for particular areas of research
- National Archives Catalogue – for an overview of particular areas of research and direct access to many records online for a small fee
- Access to Archives – where to find regional records
Please get in touch if you would like help progressing your family history research. We love to work in partnership with our clients, helping with particular questions, plugging gaps, overcoming brick walls and sharing the excitement of each new discovery.