So, John – why online genealogy?
The short answer? Because it’s time. Plan to stick around if you want the LONG answer…
Last October, after nearly 18 years working at the same company, it was time for a change. I was in that comfy “making too much money to quit this bearable but unsatisfying computer programming position” mode. But I had seen the writing on the wall since my long-time original boss retired a few years ago.
So, I started going through the motions – collected unemployment, applied for various positions (online and local), but there was very little that interested me. Though I did know a few things for certain… I did NOT want to end up with another programming job; I considered myself done with that. Working for myself at home (preferably online) was my goal. Don’t know what, but something.
“Why don’t you get back into genealogy? You enjoyed that.” Yes, I did so – VERY much. But the way that ended wasn’t so enjoyable.
I picked up a basic book on genealogy 25 years ago, as I was looking for yet another hobby. Up to that point, I was mostly into collections. Unpuzzling Your Past (Emily Anne Croom, 1983) sucked me right in as I’ve always enjoyed doing puzzles and researching in general. And hey – I’d be “collecting” ancestors and relatives along with the already-started matchbooks and 45s!
Not to use the phrase “like a duck taking to water”, but I got RIGHT into it. Started my own family tree. And what do you know, I turned out to be quite good at it. I had old ancestors and “new” cousins and long-lost dead relatives and fourth cousins, twice removed coming out of the woodwork!
I was living in Massachusetts at the time, so I did it all. And to refresh your memories, there was NO internet and I was lucky to get a Word processor program to work on my Tandy 3000X, as the operating system was on floppy disks. OK, you get the idea – I did the required running around.
And run I did! Boston was the main destination. At times, I felt I was living at the Mass. State Archives, The New England Historical & Genealogical Society (NEHGS), The Boston Library, Mass. Vital Records office (the OLD building), The National Archives (just out of town in Waltham), houses my relatives lived at, cemeteries where they were buried.
Then, of course, scattered about were the city/town clerks, probate courts, local LDS research centers, etc. where you could also find bits and pieces of info. So, yes – there was a LOT of travel to get to these locations.
About a year after I picked up that book, I thought “Hey, why not start doing research for other people and maybe even get paid for doing so. Heck, I’ve been in these places ALL year, I know what they have, I find my way around easily enough; why not see if I could be a paid researcher?”
So I did. I put an ad in The Genealogical Helper, had some business cards done up, and waited for letters from potential clients to start streaming in. OK, so it was slow going at first, but at my peak, I was working with a dozen or so clients and *gulp* actually getting PAID for it!
I charged $5 an hour, which I thought was about right for a hungry genealogist at my relatively low starting level. But I delivered! Not to brag (OK, I will…), but my clients got MORE than their money’s worth for the work I did for them. Yes, some of it was work, but it was a deep and satisfying “work”. I was actually supporting myself (sans vehicle) for several months, which I could not believe.
Then life happened. The ugly parts. At the time, my only choice was to move up north (Vermont) with my parents. As much as I would rather NOT go “backwards”, I could see no other option. So, I had to move from non-rural southeastern Mass. to ultra-rural Vermont. And that meant no more research in Boston, thus no more business for me. It went *POOF GONE* overnight.
My parents suggested that I keep researching, but for those looking for Vermont ancestors. All three of them. (Joke!) I knew at that point it was a lost cause and I would have to re-enter the “regular” workforce. This after getting that sweet taste of working for myself. Which I also became quite adept at doing! (There’s more “to it” than most might think. Lots of self-discipline required.)
Two moves later, I found myself in West Lebanon, NH; an area which I’ve grown to love over the last 20 years or so. And during those years, family researchers went from going from building to building -to- website to website. The swiftness of the shift is mind-boggling. From having to make copies of EVERYTHING for the client, send it through the mail, charge mileage for playing that game of building-to-building hopscotch, to sending original file copies via email with NO expenses. Oh, how far we’ve come!
Anyway, back to the post-job period, where I started selling stuff on eBay. Old Rolling Stones, some Hot Wheels, extra WBCN bumper stickers and other assorted items I was just looking to get rid of. At which time I discovered eBay was work which I wasn’t getting paid all that well for. I quickly found that I did NOT want to be listing auctions on there full-time. But for partially PART-time, it could work…for the most part.
In the meantime, a good friend had asked me ONE question regarding his great-great-grandfather’s final resting place. This was earlier in January. It has since ballooned to over FIFTY direct line ancestors. Sure, my friend had to stop by certain places live and in person, but I was directing him; letting him know exactly what to look for and how.
Even at this relatively low level of research, his actually finding and SEEING the information led to an effective bite from the genealogy bug. And as no one famous said, “That bug is a DRUG!” But I digress…
What struck me most about guiding that exciting quest is the staggering amount of genealogical and historical information available online these days. Immense doesn’t even begin to describe it. From the biggies ancestry.com and Google, to hundreds of others like fold3 and newspapers.com. Each having their own information, usually exclusive…and exactly what you’re looking for.
All these websites, each with their own collection of family history, maps, original vital records, local history, cemetery listings, etc. available for perusal, and most, even for downloading. I’m talking full-size high-quality pdfs and jpgs here! As the timeless Edward Herrmann in those Dodge commercials used to assuredly proclaim, “This changes everything.”
Apparently, I’ve been reading too many of those bloggers slamming the internet, but it’s like anything: if you don’t know something, it can be extremely intimidating. Excellent and ORIGINAL records are out there on the interweb; you just got to know where to find them.
Another good friend of mine turned 65 last month and I wanted to do something special for him. As the first friend’s research tapered off some in March, I thought “I’ll just see how much info I could find on Mr. 65 and present it to him on his birthday! Whatever I can find online.” Having NO idea what I would find, if anything.
I sent him a page from a 1956 Buffalo, NY city directory. “Are your parents listed on this page?” “Why, yes – they are. Right there! John H. and Arlene.” And off I went. With just that ONE piece of info to start with. I wanted this to be a surprise, so I asked no further questions about his family. I dug right into the research online exclusively, coming up for air every few days.
Well, his birthday came and went, but I was still working on his family tree! I wasn’t at a point to call it quits. Mainly because I kept finding more information! I liken excellent online research to getting caught up in an avalanche – you have NO control of where it’s going; you’re simply along for the ride! What you find with each subsequent query guides the research. I told my bud, “I’ve got a cool present for you…but I’m still working on it, so later this month…”
Meanwhile, some 88 direct line ancestors later (!), I was ready to show him what I had found. My presentation turned out to be a cross between Who Do You Think You Are? and The Gong Show…one of the BAD acts. With one of Mork from Ork’s spaz fits thrown in for good measure! But that’s my own inner Leonard Maltin critiquing my performance, so I wouldn’t lend too much weight to it.
My friend LOVED it! I found a Civil War soldier on his main paternal line, a Revolutionary War soldier on another and on his mother’s side, an Alsace immigrant who started his own very successful German church in Cheektowaga, NY. All turned up ONLINE. From that ONE directory listing. An online version, of course!
Not honking my own horn (but maybe tapping it slightly), the “winner” here is the amazing amount and QUALITY of family history records that can be found online now. And with more and more being added everyday, it’s only going to get better! The LDS is busily digitizing its microfilms, ancestry.com’s World Archives Project has volunteers manually entering records non-stop, and colleges are digitizing anything they can get their hands on! Not just the US, either – it’s a worldwide undertaking. By the time you read this sentence, hundreds of records across the globe have been made available online. Just like that.
That’s why my business will be conducted 100% online. (Not counting the occasional town clerk call or quickie look-up at the local library; but only if absolutely needed.) There will be NO extra expenses, as everything will be done online. All via computer files and emails, NO hundreds of hard copies or mileage charges for driving all over the countryside.
I’ve confidently proved to myself that online research can be done, and quite successfully, I must add. This after figuring, “Eh, I may get a FEW generations filled in for Mr. 65, but I won’t hope for much.” Boy was *I* wrong! And most thankfully so.
Research that used to take days, months, YEARS of planning, now can literally be done in mere minutes and you’re already on to the next problem to solve. Which repository you could go to and when heavily dictated the timeline and pace of your research. You had to make the best of your visit, as you know you wouldn’t be going back there for quite a while.
NOW, I can go to the Federal Archives, then NEHGS, find something there, which ultimately sends me back to the Federal Archives and then to…without leaving my chair! You get the idea. Lots more time-saving going back and forth electronically; not to mention it just makes more SENSE in the natural progression of ANY type of research!
True, not everything is available online. But the bulk of the most useful records are. Federal and state censuses, passenger lists, vital records from all over, city directories, newspapers, land records, old maps, and on and on and on.
Though if you expect to find everything you need to trace your lineage on ancestry.com, you’re at a serious disadvantage; in looking at only a very small percentage of the billions of genealogical and historical records available online, you won’t get very far.
Oh look! A few thousand MORE records have been added online and made available to view and probably download. But do YOU know where they are and how to quickly access them? No?? I do.
That’s why online genealogy.