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Online Family History Research Tips

Family Tree

by Lanaii Kline

The first step in putting together your family history is to record what you know about your immediate family. Then begin to work backward. is a good place to begin searching for information. Much of what is available at FamilySearch are indexes of the images. The index provides enough information to let you decide if the record is of interest. In order to view the actual record, you need to visit a Family History Library.

FamilySearch has an ongoing indexing project in which records that were on microfilm are being indexed, digitized, and made available online. Some of the digitized images are available for viewing when you access the website. Others are viewable online if you are a volunteer indexer.

Some of the indexing projects are funded by other organizations. In these cases, if you try to access the image, you are directed to another “partner” site. and some genealogical societies have funded such projects. is a relatively new website that is a genealogical search engine. It searches many websites specifically for genealogical related data. Mocavo keeps track of your searches and will send you an email when it adds new material that relates to your searches.

Mocavo has a subscription level and a free access level. The free level is very limited. For example, if you simply search for Stoutenburg, it will show one page of hits. In order to see all the hits, you must be a paid subscriber. If you provide a given name along with the last name, then the number of hits will be less and you might have a better chance of finding something useful.

Google Books and have digitized many out-of-copyright books. These include histories of counties and states, city directories, alumni directories, etc. You can search for names mentioned within the books at these sites.

WorldGenWeb.orgAnother website that I would recommend is WorldGenWeb allows you to select a country. Depending on the country you select, that site will have links to geographical areas of that country. The links in CanadaGenWeb are to provinces and territories. The links in USGenWeb are to states and territories. From the state or province GenWeb site, you select counties within that state or province.

The amount and quality of the information available at each GenWeb site varies as the information is provided by volunteers. However, more and more of these sites are providing scanned images of documents.

US National ArchivesSome old issues of newspapers are being digitized. The US National Archives has an ongoing digitization project as do some states and historical societies. Most of the newspapers that have been digitized allow you to search for names.

Look for historical and genealogical societies that have a website. The larger societies typically have many more records and data accessible online than the small societies. However, the larger societies require a paid membership in order to access the information. The smaller societies generally only provide transcription of the records or indexes to records but access is open.

Many states and provinces have online archives. The extent of digitized material available online varies from state to state. The State of Missouri, for example, has images of death certificates recorded between 1910 to about 1960 available online. Other states have online Plat maps from around 1900.

Library and Archives CanadaThe Canadian National Archives and the US National Archives are also adding lots of digital images to their respective websites that are accessible. This is true for other countries. I have been looking at baptismal, marriage and death registers in Norway. However, the records are not in English and the handwriting styles are often difficult to decipher.

The websites from which you are likely to find the most information about your ancestors are the subscription based sites. These include,,,, etc. Virtually all have a free limited access level and a subscription level. at this time is the best of these. However, is trying hard to compete with Ancestry so has been adding lots of information.

These sites typically have a seven day free access trial. However, at the end of the seven days, you will get calls from a sales rep trying to get you to pay for a full access subscription. When I was checking out how World Vital Records compared to Ancestry, I was called several times over about six months before they stopped calling.

Many of the subscription sites periodically have a weekend or a week in which some or all of the information available is accessible without charge. often has a portion of its site available for access. For example, around Veterans’ Day, the site typically has allowed free access to the military records.

Many public libraries have subscriptions to these websites. In most cases you must go to the library to access the sites. Some of the sites allow remote access from your home through the library’s website.

Each day, more information is added online that makes researching ones’ family easier. But as more records and stories are added, errors in that data also have increased. The places in which I have found the most errors are online family trees, US Census images, death certificates and printed family histories.

These records are considered by professional genealogists as weak because they are not primary source information. One online tree becomes the input for another tree that is posted online. This tree is copied. As each time the information in a tree is copied, any errors in that tree are also replicated.

If you read most death certificates, the informant providing the information often times lacks knowledge about the deceased person. The only thing that is certain is when the person died and perhaps when and where they were buried. Even the cause of death might be questionable.

I have viewed census images for individuals over several decades. I am not surprised when I find large discrepancies from decade to decade. One person I followed became younger in each decade. By the time, I saw the last census in which she was enumerated; she was nine years younger than her actual age based on her birth register entry. Another time, I found a widow whose very much alive husband was living in the same town and considered himself divorced.

You don’t necessarily have to discard these records or stories. There is always some truth in them and some totally erroneous information. Use them as possible clues to help you decide where to look next.

But most important…keep an open mind when your research appears to reveal things that look different from what you thought you knew.

NOTE: Please check out our Resources page and look through our ever-growing library and video collections as well as visiting the Links page for numerous other useful websites.