It seems as if almost everyone is at least mildly interested in discovering their roots. Maybe you're curious about the origin of your last name, or why Grandpa never spoke about his family. Perhaps you hope for a famous relative or a bit of scandal in your background. Or maybe you're tired of people asking you where your red hair and freckles came from and want to find out for yourself. Ten years ago, your curiosity may have ended with asking your parents a few questions about your ancestors or looking in the library for a book on your family. Today, the Internet has revolutionized the search for family history and heritage, allowing anyone with a consuming curiosity and a passion for answers to trace their ancestry and make connections with long-lost relatives.
Remote Internet access to historical documents and records has dramatically increased the number of people interested in researching the past. The Library of Congress, for example, reported that approximately 15 million people visited American Memory in 2003, more people than have researched in the library's reading rooms in its 200-year history and 1,500 times the number who annually use the manuscript reading room. Documents that once required extensive travel to view are now instantly available to anyone around the world at the click of a mouse. This tremendous growth of online source material means that time and distance are no longer the constraints to research that they once were. Genealogy really has become a hobby for anyone.
While the Internet is a valuable tool for anyone researching a family tree, don't expect to be able to conduct your research solely online. Some of the information you seek will only be found in the files of the state archives or county courthouse, or on the tombstone nearly buried by weeds at the back of the local cemetery. Even in these cases, however, the Internet can provide clues to the location of such records and connect you to other genealogists who may be able to help you access them. You can also use the Internet to build a family tree and share it with your extended family, take a class to expand your knowledge, collaborate with fellow researchers on puzzling problems, explore the history that your ancestors once lived, and connect with distant relatives.
Beyond the Internet, technology has also advanced genealogy research in other ways. Specialized software makes it easy to keep track of hundreds or thousands of tangled family connections. DNA testing can tell you if you share common ancestry with another individual, or help you confirm descent from a particular ethnic or geographical population. Satellite images help you visualize the places where your ancestors once lived. Constructing a medical family tree can possibly even save your life!
Real life examples of genealogy research on the Internet are a special feature of this book. In most cases, famous individuals such as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Babe Ruth are used to illustrate the research process so there is no concern over offending anyone by publishing their family's history in this book. But while there is more information available about these famous figures online than you'll find for most people, the biographies and media accolades are ignored, and the search for records that chronicle their lives is conducted in the same databases and websites you would examine for your own relatives. By seeing how the research techniques discussed in this book can be used to research their family trees, you'll hopefully gain a better understanding of how to apply the same techniques to your own family history search.
You are about to embark on a fascinating trip into your own past. You'll make many discoveries along the way, both about your ancestors and about yourself. You may find that ancestors who led quiet, ordinary lives can be fascinating in their own special ways, and that history is much more interesting when you know that your ancestors were participants. Before long, you'll be addicted for life. Genealogy is an extremely rewarding pastime. I hope you enjoy the journey!