Dos and Don'ts of Online Genealogy
The Internet has definitely revolutionized genealogy. Computerized indexes make it possible to find individuals with very little information, on occasion without even a name. Digitized records make it possible to view page after page of records well into the wee hours, long after the library is locked up for the night. The availability of so many records in one place eliminates hours spent traveling to numerous repositories.
All of those benefits come with a price, however. Ease of publishing often results in half-done or shoddy research. The rush to put genealogical records online sometimes results in inaccurate indexes. The sheer wealth of available information makes finding the little bitty fact that you seek a very daunting task. To help you get started feeling comfortable with genealogy online, here are a few basic dos and don'ts.
Do Look for Source Documentation
Just because you find information online doesn't mean that it's true. Before you accept any statement of fact, look for information on the original source of the information. Many online databases will include a source or “more about” link. Family trees will, hopefully, include contact information for the submitter. Be sure to document both this original source and the online source where you found the information, so you can accurately assess the quality of the information and so others can follow your research trail.
Don't Expect to Find Everything Online
Many people begin their genealogy search on the Internet expecting to find their entire family tree online, already completed back several centuries. The trouble is, it usually doesn't work that way. You can absolutely do a lot of research online, but don't miss out on the fun and adventure of a visit to the local courthouse or family cemetery.
Do Your Homework Before Forking Over Your Money
Most of the commercial genealogy enterprises online are absolutely legitimate, but every now and then a website pops up with questionable business practices. Search the Internet for user comments and reviews of any website, software, or other commercial purchase before pulling out the credit card.
Don't Expect to Do It All for Free
You have probably noticed that certain subscription-based genealogy sites such as
Do Not Publish Information on Living People Online
Your relatives probably won't be thrilled to find their birth dates and other private information online. Even just publishing their names along with the information on their parents can be too much, since many security systems use the mother's maiden name as identification. Use your genealogy software or a utility program to privatize this information before uploading your data online.
Don't Merge Family Trees
It's best to never import someone else's GEDCOM file directly into your own family tree. By taking time to enter the data into your genealogy software by hand, you get to learn about the new family connections. Otherwise you're letting software make all the decisions about who your ancestors are! If you do choose to import a GEDCOM file, however, make a backup of your main file first and import into the backup. This way you can revert back to your original file if the import has unanticipated results.
Do Give Back to the Genealogy Community
When you're first starting out, people will likely help you. After you've gained some experience, say thank you by helping someone else. Answer questions on a mailing list or forum. Do a few record lookups. Take time out to transcribe or index some records.
Don't Assume That Information on the Internet Is Public Domain
The majority of the articles, databases, transcriptions, and other genealogy information that you find online are protected by the copyright of the author. If you wish to repost such information in a blog, or on a mailing list or website, you need to get the author's permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission. For mailing lists and blogs, the best course of action is to use a small excerpt (considered “fair use”) along with attribution to the author and a link to the original content.
Do Back Up Your Data on a Regular Basis
Since this was just discussed earlier in the chapter, hopefully it's still fresh in your mind. You do not want to lose hundreds of hours of genealogy research or irreplaceable family photos because you haven't backed up your digital files. Find a backup plan that works for you and stick to it.
Don't Give Up
While the Internet exponentially increases your opportunities for locating your ancestors, it can also be an extremely frustrating experience to find just the right search combination. Use the search techniques introduced throughout this book and practice, practice, practice. It won't be long before you'll feel like a pro!