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Researching Your Family Tree 101 
by Shelley Livaudais September 01, 2005

Step Five: The Internet

After you’ve compiled your data, and enlisted the help of relatives, it’s time to turn to online resources. There are several major genealogy websites which offer both free and member-only information. You can search the Social Security Death Index for free on several sites, which is very useful for learning the vital statistics of many twentieth-century ancestors. You should also check out the online resources provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormon Church) because the Church has compiled genealogical data on millions of people. It’s free to use their site, which has a powerful search engine. There are also local branches of Family History Centers, also provided by the LDS Church, in which you can examine rolls of microfilm containing original census data from all available censuses (up to 1930) and other official data.

In addition to searching for records, most online resources also contain message boards and forums, designated by surname or specific geographical location. You can enter a query about an individual or branch of your family, and find other people researching the same name. It’s quite possible to make connections with distant cousins in this manner, and ultimately to obtain copies of records or photos that they might possess.

Another, extremely useful reason to begin your research online is that many sites have lists of volunteers who will photograph cemeteries or landmarks, look up records in their local courthouses, or complete other types of research where they live. This allows you to gain valuable artifacts without having to travel. People in the genealogy community tend to help each other out, and these volunteers will often do the research and mail it to you for only the cost of copies, film development, and postage. Just make sure to give specific questions, not instructions like, “Find everything you can on the O’Connell family.”

A cautionary note: like anything else on the Internet, the information presented is only as good as the person who submitted it. Many people post their family trees with little or no verification (especially those who claim links to royal families), so use caution before integrating this information into your own data. However, this warning doesn’t apply to official, digitized versions of government documents – like census, Social Security or other official vital information – whose accuracy can generally be depended upon. Also, many of the trees uploaded to the Web by researchers contain contact data, so you should always email the user and ask specific questions about their research.

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