Sunday, June 30, 2013

Starting in Genealogy--for Free

Genealogy has changed significantly since I started researching in the 1990s.  Instead of having to travel to an archives branch to try to find boat records and census records on microfilm, you can find many of those documents sitting at home.  The internet has made a lot of basic genealogy doable from home, which is wonderful.  Many people have heard of because of their advertising campaign, but Ancestry costs money (unless you cancel before completing an initial 14-day free trial), and until you have the basics down on your family, it could be overwhelming.  Ancestry is great (and I do have a subscription), but wait on it until you exhaust some of the other free sites.

A better starting place is FamilySearch.  This site is entirely free (although they do ask that you set up a free account to see some of the original documents).  They have a lot of records, and they add more all the time.  You can search for family members in census records, boat records, and more.  Many states (Ohio is one I've used a lot) have all of their vital records (birth, marriage, death certificates) on FamilySearch; these are great resources for finding parents' names and helping to move back another generation.  You can also search their catalog for additional (not online) documents that they have on microfilm and can be delivered to a local Family History Center for you to peruse.

Depending on where you family is from and places they've lived, there are a variety of sites that are specific to locations, religion, and types of documents.  Cyndi's List collates all the genealogy sites online and bins into various categories.  It's amazing how many sites are out there, and Cyndi seems to have all of them.

For Jewish genealogy, JewishGen is invaluable.  This site is also free (with registration required), although it's run through donations.  It can allow you to search for towns where Jews lived in Europe and can help you locate your family's original shtetl (village).  Once on a town page, you can see other people who are researching that area--and the family names they are looking for.  Check if someone else is researching your name, and perhaps you can link up your research with theirs.  Also make sure to add your family names there so others can contact you in the future by listing their names and towns in the Jewish Genealogy Family Finder.  Jewishgen's huge list of databases is the place to go.  It could lead you to birth records of a great grandparents in Europe.  Or of relatives who were killed in the Holocaust.  Or who knows what else.  They are adding more records all the time, so check back periodically.

Do you have old family documents in a language that you can't read?  Post them on Jewishgen's Viewmate.  Volunteers who read various languages will help you to translate documents.  I've had people help me with documents in Russian, French, and German.  I've translated others' Hebrew documents and lots of gravestones.  If you don't get help the first try (everything's posted for 7 days), you can have it reposted; I generally get translations by the second posting.

You can also sign up for JewishGen's Special Interest Group (SIG) mailing lists, which are free.  You can post your family's information to a list and get it sent out to hundreds or thousands of readers who have family from the same part of the world as you.  Perhaps you'll find a relative or someone who can help with a question.

And I know I said not to start with, but they do have a ton of free databases.  Make sure to see what's there before jumping to one of their paid subscriptions.  You will have to set up an account, but until you put in a credit card, you can search their free databases and build your family tree on the site.  (You can also upload images found on other sites and link them to the person they apply to.)

Do you have other good sites?  Please leave them in the comments.
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  1. It's quite likely that you can access all databases at the main branch of your public library.

  2. You can also access free at local Family History Centers: