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by Stevi Deter

IT SHOULDN'T BE SURPRISING that the genealogical community has made effective use of the world wide web. Their discipline consists of finding connections and sharing information; the www is an ideal forum for these goals. In fact, deciding to start your search for your family on the web can result in a bewildering feast of information. The first question becomes, where do I start?

The first step is to choose a software program to use to enter and organize your information. There are several excellent offerings, and you could probably spend years just sifting through all the choices. One major feature to look for is Internet integration - can you do searches of web databases right from the program? These sorts of features should be able to use the information you've already entered to narrow down search results and identify the most promising leads.

When I began my search, I started with a book published by my great aunt and a stack of letters and other notes I had accumulated through the years. I eventually chose Family Tree Maker from Broderbund Software to help me with my search. At the time, I thought the interface was easy to use, and the program came with a nice collection of CD's to start with. Since then, two major updates have been released, and FTM now has excellent integration with the web, directly from the program. I've found more leads than I've been able to follow through the online searches the program has done for me. In addition, FTM has facilities for publishing information directly to their web site. This allows others doing research to find you, instead of you just looking for them.

I haven't evaluated the other major competitors to this product in quite awhile, so I'm not necessarily recommending this as the program for you. The key is to find an interface that is easy for you to understand, as well as tools for documenting important information like sources. If you decide to start with one, you may want to initially restrict the data you enter to information that can be exported to one of the major data formats, such as GEDCOM. This will allow you to change your mind later.

Having chosen your software tool, the first task is to enter what you already know - information about you and your immediate family.

Once this is entered, it's time to hit the web. First, make sure your information is available on the web. I've received several very informative contacts from relations doing web searches on their own who found my web page with my research information. I've probably gotten more information from them than I have from just searching the web. This is the power of doing genealogy on the web, and one of the attractions of genealogy in general - establishing contacts with people to share information directly.

Once you have put your information on the web, it's time to decide the first web sites to look through. If you've chosen a major software package, you probably have a lot of resources available to start with on the manufacturer's web site. Do an initial search with the tools available with the product to see what kind of information you find. You may stumble immediately upon a direct hit - someone else doing research on a different branch of your family tree.

Once you start making these sorts of find, you have to decide how much information you want to incorporate from other sources. Family trees can get big rapidly; grafting on the research of someone else can make yours really bloat up. You may want to narrow your documentation to direct ancestors, for example.

As you explore your initial set of hits, keep track of the sites you uncover. You'll often stumble onto resources like bulletin boards for your surname. These will be excellent places to return when you have gathered the most easily found information. You will be able to post specific questions: anybody else looking for my great-grandmother, who was in Wyoming in the mid-1800s? This expands upon the benefits of posting your findings on a web site; having the information out there about what you are looking for will lead other researchers tracking the same people to you.

Don't expect immediate responses to these sorts of questions. What happens often is six months later, when you have forgotten about the board altogether, you will get an e-mail from a distant relation, telling you what they know about your ancestor.

If you want to become a serious genealogist, you will eventually hit a point where you've collected all the information already available on the web. Then it will be time to turn to the more traditional methods of research - obtaining records, tracking down people's movements. The web can still help, however. There are many groups who do things like trade research time with one another - you find my grandmother's birth certificate, because she lived in your town, and I'll find somebody for you who lived in my town. This sort of networking can decrease costs and speed up your search, since you won't have to wait until you can make a specific research trip.

As you find information about your ancestors on the web, you will probably also want to contact the providers of that information. After all, these people are usually relations, however distant the connection may be. They have probably collected stories about your common ancestor, and more importantly, connections to others doing research about your family.

It's making these sorts of connections that makes genealogical research so fun. As you exhaust the immediate positive search results, finding information will be come more and more challenging. Each time you put another piece of the puzzle in place it's exciting. But it's even more exciting to make connections with the living parts of the tree you uncover.

In the past year, I have been contacted by two distant cousins. They knew my great-grandparents and grandparents, whom I never had the opportunity to meet. Now I have the chance to hear stories from people who knew them even before my father was born and learn fascinating things about them.

Based on web searches alone, I have managed to trace one line of my family back to the beginning of the 1600s. While that's exciting, the reason I'm really glad I started when I did was being found by my cousins, who have shared with me information about ancestors whose names I knew when I started. But before hearing from these cousins, I had no idea who these people were as individuals.

And they say the web is a cold, impersonal place.

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