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March 7, 2012

Internet Genealogy - Friend or Foe?

The internet has brought us many benefits genealogy-wise. I have been researching for more than 30 years and I remember well having to scroll through screen after screen of microfilmed records looking for that ancestor on a census or in a church register.

Now we're lucky. Data is indexed and brought online at an amazing speed! How wonderful to be able to plug in an ancestor's name and get dozens of "hits". You can find actual records or connect with another descendant.

I can make contact with a "cousin" in another part of the world. Perhaps they put a family tree on a website and I find it and realize we share a common ancestor. How easy to make contact and share data and photographs.

The internet has made the world smaller and easily accessible. And this is good for genealogists.

The internet also levels the playing field. Anyone can participate in genealogy research - those who have strict budgets and might find it too expensive to go out to an archive or library to research can do it for the cost of an internet connection. A bit more money in the budget allows subscriptions to sites with newspapers, census, and other invaluable records. Anyone with physical challenges can much more easily obtain genealogy records with the internet.

Internet genealogy allows a newcomer to easily develop their family tree and this almost instant gratification can lead to the development of a passion for genealogy - always a good thing in my book!

We can use Google Street view to see where an ancestor lived, or visit a far-off archive to read about the history of a country an ancestor lived in.

We can consult online books at Guttenberg or Google Books or Internet Archives. We can attend online classes and conferences with instant streaming and webinars and podcasts.

There are many many good positive outcomes of Internet genealogy.

But the speed and ease of the internet has brought us some negative outcomes too. Bad genealogy and mediocre unsourced research is easily obtained and passed on via the internet.

Myths and incorrect genealogies are perpetuated rapidly and are easily spread through the genealogical community by social media and online forums.

Something I call surface or superficial genealogy seems to be a by-product of the internet. What I mean by this is that people can rather quickly grab names and dates and plug them into their tree without analyzing what they've found. They can gloss over what they are finding without doing an in-depth study to make sure they have the right facts and the correct ancestor!

Another negative outcome of the ease of internet genealogy is that many researchers don't seem to realize that not everything is online. Yes new databases are coming online at an amazing pace, both free and fee-based, but there are many obscure records hidden in dusty basements, archives, museums, libraries, land record offices and churches.  These records may never come online! I sense that some newer genealogists haven't realized that there is an other world of offline research that needs to be tackled too.

Don't get me wrong. I love having the internet and sitting in my comfy chair with millions of facts at my fingertips. But I perceive some negative aspects of internet genealogy and they worry me.

What are your thoughts on this?


Anonymous said...

Internet genealogy is a good friend if you treat it as a starting point. Sometimes it is better to start with something rather than nothing if only to use the resource to disprove a theory. Would recommend looking at original documents wherever possible to ensure transcription errors have not infiltrated a family tree that you have copied from the internet. Transcribers often do not have the local knowledge required to accurately record towns and counties.Together with adverse spelling of fore and surnames. Friend if treated with caution!

Cousin Russ said...


Great post with lots to consider.

I think that because we have access to more "stuff", I have found that I can get a more complete view of my ancestor. I don't have to go to 5 places to get that picture.

BUT, I have found that I am more prepared to visit a repository to get those original documents, or a better handle on what I am missing and hope to find when I get there.

I have made more successful trips to a couple of repositories because I was prepared, and knew what I had (from online sources) so I knew what I was looking for or a confirmation of data that I already had.

As Anonymous said "internet genealogy is a good friend".

Thank you for your post.


Annette Fulford said...

Great article Lorine! I love the internet for genealogy but I'm also aware of its shortcomings. I started researching 20 years ago using microfilm at the Family History centre near me. It has made me appreciate all the wonderful databases that are now online. I see people eagerly upload their info at Ancestry but what happens when they no longer subscribe to the service? I also see them make lots of mistakes in adding that info. You must verify everything you do find. Only a small portion of records are online. I love databases but sometimes you have to be persistant in order to find what you are looking for. They are not perfectly indexed. Most beginners are not aware of this and get frustrated when they don't find what they are looking for.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Agree totally with "Anonymous" who said "Treat it as a starting point"

I think the negative aspect though is that some (many?) genealogists treat it as the end point!

Russ your point about the internet making it much easier to get a complete picture of an ancestor is a good one. And yes, it allows you to prepare for an offline hunt. That's a very good point. I only hope that most genealogists recognize that they need to do that.

I love the internet for many reasons, not the least of which is doing genealogy. But I have concerns about the next internet generation when it comes to genealogy.

Annette love your point about verifying everything found online! So true and so necessary!

Michelle Goodrum said...

I like Russ's point about the internet helping you become more prepared for onsite research. So true.

In the foe column, I find there is so much stuff rapidly accessible that it take quite a bit of discipline and resolve to go through the information, correlate and analyze. It's easy to fall into the hunter gather mode.

Unknown said...

I would add that the cause of superficial genealogies is due to the publisher not being thorough, not the Internet's, not that I think that is what your were implying.

I would also add that I've only been at this for about 13 years, and have not yet made it out the door so to speak. I have found that one of the many advantages of publishing a well documented genealogy is that researchers come out of the woodwork to provide me with primary documents for which I am eternally grateful. As you say, if I were to visit archives and repositories I would more than likely find even more valuable information.

Mariann Regan said...

You have written a well-balanced analysis. The research on the Internet is like low-hanging fruit. You almost have to visit there first, to get a sense of the breadth of the area you're researching. The information is so available as to be irresistible. But nothing can replace face-to-face research, such as taking oral histories, talking with relatives who know old stories, visiting the sites of important events in your family's history, talking with the librarians at the small local libraries, or even visiting graveyards. As Janie says in "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston, "You have to GO there to KNOW there."

Martin Lewis O'Neill-March said...

The Internet, as I see it, is both a friend and foe for Genealogy. It has been amazing in helping me as I'm not able to visit Archives & Libraries across the Country as much as I'd like to and I wouldn't have been able to do as much of my Family History without it but as well I believe you have to use it with caution as not everything you find is accurate and there are records that you might never see if you don't visit Archives, Libraries etc when/if you can as like you said there may be records that might never be put online and in my opinion there is nothing like seeing and touching (where possible) original documents.

CallieK said...

It's very interesting that you bring this up because I recently had a similar thought process from a slightly different perspective. I began my genealogy quest online but because I was new and didn't have money to burn, I found many free resources and got quite a bit of information compiled initially. But eventually I ran into roadblocks - some information that couldn't be found (or so I thought) for free online and not having the ability to do much research in person, so I succumbed and signed up for Ancestry. At first I only had a Canadian subscription but again I wanted more access and I've had a world subscription for quite some time. And it is wonderful- I've come leaps and bounds, I've connected with people all over the world and when I finally ventured into to handson research I had some great starting points to work from. But somewhere along the line I realize I have become dependent on it. I stopped keeping my own notes, I was rarely if ever looking for other possible sources and I started to believe that if it wasn't online there it wasn't anywhere. Until I discovered your blog and the wonderful resources you've compiled. It was like a wake-up call all over again and I realize I've barely scratched the surface! So to you and others like you, who've laid the groundwork(and done the legwork) I am extremely grateful (and thankfully the internet allows me to say so!

BDM said...

Good post .. can't be repeated often enough :)
A corollary is the immediate awareness one must cultivate about the information found on online family "trees." Sharing is good. Duplicating dubious, unsourced information is bad. :)

Smadar said...

Great post Lorine! I love Mariann's analogy to a fruit tree. After all, we are building trees! I was in Mexico when I started so access to records on line was extremely vital. I think what I accomplished from Mexico would have been impossible without the internet. I agree with Tim's comment about the "publisher" of the poorly researched information is the culprit, not the internet (a wide spread problem on the internet in many fields). The amount of original documents available on the internet is amazing. I found a form on the Yad Vashem website, filled out by my grandfather. He signed it and seeing his handwriting made me cry.
It seems to me the problem is often generated by those who are novices (which I still consider myself amongst them), who don't document their sources well. I think one way to combat this problem is for the various genealogy website, to send out an introductory e-mail with tips for new members on how to build their tree and the importance of documenting.

Kirsty F Wilkinson said...

Internet genealogy is fantastic and personally I've found records of my family that it would have been very difficult for me to find any other way, for example people recorded under a surname I wouldn't have known to look for (but could find by searching for first names only).

However, as someone who began tracing their family when the records available online were very limited, I do think that the old way of doing things (i.e. in archives, libraries and record offices) helped you to learn good genealogy technique. Generally, you would find one record at a time, which you would then analyse in order to figure out what records you needed next and where you would find them. These days simply putting your ancestor's name into a database can reveal a whole host of records and facts, but you may have only limited understanding of where this information has come from and what it means.

I think internet genealogy requires new skills, most importantly we need to learn to use information intelligently and discriminately. Few of us would go back to doing genealogy the old way, but it is important to be aware that if we rely wholly on online resources we may be missing part of the picture of our ancestors' lives.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

There are so many excellent points made in these comments!

Michelle, love your comment about discipline and resolve. Very important to remember that, thanks for reminding us

Tim, very true. Thomas MacEntee said something similiar on Facebook where he saw this post. He commented that we can't blame the technology we should blame the user. Good point!

Mariann, Thanks for adding yet another little saying to my list with your "Low-Hanging Fruit" analogy. So true!!

Martin, I'm with you on this one. I too see the Internet as both friend and foe. I just want genealogists to be aware of that and to watch for the foe moves.

Callie, so glad you joined in with your unique perspective! Your comments are so well put and gave me food for thought as I'd not considered some of your points such as growing too dependent on the 'net.

I think I'm guilty of that myself! Thanks for making me think about it and become aware

BDM, we can always count on you to summarize so well. Another wonderful "saying" to add to my notes - that sharing is good, but sharing badly sourced or unsourced genealogy is bad

Smadar,Great point about those of us who are more experienced stepping up to the plate and becoming mentors to newcomers.

Kristy, Well said! I didn't raise that point that by limiting ourselves to online research we're missing out on greater depth in our ancestors' lives. Thanks so much for contributing to the discussion!

Anonymous said...

When I began my searches, I definitely went for original records by traveling to Historical Societies, State, City & County Archives, Colleges, Churches, cemeteries etc, to name a few. It was a challenge, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Now its easy to copy from someone else's work or from other records online. It only takes one person to make an error. When others copy the info, it can snowball into a lot of misinformation in family trees.
The transcription of original records online can also be a problem if the information was misinterpreted & posted incorrectly.

Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

Lorine, I feel strongly about the need to go Beyond the Internet and this year I've been posting a weekly topic on this theme. It's on

I too love the internet and feel isolated without it, but I still love the challenge of tracking original documents. I don't entirely agree with Russ that it's possible to get a more complete picture of an ancestor online...I personally feel it leaves big gaps. I'm glad I started out pre-computers, pre-internet as it's given me a wider skill range and thinking range.