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Learning Centre


Virtual Ancestors?
Internet Research Tips for Beginning Genealogists
By Terry and Jim Willard

Every week, hundreds of people discover a new pastime—collecting ancestors. And the computer may be the main reason for this phenomenal growth.

The computer is almost as common in homes today as a television or a telephone. Improvements are constantly being made to popular genealogy software programs making them easier to use and making electronic storage capabilities much more efficient. And finally, nothing has revolutionized the hobby in quite the way that the Internet has.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people wanting to learn more about their family history who just aren’t prepared to tap into the full potential of computerized genealogy research. For some, it’s because of underdeveloped computer skills; for others, it’s due to unrealistic expectations about the Internet. However, developing an understanding of some basic computer and genealogy skills can help beginner genealogists maximize their electronic research efforts.

Unrealistic Expectations
One of the most common problems for beginners involves unrealistic expectations as to what they will find on the Internet. Whether this is due to advertising, television programs, or testimonials from friends as to how easy it is, some people seem to think there is nothing to computerized genealogy research. They believe that, like a CSI tech, they have only to type in a name, and their entire family history spanning the past two hundred years will appear.

Nothing is further from the truth.

There is no magic to genealogical research on the World Wide Web—while resources are available at your fingertips, you may still have to work to find the answers you need. And, in turn, while you might be able to locate a family tree online, you’ll still want to document every detail as carefully as possible.


Lack of basic computer skills
The second most common problem for beginners is a lack of computer skills necessary to effectively perform Internet searches. To see how your skills measure up, read through the following list and rate yourself on your ability to perform each task. As you read, ask yourself: “Do I know . . .”

  • How to use the scroll bar?
  • How to use the Up and Down arrows on the keyboard?
  • How and when to point, click, double click, or drag?
  • How to get to a website?
  • How to use the Back and Forward buttons on the Internet browser?
  • How to add Favorites or Bookmarks?
  • How to create a organize Favorites or Bookmarks?
  • How to use Search History?

Improving Your Effort
Once you are comfortable with basic computer skills, the following more advanced skills will further improve your Internet searches:

  1. Master the art of skimming a Web page. Internet pages are extremely busy—there tends to be an enormous amount of content on any given page. To be an effective online researcher, you need to cut through the irrelevant content and find the information and links that might prove valuable. Also, know how to discriminate between ads and content. Beginners can easily waste valuable time clicking on what seems like an important link that turns out to be an ad. If you’re using a dial-up connection, that lost time can be enough to discourage further research.

    Tip: Use the Stop button on the browser tool bar to interrupt an incorrect Web page while loading. Click the Back button to return to the original page.

  2. Learn how to copy and paste. Many times information found on the Internet needs to be entered into a genealogy software program or a word processing program. Once you are comfortable with selecting text, practice copying and pasting that text into the appropriate program.

    Tip: After selecting the desired text, point anywhere in the highlighted area and click the right mouse button. Choose Copy from the resulting drop-down menu. Use the right mouse click again to Paste the information into your desired program.

  3. Utilize the Find feature. Choosing Find (located on the Edit menu in Internet Explorer or on the Search menu in Netscape Navigator) opens a search box. Type in the text you are searching for on that page—a family surname for example—and press Enter. If the desired text is on the Web page you are viewing, it will appear highlighted on the screen. To find the next reference to the same text, choose Find Next.

    Tip: Try the keyboard shortcut for Find, Ctrl+f.

  4. Know how to control the printer with the following printing skills:

    • Printing a single page.
    • Printing a portion of a page (selection).
    • Printing a range of pages.
    • Stopping an unwanted print job.

    Tip: If you've ever started to print some seemingly important information related to your research only to discover that it's forty-three pages instead of just the one that you wanted, you'll understand the importance of stopping a print job.

    So how do you do it? Try the following: If you're using a computer running Windows, go to the Control Panel and choose Printers and Other Hardware (use the Start menu to access the Control Panel). Select your printer, then select the document you want to cancel and chose Cancel from the Documents menu or Cancel All Documents from the Printer menu.

    The other, less technical and less reliable option is to turn off the printer and remove the paper supply. Remember, however, not to grab the paper as its entering the printer--this can hurt the paper advance mechanism. While this option takes fewer steps, most of today's printers retain documents in memory, which means that once you turn the printer back on your unwanted document may continue to print anyway.

Other tips that will make your search more productive include the following:

  • Repeat searches. New content is added to the Internet every day. A search that produced no results one day could prove very different in a week or a month.
  • Use multiple search engines. No single search engine can cover the entire Web. Try using the same search terms in two separate search engines to see how different your results can be.
  • Learn to search message boards. Many websites have message boards where researchers can post queries. Reading through the answers to other people’s questions may provide you with the information you are seeking.
  • Use alternate spellings. Remember, family names are not always spelled the same way. Try as many different spellings as possible in your surname searches and use Soundex for phonetic searches whenever it’s a search option.
  • Change the order of the names you are searching. Some search engines look only for the words you enter in the order they are entered. Try reversing the word order, even on names, to see if you receive more results.
  • Learn which words work best. Sometimes using a + or – sign can refine your search terms; other times the words and or or can help. Learn which approach works best with your favorite search engine.
  • Use the Help menu. Check the Help menu in each new search engine you use as it may recommend additional ways of making your searches more successful.
  • Take a class or join a computer users group. The more general information you can acquire, the better you will be at locating ancestors on the Internet.

Good computer skills alone are not enough to guaranty successful online research—you also need good genealogy skills. Listed below are four fundamental skills that will help any genealogist:

  • Be organized.
  • Have a clearly-defined research objective.
  • Document the location of any information found.
  • Keep a To-Do list of possible future sites to visit.

Remember, there is no single approach that will lead to successful online genealogy research. Be open to all possibilities, and in no time you will have more information than you ever thought possible.


Terry and Jim Willard hosted the ten-part PBS Ancestors series. They have researched their family history fifteen generations back on both sides.

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