Following on from my last post (Genealogy in the age of coronavirus- Part 1, Interviewing relatives and more…), this week I am talking about researching your family history online. Whilst staying at home, online resources are something that we can easily explore.
When I was researching material for this post, it became very clear that I could be writing about online resources for weeks! There are so many, relating to many different areas of genealogy and family history. If there is a topic you are interested in, there is likely an online resource to match. So instead of trying to fit everything in, I want to share with you some online resources that I have found interesting.
The Commercial sites
For those who are just starting out or are family history veterans, websites like Ancestry, FindMyPast and FamilySearch might already be familiar. They hold large collections of records, from Census and Baptism records to newspapers, military and passenger lists. If you have subscriptions to sites like Ancestry, FindMyPast or TheGenealogist and MyHeritage, now is a great time to familiarise yourself with what they actually do have. You never know when you might find a really useful record set that you didn’t know about before. These websites are also constantly updating their collections. In my own family tree research, I have discovered that Ancestry holds Somerset (England) Baptisms, Marriages and Burials. But if I want to look at Baptisms, Marriages and Burials for Radnorshire (for my Welsh side), I have to go to FindMyPast. It is definitely worth getting to know which sites hold the records you need.
FamilySearch by comparison, is a free resource. It also holds much more than you might think. Not only can you search various UK and World records, but their Research Wiki page is incredibly useful. If you are unsure of what records can be accessed in a particular area (especially online), the Research Wiki can help. Some time ago, I was researching some Welsh ancestors who had travelled to Pennsylvania (USA) and later returned to Wales. FamilySearch was able to give me a better idea of what records I would be able to find about the family’s time in the USA. The Luzerne County page (which has been updated since I last used it), told me all sorts of useful information. For example, I discovered that I would not be able to find a record of Civil Births for my family’s children as they were born before Civil Registration began in the county (1893).
Another reason for exploring FamilySearch, is the records that have been digitised but not yet indexed. To find them, look under ‘Records’ and click on a specific area of the world and they should be under ‘Image-only Historical Records.’ In situations like the current one (when we have more time than usual), it might be worth having a look to see what can’t be found on other sites like Ancestry and FindMyPast. Having said that, FindMyPast have a similar facility for some of their records. So have a look there too. It might take some time (as it means scrolling through each page of a record), but you never know what you might find.
What else can I find?
So what other online resources are there? Well, that depends on what you are looking for. To give your research some context, how about map resources? The National Library of Scotland holds many different maps online. I recently saw the evolution of where I live, all the way from the 1880s to the 1940s. Tracking the changes over a period of time can give you a sense of how your ancestors would have experienced the area. If you live in or have ancestors from the west of England, then the Know Your Place-West website is very interesting. It covers Somerset, Gloucestershire, Bristol, Devon and Wiltshire. You can see various layers including:
- Public contributions (e.g. drawings and paintings of local landmarks)
- Entries from the Historic Environment record
- Boundaries for local authorities
- Local history and gazetteer entries
These layers are overlaid on a map, which shows both a modern and a historical one. You can view them one at a time or side by side. In the area around my road, I can see Second World War air raid shelters marked, an 18th century turnpike and a Roman Road and settlement. Also try Old Maps Online for earlier examples.
Perhaps you have found an ancestor who was an important person or of a high standing in society? For British genealogists, this is where you should not forget the power of your library card. If you are a member of a library, then you can use your library card to login to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website. This allows you to access all of the biographies on the site. I recently found an entry for a client’s ancestor, who was a Victorian surgeon and social reformer. If you have Welsh ancestors, then consider looking at the Dictionary of Welsh Biography. This is completely free to use and allows you to browse by surname or search for a specific person. A lot of non-conformist ministers are included, so it is worth a look if your ancestor was a minister too.
The History of Parliament Online website can also be useful if an ancestor was a Member of Parliament. Not all periods are available yet, but you can get some biographical details and information about their time in Parliament. I will be writing more about this resource and how it has helped me in my own research soon!
The good news about the biographical sources above, is that they show full references. This allows you to go and find the original source of the information. Remember, it is always preferable to see the original where you can. As a researcher, you can also be more confident about the articles you read when they are properly referenced. You know that the author has been diligent in their research.
Another thing to think about when researching remotely right now, is any special access organisations might be giving because of the circumstances. The National Archives in Kew are working on giving free access to their online records. The British Newspaper Archive has a special offer on right now too (useful if you don’t have a FindMyPast subscription). Explore what your local library has to offer, whether that is e-books, audio books or magazines. TheGenealogist is offering a three month free starter package on their website and some local archives and family history societies already offer some records freely. Check out your local societies (or ones local to your ancestors) to see what they already have.
…and have some fun!
Finally, a fun website I have found is www.drawshield.net. The website offers resources to help you learn about heraldry and I have used it to help identity coats of arms from blazons I’ve already found (drawing them is not my strong point!). But the fun bit is the facility to create your own shield. It gives you the option to create one from the various parts that can be used in blazoning. The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert because the site shows examples of each part when you choose them. The possibilities are endless and it’s a fun activity- perhaps a way to get your children interested. As the website cautions though, using a heraldic device is often restricted by many countries and there can be copyright considerations too.
I hope you have some fun exploring what the internet has to offer. If you are looking for something specific, then many of the family history magazines have guides to good websites. Don’t forget that places like The National Archives (Kew) also have some very useful research guides on their websites. They contain a wealth of information about lots of different family history topics.
NB: All information correct at time of writing (Apr 2020).
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