Over recent years, advances in technology have transformed the world of genealogy. Dr Harry Brown explores how to go about expanding your knowledge of your family tree, as well as the dangers of genetic testing kits.
There has been a growing interest in genealogy over the last few years. This exploding interest has in part been fuelled by the supportive and growing technological support provided by computer software and hardware as well as the incredible contribution made by the Internet. During the Covid-19 lockdown, when people were looking for something interesting to do, many started looking at their family tree and checking out the wealth of online genealogy resources.
The difficulty is knowing where to start and it is easy to become overwhelmed by the huge number of resources that are available. The first thought should be about how you can assemble and store this data that you start collecting. Because your data can very quickly become too abundant and potentially unstructured if kept on paper, you should commit your data to a computer programme. This effectively produces a clever personal database that can do lots of smart tricks once you input the information into the genealogy programme.
Your next decision is to use one of the many online programmes or software that sits on your computer which are easily available. There are pros and cons of each method (online or stored on your computer) but I personally use a UK based software offering called Family Historian. I have been using the programme for years and I think it is great for my purposes. In fact, I have written a review of the latest version of this excellent programme which operates offline on my computer.
However, there is a big choice out there, so do some research yourself and find what method suits you. A good review of some of the products which are available can be found here.
Where to begin?
Once you have done a basic family tree on a computer programme (either on your computer or in an online resource) and exhausted your knowledge of what you know personally and from relatives, then you want to start searching. This is where the fun begins as there are a huge number of resources out there both online and offline; the difficulty is to know where to start. You could try general and well-known Internet resources such as Google, Facebook or Linked In by simply searching names. These general resources are more helpful when you are searching for a person with an unusual name.
After some general searching, you will be looking for more specific information depending on your circumstances. One excellent starting point is Cyndi’s list, an index of internet genealogy resources which are catalogued into categories, making it easy to drill down into an area which may be relevant to your situation. There are incredibly more than 317,000 links, so there is bound to be something that interests you here. This huge catalogue of links can easily assist you in your genealogy quest, making this is a site you will want to visit again and again. It is free, easy to use and contains a rich treasure trove of genealogy information, however, some of these catalogued target resources may be behind a paywall.
There are also plenty of commercial sites which, for a relatively modest (although that depends on your outlook) monthly fee, offer access to a large number of databases which can provide some really useful data. Examples include: Ancestry, Find My Past, My Heritage and The Genealogist, all of which offer a 14-day free trial, while Family Search is free to use. If you are new to this concept, it is worth checking out the commercial sites to see what they have to offer and whether they fit your needs. This Which? Report may also help you to decide.
Don’t forget your local public library service which may help you navigate through the huge range of online services, often at no charge to registered users. For example, my local public library offers a free online library version of Ancestry, access to a free archive of newspapers (including 19th century papers), and support from the library service, all via their heritage section. If you live in England and Wales, then have a look at the government’s web section on local library services which will give you the contact details of your local public library service.
Additionally, some public libraries may offer access to online digital genealogy magazines which come out every month. Again, this is free for registered users of the public library. The excellent app and website Readly, offers membership for £7.99 per month (currently, with your first six weeks free) and gives you access to thousands of newspapers and magazines including monthly new editions of family history magazines as well as an archive. These genealogy publications are full of advice, case histories, ideas and inspirations; plenty of guidance can be found in some of these excellent magazines. There are also some brilliant podcasts out there which can help you with your genealogy research. Cyndi’s list has a particularly good collection, which you can view here.
The risks of genetic testing kits
Commercial and direct-to-consumer genetic testing has become a growing trend over recent years. These tests have the ability to find potential DNA matches to you, resulting in additions to your family tree. However, beware that there are privacy risks and you may be at risk to find that family relations are not what you thought. You may also uncover that you have a genetic risk of developing a disease that you did not know anything about, and that could have implications for you and your family. As healthcare professionals, you may even be consulted about this important subject and its implications. An excellent article on this topic appeared in the British Medical Journal, read it here.
Despite the potential pitfalls of direct-to-consumer DNA testing, there are undoubtedly benefits (there is a good review of these services here). What is crucial is that the user is fully appraised about the pros and cons of undertaking DNA family history research. A good example of the implications of results of DNA testing can be found by watch this amazing story that may bring a tear to your eye.
Don’t forget that although technology under pins a huge amount of family research, there are other methods of help. For example, you could employ a genealogist which you have found and checked out online. There is also a genealogy shop which is based in the Yorkshire Dales and states on its website: “The only high street genealogy shop in the UK offering a wide range of services to family historians.” There are plenty of genealogy resources out there which can keep you occupied for many years to come. Go and have a look!
If you have any suggestions of useful websites, apps or equipment to highlight and share, we would be delighted to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org (editor GM Journal).
Dr Harry Brown is a retired GP, Leeds and Medical Editor of GM Journal