Monday 15 April 2024

Leaving the Past to the Future 4: Digital Sources

In previous posts in this series, I have mentioned my personal, digitized family history files, genealogical software programs and my paperless habits.

Sourcing information is, of course, the most important thing we do in building our family trees. In years past many family historians visited local LDS Family History Centers (now called FamilySearch Centers), or the main library in Salt Lake City, where microfilms of old parish registers, for example, could be borrowed to search for information about births, marriages and deaths.

Or people wrote letters to archives, museums and country record offices for any information they might have on local communities or people, as my aunt did in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Or they may have consulted Online Parish Clerks in the UK like me or volunteers providing similar assistance in other parts of the world.

The world has moved on. Now we mostly review data in digital form on major genealogical websites, like Ancestry, FindMyPast The Genealogist, MyHeritage, or ScotlandsPeople, both mainly through subscriptions. If you cannot afford the fees for accessing the commercial databases, you might find them using the computers set up at municipal libraries, the FamilySearch Centers or local family history society offices. Some people wait for those special free days offered by some commercial site providers, for example, around Armistice Day to look at military documents or St. Patrick’s Day for Irish records.

But there is a growing number of other websites where information about ancestors can be freely found in digital format, especially important for those of us with limited shelf space or a disinclination for printed material.

Helen Osborn, an English professional genealogist, wrote an excellent piece for the November 2022 issue of Who Do You Think You Are magazine titled, Build your own Digital Reference Library. In it she documented where to find and how to access family history information books on some of the major and minor websites and reminding us of some sources we may have used in the past but forgotten.

Among those highlighted were libraries where you can acquire or just borrow books: the library at familysearch, Google Books, HathiTrust, and Internet Archive. Helen is based in the UK so many of her sources for documents or transcripts are also there: specialist societies like the Surtees Society, the British Record Society and the Harleian Society; local, civic or country record societies such as the London Record Society, British History Online, Bristol Record Society,  the Huguenot Society, or the Navy Records Society.

In the UK’s The National Archives has dozens of published calendars listing important historical records of use to genealogists. Information provided by similar groups in many other countries can I’m sure be found. In the US, use the services provided by their National Archives.

Digital journals are important sources of material that can help the search for ancestors. JSTOR has an immense library of academic studies that can be read online or accessed through a private subscription or a local library. Universities and professional organizations offer publications of all kinds. You need only search for subjects or localities of interest to come up with relevant groups or articles.

Some other sources I have discovered and used include: the Digital Public Library of America, the British Library, Project Gutenberg and the Smithsonian Libraries. Closer to home is the Library and Archives Canada.

Newspapers are a valuable resource for information about people and events. I frequently use The British Newspaper Archive, (by Ancestry), Peel’s Prairie Provinces now also part of Internet Archive and Chronicling America at the Library of Congress.

If your interest is in Medieval Genealogy, then try Some Notes on Medieval English Genealogy. If it is in Scotland consult the digital resources of the National Library of Scotland, especially for maps. The Statistical Accounts of Scotland will give you substantial information about the geography, people and economy of the country during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

The National Genealogical Society (US) has a list of Eighteen Important Free Websites for Genealogy Research. FamilySearch, already mentioned for books, has a whole webpage dedicated to Using the internet for family history research. Check it out.

I still recommend contacting local record offices, archives, libraries and family history societies, for material pertinent to your research. If you cannot get to their offices, consider hiring a local consultant to search for and make copies of documents. Consider joining a major genealogical society like the Society for Genealogists to access millions of records online.

We live in a digital world now. There is no going back. But that is a good thing as we can now access millions of books and other published material right from our (or someone else’s) computers.

I have listed just a few digital sources here. I know there are dozens of others.

Whatever your interest is, location you want to know more about, family or person you want information about, first try a Google search. My recent search for “genealogy digital sources” brought up over 53 million hits. Narrowing it down to “free genealogy digital sources” still resulted in over 39 million sites. That’s a pretty big starting point.