Porter, Pamela Boyer & Amy Johnson Crow. Online Roots: How to Discover Your Family’s History and Heritage with the Power of the Internet.

Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 2003. 310p., softcover. Index, illus. $19.99. ISBN 1-4016-0021-2.

Regular readers of my columns and articles will know that I cast a chary eye on books that purport to introduce the reader to the miracle of “Internet genealogy.” I’ve read and reviewed dozens of such titles from the viewpoint of a researcher of more than thirty years’ experience (beginning in the days of spiral notebooks and 3×5 cards) who is also a thoroughly wired computer geek and a heavy user of the Internet. I have long maintained that online research is simply the (sometimes) more convenient continuance by other means of traditional tried and true methods. There is no “royal road to genealogy,” no universal database from which you can immediately download your entire lineage back to Adam. Most of the books I’ve seen fall into two categories: Introductions to traditional genealogy with a thin icing of information on genealogical software and Internet how-to, and “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Computers and the Internet”-type volumes that include a few specific genealogical applications as an afterthought. There are a few, like Elizabeth Powell Crowe’s Genealogy Online: Researching Your Roots (1998), Matt Helm’s Genealogy Online for Dummies (1998), and Pamela Hahn’s The Unofficial Guide to Online Genealogy (2001), which actually are quite useful and are worth reading (though all three are inevitably becoming dated), but these are very much the exception. The rest are simply exercises in marketing.

Pam Porter is a Certified Genealogical Records Specialist, a very experienced author and lecturer who has edited the APG Quarterly and presently serves on the FGS Board of Trustees. Amy Crow, a Certified Genealogist, also is well known as an author and speaker, has served on the boards of several national organizations, and chairs First Families of Ohio. (She also is the overall editor for this series.) And the acknowledgments section lists many other names that are immediately recognizable. Their stated target audience includes (1) those new to genealogy but seasoned computerists, (2) those experienced in family research but novices online, and (3) beginners to both topics. In other words, almost everyone. But it’s encouraging to note that the third paragraph includes the explicit warning, “No, it’s not all online yet.” Yes, field trips to courthouses and libraries and your local Family History Center are still necessary. But more and more information is indeed being made available online everyday, especially by government agencies for whom online public access is a great money-saver in terms of staff time. The authors point out, too, that much of what you’ll find online, while not necessarily an answer to a specific relationship question, provides easily accessible contextual information — county histories, details of migration patterns in previously unexplored states, the locations of railroad corporate archives, and similar data to help you to profitably focus your research. But “you won’t be able to construct your entire family history on the Web.” Planning your online research is not that different from planning a library or courthouse visit — it’s still a matter of defining goals, identifying which facts you need to uncover, finding the sources for them, analyzing the results, and recording and evaluating what you’re learned — but now you’re using search engines and “pathfinder” sites instead of (or in addition to) card catalogs and hardcover document indexes. When you do get ready to make a courthouse visit, the Web will assure you that you’ve identified the right one, and often will tell you whether they’re likely to have the class of records you need, and for the right time period. Moreover, you can save on gas and stretch your research budget, and you can carry on your research on Sundays or in the middle of the night if you care to. Their recommended “Internet Research Log” is remarkably similar to the classic courthouse log we all use (or should). One of the best uses of the Internet, in my own experience, has been in locating other researchers with intersecting interests, something which was very time-consuming and very hit-or-miss in the old days. The chapters on “Finding People in the Modern Era” and “Sharing with Others” provide excellent guidance on carrying out such a quest as well as turning up those long-lost distant cousins your grandfather told you about. The U.S. census (and also, now, those in the UK) is almost entirely available online these days — the actual images, not just printed transcripts or extracts — and most of that now is accessible through searchable every-name indexes that far outstrip the old Soundex and Miracode files. Naturalization records and federal land purchase records are now coming rapidly online. So are local property records. And back runs of newspapers. And older military records and unit histories. And there’s hardly a library anymore without an online-accessible catalog, which is a boon to Interlibrary Loan users. And yet, while outlining these exciting advances and interspersing the discussion with frequent screen shots from useful websites, the authors keep hammering on the important point: The essentials of research haven’t really changed! You still have to think and analyze and evaluate! Although any book on such a volatile subject will begin to be out of date almost as soon as it’s published, I have to say this is one of the best treatments I have seen. And, since it’s now been out for seven years, one may hope a revised and updated edition is in the back of the authors’ minds.

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Published in: on 14 March 2010 at 9:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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