Genealogy research tools and resources
This article will provide you with tips on what types of tools and resources to utilize while performing genealogy research for the purpose of planning successful ancestry travel.
It will be important to keep in mind the specific purpose for these or any other tools and resources. Always consider how using it will move you forward to plan a successful ancestry trip.
Computer with internet access
I’m aware people have been researching family trees and using a variety of genealogy research tools and resources for years without a computer and internet access. In today’s age however, attempting this research without a computer and internet access would be extremely time consuming and difficult. Genealogy research tools and resources have evolved through the years.
It would be like driving a much older vehicle, compared to a modern one. There is a lot of character and class in a 1965 Mustang (especially a Shelby!) but a brand new Mustang has CarPlay, computer engine management, great handling and seat warmers (and you can still get the modern take on a Shelby). It may eventually get you where you’re going, but it would be slower, less comfortable and likely to need more maintenance. You will be missing the bells and whistles designed to make it a quick and easy experience.
It doesn’t matter whether you use a desktop or a laptop computer as either will have it’s own benefits. The screen is typically larger on a desktop, and as we age, this seems more important than the convenience of a laptop. While travelling we’ll use a laptop. In our case, it’s also newer than our desktop, so seems easier in some ways as loading is quicker. We use a windows based desktop and a macbook air laptop. Which computer you use is about personal preference.
Although it may seem obvious, email is an important method for communication. An easy to access email address and internet connection will be crucial as you seek information from others. A good electronic filing system will also serve you well to find saved details more quickly.
Use the search bar (google.com) and type in any information you are seeking in your research. Sometimes it can be that easy. Google wants you to find the answers to your questions. If you’re unable to find what you’re looking for, re-phrase your query. Try a few different queries worded differently. The resources available to you just simply by typing a question into the google bar are extensive.
Google maps can pinpoint a place you are researching and tell you more about it.
Google books can assist in finding rare books.
Google translate can help you to translate text from another language, if required.
People use a variety of social media or networking sites for different purposes. These sites can be a great resource for a variety of reasons. Using social media as a resource for genealogy research is popular amongst those reaching out to others for assistance.
For example, there are many facebook groups specific to ancestry or genealogy research or DNA testing. Facebook groups specifically to ancestry.com users, or MyHeritage.com users also exist. These groups can be helpful to ask questions from others also doing genealogy research for tips on tools and resources. Check the rules of the group before posting. I tend to only join groups that are “private”, not public, but that’s a personal choice. Comments posted to public facebook groups are viewable by anyone. In a private group comments are only shared within the group itself.
Another example in social networking would be utilizing Instagram or Twitter. Simply by searching #ancestry, #familytree, or #geneaology, etc., you may see posts with tips or ideas you can utilize in your own research. You may also find it helpful to follow other like-minded people.
You may even find a long lost relative simply by searching for their name on a social media site. Using the messenger feature to send them a message, if you’re comfortable doing so could be proactive. Don’t spam anyone though, and always be polite and respectful. People have a right to choose to respond or not to respond to you. They also have a right to their privacy.
DNA test Kit
A DNA test is a great first step in understanding your family’s origins. It will also provide you with matches, or people who’ve also taken a test with whom you are related. You can learn more about this tool in our article: DNA test kits, which one is best?. This can be an important genealogy research tool.
A smart phone with camera
You are best to be prepared while researching. If, for example, you’re visiting a museum and find a pertinent item germane to your research, you’re not going to be able to take it with you. A picture might be all you’re able to capture (if the museum allows), and you’ll want to have a decent camera. Most newer smart phones have good cameras. A phone will also allow you to capture any notes you may want to make while you’re researching, plus enter telephone numbers you find for relatives.
You will also want a telephone to be able to contact your newfound relatives.
An app or calendar for note-taking and scheduling
Whether you use a physical daytimer, calendar, notebook, or an electronic app for lists, notes and scheduling is your choice. Experiment with different options to see what works best for you. Perhaps it’s a combination of tools that will end up being what you require.
In the past, I’ve found my “to-do” list gets forgotten without a physical calendar/daytimer .
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with Google Keep . This seems to be a viable electronic version of my handwritten notes and to do list.
I find Google Keep helpful for many purposes. Everything from a “To Do” list, to capturing ideas while out, writing notes regarding family discoveries to research later, and even once jotting down family recipes while visiting an Aunt. If you’re like me, you will almost always have your phone with you, so an easy to use app to help keep things organized is a must.
An external hard drive, flash drive or USB key
You can store all your family information on a flash drive or an external hard drive. In this way, you can take it with you when you’re travelling and can access the details on any computer. I recommend you purchase one that allows for password protection used when accessing materials.
This may not be thought of as a direct genealogy research tool. However, once I began scanning photos provided to me by relatives, then adding photos to my google photos, similar faces were grouped together. Google has invested in an advanced security infrastructure, and I control the privacy settings for my google photos.
Scanning photos, then reviewing them with other photos can be helpful tools in research, not necessarily to exactly identify someone, but to ensure you’re grouping the person to the correct branch of your family tree.
Family Tree Software
There are many reasons to skip this particular tool, not the least of which is added cost. However for some people, there is a significant reason to invest in Family Tree Software. The tree you build will be stored on your own hard drive. It is your data alone, not shared online. If you use an online Family Tree building site such as ancestry.com or myheritage.com you can easily share online, or make your settings more private if you choose. For more information, check our Building your family tree article.
What’s First? Talk to your Family!
It may seem obvious, but surprisingly, some people miss this step. Talking to your family is one of the simplest and best genealogy research tools and resources you will have. Specifically, speak with the oldest members of your family first. There are many good examples of sample questions to ask both on the ancestry.com site, and on the myheritage.com site. My advice would be, don’t ask the questions all at once and ensure there’s space in between the questions for actual dialogue. The dialogue is an important component, and may reveal information you didn’t know. Don’t forget to ask to see any photos they may have of the family or ask for help to identify photos you haven’t been able to. This may also be the ideal time to ask the relative if they would do a DNA test kit.
Provincial, State and Country Genealogy Archives
Most provinces in Canada and States in US offer specific genealogy archival of documents to assist in your research. Sometimes, the archival is handled at the country level. Use your google search bar to find the resources, keeping in mind there may be more than one option. For example. in Canada, if I search for “Genealogy Archives Canada”, I may get some independent/private sites, which will usually have a charge to browse. However, if I look for the government site, (noted by gc.ca at the end), I will find the Library and Archives Canada, a great place to begin.
Begin searching broadly, then narrow down your search. For example, if I begin with the Library and Archives Canada page, then select Ancestors Search, I am presented with many options.
This can be an exceptional resource for documents not available elsewhere. Lands, towns, borders have evolved from what they once were. You may find the information you are seeking from this resource. As an example, some of my ancestors lived in what was referred to then as “Upper Canada”, so I can search more details on Land Petitions, then Upper Canada. I can search the records for a specific province, for example, British Columbia where I live now.
At the bottom of the various resource pages, you will often see other resource recommendations.
For my genealogy research in Norway, I was able to type in google search “Genealogy Archives Norway”, and once again, I scroll to see a website which looks like an official government website: Digital Archives Norway
Most government websites offering resources for genealogy research I’ve encountered are free to use. You may have to pay for documents you wish to receive, but you can view a lot of information for free.
In Canada as with most countries, you can request Military records for an ancestor. In Canada, you can do an online request available on the Library and Archives Canada. There may be restrictions unique to each country. In Canada, if you are requesting military records for someone who has been deceased less than 20 years, you will need to provide evidence that you are an immediate family member. Military records can offer relevant information for your research. I was able to learn some details regarding my father that I hadn’t previously known..
Online History Resource Sites
This would include Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com. There is an option to pay monthly or annually for a membership for these sites, and both sites offer trial periods before paying so you can ascertain which suits you best. They both offer extensive catalogues of resources. There is also the ability to build a family tree for free on either site. You will not however be able to access the extensive catalogues they use without a paid membership.
The extensive catalogues on both Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com contain an abundance of information. You are able to access many records by having a membership on either site. I always choose an annual membership, and make a call prior to renewal to see if there are any specials coming up. You can often get a better price than the price noted online, depending on the time of year. Special pricing is often offered for Mothers and Fathers Day, holidays and Christmas.
There are free resource sites, however in my experience, they don’t offer all of information available to you on the two sites noted. You will also find there are varying reviews from the users of these sites. Do your due diligence before spending your valuable time using the free sites. Keep in mind that you may eventually want to access paid sites anyway to gain access to the vast resources contained there.
Local museums (local to the area you are searching) often have many opportunities to step into the past and learn more about your ancestors who lived in that area. For example, when my grandmother came to Canada, she was joining friends and relatives in the small town of Viking Alberta, which was settled in 1909 by Scandinavian settlers. The Viking Historical Museum offers a glimpse into the past, and is situated in the converted hospital from 1922.
Another good example would be the Stony Plain Multicultural Heritage Centre, located in Stony Plain, Alberta close to the community my families settled. I went to school in Stony Plain, and visited the Multicultural Heritage Centre many times. There is a museum there, but there is so much more than that. Many small towns and villages have done amazing work at preserving artifacts and memories from the past. This can be a valuable resource and is often overlooked because of the assumption only museums in larger centers have valuable information.
This could provide you with valuable information regarding births, deaths, marriages, and even divorces in some cases. You can often view these records online, however in some smaller, historical churches, you may have to visit to view records. If you’re at the church anyway, you might want to also visit the graveyard. Usually graveyard information is available online, however if you’re at a particular church, it’s likely you have ancestors who attended there. Find the record of who is buried where to ease your search. It may seem macabre, but having a look at the graveyard and gravestones in particular might provide you with some information about your ancestors. It can be rewarding to see where a relative’s final resting place is.
Genealogy group membership in your area
A local genealogy group or society may offer you some valuable tips and resources to help you get started. Many charge for an annual membership, which will generally cover meetings, newsletters, guest speakers and resources not available to non-members. One of the biggest benefits of having a membership in a genealogy group in your area is that you can talk to other people who are also researching their family ancestry. There is usually a wealth of knowledge contained in the years of experienced people in these groups so you are able to learn more and gain valuable insight and tips. Being a member can offer another depth of genealogy research tools and resources.
Library Membership Card
There’s a lot of information at a library, and many cities allow for free membership to access books, other materials and online resources. These may aid in your genealogy research and provide additional tools and resources. For example, ancestry.com library edition is accessible through our library. You have to actually visit the library though, and you can’t download information or build your own family tree through this version.
My Miscellaneous “Tool Kit”
In a previous career in sales, I always had my “tool kit” with me. It contained some critical yet simple tools to have with me at all times, just in case I needed them. Not necessarily required at every appointment or meeting, but when required, they really were. Without these items, there would be times I wouldn’t have found the right house, or been able to present my products, or in some cases close the sale. So yes, pretty important items to have available if needed.
Kept in a small briefcase they can be grabbed quickly whenever if needed. Perhaps not surprisingly many of the items were also applicable as I set out on my genealogy research journey.
- Pens and pencils with erasers
- A notebook for writing in
If you don’t have access to any electronic device for some reason, you may end up resorting to the basic pen or pencil and notebook depending on the situation. As an example, when I was out one day doing research, my cell phone decided not to respond to touch. I was unable to open the phone to do anything. No matter what I tried, I was not able to unlock it. Luckily a pen and notebook were available, so important information was captured to be digitized later.
- A Magnifying Glass
There have been situations where the text I’m attempting to read is so small that it’s next to impossible to make sense of. This can happen if you’re looking at ledgers, ship manifests, or other documents. Or perhaps it’s a photo and you’re trying to make out faces. This can be difficult in smaller pictures with a group of people.
If you’re on a computer, you can usually enlarge the text for readability or a photo for clarity. However, if you’re you’re visiting a museum or looking at a physical newspaper or other document or photo, you may need a magnifying glass. I have several magnifying glasses, and one in particular has served useful. It’s on a rope that I can wear like a necklace. These are inexpensive items and are good to have on hand in the event you need one.
- A flashlight
You may find yourself in poorly lit areas or rooms at times during your genealogy research. While the light on your cell phone may work, your phone will be a tool you may already be using to capture notes and details.
Hopefully the genealogy research tools and resources noted in this article will give you a great start to research your family ancestry for the purpose of planning successful ancestry travel. You will be well on your way!
Love it. I once attempted this for my grandparents diamond wedding, but gave up 100 years back… too complicated here in Europe, with part of my family being Eastern European or at least having settled there for 100+ years. I would like to try again ,and these resources are great
Hi Anja! Thank you for your comment.:) Yes, I hear it can get a bit complicated in parts of Europe. Definitely worth another try when you’re ready!