Free for the Asking: Where to Look for Free Genealogy Help
Genealogy can be a consuming hobby, for your wallet as well as your
time. As more and more genealogists turn to the World Wide Web to
uncover their family trees, more and more sources--both free and paid--
are becoming available online. While there are many worthwhile paid
services that can give you access to family trees, vital records, and
research assistance, there's quite a lot of free family history help out
there as well. In this article, we will discuss how you can find free
help to grow your family tree.
Asking for Help
Our first suggestion for finding
free help? Ask for it! There are a lot of people out there on the web
researching their family trees. Chances are pretty good that someone
else is researching the same family, or at least in the same area and
time period, that you are. You never know what pearls of wisdom they might be able to
send your way. By and large, most genealogists are willing to share
information and help if they can. That's why message boards and other
discussion platforms can be one of the greatest online resources.
For example, here at MyTrees.com you can post a
Research Interest, which allows you to let other
researchers know what you're looking for. You can also
search through Research Interests that have been
posted by others, to see if there's anything you can help with or to
find out if anyone else is
looking for the same information. You never know what treasures might be
uncovered when you take a moment to ask around.
Cindy Carman, MyTrees.com CFO, recently shared with me a
personal success story. She had been searching for death information for
her great-great-grandfather, William Smith. Unable to locate an obituary
or death record, she posted a query in several places online, including
a Research Interest at MyTrees.com. Much to her delight, she was later
contacted by a woman who was able to provide her with a photograph of
the gravestone of William's wife. This woman also sent Cindy a photocopy
of the sexton's record which gave William's death date and indicated
that he had been buried in the same graveyard as his wife. This
wonderful genealogical find was shared by a complete stranger from, as
Cindy said, "the goodness of her heart."
There are many other places online where you can post your research
queries, such as message boards and forums. Many of these have
individual boards for specific topics. For example, at
you might find a forum specifically dedicated to your ancestor's
surname, location, or religious background. There are even forums where
you can find help for some genealogy programs. It's always a good idea
to look around before posting your query. Make sure that you put it in
the right message board or forum. If you're looking for research help
and you post your query in a message board for technical assistance with
a genealogy program, you're probably not going to get a helpful answer
and may just be ignored altogether.
Another good place to find genealogy message boards is
Mailing lists are another good way to get in contact with other
researchers. Unlike message boards and forums, where the conversation is
posted on a website, mailing lists happen entirely by email. Once you
sign up, you'll receive emails that contain everything said by members
of the group. In this way, every email helps you get the whole conversation. If you're an old hat
at genealogy, you may find that mailing lists tend to clog up your inbox
a little too much. But they can still be very helpful, especially when
you're just starting out.
Rootsweb.com is also a good place to find a genealogy mailing list.
For more information about mailing lists, check out this article on
Making the Most of Genealogy Mailing Lists.
If you're interested in
message boards and mailing lists,
The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy, by
Kimberly Powell, includes a really good chapter about how to find and
use them. The chapter also contains a valuable discussion on internet
etiquette and how to ask your question so that others are most likely to
There are many places online where
genealogists have volunteered specific research help and sources. One
form of valuable assistance that may be offered online is a free lookup.
This means that the volunteer will lookup your ancestor's name in a
source to which he or she has access. The source might be a book, a
graveyard, or a vital record. Having someone else perform a lookup can
save you the time and expense of traveling somewhere or hunting down a
particular record yourself. Many researchers are willing to do free
lookups, although they may ask that you reimburse them for any costs
involved, such as photocopying and postage. (Even if they don't ask,
it's probably polite to offer. They're doing you a favor, after all.)
Here are a few websites that include directories of volunteers who are
willing to do lookups for specific sources:
Another way genealogists volunteer their time and expertise is by
creating or contributing to websites that offer free information and
WorldGenWeb Project is probably the largest example of this type of
volunteer website. When you visit the
site, you'll find links to websites for different countries throughout
the world. From the country websites, there are often links to
individual states and counties as well. These sites might include research
guides, extractions of vital records, and links to other websites that
can aid your research. I went to the GenWeb site for
Hancock County, Maine and found a "Brief History of the formation
and boundary changes of Hancock County," an article which would surely
be useful to anyone just beginning to research ancestors from this area.
One site that I've frequently used myself is the
Dorset GenWeb project, where I've found many helpful sources,
including an index to online transcriptions of parish registers.
Posting Your File Online
If you're hoping to get in contact with other genealogists who are
researching similar family lines, one of the best things you can do is
to post your own family tree online. This allows other researchers to
find your work and, hopefully, to contact you in order to share
information. You can post your family tree online for free at MyTrees.com.
If you're interested, you can
upload a GEDCOM
or build your file using our
MyTrees Online program. (If you don't know what a GEDCOM is, or have
any questions about uploading your file to us, check out the GEDCOMs FAQ
article in this issue.)
There are many reasons why posting your file online at MyTrees.com is a
good idea. Aside from giving other researchers a chance to find you, it
also allows you to easily share your family tree with family members.
Once you've submitted your file to us, you can register a Family
Password, which lets your family members view your file without having a
MyTrees.com account. The Family Access is a great way to share your tree
without having to actually send a copy to a family member.
Another advantage of submitting your file to us is that we'll give you
free access to our subscription services. When you submit a file that
contains at least 60 individuals and 15 families, you'll receive a free
month of access to our subscription database. Larger files may receive
even more free time. (Please note that this is a one time offer.)
Additionally, you may find that your ancestor is found in one of the family
trees posted on the MyTrees.com
website. If so, try contacting the person who uploaded the tree to see if they have more
information about your ancestor.
Other Online Resources
There are many other resources you can access online for free, as well.
Here are a few general resource types to check out:
- Public Libraries: Most public libraries are online now and you might
be surprised at what they can offer. The
Bloomfield-Eastern Greene County Public Library in Indiana, for
example, has indexes for birth, census, death, and marriage records
posted on its website. If nothing else, a library's website should help
you find what resources you can access by visiting the library itself
and contact information for a research librarian who might be able to
help you. I'd suggest checking out what's available at your own library
as well as the library in your ancestor's hometown.
- Genealogy Societies: Genealogy Societies have a lot to offer.
Many do post some resources and links on their websites that anyone can
access, although joining a society would give you much greater access to
- Newsletters: Free genealogy newsletters, like this one, often
include research tips that can help you find your ancestors. And it's a
good idea to check out archives of past issues, as well, to see what you
missed. You can find an archive of past MyTrees.com newsletters by
clicking here. You can select older issues by Date
or Topic, using the options located near the top of the page. Some other newsletters to check
out are Eastman's Online
Genealogy Newsletter and the
- Online Genealogy Courses: Extend your knowledge of family
history research by taking a free online course. Check out the free
courses available at Genealogy.com,
Brigham Young University.
Offline Local Sources
We'll end with a few suggestions for finding offline sources in your
area. Start with two places: the local library and family history
Even if your ancestors didn't live anywhere near your current residence,
a trip to your local library may still be able to help. First, the
library is sure to have a few general research guides on its shelves that can
help point you in the right direction. Try doing a general keyword
search for "genealogy" in the library's cataloge and see what comes up.
Then check out the computer resources. Many libraries have free access
to services such as Ancestry.com and Heritage Quest that you can only
use by actually being at a computer terminal in the library. Finally,
check out upcoming events. Libraries sometimes offer free genealogy
Family History Centers are branch facilities of the Family History
Library in Salt Lake City. You can access most of the microfilms and
microfiche in the Family History Library from one of these centers.
Anyone is welcome to visit and there should be a volunteer there who can
help show you around and let you know what's available. To find a Family
History Center in your area,
Article written by Aubrey Fredrickson