Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Frugal Genealogist

“I didn’t know that genealogy was going to be such an expensive hobby!” If you’ve frequented any genealogy message boards or mailing lists over the last few years, you’ve heard something similar. It’s an understandable refrain…the genealogy websites that get the most press (, most frequently) often do come with some pretty hefty price tags. Not to mention the costs involved in ordering birth, marriage and death certificates from various local entities…or pension records from the National Archives. The list goes on and on.

But two thoughts come to mind. The first is that most hobbies (obsessions?) require a financial investment, as well as an investment in time/effort. I have a golfer in my family who always needs to “upgrade” his equipment…all for the sake of improving his game. Scrap booking is one of the newer hobbies on the scene today, and having purchased scrap booking supplies as Christmas gifts, I can attest to the fact that they aren’t inexpensive either! The point is that if you are going to get serious about any hobby/activity – it’s probably going to cost some money….and after a while, it will probably cost some more.

That brings me to my second thought. There is a world of really great resources out there that are (mostly) free! Some are online, and others are in our communities. Here are just a few:

RootsWeb: What a great resource! It’s owned by the same parent company as, but is a free/user contributed resource. There are message boards and mailing lists that are wonderful. I have gotten farther in my research due to help from others on Rootsweb’s message boards than I could have ever gotten on my own. And along the way, I’ve met some “new” cousins, and made some wonderful friends. We often start with the surname boards, but I’ve gotten some of my best help from people who frequent the “county” boards. Rootsweb is also the home of some amazing user-contributed databases. These databases are sorted by country/region, and include cemetery records, deeds, newspaper indexes, church records, etc.

Heritage Quest Online: This is a subscription-based website, but is often available free to library patrons through library websites. I access it via my library’s website, after logging in with my library card number. HQO has five sections: Census, Books, PERSI, Revolutionary War, and the Freedman’s Bank. In each case you can find information and often images that can be downloaded and printed right at home. They have the complete set of U.S. Census images (1790 – 1930), with name indexes for many of the years. The images are generally very clear and easy to read.

I’ve also been impressed with the “Books” section, which includes over 20,000 family and local histories. It’s as if your local library had an additional 20,000 genealogy books on their shelves, and you can read them at home!

USGenWeb: The volunteers who produce this website are dedicated to providing free genealogy websites for every state and county in the U.S. Each of the county and state websites are maintained by volunteer coordinators – so the content is different, depending on the time, talents and expertise of the local coordinators, and how active the local genealogists are that submit data for the sites. Commonly you’ll find local history, maps. User-contributed records, links to genealogy libraries and societies, and sometimes surname lists/queries.

County Genealogical Societies: While not free, membership in county or regional genealogical societies can be very worthwhile. The society for the county in which I live has dues of only $15.00 per year – and the quarterly newsletters (often 25-30 pages in length) are worth that alone! People that live nearby also enjoy the monthly educational programs. It also allows me the chance to network with people who are researching the same area (and sometimes ancestors) that I am.

State Archives: As far as I know there is some type of a “state archives” or “state historical library for each of the states in the U.S. After you’ve gotten a start on your research, you may find that a visit to the appropriate state’s archives will provide you with many more answers (and maybe some more questions, too!). Although access to the archives will probably be free, you’ll need to bring money for photocopies of the records you wish to keep. Many states also have some of the information from their archives available online – sometimes in the form of indexes, and sometimes in the form of actual images. Well worth investigating!

Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness: What a great organization! The volunteers agree to do a research task in their local area, at least once per month. You can find volunteers who will take photographs of tombstones or do look-ups for you, depending on their resources. Although the service is free, you are expected to reimburse the volunteers expenses, such as film, photocopies, postage, and possibly parking fees. Still a bargain! Many of the volunteers signed up after being helped by RAOGK, and wanted to “pay it forward.”

There are many other great (and inexpensive) resources out there. This wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive list – just a few good options that I use regularly. And of course, no matter where you get your information, please weigh it carefully, consider the sources, and document them well. Message boards, mailing lists and user-contributed databases and family trees are only as good as the research that supports them. We all know that there is a large amount of misinformation floating around the web. While that research can’t be automatically assumed to be true, it just might point you in the right direction

Happy Hunting!

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