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Excellent guide to an increasingly useful service
on December 14, 2008
I am of two minds when it comes to an "official guide" to any site on the World Wide Web. First, a website can consist of as many pages as necessary to cover the subject, and there can be as many interconnections between pages as necessary to guide the user. Second, the nature of hyperlinking is such that any properly designed website shouldn't need a guide. It should be so logically organized that navigation is obvious, and it should include its own internal "help" system. At least, that's the theory. In practice, even a site as generally well designed as Ancestry (and it is well designed) can eventually become so large, with so many layers, that it can be daunting even to an experienced genealogical web surfer.
George Morgan, a well-known Florida genealogist, book author, and columnist, began doing research back in the 1960s, when "research" meant many trips to the courthouse and the library and waiting for replies to correspondence. Recent, younger converts to the hobby may find it difficult to imagine such a thing, but that's how it was. Ancestry was one of the earliest multi-database resources to appear online and is now part of the Generations Network, a huge conglomerate (in genealogical terms) that includes nearly a dozen previously separate database sites, plus Family Tree Maker and Ancestry Publishing. The Ancestry site itself includes more than 23,000 databases and transcribed books, with many more being constantly added, and the company has done the online researcher the service of making the templates nearly identical that give access to them. This book follows the obvious logical structure of devoting a chapter to each broad category: Census records, birth/marriage/death, immigration, directories and membership lists, newspaper and periodicals, court records, land, military, PERSI. maps, and local and family histories. Other chapters give advice on starting your first family tree on the site itself (something I don't recommend for reasons of access and lack of backup), on how to work with the many kinds of digitized records at Ancestry (much improved over the early days), using the Learning Center (lots of freebies here), and how to most efficiently spend your money at the Ancestry Store. The text of the book is generally well thought out and the sales pitch (Ancestry itself is the publisher, don't forget) is reasonably subtle.
One thing: Don't forget that Ancestry is not a free research service, it's a business. If you live in a small town far away from large research libraries -- and especially if you need to do research in a far corner of the country -- a subscription is going to be far cheaper than gasoline. Plus, you can work online at any time of the day or night. But also don't forget that in many states the state library makes available a subscription to Ancestry to city and county libraries all around the state, and that anyone with a library card can therefore access any database at Ancestry for free by visiting their local library. (But no, you generally can't logon to the library's access point from home.)
I can recommend this volume to anyone new to the websites it describes, although most of what is available on the site can be discovered simply by "walking around." It would especially make a good auxiliary gift if you're planning on giving someone in your family a gift subscription to Ancestry for Christmas.