Friday, July 29, 2011

Free Resources for Geneaology in the Library

In most public libraries (and certainly all the ones I’ve ever been in), resources for patrons to conduct family history and genealogy research are present, and sometimes form quite a large part of a library’s collection.

Many counties, provinces, states and countries have made vast amounts of data available for research. However, in many of these instances, the content is only available for a price – a fairly steep one at that. Some sources may let you see materials online without charge, but ordering a copy is far from free.

Any librarian who has aided someone in genealogical research has encountered the ‘usual suspects’: namely various Ancestry websites, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Ancestry is fairly expensive, even for their stripped-down ‘Library Edition’ (available through annual subscription only), and the information available at is not all that coherent. For those beginning research in Alberta, or Canada in general, the collections are largely limited to census data, with some province-specific sources (though none from Alberta!).

So where to next?

While there are many, many great not-for-free sites out there with mountains of good information, the internet (as it so often is in many areas) is rife with free family history research content; you just have to know where to look. A word of warning: the information available for free is of varying quality and reliability, but a keen eye can help to sort the good from the bad.

If you’ve done much work in this area, there’s every chance that you’ve encountered Cyndi’s List. At the ripe age of 15 years, Cyndi’s List is a veritable internet veteran, and nearly a one-stop-shop for free online genealogical resources. When I don’t want to pay, this is always my first stop. Note: not everything is free. A large number of the links are to, in particular those with census data, and require payment to actually see anything.

The website has been remade in the not-too-distant past, and the navigation is fairly straightforward. Everything is sorted into categories. Country, record type (military, census, adoption record, etc.), societies and groups, and the list goes on… and on, and on.

If, for example, you go to Canada > Provinces > Alberta > Birth, Marriage, Death, you’ll see links to the Alberta Family Histories Society,, Calgary Newspaper Announcements and a link to Vital Statistics sources from Service Alberta.

The sheer volume of resources available through Cyndi’s List makes any detailed discussion here impossible. I would encourage you to head there and give it a try yourself.

Though owned by Ancestry, rootsweb is an entirely free service. The best use I’ve found is to search for names, and investigate the family trees people have posted. Oftentimes they are posted with no source information, but the site can prove useful for getting suggestions for names (and spellings) that can lead to detailed research from a more concrete source. Some people will have linked (or cited) sources with their family trees. If you encounter one of these, be sure to note the information for future use. It may prove quite valuable.

Find a Grave is, to be blunt, a fantastic website. Thousands of individuals have dedicated their time to locating, photographing and detailing the graves in cemeteries across the country. As well, the US database is even larger. On top of this, members can submit individual graves, also often with photos. I have personally found graves of a number of relatives while conducting research. The site can help to nail down dates and places, and adding a photograph to the family research scrapbook is always welcome. Best of all, it’s all free!

This has been only a tiny sample of what’s available out there, and I’d encourage you to do some digging around on your own. There’s really no telling what you’ll find for a patron, or what you might find out about your own past.

If you have any experiences you wish to share, feel free to comment!

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