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Walking in our ancestors’ footsteps

The convergence of the religion, technology, the civil rights movement and a recent British TV series has created a multibillion pound growth industry for genealogy. But why are we so obsessed with tracing our ancestry? Where did it all start? And are genealogy websites the only way to do it?

genealogy research tools

Going in search of meaning

Curiosity about our lineage has always preoccupied our species. It always will. When we go in search of meaning to our lives today, one question knocks at our door from the past: ’where did we come from?’ To some of us it’s not that important, but, to others, it has become a hobby bordering on obsession, and an expensive one at that.

Where did it all starth?

A quest for new lands — and planes, trains and automobiles

Ever since populations found it easier to roam vast distances — thanks to global sea exploration and colonisation and, more recently, the evolution of rail, road and air travel — families have been scattered around the globe. As a result, stories and connections have been lost. The world wars further muddied the waters, and, in today’s ‘smaller’ world of globalisation, families are more distant than ever before.

Why are we obsessed with tracing our ancestry?

Like many of the Western world’s trends, the roots of our modern-day fixation with genealogy can be traced to the US. Four decades ago, author Alex Haley published a bestselling book which would change the world view of ancestry for good: ‘Roots: The Saga of an American Family.’

His 1976 novel (and subsequent TV series) about the life of 18th-century African slave Kunta Kinte and those of his descendants, up to Haley himself, was perfectly timed — following the civil rights movement in the 1960s — to capture the hearts of African Americans. And the study of family history, which, until then was largely the province of the white, social-climbing elite, became an acceptable infatuation open to all.

Global Mania

Religion and Family History Centres

Since the 1970s, the genealogy craze has spread across the globe, helped, in part by the proliferation of the first genealogy resources we know today as Family History Centres (FHCs), which were set up by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church). The first Genealogical Library was founded in 1894, Salt Lake City, Utah, to gather records and assist members of this religious movement. By the late 1960s there were 75 FHCs in the US. By 2014, there were more than 4,700 FHCs in 134 countries.

Technology and ancestry

Since the 1990s, digital technology and the internet revolutionised the way huge amounts of information could be reproduced, transferred and retrieved. Information from Public records, like birth, marriage and death certificates, census data; newspaper archives, telephone directories, and, since 2002, the UK Electoral Roll, can all now be found online.

Before the arrival of the technology to capture, store and access all this information from the home, ancestry was a very expensive affair. You either had to pay a historian to travel the country — or globe — or you had to embark on a voyage of ancestral discovery yourself. Technology, along with religion and the civil rights movement, has transformed what was once a practice of the elite into something accessible to everyone.

Who Do You Think You Are?

In 2004, with the first airing of the BBC’s now famous TV series, genealogy started to become the next big fad. Since Who Do You Think You Are? hit the airwaves, genealogy has exploded into a multi million pound industry. The TV series itself has also since been exported globally (to the US in 2010), further fuelling the family-tree-tracing fever.

Facebook and Baby Boomers

The growth of the hobby was helped by Baby Boomers — the generation born between 1946 and 1964 — who started heavily using Facebook and other social media platforms suited to sharing family history information, along with built-in genealogy applications like Geni.

At last they had the means to reconnect and reflect through a media which went beyond old photographs and discussions with elderly relatives. The Boomers’ nostalgia, combined with the capabilities of the social platforms, helped to create the demand for today’s online service providers — and lots of them.

Reaching a high-value obsession

Across the world it has become a multibillion-dollar industry that’s spawned profitable websites, television shows, scores of books, and, with the arrival of over-the-counter genetic test kits, a cottage industry in DNA ancestry testing.

Today, genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the US (after gardening), according to ABC News, and the second most-visited category of websites.

According to a 2013 report by the British Library:

  • US genealogy enthusiasts spend between $1,00018,000 on the hobby
  • there are more than 92 million individual genealogists worldwide
  • UK genealogy hobbyists are increasing “rapidly.”
  • Genealogy was worth more than $2bn worldwide, and was forecast to reach $2.7bn by 2018

Genealogy websites

The main beneficiaries of this huge investment are Ancestry.com and its partner, Find My Past. US web company, Ancestry, launched online in 1996. Today, it operates a network of genealogical and historical record websites and sells genealogical software — like DNA kits — and related services. In 2014, it had two million paying subscribers. Over the two decades since its launch, scores of internet-based businesses have sprung up to meet this growth in demand for constructing family trees.

White Pages

At White Pages we have some guides which can help you use genealogy websites and access public records and the edited electoral roll (which is updated every month). We also have access to the official UK Telephone Directory and over 200 million records.

Are genealogy websites the only way? - a short guide

We pore over pictures of our forebears and sift through letters and memorabilia passed down through generations, if we’re lucky enough to have them. If we’re still in touch, we can chat to living relatives. But when the trail runs cold, where do we turn?

We can go to public libraries, visit Family History Centres, trawl through public records and the electoral roll. We could even employ a genealogy researcher. A good place to start for advice is the UK Society of Genealogists, which has published a guide to employing a professional genealogist.

The options are overwhelming, which is why most of us sign up to several genealogy websites.

Before you stride out in search of your ancestors, here are a few things to get you started:

Get organised: make a record of every fact you have, including copies of documents and photographs, then store/manage that info as you go.

Search your mind: rack your brain for the details of those family stories (when and where did nan and granddad get married?; where did great-grandad serve in the war?). Then lay it all out, and get some questions together to fill in the blanks.

Talk to the living: read this guide on "how to interview your relatives’" (there are plenty of others online too). If you need to find living relatives, try our People Finder and the good old UK telephone directory.

Learn about public records: all family history research starts with birth, marriage and death certificates, National Census (a record of every household every 10 years since 1801, with a few gaps) and electoral roll. You can use other sources to find these, like National Archives — you may not have to don’t to go straight to a genealogy website. To go further back in time, before 1837, Church of England parish records (from 1538) can be found in the International Genealogical Index. For family history in Scotland, and Ireland, you’ll need to search different sites.

Not everything is accurately recorded: many dates, locations and names may have been wrongly recorded (or spelled inaccurately), so try alternatives and use a methodical approach.

Search other archives: there are scores of archived records if you know where to look, from military records held at the National Archives, to the criminal records of the Old Bailey.

Of course, if all else fails, resign yourself to signing up to one of the genealogy websites. You may start with a free trial, but, ultimately, you’ll have to pay for this service — and now you can see why.

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