Genealogy before the Internet

Before the Internet, genealogy was a sometimes lonely pursuit. You might have a local genealogy group, such as the Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society, or a national one, such as the National Genealogical Society.With these groups, you could attend workshops and seminars, just as you do today, to learn what records to search and the best way to find them.

But then you had to physically go find them sometimes. You could write a letter to the archive, courthouse, or library and hope some staffer had the time and inclination to copy the information for you, especially if you included money for the copying costs and an SASE. But as I noted in an earlier entry, if the staffer in question didn’t have an interest in genealogy, you were up the creek unless you went there yourself.

Another way to glean information was the query. Queries could be posted in the publications of groups like the ones mentioned above, or in the venerable genealogy periodicals such as the Genealogical Helper. One of the first things my mother taught me about genealogy is that a good query, with dates, names and places, can sometimes give you the break you need in a certain family line. And that reading queries is as important as publishing them!

Again, with the Internet, we do the same thing today, but we can get our query out there much more quickly with the Internet, and to sometimes a wider audience. Forums, mail lists and boards all help spread the word.

And with sites such as FindAGrave, with cemetery records the genealogist need no longer guess, or stumble upon an obit tucked in the family Bible.  The computerization of the Social Security Death Index helped make searching for a place of death much easier. Transcriptions of wills, ships’ passenger lists and deeds on the Internet have also made it much easier to find the life stories of our ancestors. Before the Internet, you had to travel to different places to find where these elusive records might be.

Readers, please comment: How did you pursue genealogy before the Internet?

About Libbi

Writer for 30 years. Genealogy a hobby for about 40 years. Yes, I'm in my 50's, I learned about genealogy at my mother's knee!
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9 Responses to Genealogy before the Internet

  1. Before there was The Internets and The Google, I was lucky enough to have gone to college in Washington, DC where I could access the National Archives and Library of Congress for free. But I really didn’t get serious with my research until 1995 and the Internet was just taking off at that point.

  2. Randy Seaver says:

    I got on the Internet in 1992, on the Prodigy service, so — before the Internet I used the local Family History Center extensively after starting my research in 1988. They had the IGI on microfiche, the census indexes to 1860 on microfiche, the census records to 1910 on microfilm, and many records on microfilm or fiche just waiting to be ordered from Salt Lake City. I went every Saturday and really filled in my pedigree chart using published books, the vital, census, military, and other records on film and fiche to flesh out the family history.

    I’m trying to remember where I first found Ancestral File – it had to be at the FHC. I have lots of dim dot-matrix printouts in my paper files still. Was it on microfiche? Maybe they put it on their first computer systems in the early 1990s.

    Ah, memories fade…Genealogy BC!!!

  3. Laurie Haldeman-Lambe says:

    I got interested in my family history because some kind soul in my family found some information (I don’t know how), wrote it down, and sent it to me in the early 1980s. She also sent me a pamphlet that another kind, academic soul published about our family cemetery that listed at least 60 gravestones complete w/names and dates that could still be found in that early cemetery! Eureka! I had no idea we had a family cemetery! Only thing was, I lost the address of the person who sent it to me, I only had the name of the person who wrote the pamphlet (which was a not-too-great Xerox) with no idea how to contact him, and no real idea how to find more info or confirm what I had.

    Unfortunately, by the time I got that info, I no longer lived in the area where I could travel to our family cemetery. For years, that info languished in my files until … THE INTERNET! Gradually, thanks to the growing number of databases appearing online, I put together information on my family, but my mother passed away, having no idea her father had brothers and sisters, let alone that she had had EIGHT aunts and uncles!). I didn’t track down the man who wrote the pamphlet until nearly a year after his death — only then finding out he was my second cousin who had a passion for genealogy.

    While I am eternally thankful for the Internet, I sure wish it would have come a bit sooner!

  4. Libbi says:

    Wonderful stories, ya’ll ! Keep ’em coming!

  5. Cheryl Rothwell says:

    I was online in the Roots forum on CompuServe in 1987. Before that I wasn’t terribly concerned about doing my own genealogy since my ancestors were, pretty much, buried in the backyard – or within a couple miles. I was working on later 15th century genealogy related to the Yorkists and the Lancasters, the main families of the Wars of the Roses. They used the same names over and over too. I went to the Newberry Library [Chicago] for most of my research, sometimes the U of Chicago. I was a mere child then of course.

  6. Colin says:

    I have only recently started on the genealogy trail, picking up from where my late father left off. He and my mum used to spend weekends away at the National Archives in Kew,London.They always took in a West End Musical and really enjoyed their weekends. I was looking through some of his research papers last year and found a note explaining that he couldn’t find any reference to his youngest Aunt who was born in 1910. My fathers Grandma died of sceptacemia two weeks after giving birth to her and the story was that she was adopted by a Doctor and his family. When the 1911 UK census became available online, I remembered the note and set out to find the ‘missing’ Aunt. I first of all located my Fathers family and then simply went through the census for the whole village. I found her inside a half hour! She was down on the census as ‘a nurse child’ at the Doctor’s residence. To say the feeling was euphoric is an understatement! I am now totally hooked! I really appreciate what these big Archive and Geneology websites do for us. The mammoth tasks that they have performed to get these records online I find amazing!
    Kind regards,

  7. Janet says:

    The thrill for me when researching family history on the internet,is when you connect with someone researching the same family.E-mails travel across the world in a matter of seconds. A glass of wine is essential too!

  8. Matt says:

    Wait… There was a time before the internet?

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