Chapter 18 - Genealogy / Family history

Where did your grandparents come from? What was the town in which my family settled like in the old days? Are you really a descendent of that famous forefather, or is it just legend?

A curiosity about any of these types of questions will lead you to the wonderful hobby of genealogy.

Genealogy, the study or investigation of ancestry and family histories, is not for everybody. It's often a slow, arduous process that requires both patience and persistence. But it can be quite rewarding when you finally stumble upon that nugget of information that ties everything together.

Nearly any amateur or professional genealogist will tell you that a computer is now an essential tool for this hobby. Genealogy is also one of the primary motivations drawing seniors to technology.

"It started me on computers," says Marilyn from Tampa, Fla. "I so wanted to do the genealogy, I wanted to learn the computer."

Gunther from Oregon agrees.

"My wife could not see the use for one until I bought her a program to automate her family research," says Gunther. "In no time, handwritten records were converted into nice looking documents and pictures were added."

Genealogy can also be a wonderful intergenerational activity. Many of your children and grandchildren might be interested in their family history. As older-generation relatives, you might be the sole remaining source for a lot of stories, dates and memories about your ancestors. Team up and preserve your history!

Genealogy software

There are many different commercial and shareware software programs available, but the emerging standard seems to be Family Tree Maker (FTM), which costs about $40.

Marilyn says she started with an earlier version of Family Tree Maker and was amazed at what it could do.

"With FTM, you're able to compile it into something useful," she says. "Before, it's kind of scattered. The blanks are there and you're motivated to fill them in. It's like a big jigsaw puzzle and you have to fill in the pieces."

Thanks in part to ever improving software, family trees are no longer a bland static document. Good genealogy software will take the information you compile and help you write your own family history book.

It can also guide you through the process of creating your own family Web page. These pages can include photographs of ancestors, scans of old letters and documents and even sound and video clips.

Internet research

Computer software provides the essential tool for cataloging, but the Internet provides even greater benefits to the genealogist.

Uncovering dates and descendants will still involve sending off some letters by regular mail, but an increasing number of documents, records and databases are appearing online each day. What used to take months or an overseas trip might now be a simple search-and-click from your home computer.

A great place to start is FamilySearch from the Church of Latter Day Saints ( Local family search centers have always been a great resource for genealogists, but the organization now offers online access to many records that previously had to be requested from the national center in Utah.

You'll also stumble on plenty of users' Web pages that can help your journey. Sites specific to certain surnames and countries of origin, as well as others' online family trees, could all contain a small piece of information that will help you fill in one of those blanks.

Marilyn and some fellow SeniorNet Users Group members were so interested in genealogy that they created an offshoot group that meets on mornings before their monthly SNUG meetings. Part of the joy of the hobby is it's a lifetime endeavor.

"The challenge is for a lifetime," she says. "It's never-ending."

NEXT - Chapter 19 - What is the Internet?