by Ellen Miller
Genealogy is the second-most popular subject on the Internet, after you-know-what.
The thought tickles genealogists, who were among the first to take advantage of the power of personal computers. But they aren't the only folks using the Internet in a family way. Millions of people correspond by e-mail with far-flung relatives. They're also creating personal Web sites on which photos, stories, recipes and reunion information are posted, along with the date for the next family chat room session.
The Internet has revolutionized life for the 80 million Americans who regularly "do some family heritage thing," says Curt Witcher, president of the National Genealogical Society and manager of the historical genealogy department of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne. The size of the Indiana facility's genealogy collection is second only to that of the Family History Library of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Children need a link to their history, says Susan V. Bosak, chair of the Something to Remember Me By Legacy Project, named for a book she wrote.
"Research has shown that they have a better sense of who they are and more confidence when they have a sense of their family history. They feel like they belong somewhere."
Older adults have a special role to play, she says.
"Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term 'generativity' for what he felt was a natural human need later in life to feel as though we are leaving something of value behind. We don't want everything we've learned to die with us."
That can shed a new light on our everyday communications with family. Steve Cox, vice president of education for the Indiana Historical Society, agrees that today's correspondence is tomorrow's historical find. He occasionally prints and files e-mails. He cautions that old family photos, even when scanned and transmitted electronically, also should be preserved in acid-free file folders.
"Or, feel free to donate it to the historical society," Cox says.
Though the Internet has been a boon to genealogists, say the experts, it's not magic. If you want to compile an accurate family tree, beware of errors.
"You have to take what you see on the Internet with a grain of salt. A true genealogist will go check it out in an original document," says Cox.
Another challenge is lack of Internet saavy.
Karen Beidelman, an Indianapolis genealogist who publishes the Family Quest journal of the Genealogical Society of Marion County, said only in the last few years have most of her relatives been willing and able to check out her Web site on MyFamily.com.
Bosak has experienced such a conversion in her family.
"A year ago, my 78-year-old father wanted nothing to do with computers or the Internet. But my family bought him a computer and gave him some lessons. Now he's addicted. He e-mails me and my brother every day. We'll often ask him a question about someone in the family or a certain incident and he'll send back a long e-mail. We're saving all the e-mails as a record of our family history."
Bosak says there's no doubt that information will continue to flood the Internet.
"The challenge will lie in people using the information effectively. There's a danger that families will throw so much information onto the computer that it becomes too overwhelming to read or take in.
"You have to be organized and smart about choosing what you include and making it an interesting story that future generations will want to read.
"And don't ever let the Internet replace items like the family photo album. There's a magic in opening it and turning the pages with a grandchild as you cuddle."
So, do you want to use your computer to connect with family, share stories and explore your family tree? Consider these sites, suggested by Susan V. Bosak, chair of the Something to Remember Me By Legacy Project:
www.MyFamily.com -- Offers things like a free, easy-to-use template for a private family Web site and free online family history software. They are also a password-protected Internet community where you can post family news, create family photo albums, hold chats, and maintain a calendar of family events. Rahn Rampton, spokesman for MyFamily.com, says that for $20 a year, a family can set up a site with 20 times the space and capacity for automatic e-mail notification of any updates by users.
www.legacyproject.org -- Offers not just family history information, but family legacy information. Legacy is about a lot more than just family history, and the Web site gives people information they can easily use on a day-to-day basis.
www.ancientfaces.com -- An online photo Web site where you can look at and post photos, family stories, and recipes.
www.cyndislist.com -- Categorizes thousands of genealogy and family legacy-type sites. Considered a great tool by most family historians.
www.familysearch.org -- The largest family history Web site; includes step-by-step sites. Considered a great tool by most family historians.
www.ourtimelines.com -- Enter the year of your birth to find out what other famous people were born during the same year. Then, enter the current date, your birth date and some events in your life. A historical timeline will be generated showing your personal events in the context of other historical events. Great for comparing the lives and historical events of children, parents and grandparents.
kclibrary.lonestar.edu/decades.html -- A fantastic Web site with photos and historical information (e.g. fashion & fads, historic events, art, books, music, film & TV) on each of the decades. Great for prompting memories and family stories, putting your own stories into a historical context, and helping children explore, understand, and compare the present to when their parents and grandparents were growing up.
www.nara.gov -- National Archives and Records Administration, which gives you access to veterans records, government documents, and more.
www.ellisislandrecords.org -- Search for family members who entered the United States through Ellis Island from 1892-1924.
Click here to get more information and free resources from the