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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Caught on the Web Merry-Go-Round
by Rhonda R. McClure

August 26, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

You've been sitting at your computer for the last three hours (probably longer, but that secret is safe with me) and you realize that not only haven't you been able to accomplish your goal for the evening, but you have somehow been sidetracked onto other lines and clicked so many web links that you have lost count. There has to be an easier way than this, right? After all, you have nothing to show for your efforts. You have heard others tell you about the great research finds they have discovered on the Internet, and yet all you seem to do is get lost or overwhelmed. You are caught on the merry-go-round, with no seeming way to get off.

Sometimes even the most organized of genealogists gets online and throws all of their organization and planning out the window. Just as with your research in the field, you need to have a plan when searching the Web. You need to know where you are going and record where you have been.

The Web is just another field in which we research and we need to have a plan.

You Gotta Have a Plan

When I visit a library or archive, I have a tentative plan already designed. I have made notes in regards to the records I wish to search and the information I am hoping to locate. I have questions in regards to the information I already have that I want to answer. I then work in a methodical way to go from what I already know to what I hope to find out. This is the standard way in which to progress in genealogical research.

When I am on the Internet, I have a goal in mind. Usually there is something specific I am looking for. It may be a web site devoted to a location in which my ancestors lived, or it could be a site devoted to a repository I want to visit. While it is very tempting to jump from link to link, it is better to make note of those interesting links, but check them later and concentrate on your goal at hand.

I know this is sometimes harder done than said. But if you don't, you will lose site of where you were going and never get there. And because there is so much on the Internet, it is easier to get sidetracked online than it is in the library.

Where Have You Been?

On of the biggest problems with researching online is that we tend to disregard our recording practices. When I am in the library, I use a research log. It records

  • The date of my search
  • The repository I am visiting
  • The call number of the source
  • The title and author of the source
  • Comments as to the result of the search.

With such a log I can easily see where I have been and the results of those efforts.

When researching online, we need to use a similar system. It doesn't matter if you hand write it, or create a form on your computer in your database software. The important point is to keep the log and keep it current. Don't update it just once a week. When you go online, open that up. Record each site you visit. Record what you were searching for and what you found. The idea is to be able to read over the log a month or six months later and be able to recall what you did.

A modified version, for recording online research, of the log I use at the library allows me to record

  • The date of my search
  • The URL for the site I am searching
  • The title of the site
  • The webmaster's name and e-mail
  • Comments as to the result(s) of the search

Working With Directories

One of the ways to better organize your online research is to work with one of the existing directories. A directory is a compilation of web sites. Some of them are searchable, such as Family Tree Maker's own Genealogy Toolbox. This directory of over 70,000 web sites of interest to genealogists is searchable.

Directories are an equivalent to a card catalog of the Internet. They are grouped in some fashion, usually under subheadings, and generally alphabetically under the subheading. This makes it easy for you to select an area of research, a locality, surname, method of research and then exhaust all possible links in that directory for that search. It offers you the opportunity to be systematic in your search.

In Conclusion

Surfing the Web can be a lot of fun and it can be productive. While I have cautioned against running wild from link to link, I am not saying you shouldn't do this. I am saying that you should truly investigate any given web site before you select a link at that site that will take you off to a completely new site. I am also saying that it is essential to keep a log of where you have been and what you have done. With such a log, you will know that you only concentrated on your McCLAINs in Orange County, Indiana at the USGenWeb page for Orange County. That means returning to that site when you work on your LOCKE family. And if you have written down the URL, or better yet - added it to your Favorites in your browser, you can save time by going directly to the site.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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