The Internet has spoiled us. If we want a book, we expect to find it online in a few mouse clicks. With equivalent ease, we can find the population of Tobago, the invoice price on a Ford Explorer or the prize winnings of the world's top bowlers.
So when I set out to learn about genealogy in the Internet age, I didn't consider it unreasonable to expect my family tree to unfurl instantly on my computer screen.
It doesn't work that way. An hour into my first search, all I managed to uncover was the date and place of my grandfather's death, which wasn't news to me. (It was on a database of Social Security records.)
This is not to say that the Net is genealogically useless. On the contrary, it is reshaping this area of research, with new sites and services popping up every week, adding volumes of historical records and databases to an already substantial virtual vault.
It's just that uncovering your ancestral roots online isn't quite as simple as, say, tracking down lyrics to Neil Young songs.
"The Internet is a wonderful tool in conjunction with traditional [genealogical] sources," said Joe Gillard, 63, of Los Angeles, who has spent the last nine months tracing his roots. "But it's not likely that you'll go onto the Net and have all of this information coming back to you neatly arrayed."
Online resources for genealogists are just beginning to bloom. A growing number of commercial sites are assembling vast databases designed to help people piece together their family trees. This contingent is led by Ancestry.com, which is financially backed by such technology powerhouses as Intel Corp. and CMGI.
There are also thousands of Web sites that offer genealogical resources for free. Topping this list is http://www.familysearch.org, a site launched in April by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that is quickly becoming an online repository for the church's peerless genealogical records.
These sites are only the most visible contributions the Net is making to genealogical research. E-mail has become a critical tool of correspondence among far-flung family members helping each other in their searches. And many families now post their family trees on Web sites, enabling relatives around the world to access them and help fill in some of the blanks.
But for all the Internet's impact on this increasingly popular hobby, genealogical experts still recommend that beginners start offline.
"The first thing is to gather information from your own family," said David Rencher, manager of public outreach for the family history department of the Mormon Church. "Generally, you need at least the names of your grandparents to get back into our collection to begin to find records."
After you've interviewed your relatives, it's time to log on. A partial list of genealogical resources on the Net can be found at http://members.aol.com/johnf14246/gen_mail.html.
The quality and extent of resources varies widely from site to site. Many free and commercial sites offer access to indexes of public records, such as death certificates, marriage licenses and census records. Sometimes the records themselves are available online.
Many commercial sites offer access to some of their databases for free. Ancestry.com, for instance, offers free searches through such records as a Civil War database, which contains names of more than 2 million soldiers (from both the Blue and the Gray). But the company charges a $59.95 annual membership fee for access to all 1,600 of its online databases, which include obituaries printed in 85 newspapers since 1990 and an index to U.S. Census data from 1790 through 1870.
There are also many free sites, such as http://www.rootsweb.com, which has a genealogy search engine and hosts more than 3,000 home pages for genealogical and historical societies.
No matter how successful you are online, there is bound to be more work offline. In-depth genealogical research, after all, requires sifting through centuries of public and private records yet to be digitized. The Mormon Church estimates that it has records linked to about 400 million names on its Web site, just a fraction of the 2 billion names represented in its offline records collection.
Genealogical research on the Internet "is still in its infancy," Rencher said. "If we were doing a jigsaw puzzle, we might have the straight pieces around the outer edge, but the picture isn't there yet."
On rare occasions, beginning genealogists searching the Net will stumble into extensive family trees that relatives have already pieced together and posted online. But more often, Internet searches yield citations for records that you then must look up in public libraries or other institutions.
Because Mormons believe ancestors and their offspring are reunited in the afterlife, the church has established 2,000 Family History Centers around the country that are free even to non-Mormons. The Los Angeles facility, at the Mormon Temple on Santa Monica Boulevard, offers access to mountains of microfilm. Genealogists say careful record keeping is essential, and there is plenty of software to help you with the task. Broderbund Inc. sells software packages for $30 to $90 at its http://www.familytreemaker.com Web site. Sierra's Generations family-tree software products, ranging from $15 to $70, are available at http://www.sierra.com. And the Mormon Church offers a free program called Personal Ancestral File 4.0 that may be downloaded from its Web site.
Novices should bear in mind that genealogical searches are strewn with obstacles. Amateur sleuths often hit dead-ends after they've traced back to their relatives' arrival in the United States. Common names are more difficult to trace than uncommon ones (as I quickly learned with my last name). Ethnicity matters, too. Irish records often dry up around the time of the 1840 potato famine, and blacks often run into what is called "the 1870 curtain," a reference to the dearth of data predating the Civil War.
But Gillard, a semi-retired engineer who is black, traced his roots back to 1740. He pieced together a family tree in nine months that, were it not for crucial clues and citations he found quickly on the Net, might otherwise have taken him years. And, he says, there have been a few surprises along the way. "I knew there were blacks in the Revolutionary War, but I'd never heard anything to make me believe one of my relatives was one of them," Gillard said. "When I got to that guy, it kind of blew me away."
Times staff writer Greg Miller can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.