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Can I Do All My Genealogy Online?

There's no getting away from the fact that the internet has transformed the way we live our everyday lives and in many cases, has made accessing information far easier than it was a generation ago.

I still have the sellotaped-together family tree which my grandfather's brother painstakingly put together in the 1980s. He spent weeks in the National Records of Scotland, looking at birth, marriage and death certificates and adding everything into his tree by hand.

The genealogy industry was quick to spot the benefits of the internet. Ancestry first went online in 1996, FamilySearch opened in 1999 and since then the number of genealogy websites offering access to records has mushroomed. With the sheer number of websites, both free and subscription, it's tempting to think you can do all the research which can be done from the comfort of your sofa. But is that really the case?

What Genealogy Records are Not Online

The big, commercial websites are digitising more content regularly, and it's always worth checking their catalogue every couple of months to see what's on offer.

There are some other extremely valuable records which are not online and which will require a visit to the archives. One of the best examples which springs to mind is Poor Law records, which detail interactions between individuals and Parish Boards who helped families in need. These records are very rich in detail and often give lots of information about the circumstances of the family at the time. Some areas, such as Renfrewshire, have indexed their Poor Law Records to let you search from your sofa and see if an ancestor is mentioned. But you'll still have to visit the archive to read the full file.

Business and trade records can add detail and colour to an ancestor's life. Where did they work, who were their colleagues, what products or services did their employer make? If your ancestor was in a trade guild, there may be records about when they were admitted, their apprenticeships, or details of sons also admitted to the guild. Most of these records are held locally, in places like the Scottish Business Archive at the University of Glasgow.

Medical Records are notoriously hard to access for privacy reasons, but if you know that your ancestor was treated in a hospital, it is worth seeing whether there is an archive. I had huge success a couple of years ago dealing with Lothian Health Archive in Edinburgh, where I accessed medical records of a client's grandfather who had been treated for a brain tumour in the 1920s. His file ran to 70+ pages, and had everything from x-ray images to his observation chart completed by the ward nurses.

Local Genealogy Help

Obviously if you're many miles away from the archives you wish to access, this is going to cause an issue. However, there are hundreds of genealogists across the country who are used to going into archives and researching for clients. Paying someone to do the job for you is often far more cost effective than travelling yourself, and paying for a hotel. Don't hesitate to get in touch if you're wondering what sort of information about your ancestors might be lurking in the archives.


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