It’s easy to fall into a routine when it comes to looking for genealogy records. Check out a couple of favorite websites, maybe hit an Internet search engine, and just keep repeating. Break out of that rut with these 7 free genealogy websites that you might be overlooking.
Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 49
Discovering new records is one part of the genealogy research process (which I refer to as the WANDER Method). Discovering new records means that we can’t keep looking only in the same place all the time. Here are some free genealogy websites to add to the mix:
1. Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)
The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is an organization comprised of thousands of libraries, archives, and museums across the United States. It’s essentially a portal to discovering their digital holdings. As of June 2020, DPLA has links to more than 37 million images, text files, audio files, and video files. Basically, if it can be digitized, it could end up being accessed through DPLA. This includes photographs, original records, yearbooks, family Bibles, oral interviews, maps, and so much more.
Using DPLA can help you find things in libraries and archives where you would never have thought to look. (Think of the family Bible that ended up in another branch of the family that wound up in an archive on the other side of the country.)
When you’re searching in DPLA, you really need to think about it like a catalog, because DPLA is going to be searching for those digitized items by their subject matter. If you’re thinking about looking for a yearbook, you’d want to search for the name of the yearbook or the name of the school, not the name of the ancestor who is mentioned inside the yearbook. (Of course, you’ll want to search for your ancestors’ names in DPLA, but the real treasures are found when you search for things like locations, names of churches, fraternal organizations, etc.)
Here’s a short tutorial on using DPLA. (The front page has changed a bit and there are a LOT more records since I did this video, but the basics of using the site remain the same.)
2. Internet Archive
You might know Internet Archive as being the home of the Wayback Machine, where you can find older versions of websites (great for when you have a URL, but the site is gone!) But Internet Archive also has an incredible amount of digitized materials. Like DPLA, if it can be digitized, it might be found on Internet Archive. I’ve found yearbooks, city directories, family histories, county histories and all sorts of annual reports for institutions and government agencies.
If you do a search from the IA main page, the default is to search the “metadata”—essentially, searching like a catalog. Think about subjects, such as locations, organizations, churches, etc. There is a setting where you can search across the contents of IA’s holdings, but the default is to search only the metadata.
3. State Archives, Libraries, and Historical Societies
(Yes, I realize this is more than one website.) All three of these types of places are digitizing more and more of their holdings and making them available. Different states have different arrangements for these functions; for example, in some states, the state historical society functions as the state archives. Explore what it is for the states where your ancestors lived.
Their digital offerings could be anything from vital records, veterans home registers, state penitentiary records, photographs, etc.
4. State and Local Genealogy Societies
I am a huge proponent of genealogy societies. They have that local and regional expertise; they know where the records are. However, we often don’t think about looking at their websites because we aren’t members. (Though I encourage everyone to join the genealogical societies that are relevant to their research, it usually isn’t possible to join all of them, especially if when you have ancestors who moved around a lot!)
However, many genealogy society websites have resources available even to people who aren’t members. For example, the Indiana Genealogical Society has a ton of records that are available to non-members.
Even the societies that don’t have records on their websites often have research guides. This could be information about historic churches or cemeteries in the area or an overview of where original records are located.
Now, the next three websites I’m going to tell you about aren’t necessarily going to give you records, but they’re going to point you to more resources that you can use (which can be just as valuable!)
Linkpendium was developed and is maintained by Brian and Karen Leverich, the original developers of RootWeb. (They’ve been around the genealogy-on-the-Internet space for awhile!) Linkpendium is a curated list of more than 10 million genealogy websites from the US and UK and family/surname websites.
What’s really cool is that it has a built in search engine. So it’s kind of like Google specifically for genealogy. You can do a search for your ancestor’s name and it will search across those websites that they have listed in Linkpendium.
Another way that you can use the site is to explore by location. There are sections for individual states (and counties within states). These sections are then broken down by category. I have found so many hidden gems of websites this way.
And kudos to the Leveriches for maintaining those 10 million links. They do a great job of making sure that those links are updated. You’re not going to find a bunch of dead links over on Linkpendium. (I have a more detailed review of Linkpendium in this post.)
Another website that you might be overlooking in your genealogy research is WorldCat. WorldCat is actually short for “world catalog,” and that’s what it does. WorldCat is put together by OCLC, which is a consortium of libraries around the world. WorldCat is a way that you can search the catalogs of OCLC member libraries around the world. There are millions upon millions of entries in WorldCat. Some of these things are going to be digitized; most of them not.
So it might be thinking, “Why do I want to just look at a bunch of library catalogs?” Like DPLA or Internet Archive, you sometimes find these things in libraries where you would never have looked.
So what might you find in WorldCat? Well, basically if it can be cataloged by a library or an archive or museum, it could end up with an entry in WorldCat. You’re going to find a ton of books, but you’re also going to find references to original materials, microfilm, microfiche, databases and digitized materials.
The key to using WorldCat is not to just plug in your ancestor’s name, but to think about it like a catalog. You’re not going to use WorldCat like you use Ancestry. Think about topics that books and other materials would be about.
Entries in WorldCat all of the repositories that own that particular book (or microfilm or whatever it is). If there’s a library near you, great! If not, reach out to that library to inquire about interlibrary loan or to see if they will copy pertinent pages for you.
7. The FamilySearch Research Wiki
The FamilySearch Research Wiki is literally my first stop whenever my research takes me to a new location or covers a topic that I’m not familiar with.
If I’m doing research in a new-to-me county, I’ll go to its page on the Wiki and discover when various records started there, what counties it was formed from, when it was formed, and find links to relevant websites and collections. Not doing research in the US? No problem! The Wiki has pages for locations around the world.
The Wiki is also great for learning about different research topics and records. Need to brush up on using the Dawes Rolls? Check out the Wiki. Need a Latin genealogical word list? Check out the Wiki.