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Ancestry.com with its sister sites ancestry.co.uk, ancestry.com.au and a number of others are all subscription websites offering different levels of information and access. They form one of the most comprehensive collections of online documents available, and the offering is constantly expanding.

Each of the Ancestry sites has an area where you can upload your family tree. These can be private or public, meaning you can either withhold information generally except to users you invite to your tree, or you can make the information public.

Ancestry.com is all about US documents. You will find the US census records (transcriptions and original images) from 1790 to 1930, plus census substitutes and extra schedules. Another strength of this site is its immigration records, particularly from the UK and Europe, but also from Canada, Australia and other countries. There is a range of US BMD records, but as each US state had different requirements, this information can be incomplete. Military documents are also available, plus a very wide range of other US sources from directories, newspapers and much more.

Ancestry.co.uk covers England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Channel Islands. The census records from 1841 to 1911 are now available. Original images are available for all censuses except Scotland which has transcriptions.

The BMD records for England and Wales are available from 1837 onwards, and Ancestry is also adding parish registers gradually. There are directories from all over the place, plus many books which cover historical eras, old copies of Burke's and many other resources to search. I've gained a huge amount of information from this particular ancestry website. You can see all of the different resources by accessing the Card Catalogue, and see what's been updated on the What's new page.

Ancestry.com.au is a newer website, and it tends to include a lot of the British resources as well as specific Australian material, such as the electoral rolls, Australian directories, certificates of naturalisation, the ANZAC memorial, convict registers and lots more. Immigration records are also available now.

Other dedicated Ancestry websites include Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden.

My experience has generally been good with Ancestry. I have a full membership (restricted memberships are available), so I can use any of the sites. One minor annoyance is that it always defaults to the Australian ancestry site no matter which one you type in. However, you can switch to one of the other sites via a little popup box at the bottom right of the page. It will say Ancestry.com.au and if you click on that, the box opens to show all the different country websites. Your login will work on all of them if you have the full sub.

Ancestry has fiddled a lot with its search facility, and many of us don't really like the new form or results pages. However, you can go to the old search by going to the search tab on the menu and clicking on it. At the right of the next page in tiny writing is "go to old search" and that will bring up a more familiar screen.

With Ancestry and many similar sites, it is worth experimenting with your search strategies. Depending on how common the name was, and the period, you need to realise that spellings were not standardised, and people did change the spelling of their surnames. People who wrote records often had bad handwriting, or didn't care. I've seen some parish records where I strongly suspect the curate or rector was having a go at the communion wine, or were badly dyslexic. With uncommon names, you can probably put in as little information as you like, but with common surnames, you need to add more, and play around with your searchs. Names like Griffith/Griffiths/Gryffith or Balfour/Balfourd/Belford/Belforde need quite a bit of time. I've found my Linney family under Lenny, Lenney and Laney in some censuses.

One problem (which I've also heard others speak about) is the accuracy of transcription, particularly in the censuses, and also parish registers. With names mis-spelled, it's very difficult to find the person you're looking for, and I have gone to findmypast to get records which I just couldn't find on Ancestry. But one rather handy feature (which I've frequently used) is that subscribers can upload corrections to the censuses which eventually appear alongside the wrong name, but are then indexed so a relative can be found more easily. It would be great if more sites accepted help from their members like this.

Overall the breadth of collections contained in the Ancestry sites is huge, and of great benefit to genealogists. I've subscribed now for several years and have no plans to stop. Definitely give the free trials a go first and see if Ancestry fits your needs before you subscribe. You may find one of the more limited memberships is sufficient for your needs.

Patrice Connelly
November 2010, updated August 2011


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