Researching your family tree is such an interesting hobby and for me, a really enjoyable and fulfilling career and it’s an activity that has been revolutionised by the use of both computers and the world wide web which is 30 years old.
Today, 01 August is officially World Wide Web Day – a global celebration dedicated to web browsing, the online activity that brings the world at your fingertips and a wealth of knowledge at your feet. [i]
History of the Internet and the Web
Back in 1943 Thomas Watson, the Chairman of IBM said ‘I think there is a world market for maybe five computers’ – he would have been astounded that today most of us carry computers in our pockets in the form of mobile phones. These mini-computers store vast amounts of information and can be used to find the answers to even the most obscure questions in a fraction of a second.
For example, I typed ‘world wide web day’ into Google’s search bar and in less than one second – (0.65 to be precise), I was provided with 1,140,000,000 results. When we stop to think about that, it is truly amazing that so much information is available in so short a time.
The internet has its origins in the 1950’s with the development of electronic computers and was used primarily in the military and scientific arenas where the concept of wide area networking was developed. [ii]
Walt Howe describes an early internet that had ‘nothing friendly about it’ and how those computer experts, engineers, scientists and librarians who used it had to learn how to use a ‘very complex system.’ [iii]
Tim Berners-Lee who worked at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland had been considering the problems of information management: scientists around the world needed to share data, yet they lacked common computers and presentation software to enable it. [iv]
In 1989 Berners-Lee who had envisaged a structure for linking information across different computers, wrote a proposal in March 1989 called “Information Management: A Proposal”. By 1991 this vision of universal connectivity had become the World Wide Web, made available on the internet.
‘Suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere were linked.
Suppose I could program my computer to create a space in which everything
could be linked to everything.’
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. [v]
Thirty years later there are over 1.5 billion websites on the world wide web today, although less than 200 million are active. Figure 1 below shows how the numbers have increased since the year 2000. [vi]
Figure 1. Increase in website numbers since 2000.
The internet and the web has revolutionised the way we communicate, how we shop, how we network, how we meet other people and find partners, how we keep in touch with family and friends, how we find and apply for jobs, how we travel, how we learn new skills and find information about a myriad of subjects.
Problems with the Internet and Web
The use of computers, the internet and the web has become so ubiquitous that we tend to take it for granted, so it may surprise you to find that more than half of the world’s population still can’t get online. [vii]
Certainly there are problems with the world wide web such as those with criminal intent who scam and hack on an individual and even governmental level, those who maliciously troll others, those who use the dark web to trade in unlawful commodities or who share awful images of abuse and of course, there are worries about the use of artificial intelligence.
Go into any café or restaurant and you will see couples sitting across from each other, with their eyes locked, not on each other, but instead on the screen in their hand. Sadder still are the parents with young families, all whom are staring at the individual small screens in front of them rather than enjoying spending time with each other. No wonder there are concerns that the ‘always connected’ generation have lost the art of conversation.
The World Wide Web and Irish Ancestry Research
Lev Grossman said, ‘If my generation is remembered for anything, it will be as the last one that remembers the world before the Internet’ [viii] and I certainly remember the world before we had the internet and web to satisfy many of our information needs.
I remember many years ago going into our local library and trawling through old telephone directories and using the microfich machine to view the 1901 Census of Ireland, staring at it for so long that the information on the pages started to swim before my eyes.
Compare how easy it is now to search for people in the Irish Census using for example, just a partial name by using wildcards, or searching for all the tailors in County Antrim, or everyone who lived in a particular townland, or everyone who registered their religion as Jewish (3635 in the 1901 Census and 4994 in the 1911 Census).
The 1901 and 1911 Census of Ireland along with surviving fragments can be found at The National Archives of Ireland http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/ and can be accessed for free.
Today, we can access Birth, Death and Marriage records, church records, land records, wills and emigration records. We can view a photograph of the church that our ancestors were married in and see a photo and transcription of their headstone.
Through sharing DNA test results, we can find relations we never knew we had and find out the migration routes our ancient ancestors took to arrive at our present-day location.
We can share information in a Facebook group with people on the other side of the world and fill in the gaps in a family tree, perhaps seeing a painting or photo of a long-dead ancestor that has been shared online.
We can read books that are long out of print, without having to find space for them on our bookshelves and read about the misdemeanors of our ancestors in newspapers that are a few hundred years old, all because they have been digitised, indexed and made available on the web.
Websites of interest to the genealogist are owned by a mixture of public sector organisations, commercial organisations and those where individuals have made their labours of love publicly available, such as one name websites or those where a range of documents have been transcribed and uploaded by altruistically minded family historians. These websites can be free to view, membership or pay-per-view.
The Irish Government in particular has been very pro-active in putting a lot of Irish genealogical records online that will help you to build your family tree; they deserve a great deal of credit for making this information freely available to the millions of people worldwide who claim Irish ancestry.
Family Search also deserves a huge amount of credit for the vast range of documents from around the world that they have made available for free – https://www.familysearch.org/search/ This website is made available through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons.
Of course, not everything of interest to the genealogist is available online and there are thousands of records that are still held in archives and libraries. Some examples in Northern Ireland include estate records, maps, tithes, valuation revisions, school records and workhouse records, but no doubt many of these will be placed online in the coming years.
The three websites that I would hate to be without are:
- Irish Genealogy for its free access to Birth, Death and Marriage records at https://www.irishgenealogy.ie/en/
- National Archives of Ireland for its free access to the Irish Census at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/ and
- PRONI for its range of free online records and a very good e-catalogue at https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/proni
So what is your favourite genealogy website – what is the one that you would hate to have to do without?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Natalie Bodle, a native of Northern Ireland is the author of the Roots Blog and founder of Roots Revealed. She is a professionally qualified genealogist and is a member of APG. She is also a qualified tour guide and a member of TGNI.
Roots Revealed provides genealogy research services to clients who are searching for their Irish, Northern Irish and Scots-Irish ancestors, in addition to genealogy tours and family history courses. For more information about the full range of services provided by Roots Revealed, please visit www.rootsrevealed.co.uk or get in touch by emailing email@example.com
[i] Days of the Year. (2019) 01 August – World Wide Web Day. https://www.daysoftheyear.com/days/world-wide-web-day : accessed 01 August 2019.
[ii] Wikipedia. History of the Internet. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Internet : accessed 01 August 2019.
[iii] Internet Society. Howe, Walt. (23 August 2016) A Brief History of the Internet. http://www.walthowe.com/navnet/history.html : accessed 01 August 2019.
[iv] Wikipedia. (2019) History of the World Wide Web. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_World_Wide_Web : accessed 01 August 2019.
[v] CERN. (12 March 2019) 30th Anniversary of the World Wide Web. https://home.cern/events/web30: accessed 01 August 2019.
[vi] Internet World Stats. Total Number of Websites. https://www.internetlivestats.com/total-number-of-websites : accessed 01 August 2019.
[vii] World Wide Web Foundation. (2019) For the Web. https://webfoundation.org: accessed 01 August 2019.
[viii] Good Reads. World Wide Web Quotes. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/world-wide-web : accessed 01 August 2019.