Lost in (Cyber)space

The World Wide Web is a wonderful place to look for your family's history. If you are a newcomer to the World Wide Web, then this is the page for you. Here you will find a description of some of the basics of the Internet and suggestions on where to start looking for your ancestors. After all, there may be a lot of useful sites out there in cyberspace but they are of no use to you if you don't know where to find them. We have made contact with quite a few distantly-related cousins via the Internet and you may too.

Getting Connected

In order to get around the WWW, you will first need a connection to the Internet. If you are using a computer at work (naughty, naughty) or at school, then you don't have to worry about this detail. However, if you are using a computer at home, you will need a modem and an Internet service provider (ISP). Although there are any number of big national ISPs who would like your business, you should also enquire locally.

To navigate the WWW, you also need a piece of software called a web browser. This is a program that knows how to look for files on the WWW and how to interpret them (display them on your monitor) once it retrieves them for you.

The Technical Stuff

Once you have your Internet connection and web browser, you are all ready for action! But what now? Each file that is accessible to the WWW has a unique address called a URL (Uniform Resource Locator). For example, the URL for Meet the Family! is


What on earth does all of that mean? Well, with a little practice, you will be able to decipher these cryptic lines too.

The first part (http in the example above) is some technical stuff that tells the browser what protocol to use in accessing and downloading the file you have requested. The most common is http (hypertext transfer protocol) but other prefixes that you may encounter are ftp (file transfer protocol) and gopher (another file transfer protocol). You really don't have to worry about this part but be aware that every WWW document begins with one of these prefixes followed by ://

The next section is the domain name. This may tell you (more or less) where the files are located geographically. In the example above (www.obliquity.com), the domain name is obliquity and it is a commercial site (com). The www part often precedes the rest of the domain name but not always.

Domain names are fun to try to decode! Countries besides the United States have domain names that end in two-letter abbreviations. Some are obvious (uk for the United Kingdom, ca for Canada, jp for Japan) and some are not so obvious (de for Germany, ch for Switzerland). Academic sites in the United Kingdom always have ac in the domain name whilst German universities usually have uni- followed by the name of the university. Every country has its own setup.

In the United States, the us abbreviation is rarely used. Some common abbreviations that do appear in American domain names are com (commercial), edu (educational), mil (military), net (network), and org (organisation), among others.

The transfer protocol alerts the browser as to how to handle the files and the domain name tells the browser on which computer the required file is located. The remainder of the URL is a combination of subdirectory and file names. The Meet the Family! home page is in a subdirectory called family and the actual name of the file is index.html. Most documents that are readable on the WWW have file names ending in the suffix .html or .htm although there are other possibilities. The suffix tells the browser what kind of file it is. A .html file is a text file written in a text formatting language called HyperText Markup Language. (See a simple tutorial at


if you want to learn more about it.) Images are usually .gif or .jpeg or .jpg files.

Hide and Seek on the WWW

So now you know what all of that http business means. But you still have to know the URL of a file before you can actually go retrieve it. Fortunately, you are in luck. There are a number of resources out there that can help you locate the information you are looking for. One place to start is with a search engine, a piece of software that hunts through the Internet, looking for documents fitting whatever search parameters you have set. If you don't know where to find such a search engine, you can find a list of them at the URL


You can certainly use these search engines to look for genealogy resources but some busy beavers have already done that for you and are maintaining assorted lists of WWW sites relating to genealogy. The most comprehensive collection of genealogy listings (and a good place to start exploring) is the fabulous Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet at the URL


Time and Money

If you are doing genealogy research from your home computer, then you are paying for your connect time (telephone bills and provider services). Web surfing can consume enormous amounts of time so it is best to schedule your browsing during times when the Internet is not so busy. Europeans will want to surf the web early in the morning because once the US wakes up and comes online, download times (the time it takes for a requested file to appear on your monitor) shoot up dramatically. Those on the East Coast of North America will probably find the best time for surfing to be early in the morning (before the rest of the US wakes up) whilst those on the West Coast will probably prefer surfing late at night (after the rest of the US and Europe has gone to sleep).

Another trick to speed up download times is to turn off the image-loading option on your browser. Images take a long time load and a lot of people, including those who really should know better, have gone overboard with fancy graphics.

Also, be careful when you type in a URL. It is very easy to misspell a word or put a period where you want a slash. It is very frustrating to send for a document, wait several minutes, and then get an error message from the browser complaining that it can't find the requested document, all because you forgot a period or omitted a subdirectory.

However, nothing is permanent in cyberspace and the file that you have requested may no longer exist. If you get a "Code 404 : File Not Found" error but you are sure that you typed the URL correctly, try "backing up the URL." That is, eliminate the last part of the URL (either a file name or subdirectory) and try again. For example, if you try the URL


you will get a "code 404" error because that file does not exist in that place. However, if you eliminate the file name contact.html and then try


you will have success! However, if you had gotten another error message, you could have tried


before running out of things to eliminate. At this point you have reached the domain name and cannot eliminate anything more.

Don't Believe Everything You Read

That is true of books, CDs and web pages. Examine this cautionary tale about the Fisher family from England and always examine your source material carefully and critically.


Shall we go take a look at some genealogy sites on the WWW? Good luck and have fun!
[Meet the Family!] [Genealogy on the Internet]
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Last modified on 1 August 2003