Finding family lore online catches on

Ancestry.com is among popular websites acting as a tool to make connections to relatives

More often these days, researchers are turning to social networks for help in discovering connections to the dead, and to the living.

Revelations can be serendipitous, and shockingly fast. Last November, for example, it took Laurel Axelrod just two hours to locate the birth mother of her husband, Nicholas, who was adopted as a toddler. She started with crucial biographical information on Ancestry.com and finished by poking around on Facebook.

Within a week, Nicholas spoke to his birth mother on the phone for more than an hour. “It’s sweet,” Laurel said. “Now it’s every weekend.” This spring, the couple, who live in California, flew to England to meet his birth mother and a few other family members in person. “It’s really, really amazing,” she said.

Nicholas Axelrod, who is in his 40s, said he tried to search for his mother a decade earlier but there were too many obstacles. He even thought of hiring a private investigator but that would have cost thousands of dollars. Requesting documents by mail back then took months, he said, whereas the request was fulfilled on Ancestry.com in an instant for about $25.

“I knew her maiden name, which was probably the most important thing because we were able to find her birth certificate and a couple of marriage certificates with her maiden name on it,” he said.

Indeed, Ancestry.com is positioning itself as a tool to make such connections to relatives, said Eric Shoup, senior vice president for product. Most of its 1.6 million users are looking back in time, he said, but “we’re also using our technologies to bring you forward in time” to connect families via social media. “The more we can help members, the more we all benefit.”

Not every genealogy search is so productive. Some companies want dabblers in family lore to have fun. On the new Family Village Game, for example, players discover unknown ancestors and find out facts about them.

In this genealogy game, which is reminiscent of FarmVille or CityVille, players build villages, amass fortunes, buy houses and cars, immigrate family members and assign jobs. As the village grows, according to Jeff Wells, founder of Funium, the game maker, Family Village works behind the scenes to find family connections and real-world documents, including census records, newspaper articles and marriage records. Players can then examine the records, print them or store them in their personal game library.

Jennifer Gray, who played the game this winter as it was being tested, said, “It is addicting.” As she played, she found an obituary for a great-uncle and for her grandmother. “Now I have copies of these,” she said, which led to a conversation with her mother about their family history.

Even though she lives in Utah, “the genealogy capital of the world,” she never had a deep interest in her family tree. The game changed that, she said, and now with the aid of a son, Spencer, who helps her collect coins in Family Village to buy more artifacts, she is excited to dig deeper and share what she finds with her family.

While the genealogy game is new, family trees are not. They are popping up in all corners of the internet, and on mobile applications, as interest in genealogy grows — heightened this year by the 150th anniversary of the Civil War as well as the NBC television show on celebrities’ ancestors, ‘Who Do You Think You Are’, which is co-sponsored by Ancestry.com.

Alignment of technology

Thomas MacEntee, a genealogy educator, writer and speaker, said the explosion of interest in genealogy was because of “an alignment of technology planets.” First came software, then the internet and now social networks, he said.

Facebook and Twitter users are flocking to the sites that cater to their need for social interaction and collaboration. WikiTree.com, for example, is a free and collaborative project created in 2008 to connect personal family histories with one worldwide family tree.

Contributors who abide by an honour code, according to the site, edit the content. Each profile page on WikiTree.com has a trusted list that enables people to share information but protect sensitive information. As of this week, more than 27,000 people had created more than 1.4 million profiles.

“This is a great time to be in genealogy,” said MacEntee, who became interested in the field after watching the 1977 television miniseries ‘Roots’.

While much data can be found free, many sites offer premium content for a monthly fee. Membership rates vary depending on the length of the subscription. For example, an annual membership at Ancestry.com costs $12.95 a month for United States records, and $24.95 for worldwide records.

For those signing up for the plus membership at FamilyLink.com, to gain access to its database and historical newspaper and record collection, monthly fees range from $4.95 for two years to $12.95 month by month.

Tpstry.com automatically generates a Family Memories website to feature the collection as a digital magazine format with people, places, events and image sections. Each entry has a page that displays all answered questions and tagged images. A timeline provides important dates. Tpstry.com provides a basic service free and has not set pricing for its premium plan.

Along those lines, Footnote.com, acquired by Ancestry.com last year, introduced the I Remember Facebook application for its registered users in 2009 to “preserve, honor and share the memories of anyone who influenced your life,” including family, friends, teachers, coaches and fallen soldiers. Users can search by name or create a page. Posts on Facebook also show up on Footnote.

While many sites like Footnote.com offer access to historical collections, some sites sell keepsakes. VintageAerial.com, which has amassed a collection of more than 25 million photographs of small farms and rural America spanning the second half of the 20th century, sells framed prints starting at $349. Family tree makers at Geni.com can buy a 16-by-20-inch printed poster of their tree for $30, or get it framed and on canvas for $120.

In the future, the deceased may be able to speak from beyond the grave. A company called Timeless Footsteps is marketing a product using the latest scanning technology called Footprints, which are business-size placards that can be affixed to a headstone.

Each plaque contains a unique Quick Response code, one of those square blotchy bar codes that can be scanned by visitors using a smartphone QR code reader. The code directs visitors to a web page to learn more about the deceased, including a biography and photographs, and connections to social networking pages like Facebook and Twitter.

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