Second site: Seeking your family's fortunes

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The Independent Culture
OUR LIVES are losing their shape. We have "eating episodes" instead of meals and, as the sociologist Anthony Giddens noted in his recent Reith Lectures, we are more concerned with "relationships" than marriages. Perhaps one of the reasons why genealogy is such a popular leisure pursuit is that it helps reveal the hidden shapes of families, even though most of the individuals constituting those structures are long dead. It affirms that the trees of ancestry overshadow the passing social trends of the day. It also puts people in touch with large numbers of relatives they need never visit.

Another reason for its current popularity is the Internet, a system that could have been designed with the needs of genealogists in mind. The babble of newsgroups is an accommodating medium for those trying to hail relatives or contact researchers with similar interests. E-mail spares family historians the fortnight's turnaround of airmail messages. Traditionalists might argue that family trees should still be inscribed in exercise books and kept in the desk drawers of distant aunts, but the dust is off the archives for good.

Researchers do still have to rely on legwork, as only a tiny proportion of original records are actually on-line. Family historians no longer have to start their work when they arrive at the record office, though, since much advice and preliminary information is already on the Web. British researchers can get started at the UK & Ireland Genealogical Information Service site, known as GENUKI, which seems to boast a link to a family history society in every shire of the land.

There are also sites which provide at least the surface layers of archival data. A project called "Jewish Records Indexing - Poland", for example, contains 400,000 records, providing names and dates for microfilmed archives relating to 19th-century Polish Jews. Downloading one of these database files is daunting enough without the site authors' comment that computers are only a way to "kick-start" research.

The JRI project is something of an inter-faith venture. You can't go far into genealogy websites without encountering LDS. This stands for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the major Mormon denomination. The LDS Church believes that souls go to a spirit world to await the Final Judgement. While there, they can be united eternally with their families through the assistance of living people, who act as their proxies in sacred ceremonies. In order to identify souls for retrospective sacraments, and because everybody is ultimately related, the Mormons have developed an unrivalled database of genealogical records. The vanished Polish Jews are just one part of their virtual flock. Although the database itself is not on-line, the LDS search engine is being introduced to the Web. Another fruit of missionary zeal and information technology, an LDS format for family history files, has become a genealogical industry standard.

You don't have to be a Mormon to devote your life to other people's family trees. Cyndi Howells, who is not an LDS Church member, has built up a site that contains more than 40,000 links to other genealogy sites. Howells has also established a commercial link to Generations, a series of genealogy software packages issued by Sierra. The basic program is Easy Family Tree (Windows, pounds 13).

Unless you're American and new to the Net, there's little incentive to go for the Deluxe edition (Windows, pounds 39.99): the extras include Howells' beginners' guide to the Internet, and discs containing American death registers. Both packages calculate baffling relationships like "fourth cousin twice removed", and the Deluxe has the capacity to extend the calculations down 255 generations - just the job if you've managed to trace your family back 6,000 years.

You can visit or contact Marek Kohn on