The internet can reveal all kinds of facts about your family. While idly browsing the Friends Reunited website recently, for example, I found out that my dad, a retired teacher, had once silenced a rowdy class with a terrifyingly accurate Darth Vader impression. But slightly less esoteric information about previous generations is also becoming widely available online.
I discovered that my grandmother's uncle, Isaac Swaits, was the son of a publican in Wray, Lancashire, had a sister called Mary, and was a private during the First World War. With such facts floating around in cyberspace, it's easy to see why so many have been bitten by the genealogy bug.
This month's Computing Which! devotes two featuresto tracing your ancestors via your PC: one on how to find the information, the other on how to store it. In the latter, its favoured software was www.ancestry.co.uk's Family Tree Maker 2006, ahead of Calico Pie's Family Historian. BSD Concept's Heredis Mac is the best option for Macintosh users. The differences lie in the type of data you can store, how you can manipulate and edit it, and how it can be presented.
Genealogy has been my parents' hobby for the last few years, and in a rare show of interest, I asked to see the fruits of their labours. I was given several folders of A4 sheets, printed out from their Family Historian software.
"When you've gone back 15 generations," said my dad, "and when some of your ancestors have had as many as 18 children, a standard family tree can run to 20 pages or more." But most programs display the information in other ways, such as space-saving, horizontal family trees, narrative reports, or a complete family book report.
"For example, this page," continued my dad, "lists everyone on the tree, and shows their exact relationship to you." This sheet is ideal for memorising how many "greats" each generation of grandfathers should come with.
However, idiosyncratic data presents problems. While Computing Which! found that Heredis Mac coped with marrying cousins, Family Historian had trouble dealing with a widow who remarried and changed her name again.
However, entering the details of my divorce and my physical description went smoothly, although this didn't seemimportant. "You might think that now, " said my mum, "but I'm sure it'll be fascinating for future generations."
Another common problem is the documentation; the demographic is skewed towards older, less computer-literate users. "Family Historian is powerful," said my dad, "but it doesn't come with a manual, you have to download it. And even then, the instructions aren't couched in terms where the average person can just go to the keyboard and start working." My mum agreed: "It took six months for us to work out how to put census data in."
However, it isn't the tapping of surnames that gets people hooked on genealogy. It's more the tracking people down, discovering that a great-great-grandfather made a living as an "artist in wood", or that a great-aunt eloped to Gretna Green with a sailor.
Gaining access to census information, or births, deaths and marriages, used to mean a visit to Islington's Family Records Centre or Kew's National Archives; however, you can still access details in these locations for free.
But the information is gradually being put on the internet, often by companies eager to profit from the booming interest in genealogy (see box). It costs, but is faster than using microfiches.
The only comprehensive free online source is at www.familysearch.org. This site is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - or the Mormon Church - which requires its members to research their family trees to baptise deceased relatives.
This has led to the establishment of LDS Family History Centres worldwide, and to the de facto computer format for storing genealogical data - Gedcom - and, latterly, their placing of British parish records online, along with British census data from 1881.
With the help of Computing Which! and my parents' website subscriptions, it was a breeze to log on and look for details. There are also many potential obstacles.
My dad had advised me to search for "Swaits" - my grandmother's maiden name - as it was relatively uncommon, butthe Victorian handwriting in the registers leads to many mistranscriptions. Swaits has, variously, appeared as Swaites, Swails, and even Twaits. But I founddetails of my grandmother's Uncle Isaac: the Lancashire address where he lived as a baby, and details of his First World War medals.
"The details make it interesting," my dad said. "The ages at which people married, their occupations - even the names of witnesses at weddings, they all give you a glimpse into your history."
Genes Reunited has historical pictures of many families. After registering and submitting your family tree, itlooks for "hot matches" between trees. "I recently got back in touch with your grandpa's sister's children through the site," said my mum, "and now we're writing to each other regularly." About what? "Oh, you know, this and that."
But can you trust information given by amateur historians? "You should take any info as a piece of advice," said my dad. "It should be reasonably accurate, but to be certain, go back to the original source." OK, I asked, so what's this rumour that he used to do a convincing Darth Vader impression? "Rubbish," he said. "That's just folklore."
Genealogy on the internet
GENERAL INFO: Part of myfamily.com, which operates many census sites.
CENSUS INFO: 1841 - 1901
BIRTHS MARRIAGES & DEATHS (BMD): 1837-1911 approx
COST: £69.95 for 12 months' unlimited access, or 10 records for £4.95.
ADDITIONAL INFO: Ancestry also has a wealth of military, immigration and probate data.
GENERAL INFO: Linked with Friends Reunited. Compiles data from hobbyists
CENSUS INFO: 1901 only
BIRTHS MARRIAGES & DEATHS (BMD): A recent addition; 1837-2004
COST: Viewing based on credit system. 500 credits cost £5 and last 7 days.
ADDITIONAL INFO: Can view www.1901censusonline.com without becoming a member.
GENERAL INFO: Part of Title Research, which provides census data to lawyers.
CENSUS INFO: 1861 and 1891 only
BIRTHS MARRIAGES & DEATHS (BMD): 1837-2004
COST: Viewing the index uses one unit. 50 units cost £5 and last 90 days.
ADDITIONAL INFO: Also has military records, and registers of British citizens abroad.
GENERAL INFO: Linked with British Data Archive, which sells genealogy CDs.
CENSUS INFO: 1841 - 1901
BIRTHS MARRIAGES & DEATHS (BMD): 1837-2004
COST: Complex credit system. 50 credits cost £5, and get cheaper as you buy.
ADDITIONAL INFO: Access to parish record indexes and historical data back to 1127.
GENERAL INFO: Concentrates on transcriptions of BMD data.
CENSUS INFO: None
BIRTHS MARRIAGES & DEATHS (BMD): 1837-2003
COST: Viewing transcribed data uses one unit. 60 units cost £6 and last 90 days.
ADDITIONAL INFO: Its BMD is only fully indexed from 1866 to 1920, and 1984 to 2003.
GENERAL INFO:Compiled by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
CENSUS INFO: 1881 only
BIRTHS MARRIAGES & DEATHS (BMD): 1837-1911 approx. From parish records only.
ADDITIONAL INFO:Your parish records may not be in their library, so it's a bit hit and miss.