It’s easy to overlook—and underestimate—Archives.com <www.archives.com
>. The site’s design is pleasant but generic; it looks a bit like those placeholder pages you run across when you mistype a web address and stumble upon a URL squatter. The name is easily confused with that of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website at <archives.gov
>. Indeed, some of the content at Archives.com comes from the National Archives, either directly or indirectly through NARA’s partnership with another subscription genealogy site, Footnote <www.footnote.com
Other content draws upon the familiar FamilySearch site <www.familysearch.org
> of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its Family History Library. Likewise, many of the experts touted on Archives.com’s home page are familiar names in genealogy, and the video tutorials come courtesy of our own Family Tree Magazine
But before you click away, consider that Archives.com manages to collect under one roof a wide variety of resources you can explore with a simple but elegant search. It will monitor its ever-growing mass of records—more than 1.2 billion in 119 collections when we last checked the digital “odometer”—for your ancestors and issue an “Ancestor Alert” when relevant new data get added.
The site also will hook you up with local researchers who will do county-record legwork for you for a flat fee. It provides handsome and easy-to-use online family trees you can build from scratch or from an uploaded GEDCOM file. And best of all, in an era when subscription genealogy sites often run into three figures annually, Archives.com is a bargain at $39.95 a year.
Skeptics can try the site free for seven days. (You do have to provide a credit card number, but you won’t be billed if you cancel before the seven-day trial period ends.) Just click the link at the upper right corner of the home page to give it a whirl.
Starting with search
Once you’ve signed into Archives.com, you’ll probably want to start on the Search page. Click on the Search tab in the main site navigation. The simplest search option is to enter a last name and location (the only required fields) and leave the drop-down box on the left at “Search All Records.”
Note the “exact” checkbox beside the first name, last name, location, county and city fields. Check this if you feel confident about the information you’re entering. Otherwise, if you search for John Doe born in 1950 in Nebraska, you may also get results for Jerry Doe born in 1950 or John Doe born in 1950 in Kansas.
Two drop-down menus provide basic options for narrowing your search. The Select an Archive menu at the top left lets you search all 1.2 billion records, or select a record type, such as vital records, military records, obituaries and newspapers, or immigration and passenger lists. The same list appears in blue below the search form; clicking on one of these links merely sets the Select an Archive menu to match. You’ll notice a few unusual choices here, including Living People Search, Caller ID and Public Records Wizard; these reflect Archives.com’s sideline, of sorts, in funneling members to public-records resources for which you must pay extra. (You can invest in “credits” to avoid having to whip out your credit card every time you click on View Contact Info or View Public Records.) The Surname Histories option also is different in that it allows you to enter only a surname; your results may be interesting, but these “histories” aren’t all that genealogically useful.
The other drop-down menu lets you select a location from “All United States,” individual states or the United Kingdom. You can further fine-tune your search locale with the optional county and city fields.
In addition to last name and first name, you can search using the optional middle name and maiden name fields. Entering a date for any important life event—birth, marriage, divorce, death—can further narrow your search for an individual. If you’re not sure about the date, however, pick a fudge factor from the adjacent drop-down menu: plus or minus one, two, five or 10 years.
Once you’ve filled in your search criteria, click the blue Search button. After a brief whirling-pinwheel logo while Archives.com searches, you’ll be presented with a results page. Your search selections now run down the left-hand side, making it easy to refine or broaden your criteria and search again. The right-hand two-thirds of the screen reports your results, by database, and provides some helpful links to sites such as RootsWeb <rootsweb.ancestry.com> and FamilySearch, where you might find resources. (It’d be nice if these links took you to pages with your search already filled in, but no such luck.)
Clicking on each type of record with the number of hits—such as “Census Records (4)”—takes you to details of those hits. In addition to your Archives.com search results, you may get a bonus list of finds on FamilySearch. Clicking to view those four census records, for example, could reveal 27 additional census records—which, despite the separate results listing, nonetheless open in an Archives.com window, even when you view an image of an original record from FamilySearch. These bonus results don’t necessarily come from the same types of records as the Archives.com results: Birth records results, for instance, may be accompanied by a link to additional death records or census hits on FamilySearch.
On the other hand, those original four census results may come adorned with a little star-in-an-orange-box icon, indicating that they’re from Archives.com’s partnership with Footnote. Go ahead and click on the person’s name or the icon to see all the transcribed data. To view the original image, however, you’ll need to have a Footnote subscription or pay a fee, starting at $2.95.
Because of the way Archives.com dishes out results, it’s often best to start by casting as wide a net as possible. When you do get lots of hits in a record category, don’t miss the Next button that takes you to subsequent pages of results—it’s right above any bonus FamilySearch hits, which aren’t counted in the tally. You always can move on and check out the FamilySearch finds after you’ve clicked through to the last results page; they remain waiting for you at the bottom of the screen.
It’s definitely worth clicking to the end of Archives.com’s own results, as they appear in order by collection. So a few dozen finds from the Social Security Death Index (which you’ve probably already searched elsewhere for free) may precede one or two valuable hits you otherwise would’ve missed from the US Newspaper Obituaries collection. An obituary contains a link to the original as well as an internal link to the obit’s text in case the original is no longer available online.
Other nice touches on full records pages include a Google map showing locations listed therein (or you can click View On Map by any single location), a complete extract of names and places, and the box at upper right that reads, “Click here to save this record.” Once you’ve created a family tree, you can attach records to the appropriate ancestors in your tree.
Busting brick walls
What if your searches come up empty or incomplete? Archives.com has two clever extras that can help. First, set an Ancestor Alert by clicking on Alerts at the far right-hand corner of the main navigation. (Once you’ve set up alerts, the number in parentheses changes to show how many you’ve created.) On the resulting screen, fill in at least your ancestor’s last name. Unless you just like receiving e-mail, you also should fill in at least some of the other fields—first name, location, birth year, death year. Unfortunately, there’s no “exact” toggle here or plus-or-minus fudge factor, so plan accordingly.
Once you’ve set up an Ancestor Alert, Archives.com will run an initial search for your kin in its current databases. Then, as new collections are added, it will automatically check for your ancestor and e-mail you an alert if any matches are found. To see the collections list and what collections are in the works or recently added, go to <www.archives.com/member/default.aspx?_act=collections>. From this page, you can e-mail a request for a data set you especially long to have added.
Another option to get past your brick walls is to click on County Records in the site navigation. From this page, you can request an on-site records search from Archives.com’s army of researchers. Enter your ancestor’s name and date of birth (at least month and year). Then select the state, county and record type you want Archives.com’s researcher to retrieve, and fill in credit card information. Each search costs $24.95, which includes court access fees and labor costs—you won’t be billed for any surprise costs. Average turnaround time is 38 hours, though that varies by state, and you get your money back if your request can’t be filled in a week. All states except New York, North Dakota and South Dakota are covered.
You also can take your stumped searches to Archives.com’s Community Forum via a handy pop-up form that appears when you click a link on the results page. Since this forum is hidden under the Learn tab, though, it’s not clear how many answers you’ll get. When we checked, there were plenty of queries but few replies.
Planting your tree
Archives.com makes it easy to create an online family tree. Note that these trees aren’t designed for sharing with other researchers; consider them an alternative or adjunct to your own trees created with genealogy software on your computer. To get started, click the My Tree link in the navigation bar.
If you already have a family tree on your computer, export it as a GEDCOM, the universal file format for family tree data. Then click the Upload a GEDCOM button on the My Tree page and select your exported file. Give it a name, add a brief description if you’d like and hit the Upload button (20MB is the maximum file size).
Once your file reaches Archives.com, you’ll be asked to pick a “home” person—usually yourself—for this tree; start typing the person’s name and then select from the list of matching suggestions. That’s all there is to it—you’re ready to view, edit or add to your tree, which you can access from any computer connected to the internet.
You can opt instead to start from scratch by clicking Start a New Tree. Again, fill in a name and (optional) description for your tree, then click Create Tree. You’ll have to use the Add Home Person link on the first branch of your new tree to enter yourself or another focus person for this tree. Then you’re ready to start adding the rest of your family.
However you start your tree, you can now attach Archives.com records to relatives. To view these records at a glance, click My Saved Records. Once you’ve created more than one tree, the adjacent My Family Trees drop-down lets you switch between trees. You can create additional trees from the Family Tree Overview page, or edit the name of a tree and delete an unwanted tree from the Manage Tree Settings page; both links appear immediately below your main tree view. Below these you’ll find statistics about the current tree.
From this main tree view, you also can use the links at the top right, opposite the name of the tree, to change the home person, generate a list of individuals in the tree (or filter this list by surname), print the tree or find someone in the tree. Just below the tree’s name, a drop-down lets you change the number of generations displayed at a time. Don’t worry, though, if you can’t see an earlier ancestor: Clicking the arrow beside the box representing an ancestor navigates to the next generation in that direction.
To add a person to your tree, click the plus-sign options in the tree view for adding a spouse, parent or child. You also can add a spouse, child or sibling when you’ve clicked on an individual ancestor and are viewing his or her details. Click Edit to change an ancestor’s basic data, such as birth date and place, or Profile to view and add other details. Each profile view has a few options:
- The Timeline tab is where you input genealogical data by clicking Add Event; as the label suggests, events appear neatly ordered by date.
- The Scrapbook tab lets you upload up to 20 images per ancestor by clicking Add Item. When you add an image, you have the option to check “Set as profile picture,” which makes this item display beside the person’s name in the family tree and profile.
- The Historical Records tab is where you can access Archives.com records you’ve previously saved. These records may be attached to a different person, but here you can link them to this ancestor, as well. A handy Search button fires up a new search for information about this ancestor.
- The Notes tab offers a free-form option for other information about this person. Click Add Note, enter a title and description, and click Add Note again to save your entry.
Before you spend too much time adding fresh data to your Archives.com family tree, be aware that there’s currently no way to export a GEDCOM file back out of the site. That’s a feature Archives.com is working on, however, so stay tuned.
Learning and doing more
Archives.com’s other goodies can be found under the Learn tab in the main site navigation. These include search tips, articles written by genealogy experts, and the aforementioned forum and video tutorials.
You can manage your member profile using the My Account link at the top and bottom of every page. Search History takes you to a list of your previous searches—a handy way to see if you’ve already hunted for Great-uncle Abner’s data. Other links here let you check on your available credits, order history and saved records.
By this time in your exploration of Archives.com (don’t forget that seven-day free trial), you should have figured out that, no, it’s not the site for the National Archives, despite the name. But there’s still plenty you can do in this “Archives” to research and preserve your family tree.
Web address: <www.archives.com>
, a technology firm in Silicon Valley; 101 University Ave., Suite 320, Palo Alto, CA 94301, (888) 896-4442
$39.95 a year; seven-day free trial
Not disclosed, but the site passed 2 million unique monthly visitors in February 2010
- 1.2 billion total records in 119 collections to date
- state vital records indexes with online ordering
- census records from Footnote and FamilySearch
2009 | Site launches as GenealogyArchives in July; later adds hundreds of millions of obituary and census index records and Ancestor Alerts feature
January 2010 | Relaunches as Archives.com to emphasize broad range of records
March 2010 | Archives.com adds online family tree-building tools
April 2010 | On-site record retrieval, enabling members to hire a court runner to retrieve a county record, is introduced
May 2010 | Archives.com partners with Henry Louis Gates Jr. to promote African-American heritage; provides complimentary memberships to members of the National Genealogical Society