In this lesson, we'll cover digital genealogy and research tools, along with recommended apps and supplies that will aid in your quest. 


You may be familiar with some of the major digital tools to create a family tree and to search for documents; while many of these tools are great, they can also be expensive. One thing to keep in mind is that many of these tools use the same databases to aggregate information, so what’s costly on one resource may be free if you go straight to the source. 

Let’s cover the pros and cons of some of the most popular genealogy websites.

About: This is arguably the most popular genealogy website. It has a lot of great features, and its system will alert you to tips if they think they've found a document that matches a member on your tree.

The best part of this site is its active community. If your tree has a match to a member on another tree, you can search another person's family tree and add what they've found to your own. However, it can be expensive, especially if you want to access global archives. 

Price: $19.99/mo for US-based searching.

About: This is a tool to search for documents, such as census reports, birth/death certificates, military drafting papers, and more. It's free, and you can create a tree on it, but it's best used in conjunction with another tool.

If you want a family tree builder,'s is a bit more robust. But I recommend for accessing actual documents, as their search engine is easy and tends to yield results, particularly for documents in the 1800s and 1900s. You'll want to use more powerful tools for dates prior to that.

Price: Free, but costs $$ for accessing certain documents.

About: This service requires paying for a year at a time if you go premium, but you can start using it for free. Upon sign up, it walks you through a process to fill out what you know about your family, which is handy. Their interface is cleaner than Ancestry's, but doesn't have quite as robust of a community.  

However, they pull from many of the same databases as Ancestry and Archives, so you're not necessarily accessing anything unique. If you want to commit to a service for a year, this is certainly cheaper than, but it does come with less features.

Price: Starts at ~$82/year

About: This project is sponsored by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and you don't have to be a member of the LDS church to use this tool. It’s free, and has a simple, easy search tool and family tree builder. What’s best about this tool is its active community and dedicated volunteers, but you may find yourself going in circles with their search engine.

They offer a digital or print Family Booklet to track your discoveries. You can also volunteer to help others, which can be valuable when developing your genealogy skills.

Price: Free

There are many other tree-building tools, such as and They all have similar features, but without the ability to search unique databases, you're unlikely to uncover that much more on those sites that you can't already find in the major tools. You are welcome to sign up for trial accounts on these sites to see if there is one you prefer!


You don’t have to use one of the resources mentioned above if you prefer to track your findings in other ways; maybe you’re not creating a family tree, for instance, and just want to trace one part of your lineage. Regardless, I highly recommend using some excellent free resources in conjunction with other tools you use. Here are some helpful databases and resources:

The United States Library of Congress has a global archive of records, photos, videos, and more. It's worth learning your way around this site; not only is it a fascinating database, but it's very well organized, as their librarians are some of the best in the world.

Similarly to the LOC site, the National Archives are also a great place to search, especially for multimedia that you may not be able to find in genealogy-specific databases. 

This is a must-use tool for finding family members who may have come to America through Ellis Island. Many of the archives have photos of the actual ship your ancestor may have traveled on. 

It may seem strange to look at tombstones for information, but it's a very insightful way to verify dates of birth and death, along with other family information, such as spouses, parents, and correct spelling of names.


It's an uncomfortable truth that all genealogists have to acknowledge: many families have history in war and slavery. This can add unique challenges to the process; how do you trace your family if some members were slaves? Or if they died in the Holocaust? Or if they were part of First Nations tribes whose archives were wiped out? 

But genealogy is for everyone, so don't let those challenges stop you from your journey. Genealogists around the world have compiled archives and databases specific to ethnic communities, and these can help you delve into difficult history with others whose families went through similar hardship. (This is clearly not an exhaustive list, but it may serve as a first step.) 



This may seem obvious, but it's easy to forget that you may have experts right at your fingertips! This is a great chance to bond with members of your family, especially your elders; they can provide incredible insight into their lives, the era in which they were born and grew up, and their relatives that you may not have met. Cherish these interactions with them, and use your research as a way to honor them.


The internet is full of forums and message boards with people who are like you: trying to discover who they are and where they come from. These are incredibly valuable — and FREE! — resources. You may connect with people with whom you have a relative in common. They can also help you if you get stuck, and you can return the favor by sharing your own experiences and discoveries.


In addition to the tools outlined above, here are some additional supplies I recommend:


While you're embarking on digital research, I highly recommend installing a bookmarking tool, such as Pocket. This makes it easy to keep track of websites you may come across; just one click will add them to your "Pocket," so you have an on-going archive. 


In conjunction with a bookmarking tool, I recommend also using a cloud-based tool like Evernote, Google Drive, or Dropbox. These services let you upload notes or documents to their cloud so you never lose your discoveries.  


I swear by notebooks, and it's nice to be able to jot things down as you're researching (plus, it may become part of your research process, as we'll cover in lesson 2!). I am a devotee of little paperback notebooks, like Field Notes or Word Notebooks, but you can use whatever strikes your fancy. 


You may choose to use your cloud tool to store your notes and your documents, but if you want to keep things even more organized, I recommend a research tool such as Mendeley. Mendeley allows you to upload PDFs and documents to your library, and organize them via category. 



Compile your research tools! You can use whatever you'd like, but if you don't know where to start, here's what I recommend:

  • A notebook and pen
  • A Google Drive account (free, and easy to set up) — you can use this to take notes or upload docs and resources you find
  • A bookmarking tool like Pocket
  • A chosen database to familiarize yourself with (such as the National Archives)