"Please, will somebody help me? I'm new at this, and I have no idea what I'm doing."
Those words were not some perverse message smeared in lipstick across a rest-room mirror. They were posted on the volunteers' bulletin board of America Online's genealogy site, typed by G. Marie Leaner, a communications consultant in Chicago, looking for her family roots.
Leaner's plaintive cry was heard by a volunteer researcher, who told Leaner about the Social Security Death Index. That was the breakthrough Leaner needed, allowing her to move out onto the Internet and into libraries, gathering snippets about her heritage. Now, thanks to scores of websites and chat groups, she has traced her great-great-grandparents back to Mississippi, found the cemetery in Hines County where they are buried, obtained a copy of their 1874 marriage license--along with the World War I draft card of a great-grandfather--and in the process, discovered the thrill of cyberrooting. "It's kind of spooky," she says. "Whenever I come upon something, my heart starts racing."
Once the hobby of self-satisfied blue bloods tracing their families back to the Mayflower, genealogy is fast becoming a national obsession--for new parents basking in the glow of family life, baby boomers wrestling with their first intimations of mortality, and various ethnic groups exploring their pride and place in a multicultural society. Powering the phenomenon are the new tools of the digital age: computer programs that turn the search for family trees into an addiction; websites that make it easy to find and share information; and chat rooms filled with folks seeking advice and swapping leads. "The Internet has helped democratize genealogy," says Stephen Kyner, editor of The Computer Genealogist magazine.
Root seeking ranks with sex, finance and sports as a leading subject on the Internet. More than 160 million messages flowed last month through RootsWeb www.rootsweb.com) a vast electronic trading post for genealogical information. There are at least seven treemaking computer programs currently selling well, and according to Nielsen/NetRatings, the three top genealogy websites in March had an audience of 1.3 million individual devotees.
This month, in what will be a major contribution to the field, the Mormon Church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has begun testing a new website www.familysearch.org that eventually will be a repository of 600 million names, extracted from vital records worldwide. The Mormons consider genealogy part of their mission and have the world's most extensive records. "I think it is a wonderful site," says Michael Leclerc, reference librarian at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. "It is giving the most widespread access ever to the world's largest genealogical repository."
But genealogy, as any veteran will tell you, is no cushy computer-desk job. Its aficionados are besieging National Archives branches and county historical societies, rummaging through newspapers' microfilm, tramping through rural courthouses and overgrown cemeteries. Each year 800,000 people visit the Mormons' Family History Library in Salt Lake City.