Anyone who has ever found a lost relative knows the elated feeling of finding someone who belongs to you, your past and your future. It’s even more exciting when the name of someone you’ve been trying to find for years is suddenly right there in front of you on the Internet. Not only that, his brothers and sisters, his wife, his children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces are all there, too. And there are photographs taken over 100 years ago! Your own well-loved family has suddenly expanded by leaps and bound. Your ancestors are turning into real people.
Getting started on genealogy means starting with what you know; yourself and your immediate family. If you have to send to various health departments to order certified copies of birth, death and marriage certificates, do so. Work backwards toward your grandparents, then your great-grandparents. Use military records, if applicable. Look at the Social Security Death Index. Check with historical societies and funeral homes. The Ellis Island Database is now available. Also, check other sites like http://www.cyndislist.com as a starting point for many other websites that are now available, or http://rootsweb.com or www.genuki.org.uk (for Great Britain and Ireland). The LDS Church has a huge database at http://www.familysearch.org that all may use.
The latest census open to the public is 1930 in the United States, 1901 in the UK. **Update, it is now 1940 and 1911, respectively.** Privacy laws in the US require a 70-year waiting period before a census can be made public. In the UK, the privacy requirement is 100 years. You can access the various census records through most public libraries, now that so much information is available online. They will have free access to certain databases that might cost you quite a bit of money to subscribe to individually. Check your local branch. And Happy Hunting!