Message boards have been at the heart of the genealogy community since the 1990s. And while you might think that a genealogy forum can just be set up then left to run itself, this is far from the case.
Maintaining a high-quality genealogy forum is not just about the digital nuts and bolts, hosting or overhead costs. It’s a people-powered venture, and without the work of a band of passionate moderators and knowledgeable volunteers to maintain some level of quality, genealogy forums frequently dwindle and die.
Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine August 2021
Just as corporations like to promote a working culture, so the best genealogy forums have an ethos at their heart – usually one of helpfulness. For that reason our favoured stomping grounds are generally much happier online meeting places than those that exist for debating other subjects. That’s not to say you never come across disagreements or snobbery, but on the whole the atmosphere of a dedicated genealogy forum is one of civility, respect and cooperation.
Since Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine sadly had to close our online genealogy forum in 2020, we decided to assemble a list of the best other forums where you can discuss your queries with fellow family history lovers.
The best UK genealogy forums
RootsChat remains the biggest and busiest of the UK-focused, general-purpose genealogy forums, and boasts more than 6.4 million posts from its 278,624 members. As always, I’d suggest that newbies head straight to the section aimed at beginners, which is full of guidance, tips and war stories to help you avoid common pitfalls. The various threads are grouped by subject or theme, such as conflicts, occupations, record types, time periods and areas. There’s all sorts of material relating to surnames and one-name studies, as well as glossaries of archaic terms, long-running threads compiling useful websites and lots more besides. If you have a handwritten document that you can’t decipher, just upload it and wait for the responses.
Set up to complement Chris Baker’s website The Long, Long Trail, First World War genealogy forum the Great War Forum has gone on to have a thriving life all its own. Moderators try to ensure that replies are backed up with citable evidence from the likes of Medal Index Cards, service records, War Diaries and old newspaper articles, and there’s a focus on keeping the forum a friendly place for members. Alongside various subject/theme subdivisions, a Gallery section has photos, maps and documents (free membership is required for access), as well as specialist blogs and ‘long reads’. There’s also a mobile app in the offing to improve the visitor experience for smartphone and tablet users.
Reddit members submit content (links, images, questions, videos, etc) which is then voted up or down by other members, making it an ideal place for family historians to share and discuss. Posts are organised into communities of ‘subreddits’. The above URL takes you to the all-encompassing genealogy forum, and I’d suggest venturing down into the numerous subreddits. If you’re wading through some of the jargon and marketing hype that revolves around DNA tests, for example, you’re bound to find some redditors in the same boat. The AncestryDNA thread (r/AncestryDNA) is full of people sharing results, often alongside confused emojis.
A quick way to gauge the health of a forum is simply to check the main page and see the dates of latest activity. And another thriving general-interest genealogy forum, but with a strong UK focus, is Family Tree Forum, which boasts some 61,417 topics, with 820,594 posts from 18,960 members. Registration is free, and there’s a huge reference library of material here, including thousands of pages with information and recommended links. There’s also a spin-off digital magazine put together by members of the forum, which was launched in August 2007 (when the parent website was just one year old) and ran until November 2010.
The first genealogy forums were mailing lists. And RootsWeb started out in 1996, slowly becoming a not-for-profit and open-to-all host for hundreds then thousands of message boards and mailing lists. The website grew into a hosting service for countless genealogical websites, large and small, before being taken over and maintained by Ancestry in 2000. Although the mailing-lists functionality was shut down last year (some found new homes at Groups.io), you can still search the archived lists and discussions, or, for something current, you’re directed towards Ancestry’s own message boards.
Hilary Crane, co-founder of the Who When Where Genealogy Forum:
“When you’re trying to break through a brick wall, websites dedicated to specific subjects can often provide the eureka moment that we all hope and look for, but sometimes just a fresh pair of eyes can be all that is needed. That’s why I have chosen the forum that I helped launch, and one that I couldn’t do without: the Who When Where Genealogy Forum.
“We set up the website to fill the gap left when the Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine forum sadly closed in 2020. The new forum has already proved popular for both experienced and new researchers, and for some family historians a forum is preferable to social media when asking for help.
“The site is divided into various sub-forums enabling any users to target their question to the correct area of expertise, including military questions, photo identification, useful resources, wanted/unwanted certificates and, of course, DNA. The site also has useful areas listing specialist websites whose details one can never remember when needed, and a ‘Genealogy Chat’ section where (polite!) comments on any aspect of genealogy can be posted.
“Many members of the forum are experienced researchers who enjoy the challenge of breaking down brick walls for others as well as themselves, and will happily contribute to discussions on any question posed. For the novice researcher, the wealth of information and experience that the members have is invaluable.
“The Who When Where Genealogy Forum is free to join and very friendly, so whether you’re new to the hobby or an experienced family historian you’ll find that we’re well worth bookmarking.”
More UK genealogy forums
This Boer War genealogy website’s forum is buzzing with information when it comes to medals, monuments, uniforms, insignia, badges and equipment.
Learn more about identifying your ancestors’ military badges and buttons.
This is another popular UK-centric genealogy forum with subject divisions including overseas options.
Hosted by the commercial DNA-testing company based in Texas, the genealogy forum includes success stories and advice for researchers.
11. Forces Reunited
Originally created for former military personnel, this forum is teeming with regimental reunions, campaigns, controversies and photo galleries.
This active UK genealogy forum has regular contributors helping members with their brick walls.
13. Genes Reunited
‘General Chat’ is the most popular section of Genes Reunited’s genealogy message boards.
This Scottish genealogy forum has a host of interesting threads and discussions.
The magazine’s lively Facebook group has more than 6,840 very helpful members.
Jonathan Scott is the author of A Dictionary of Family History