Genealogy is the study and tracing of family pedigrees. This involves collecting the names of relatives, both living and deceased, establishing the relationships between them, and thus building up a cohesive family tree. Genealogy is sometimes also referred to as family history, although sometimes these terms are used distinctly: the former being the basic study of who is related to whom; the latter involving more "fleshing out" of the life histories of the individuals involved.
As literacy spread, however, there came to be more and more written records; and the bulk of the population began to be recorded, in willss, tax records, criminal records, etc., and there were sufficient records that ordinary people could be traced.
Genealogists search written records, collect oral histories and preserve family stories to discover ancestors and living relatives. Genealogists attempt to understand not just where and when people lived but also their lifestyle, biography, and motivations.
The search for ancestors involves searching original records and published sources to establish relationships and family connections. This often requires knowledge of antique law, old political boundaries, immigration trends, and historical social conditions.
Even an unsuccessful search for ancestors leads to a better understanding of history. The search for living relatives often leads to family reunions, both of distant cousins and of disrupted families. Genealogists sometimes help reunite families separated by immigration, foster homes and adoption. The genealogist can help keep family traditions alive.
In most cultures, the name of a person includes in one way or another the family to which he or she belongs. This is called the family name, or surname. It is often also called the last name because, for most speakers of English, the family name comes after the given name (or names). However, this is not the case in all cultures.
The Mormons practise baptism for the dead, an ordinance where baptism is performed on living people for and on behalf of those who have died. They believe in this manner they may assist their deceased relatives gain postmortem entrance into the church. In the last century, they engaged on a large scale program of copying all available records that would be useful for genealogy, microfilming them and constructing an index, the International Genealogical Index (IGI). The IGI contains all the ancestral records that their followers had compiled. By making so many resources available (for example, copies of their microfilmed parish registers are available worldwide at their Family History Centers at a nominal cost, they have helped contribute to the increasing interest in genealogy over the last couple of decades.
Data sharing between genealogical researchers has grown to be a major use of the Internet. Since most genealogy software programs store information about persons and their relationships in GEDCOM format, they can be shared with other genealogists by e-mail, added to an online database, or converted into a family web site. One phenomenon over the last few years has been that of large genealogy-related databases going on-line, attracting a flash crowd, and having to suspend service within days to make hurried upgrades after collapsing under the unexpected magnitude of traffic load: this happened with the Mormons' genealogy database (http://www.familysearch.org ), and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's listing of war graves (http://cwgc.org.uk ). In January 2002, the much-anticipated British census for 1901 went online. Within minutes it was inaccessible due to the server and network load, and it had to be taken offline. Later in the year, after upgrades had been made, it came back online.
Genealogy has been claimed by some to be one of the most popular hobbies in America, second only to gardening. The hobby received a big boost in popularity in the late 1970s with the premiere of the television adaptation of Alex Haley's fictionalized account of his family line, Roots: The Saga of an American Family.