Genealogy For Dummies book cover

Genealogy For Dummies

By: Matthew L. Helm and April Leigh Helm Published: 07-17-2017

The fun way to research your family history

Genealogy For Dummies, 8th Edition covers everything you need to know about starting a genealogical research project—including where and how to find information, how to communicate with other online genealogists, how to leverage social networking sites and apps, how to add digital images to your family tree, and how to build your own site for sharing information. It also explains the use of compiled genealogies, U.S. Census information, and public access catalogs.

Brand new to this edition is content on how to conduct genealogical research on the road, and on how to take this research and integrate it into the data found at home. It also contains new information on DNA research and testing, new geocoding applications to record geographic data into a genealogical database, and other new technologies. The book covers which apps are worth your money, and how to get the most out of them.  

  • Use the latest tools to research family history
  • Create your own site to showcase your family tree, digital images, and compiled genealogies
  • Get access to free versions of Legacy Family Tree and Personal Ancestral Files
  • Utilize both online and offline research techniques and tools

Follow the clues to uncover your family's legacy—and have fun along the way!

Articles From Genealogy For Dummies

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25 results
Genealogy For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 04-25-2022

Hundreds of genealogy websites help you research family origins and movements; online is the place to be for genealogy research. Among many specialized websites, Helm's Genealogy Toolbox is the oldest comprehensive genealogy and local history index. The links on this site point to other resources available to assist your research. Some common myths and misperceptions about genealogy might surprise you.

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Discovering Contacts through Member Connect on Ancestry.com

Article / Updated 04-12-2019

If you have a paid subscription to Ancestry.com, it gives you an additional feature of the online family tree that is worth mentioning — Member Connect. The Member Connect feature actively looks for other people who are posting information about your ancestor on their online family trees. After finding a potential match, Member Connect lists the member's name on the tab. To find members who are researching one of your ancestors, follow these steps: Go to Ancestry.com and log in. Near the top of the landing page, you will see a box titled Recent Member Connect Activity (see the following figure). If Ancestry.com found any recent activity on your family lines, the results will appear in this box. Click the appropriate link for the action you wish to take. The links in the results will vary. If someone posted an article or document related to a person you're researching or matching a surname in your list, you can click the link to see the item. If a person posted a general interest or listed a surname that matches one of yours, the link will lead to that person's profile. There may be other links present next to a person-based entry too, such as View Family Tree or Send a Message. These links help eliminate a few steps in the process if you're only interested in his family tree or messaging him. Ancestry.com subscribers see links to the family trees containing the related information about the ancestor. Nonsubscribers see only the number of records, sources, and photos available on that family tree.

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Planning Your Genealogy Research

Article / Updated 10-30-2017

Your computer puts the world at your fingertips. Discovering all the wonderful online genealogy resources that exist makes you feel like a kid in a candy store. You click around from site to site with wide eyes, amazed by what you see, tempted to record everything for your genealogy — whether it relates to one of your family lines or not. Because of the immense wealth of information available to you, putting together a research plan before going online is very important — it can save you a lot of time and frustration by keeping you focused. Millions of pages with genealogical content exist on the Internet. If you don't have a good idea of exactly what you're looking for to fill in the blanks in your family history, you can get lost online. Getting lost is even easier when you see a name that looks familiar and start following its links, only to discover hours later (when you finally get around to pulling out the notes you already had) that you've been tracking the wrong person and family line. You're probably wondering exactly what a research plan is. Basically, a research plan is a commonsense approach to looking for information about your ancestors online. A research plan entails knowing what you're looking for and what your priorities are for finding information. If you're the kind of person who likes detailed organization (such as lists and steps), you can map out your research plan in a spreadsheet or word processor on your computer, write it on paper, or use a genealogical software tool. If you're the kind of person who knows exactly what you want and need at all times, and you have an excellent memory of where you leave off when doing projects, your research plan can exist solely in your mind. In other words, your research plan can be as formal or informal as you like — as long as it helps you plot what you're looking for. For example, say that you're interested in finding some information on your great-grandmother. Here are some steps you can take to form a research plan: Write down what you already know about the person you want to research — in this case, your great-grandmother. Include details such as the dates and places of birth, marriage, and death; spouse's name; children's names; and any other details you think may help you distinguish your ancestor from other individuals. Of course, it's possible that all you know at this time is Great-grandma's name. Survey a comprehensive genealogical index to get an overview of what's available. Visit a site such as Linkpendium to browse for information by name and location. Using Great-grandma's name and the names of some of the locations where she lived will allow you to see what kinds of resources are available. Make sure that you make a list of the sites that you find in a word processor document, in a spreadsheet, or on a piece of paper; bookmark them on your web browser; or record them in your genealogical application. Also, given that websites come and go frequently, you may want to consider downloading the web page for future offline browsing. Most web browsers allow you to download a web page by selecting Save As from the File menu at the top, and then providing the path to the file where you want to save a copy. Prioritize the resources that you want to use. Browsing a comprehensive genealogical index may turn up several types of resources, such as sites featuring digitized copies of original records, transcriptions of records, online genealogy databases, or an online message board with many posts about people with the same last name. Prioritize which resources you plan to use first. You may want to visit a website that contains specific information on your grandmother's family first — rather than spending a lot of time on a website that just contains generic information on her surname. You may also want to visit a site with digitized original records first and leave a site with transcribed records or a database for later use. Schedule time to use the various resources that you identify. Family history is truly a lifelong pursuit — you can't download every bit of information and documentation that you need all at once. Because researching your genealogy requires time and effort, we recommend that you schedule time to work on specific parts of your research. If you have a particular evening open every week, you can pencil in a research night on your calendar, setting aside 15–30 minutes at the beginning to review what you have and assess your goals, then spending a couple of hours researching, and ending your evening with another 15–30 minutes of review in which you organize what you found. Here are a few resources that can help you sharpen your planning skills: Crafting a Genealogy Research Plan Sample Family History Research Plan Basic Genealogical Research Plans (National Institute)

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The Helm Online Family Tree Research Cycle

Article / Updated 10-30-2017

Your question at this point is probably, what is the Helm Online Family Tree Research Cycle? All great projects start with a plan, and starting a genealogical project is no exception. A well-thought-out plan can help you make efficient use of your time and keep you focused on the goals that you've set for a particular research session. Not everyone enjoys coming up with a plan. Finding your ancestors is the fun part — not the planning. So, to help speed things along, the Helms have come up with a basic process that they hope helps you make the most of your research time — the Helm Online Family Tree Research Cycle. Most of this plan is common sense. The figure shows the six phases of the cycle: planning, collecting, researching, consolidating, validating, and distilling. Sticking with the family tree motif here, we liken the cycle to the steps you take to plant and sustain a tree: Planning: The first step in planting a tree is figuring out what kind of tree you want and then finding a good place in your yard for the tree to grow. This step in the cycle is the planning phase. In genealogy, the planning phase consists of selecting a family that you know enough about to begin a search and thinking about the resources that can provide the information that you're looking for. Collecting: After you plan for the tree, you go to a nursery and pick a suitable sapling and other necessary materials to ensure that the tree's roots take hold. The second phase of the cycle, collecting, is the same — you collect information on the family that you're researching by conducting interviews in person, on the phone, or through email, and by finding documents in attics, basements, and other home-front repositories. Researching: The next step is to actually plant the tree. You dig a hole, place the tree in it, and then cover the roots. Similarly, you spend the researching phase of the cycle digging for clues, finding information that can support your family tree, and obtaining documentation. You can use traditional and technological tools to dig — tools such as libraries, courthouses, your computer, and the web. Consolidating: You planted the tree and covered its roots. However, to make sure that the tree grows, you put mulch around it and provide the nourishment that the tree needs to survive. The consolidating phase of the cycle is similar in that you take information you find and place it into your computer-based genealogical database or your filing system. These systems protect your findings by keeping them in a centralized location and provide an environment in which you can see the fruits of your labor. Validating: To ensure that you're providing your tree with all the nutrition and care that it needs, you might pick up a book or watch a gardening show to confirm that your actions will nurture the tree. The validating phase in genealogy allows you to do the same with your research. By using additional research tools and by finding multiple sources, you can feel more confident that your discoveries are placing your research on the right track. Distilling: After your tree takes root and begins to grow, you need to prune the old growth, allowing new growth to appear. Similarly, the distilling phase is where you use your computer-based genealogical database to generate reports showing the current state of your research. You can use these reports to prune from your database those individuals you've proven don't fit into your family lines — and perhaps find room for new genealogical growth by finding clues to other lines with which you want to follow up. Using this research model makes looking for genealogical information a lot easier and more fulfilling. However, this model is merely a guide. Feel free to use whatever methods work best for you — as long as those methods make it possible for someone else to verify your research (through sources you cite and so on).

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Earning a Good Genealogical Citizenship Award

Article / Updated 10-30-2017

To be a good genealogical citizen as you work online, you should keep a few things in mind, such as maintaining privacy, respecting copyrights, and including adequate citations. Mandatory lecture on privacy Sometimes, genealogists get so caught up in dealing with the records of deceased persons that they forget one basic fact: Much of the information they've collected and put in their databases pertains to living individuals and, thus, is considered private. In their haste to share information with others online, they often create GEDCOM files and reports, and then ship them off to recipients without thinking twice about whether they may offend someone or invade his or her privacy by including personal information. The same thing goes for posting information directly to websites and in blogs — genealogists sometimes write the data into the family tree or include anecdotal information in their blog narratives without thinking about the consequences to living individuals. They (and you) need to be more careful. Why worry about privacy? You may invade someone's right to privacy. Social Security numbers of living individuals could end up in GEDCOM files that are available on the Internet. People who didn't know that their biological parents weren't married (to each other, anyway) could find out through an online database. Your relatives may not want you to share personal information about them with others, and they may not have given you permission to do so. The same is true for photos and video clips. Just because you're gung-ho to show the world the group photo from your family reunion does not mean that every one of your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins feels the same way. So don't share the information or the image without the permission of everyone involved. Genealogists aren't the only people who visit genealogical Internet sites. Private detectives and other people who search for information on living persons frequently use genealogical databases to track people. They are known to lurk about, watching for information that may help their cases. Estranged spouses may visit sites looking for a way to track down their former partners. Also, people with less-than-honorable intentions may visit a genealogical website looking for potential scam or abuse victims. And some information, such as your mother's maiden name, may help the unscrupulous carry out fraud. For these reasons, it is illegal in some states and countries to share information about living persons on the Internet without first getting each person's written permission. When sharing genealogical information, your safest bet is to clean out (exclude) any information on living individuals from your GEDCOM file or report when sharing it with others and include only the data that pertains to people who have long been deceased — unless you've obtained written consent from living persons to share information about them. By long been deceased, that means deceased for more than ten years — although the time frame could be longer depending on the sensitivity of the information. You may also want to keep in mind that the U.S. Government standard dictates that no record covered under the Privacy Act is released until it's at least 72 years old. Respecting copyrights Copyright is the controlling right that a person or corporation owns over the duplication and distribution of a work that the person or corporation created. Although facts themselves can't be copyrighted, works in which facts are contained can be. Although the fact that your grandma was born on January 1, 1900, can't be copyrighted by anyone, a report that contains this information and was created by Aunt Velma may be. If you intend to include a significant portion of Aunt Velma's report in your own document, you need to secure permission from her to use the information. With regard to copyright and the Internet, remember that just because you found some information on a website (or other Internet resource) does not mean that it's not copyrighted. If the website contains original material along with facts, it is copyrighted to the person who created it — regardless of whether the site has a copyright notice on it! To protect yourself from infringing on someone's copyright and possibly ending up in a legal battle, you should do the following: Never copy another person's web page, email, blog, or other Internet creation (such as graphics) without his or her written consent. Never print an article, a story, a report, or other material to share with your family, friends, genealogical or historical society, class, or anyone else without the creator's written consent. Always assume that a resource is copyrighted. Always cite sources of the information in your genealogy and on your web pages. (See the next section in this chapter for more information.) Always link to other web pages rather than copying their content on your own website. If you don't understand what copyright is or if you have questions about it, be sure to check out the U.S. Copyright Office's home page. Two U.S. Copyright Office pages of particular interest at the site are Copyright Basics and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Citing your sources It is very important to cite your sources when sharing information — online or through traditional means. Be sure to include references that reflect where you obtained your information; that's just as important when you share your information as it is when you research it. Not only does referencing provide the other person with leads to possible additional information, but it also gives you a place to double-check your facts if someone challenges them. Sometimes, after exchanging information with another researcher, you both notice that you have conflicting data about an ancestor. Knowing where to turn to double-check the facts (and, with any luck, find out who has the correct information) can save you time and embarrassment. Here are some examples of ways to cite online sources of information: Email messages: Matthew Helm, [ or 111 Main Street, Anyplace, Anystate 11111]. "Looking for George Helm," Message to April Helm, 12 October 2009. [Message cites vital records in Helm's possession.] Newsgroups: Matthew Helm, [ or 111 Main Street, Anyplace, Anystate 11111]. "Computing in Genealogy" in soc.genealogy.computing, 05 June 2006. Websites: Matthew Helm, [ or 111 Main Street, Anyplace, Anystate 11111]. "Helm's Genealogy Toolbox." January 2004. [This site contains numerous links to other genealogical resources on the Internet. On July 12, 2010, located and checked links on Abell family; found two that were promising.] With a note like the preceding one in brackets, you expect that your next two citations are the two websites that looked promising. For each site, you should provide notes stating exactly what you did or did not find. Although most genealogical software programs now enable you to store source information and citations along with your data, many still don't export the source information automatically. For that reason, double-check any reports or GEDCOM files you generate to see whether your source information is included before sharing them with other researchers. If the information isn't included, create a new GEDCOM file that includes sources.

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Creating Traditional Family Trees and Genealogy Reports

Article / Updated 10-30-2017

The process for generating a family tree or report should be similar for most genealogical software. RootsMagic Essentials is the software used here to demonstrate the process of creating reports. Before you can generate a report, you have to find the person who will be the focus of that report. Here's a quick refresher on how to get to the appropriate person's record: Open RootsMagic Essentials and select the family file for which you want to generate a chart or report by highlighting the filename and clicking Open. Usually, you can open your software by double-clicking the icon for that program or by choosing Start →   Programs (or Start →   All Programs) and selecting the particular program. Highlight the name of the person who will serve as the focus for your report. On the Pedigree tab, highlight the name of the focal person of the family you select. For example, if Matthew wants to generate a report for his ancestor Samuel Clayton Abell, he highlights the Samuel Abell file. On the Reports menu, select a chart or report. Some report types are not available in the RootsMagic Essentials version. You have to purchase the full product to generate them. Select the content to include in the report. You can choose whether to generate the report on the current family or only selected people. You can also choose what information to include (such as spouses and children, photos, and notes) in the output. And you can manipulate some formatting options, such as layout, title, fonts, and sources. Click Generate Reports. RootsMagic Essentials generates the report and displays it on your screen.

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Checking a GEDCOM File for Possible Errors

Article / Updated 10-30-2017

There are a few things you need to know about receiving GEDCOM (GEenealogical Data COMmunication) files. Just as you would be careful about trusting information written out in a report or chart, you need to be careful before importing someone else's GEDCOM file into your genealogical database. If they have wrong information about an ancestor you share, you could corrupt your whole database and set you back in your efforts. Lucky for you, there's an application that can help you identify inconsistencies in a GEDCOM file. This helps you find information that may need to be corrected before or shortly after you import the file into your database. It's called gedantic. Here's how to use it: Open a web browser and head over to gedantic. Click the Select File button. Search in your computer directory for a GEDCOM file. Select the file and click Open. The gedantic program runs against the file and generates a report of potential problems. Across the top of the report are categories that will help you restrict the types of inconsistencies into a manageable number. The categories are All, Problem, Families, Missing Data, Individuals, and Sources. Click on a blue box identifying a potential type of problem in the file. This generates a list of things to review or double-check in the file to determine whether you need to fix or clean up something. For example, you can see a list of Children of Young Parents for one of Matthew's Helm-Proven GEDCOM files. You want to review the people identified on this list to see if there might have been an error on the parent's or child's date of birth to ensure they are correct.

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How to Generate GEDCOM Files

Article / Updated 10-30-2017

Most genealogical databases subscribe to a common standard for exporting their information called GEenealogical Data COMmunication, or GEDCOM. Making a GEDCOM file using most software programs is quite easy. This is true for RootsMagic Essentials, too. If you have not yet downloaded and installed RootsMagic Essentials, you should do so. After you have the program ready to go, try this: Open RootsMagic Essentials. Usually, you can open your software by double-clicking the icon for that program or by choosing Start →    Programs (or Start →  All Programs) and selecting the particular program. Use the default database that appears, or choose File →  Open to open another database. After you open the database for which you want to create a GEDCOM file, choose File →  Export. The GEDCOM Export dialog box appears. Choose whether you want to include everyone in your database in your GEDCOM file or only selected people. You can also choose the output format and what types of information to include. Then click OK. If you choose to include only selected people in your GEDCOM file, you need to complete another dialog box marking those people to include. Highlight the individual's name and then select Mark People →   Person to include him or her. After you select all the people you want to include, click OK. In the File Name field, type the new name for your GEDCOM file and then click Save. Your GEDCOM file is created. After a GEDCOM file is created on your hard drive, you can open it in a word processor (such as WordPad or Notepad) and review it to ensure that the information is formatted the way you want it. See the figure for an example. Also, reviewing the file in a word processor is a good idea so you can be sure that you did not include information on living persons. After you're satisfied with the file, you can cut and paste it into an email message or send it as an attachment using your email program.

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Showing Context in LifeStory

Article / Updated 10-30-2017

A social networking type benefit of a paid subscription to Ancestry.com is the LifeStory feature. LifeStory in Ancestry Family Tree allows you to create an online timeline and retelling of your ancestor's life, giving color and context to it. Using records and information you've collected, in conjunction with information about historical events and areas, LifeStory builds a narrative for the ancestor. Interested in adding a LifeStory for one of your ancestors? Here's how: Go to Ancestry.com and log in. Select the Trees menu at the top of the page, and click on the family tree that contains the ancestor for whom you want to create a LifeStory. For example, if you want to create a LifeStory for William Henry Abell, you select the Abell tree from your drop-down. Click on the box in the tree for the ancestor, then select Profile. Click on William Henry Abell's box. As he is currently the main focal point of this tree, his box is in the center of the page. Near the top of the page, there is a menu bar with options for Lifestory, Facts, Gallery, and Hints. The page defaults to the Facts view. Click on the LifeStory feature in the menu bar. The LifeStory generates in the form of a timeline. On the timeline are events about which you've entered information. There are maps of locations found in records for the ancestor, and historical facts that add color. In the example (see the following figure), the LifeStory for William Henry Abell has basic information about his birth, death, parents, and marriages, as well as general information and maps on the locations where he lived. The LifeStory also includes general information on the First Kentucky Derby, as William Henry Abell lived nearby in Kentucky at the time of the first derby. There is also an entry for the Great Lakes Storm in 1913 because William Henry Abell was living in Illinois when that weather system took its toll on the Midwest, so he may have been affected. Choose which content to keep in the LifeStory. If you see wrong information about your ancestor or wish to update something, you can choose to Edit the entries that come from facts you've entered in Ancestry.com. If there are general historical entries that you don't want to include in your ancestor's LifeStory, simply click on the Ignore button next to the entry. It will disappear. Use the Add drop down at the top-right of the screen if you wish to add photos or videos to the LifeStory. This allows you to select media that is already attached to the profile record for the ancestor.

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Sharing Your Genealogy History on Geni.com

Article / Updated 10-30-2017

If you're looking to set up a genealogy-networking site where others can discover your family lines and contribute information directly to you in a public forum, Geni is one place to start. Geni.com has space where you can initiate public discussions about research, ancestors, or just about anything genealogy-related you can think of. Much like other social networking sites, it has areas within your profile where you can upload photos and videos, and maintain a timeline. Unlike typical social networking sites though, it has a section where you can cite sources of your research findings and share DNA results. Here's what to do to get started: Using your web browser, go to Geni.com. In the Start My Family Tree box, begin by selecting the option for your gender. In the First Name field, enter your first name. In the Last Name field, enter your last name. In the Email Address field, type your preferred email address. Click the Start My Family Tree button. The registration opens to a page where you can activate your family tree by adding relatives. Click the parent whose information you are ready to add, as shown. For this example, to enter information about your father, click the left parental box above your box on the family tree. A dialog box appears where you can enter information. Using the drop-down menus at the top of the box, pick the appropriate Relationship. The choices include parent, spouse, ex-spouse, partner, ex-partner, fiancé, sibling, or child in the first drop-down, and Biological, Adoptive, or Foster in the second drop-down. In the First Name field, enter your father's first name. If your father's last name is different from the one that automatically populates, fix it in the Last Name field. Select the appropriate option for Status to indicate whether your father is living or deceased. Select the appropriate Gender for your father. If you like (and you have your dad's permission), type your father's email address in the Email (Optional) field. Geni.com will use this email address to send this person an invitation to join Geni.com. Some relatives may consider these uninvited invitations to be spam, so be careful about entering other people's email addresses at networking websites. Select a parameter from the drop-down next to Date of Birth — your choices are Exact, Before, After, and Between. The type your dad's date of birth. If the date is approximate and not known for sure, you can click the Circa button next to Date. If you did not enter an email address, Geni.com presents you with a pop-up box offering to welcome your relative to the family tree by giving you another opportunity to add his or her email address. If you don't want to see these pop-up boxes every time you enter a relative, select the Do Not Show This Message Again checkbox in the lower left, then click the Skip button. Provide the place name where your father was born in the Place of Birth field. If you wish, you can enter a Current Location and Occupation in the last two fields in the box. If you have other relatives to add, you can check the box labeled Add another family member of [focus person's name]. On saving this person's data, this opens another box where you can enter information about another relative immediately. Click the Save button. After you add information about a person using one of the boxes in the family tree, the box becomes activated, and little yellow arrows surround it. You can click these arrows to navigate to that person's parents, spouse(s), and children to add more individuals to your tree. The Geni.com site is impressive in the ways it helps you share your family tree research with others. Here's a quick overview of the various parts of the site: Tree: On this tab, you can view information about the family members included in the tree as a family tree (pedigree chart) or a list. You can navigate in the standard Geni.com format by clicking the yellow arrows and name boxes, or you can search by name in the Go To section. Family: Several handy functions are accessible on the Family menu including Lists, Photos, Videos, Calendar, Map, Statistics, Timeline, and a Last Names Index. This is also where you can find links to share your tree and to generate the Family Tree Chart. The Lists, Photos, and Videos sections are places for you to add items to your file to enhance the content. If you enter birth dates and anniversaries for your family members, the Calendar gives you a consolidated list that helps you remember special events. The Family Map shows you where your family members currently live and were born, if you include locations in the individualized data you record on the site. The Statistics section is very interesting if you like to look for overall patterns within the family, such as average life expectancy or number of children. The Timeline gives you a quick glance of all your Geni.com activities since registering. And the Last Name Index is just that — a list of last names in your records. Share Your Tree enables you to extend invitations to other users to view and/or contribute information. It also has a GEDCOM Export functionality so you can convert your tree for sharing. Lastly, the Family Tree Chart option builds an attractive family tree that you can then download for printing and sharing. Research: The Research menu offers services to help you connect with others to share research. It includes a Merge Center where you can see matches between people in your tree and other members' trees and online records. There are also sections for discussions with other members, projects where you can create and administer joint research with others, and documents you can upload to support your research. Additionally, there's a list of surnames in Geni.com to explore and a list of popular profiles for famous people that you can view. And if you want to order a DNA testing kit, the Research menu has information about services offered by their partner, MyHeritage DNA. PRO Free Trial: The PRO Free Trial tab allows you to register to try the PRO Geni.com membership for free for 14 days. The PRO membership enables access to enhanced service features and allows you to store unlimited photos, videos, and documents. It also offers a premium level of support if you have questions or need help. Be aware that you are required to provide a credit card when you sign up for the free trial. At the end of the trial period, you will automatically be charged the one-year membership fee to continue the service if you do not notify Geni.com to end your free trial before the 14 days are over. Profile: The menu to the Profile section appears under your name, to the right of the Search field in Geni.com. This Profile section is where you can store data specifically about you — everything from your birth date and age, to educational information, to your work experience, to personal narratives about your life, aspirations, and research interests, or whatever you'd like to say about yourself in the free-form text boxes. This is also where you can track who you've invited to view and participate in your Geni tree. The data is sorted into seven tabs: Basics, Relationships, About, Personal, Contact, Work, and Schools. Depending on which setting you choose, various aspects of your profile may or may not be visible.

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