Genealogy 101: What Is a Wiki?

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega explains what wikis are and how they can help with your family history research. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Have you used a wiki for your genealogy? Wikis can be good starting points to learn more about history, a location, events, or genealogical records. Not sure what a wiki is or how it can help you with your genealogy? Read on to learn how wikis can help you with your family history.

What Is a Wiki?

The Hawaiian word “wiki” means fast or quick. A wiki is a type of website, but it’s not your ordinary website that has one specific author and is updated (or not) at their discretion. What makes a wiki unique is that it is a collaborative project where anyone can update or add information from their internet browser. No special software is required.

The benefit of this collaborative approach is that those with expertise in a subject can provide information that benefits the community. The downside is that anyone can add information, which means that some who contribute may not be as knowledgeable – or they may decide to purposely add information that is erroneous. When this happens the reader of the wiki may believe something as “fact” that is blatantly false.

One of the wikis that’s well-known and has had a less than perfect reputation is Wikipedia, a wiki encyclopedia with information on every topic you can imagine. While there can be misinformation on Wikipedia, there is an effort by various groups including scientists and academics to upload expert information.

In general, you should take the information you find on Wikipedia as a clue, and continue looking for information in books, periodicals or other sources. Also, check out the footnotes for the Wikipedia article that you are reading and see if those sources appear credible. This can help you determine the accuracy of that information. Hyperlinks in those footnoted sources will take you to other articles on the same topic.

As genealogists we should always carefully evaluate and verify any source we use to ensure that we are providing truthful, accurate information.

Wikis and What You Can Find

So how can a wiki help you with your family history? Let’s take a look at two specific wikis: Wikipedia, and the FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki.


You might be thinking: “How is Wikipedia going to help me with my family history?” To give you some ideas, the following are suggestions for Wikipedia pages that might be helpful:

  • History of events, battles, time periods. What did your ancestor live through? The Great Depression? World War I? You can start to understand more about events that occurred in their lives by perusing various Wikipedia articles. For example, Women’s Suffrage in States of the United States provides information about suffrage in each state. With this historical knowledge you can seek out your female ancestor in pre-1920 state and local voting records.
  • County or city pages. Learn more about your ancestor’s hometown by searching Wikipedia. Information may include the name of the county, a map, historical information, and current demographics.
  • Lists of museums, libraries, and archives. These pages can provide you links to repositories that may help you with your genealogy. Pages include: List of the Largest Libraries in the United States and List of Archives.
  • Famous people, presidents and others. Did your ancestor cross paths with a famous person? It might help to learn something about that person by reading their entry in Wikipedia. Then you can use the sources found in the footnotes to find additional books and articles.


The FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki should be one of your first go-to websites for every family history project you work on. Why? It’s through this wiki that you can learn more about the place you’re researching, record types, and genealogy methodology. In addition, historical records on FamilySearch have a corresponding wiki page where you can learn more about that record set before you start your research.

Some wiki pages from FamilySearch that you might find helpful include:

Start Exploring Wikis

Good family history research requires many tools, both online and off. Wikis should be one tool that you use for everything from learning more about the history and place your ancestor lived to the records you need to use for your research.

2 thoughts on “Genealogy 101: What Is a Wiki?

  1. I have researched three quarters of my ancestors who came to the U.S. in the 1600s, five on the Mayflower. I have nobody in the second WW. I have been to many LDS Family Centers and have gotten good help. I am not a beginner. But I find FamilySearch very hard to comprehend.
    It’s harder to learn at 83.
    My problem is complicated. One ancestor, William Greaves, is my fourth grandfather. He was bought out of the Army by his family, who were in the cutlery business in Sheffield, U.K. A researcher found that he had been in the Royal Artillery. Later he joined the 6th Enniskillen Dragoons, and died from injuries gotten in the Battle of Waterloo. He said that he was born in Marybourough. I know that a soldier’s papers are destroyed if he dies in service in the U.K. I have no birth date or parents for him. He married a Jane Wilson, probably in Enniskillen, Ireland, as his son was born there Dec. 25, 1801.
    The researcher felt that his father was a soldier also. There was a fort in Maryborough built by the English in the 1500s and was used as troop quarters by the late 1700s, when William was probably born. Greaves in Sheffield are as leaves on a tree. I have had no luck there. I don’t know if there are records extant from the old Maryborough Fort, or where to look for them if there are..
    William’s son, John, came to Quebec on a troop ship called Arab, with his wife and son. There he bought himself out of the Army, and bought a farm, was also a traveling Methodist minister. His family in Sheffield offered to take him when his father died, but his mother refused. He was her only child. I believe he had some financial help from the Sheffield family. His mother was Mary Johnston from Enniskillen. They left a daughter in Enniskillen until she was 18, when she joined them in Quebec. She stayed with a Johnston aunt who worked in a bonnet shop on Main St. John said that he was a cabinet maker before he was in the military. There was a cabinet makers shop on the Main St. at the same time.
    I really want to follow my Greaves line back, also the Wilson and Johnston lines.
    Even FamilySearch was different 15 years ago. It seems more complicated rather than easier.
    Thank you for any help you can give.

  2. Thanks for your comment Anne. I would suggest taking some time to formulate some research questions and then create a plan from there. There’s a wonderful article online that can help you create a research plan.

    The research question and plan can also help you focus on available resources. FamilySearch, which you are familiar with is one important resource. The benefit of going to a nearby Family History Center is that they have volunteers who can help and access to websites that might have some of the records you need.

    Also, you may want to contact a local genealogy society. They might have a few members who are skilled at English research and can help you.

    Good luck!

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