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(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Mitch Lipka
June 3 (Reuters) - Many amateur genealogists start digging into their family histories just to see what is out there and then get seriously hooked.
They may be in for an arduous and costly project.
That happened to Janet Judge about six years ago after her children challenged her to identify family members in old photos.
The 59-year-old nurse from Albany, New York, started with a $300-a-year subscription to Ancestry.com, which at 14 billion records has the largest online collection of genealogical significance. What Judge found enabled her to identify all the people in the pictures.
After that, she kept on going. So she paid an additional $275 to one of Ireland's family research centers, a collection of county-based groups that can be found online, and spent a couple of thousand dollars for two trips to that country.
Interest in genealogy is on the rise as more and more old records are digitized. Without leaving home, someone in the United States can find material filed in Poland 150 years ago, for instance.
But while many indexes are free, you may have to pay an online service like Ancestry.com - or trek to the public library for access at no charge - to actually see the records you want.
Some records, like birth and death certificates, typically have to be ordered from government agencies.
Another amateur genealogist, 35-year-old Georgia Hunter of Rowayton, Connecticut, says she has spent at least $5,000 on her pursuit of family stories and documents in the decade since her mother handed her a binder with bits and pieces of her grandfather's life as a Holocaust survivor. That included flying to Brazil to talk with relatives and research documents, plus more than $1,000 for translating services.
To begin researching, the main thing you need is time. Take inventory of what you already know, and what you can learn from family members, and plug it into an online family tree for free. Popular sites include Geni.com, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.
Then share your information, and get other family members to contribute what they know, genealogists say.
To find missing information, like a grandmother's maiden name, you will need to scour birth, marriage, death and immigration records, whose costs vary by location. A Social Security application of a deceased relative costs $27.
It is easiest when you are looking for records in the United States, genealogists say. A good place to start is the decennial U.S. Census, a snapshot in time made available to the public 72 years after it is conducted. The latest release dates from 1940.
For a good resource of the other kind of documents you can find online, both foreign and domestic, see Cyndi's List (www.cyndislist.com/).
If the research gets to be too much for you, you can hire someone else to do it. Expect to pay $25 to $125 per hour, depending on the researcher's expertise and language skills (if the work is overseas), Ancestry.com corporate genealogist Crista Cowan says.
Ancestry's own company, ProGenealogists.com, hires out professionals, with projects averaging $2,500 to $3,000 for 20 to 30 hours of work.
There are also organizations like the Association of Professional Genealogists that can recommend researchers in the U.S. and abroad.
If you luck out, you will connect your family history to another one already in progress online or at least benefit from someone else's discoveries. Mayflower descendants have the benefit of mountains of research, for instance.
Even celebrities are curious. On the PBS show "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.," television personality Barbara Walters discovered ancestors in Poland (the Warmwasser family), and married actors Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon learned they are distant cousins.
Actor and filmmaker George Clooney separately found out he is distantly related to Abraham Lincoln. You can also see if you have royal blood by checking on Charlemagne.org if you are connected to one of the European emperor's more than 300 American family lines.
Even if your roots are not presidential or royal, it can still be a thrill to learn the details of family history.
Judge made discoveries that debunked family legend and revealed dark secrets, such as that one ancestor was a bigamist. She also got a Civil War grave marker added to an ancestor's burial place.
"It's like a very large puzzle with many small pieces that you put together piece by piece," Judge says, "and when you have put together, you can see the whole picture." (Editing by Beth Pinsker and Lisa Von Ahn)