RootsTech 2014

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

findmypast.com adds newspaper and ancient parish records

I haven't written about any additions to the large online genealogy database programs for a while. Since the new records are added online regularly, I simply suggest that if you are interested, you check back periodically to see what new records have gone online. The announcements from findmypast.com did catch my attention however.

The first one was a post entitled, "Over half a million English baptism records dating back to 1530 available." This was interesting for two reasons, the number of records and the dates of the records. Here is the explanation from the post;
Records predating normal English parish collections 
Spanning the years 1530 to 1886, the 580,361 baptism records now available comprise transcripts of the registers from over 150 Wiltshire parishes compiled by Wiltshire Family History Society. 
The Wiltshire baptisms are very unusual, as some of the earliest records in the collection are 484 years old, predating the vast majority of English parish records.
This short note gives you a very good idea of the absolute limit of the English records about individuals outside of royalty and other very important people. This is further explained by the announcement as follows:
The records begin in 1530, eight years before the Vicar General of England, Thomas Cromwell, ordered all of the nation’s parish churches to keep a record of all baptisms, marriages and burials.
If you are researching back into the 1600s or even earlier, you need to make absolutely sure you are not searching for a chimera. Before searching again and again, you might want to take time to establish the dates of the oldest records available in any given record category. 

The second article that caught my eye is entitled, "Time for another newspaper roundup… nearly a quarter of a million pages added from 1752-1954." I was interested in this because of my recent never-ending project to list a link to all the digital newspaper websites in the U.S. by state. The article explains, simply, "We’ve added nearly a quarter of a million new newspaper pages to our collection, so you’ll have plenty of articles to peruse this month." The list of newspapers added and the years of the additions are listed in the article. 


Some must read books for genealogists

Yes, I do mean you need to read a book. Some of these might be available in ebook format, but there is a good reason for reading a whole book on one subject, especially if that subject is genealogy. Of course this list will change if you live somewhere besides the U.S. or the U.K., but the differences are cosmetic. Genealogical research is genealogical research no matter where your family comes from. For example, I may read about the process a genealogist had in finding an ancestor in Germany and benefit from the explanation even if I have no ancestral lines in Germany. There are some very specific records and types of records that are unique to a particular geographic area or time but the methods of proceeding with research are similar around the world.

If you still doubt the utility of general genealogical study, I can give another example. When I was working on a graduate degree in Linguistics, we studied many different languages. Each of these languages was unique, but the idea was not necessarily to learn to speak the language, but to learn how the language worked and thereby advance our knowledge of "language" in general. The same principle applies to genealogy. If you study many different genealogical challenges, you will ultimately figure out how they all help you understand how to do your own genealogical research.

My list of books is certainly open to expansion and could go on endlessly, but there are a few books that I return to constantly that have helped me understand how genealogy works. I am going to start my short list with this classic:

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1990.

Even though this book was published in 1990, it has been released again in 2013, see

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. 2013.

In my opinion, there is no better book for understanding the process and sources for genealogy in the United States. If you look up any of the books I mention in WorldCat.org, you can find a library close by that has a copy of the book. This book is not yet available for public use in ebook format, but if you have contact with a member university, you can see the ebook from the Hathi Trust Digital Library

Here are a couple of more classics. You might argue that online sources have entirely supplanted the need to look at a mere "paper" book. You may also argue that these books are now woefully out of date. Arguments can be made both ways, but I still find that I am using the paper versions regularly even though I sit all day in front of a computer. Here is the list:

Eakle, Arlene. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Publ. Co, 1984.

My friend, Arlene Eakle, began this monumental work and it has since be edited and re-published and is now incorporated into the online Ancestry.com Wiki. The latest edition of the book was published in 2006,

Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006.

The only thing you have to remember about whether or not the material in the book is still useful, is to check to see if the records mentioned have been put online somewhere. The book is gem of information. 

In my opinion, the U.K. equivalent to the Greenwood book is the following:

Herber, Mark D. 1997. "Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History".

As with all of these classics, this book has been republished multiple times. The latest edition is,

Herber, Mark D. Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History. Stroud, Gloucestershire [England]: History Press, 2008.

These books are substantial. They are likely intimidating to those whose reading habits are confined to popular novels and iPads. I suggest that they are substantial for a reason. Genealogy is substantial and cannot be explained or properly understood in a few simple online 5-minute videos. Sorry (not really).

Next are two semi-genealogy historical classics.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Weil, François. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. 2013.

I say semi-genealogy because both of these books fall into the category of history. Both are masterpieces of clarity and give any genealogist a better understanding of who we are and why we believe the things we do about genealogy and history in general. 

Another book I have been reviewing serially lately needs to be added to the list. 

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

Along with the Weil book, this one is very new, genealogically speaking. But it still has all the marks of a classic. I thought it important enough to comment on each chapter individually.

Here are a couple of more very valuable and classic books to add to list and then I will quit rather than get into an endless list of everything in my library and my head.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2012.

Eichholz, Alice. Redbook: American State, County & Town Sources. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2001.

Yes, Ms. Mills has two books on the list. Good work. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Web Basics for Genealogists -- Part Two Beginning our Understanding of Searches

Because of technological advances, one of genealogists' most important activities has become searching for sources online. Using a computer to search online involves a number of complex skills. Unfortunately, almost all genealogical researchers are literally on their own in learning any of these skill. Unless the researcher just happens to have a technological background coupled with knowledge of library science or some other information science experience, it is unlikely that their online searching is either very productive or pleasant.

The number and variety of "educational opportunities" are overwhelming, starting with classes on computers at local colleges and universities, but how many genealogists spend the time obtain a degree in computer science or information science before starting out to do research on their family?

Basic computer skills involve the physical mechanics of entering data using a keyboard and mouse to understanding file structure and the operation of complex programs. But even with a good background in computer usage, it is a fact of life that the technology changes constantly. So the today's genealogist is confronted with learning about computers while trying to understand the equally complex field of genealogy. As a side note, many people involved in genealogy assume that younger people, who have grown up using computers and cell phones are a "step ahead" in entering the field of genealogy because of their background in technology. This is an illusion. Genealogical research requires additional skills of analysis and evaluation that are gained only by experience. It may be discouraging to the beginner, but learning computer skills is only the first step in doing effective genealogical research using all of the vast online sources.

I am going to have to assume that the readers of this blog post have at least a basic idea about how to use a computer or other computer-based device or they would not have gotten to this venue. This particular post is called Web basics because I find that even with good computer skills, researchers are not aware of the different ways you need to conduct searches online.

There are three basically different online search techniques that reflect three completely different ways of organizing information. Like it or not, as genealogists we are involved in the analysis, collection, classification, manipulation, storage, retrieval, movement, and dissemination of information. But to perform any of those activities, we have to first find the information. Following is a short analysis of the three different methods of approaching the finding function of online research.

You can think of research in the abstract as searching through an infinitely large pile of paper. Each piece of paper has a small piece of information. If you were to sit by the side of the pile and randomly pull out pieces of paper, what would be the chance that you would find what you were looking for? My guess is that the probability of finding what you want is close to zero. What is more, how do you know what you are looking for is even in the pile? Genealogists should be painfully aware that not all the information they need has yet been transferred to the vast online pile.

So ignoring the three different search techniques for a while, we should also have a basic idea of the types of records we are searching for and whether or not the particular types we need have migrated to the Web, that is been digitized and indexed. Hmm. That brings up another issue. Genealogical information may be on the web as images of documents. Unfortunately, the technology for searching images of documents is sadly very rudimentary. So as genealogists we rely heavily on indexing and indexes. Even with all our vast electronic wonders, we still have to rely on someone, someplace looking at each document image and manually transcribing the information. Of course, if the information we seek is text, it is much easier to find and search. But if the information is locked up in an image, we are back to visually searching the records which is no different than going to a library or searching through microfilm copies.

 Now back to the infinite pile. We all seem to instinctively understand that the pile needs to be organized in some way so that we can find what we are looking for. But how do we organize the pile? Well, librarians have been organizing their piles for quite a long time. They use a variety of complex cataloging systems. As children going to a school library, we probably heard of the "Dewey Decimal System" or organization and the corresponding card catalog. Books were (and still are in some libraries) organized on shelves by subject and then numbered in a way to make it easier to find the books. For genealogists this is an awkward system because almost everything ends up in Dewey Decimal Classification number 929. Here is a list of categories:
929.1 Genealogy
929.2 Family Histories
929.3 Genealogical sources
929.4 Personal names
929.5 Cemetery records
929.6 Heraldry
929.7 Royal houses, peerage, orders of knighthood
929.8 Order, decorations, autographs
929.9 Forms of insignia and identification
You can see that this set of categories is not all that useful. In any event the whole Dewey Decimal System of classification has been supplanted by other more complex cataloging systems such as the Library of Congress Standards. Warning: getting into this area of searching can be very discouraging, as in, I had no idea how complicated this could be. Just for fun, here are the Library of Congress Standards by category:

Resource Description Formats
Digital Library Standards
Information Resource Retrieval Protocols
ISO Standards
  • ISO 639-2: Codes for the representation of names of languages-- Part 2: Alpha-3 code.
  • ISO 639-5: Codes for the representation of names of languages-- Part 5: Alpha-3 code for language families and groups.
  • ISO/DIS 25577 - Information and documentation -- MarcXchange
  • ISO 20775 - Schema for Holdings Information
Metadata for Digital Content: Developing institutional policies and standards at the Library of Congress
Recommended Format Specifications: Best practices for ensuring the preservation of, and long-term access to, the creative output of the national and the world in both analog and digital formats

OK, now you can begin to see the first type of search. That is a search based on a cataloging system developed and imposed on the data pile by someone who makes up the systems. Searching in a catalog is a whole complicated study in itself. I spent my first few years of work as a bibliographer in a major university library. I became very familiar with the complexity of the cataloging systems.

Is there any hope? Sorry. Not much. The second method is the brute strength, bulldozer method called a string search. You can think here of Google. You type in a series of characters and the search engine tries to match your string of characters with any other characters out there in the pile that match. I wish it were just that simple. What really happens is that Google and other such search engines, create their own catalogue or structure of the data before beginning the string search (not string as in tying knots but strings as in a series of text characters). At this point you can probably guess that I am going to write more completely about each type of search but at this point, what you need to know is that you type in a name and the program sees if it can find that name anywhere. Of course, you soon find that the searches return millions of results that simply illustrate the size of the selected pile, so there must be more to searching on Google than simply wishing that your results show up. Yes, there is, but you will have to wait until my subsequent posts.

Last, but certainly not least, computers programmers have come up with an entirely different way of organizing vast quantities of information that they call a wiki. Searching a wiki turns out to be completely different that either a traditional (or even non-traditional) cataloging system and has its unique advantages and some disadvantages.

Perhaps you can now begin to grasp the complexity of the pile of information and the fact that there are different and somewhat complex methods of organizing the piles. As genealogists, I suppose we could blissfully ignore all this and go on our merry ways seeking our ancestors. We might even acquire some or many of the skills necessary over time. But now, we are faced with the huge online world and sitting in a library in Salt Lake City or where ever is not all of the answer to our investigations.

The next posts on this subject will explore each of the three major methods of pile organization and give some ideas of how searches differ or are the same in each method.
929.1Genealogy929.2Family histories929.3Genealogical sources929.4Personal names929.5Cemetery records929.6Heraldry929.7Royal houses, peerage, orders of knighthood929.8Orders, decorations, autographs929.9Forms of insignia and identification
929.1Genealogy929.2Family histories929.3Genealogical sources929.4Personal names929.5Cemetery records929.6Heraldry929.7Royal houses, peerage, orders of knighthood929.8Orders, decorations, autographs929.9Forms of insignia and identification

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Comments on Becoming an Excellent Genealogist -- Chapter Nine

This is an ongoing series of chapter by chapter comments on the book,

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

I am now commenting on Chapter Nine: Researching Minorities in the United States by Jimmy B. Parker, AG, FUGA.

I had a very brief connection with Jimmy Parker, just before he passed away, in working on Native American entries in the FamilySearch Research Wiki. He was instrumental in the creation of the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists before it became an independent organization. There is a wonderful tribute to him in an obituary in the Deseret News dated 11 September 2011. 

Jimmy makes an interesting point about minorities. He states, quoting from page 85 of the book, 
The concept of "minorities research" is an interesting one. What is it, anyway? What about a person or group sets them apart as a minority? Every individual, family, ethnic group, religion, etc. may qualify as a minority under certain conditions. What constitutes a minority may vary with locality, time period, and attitude. And even if a person or group is considered a minority, how does that affect research? Are the record different for that group? Does the research methodology change because of that minority status?
I would have to answer these questions with a qualifications. For example, recent news shows that in two states of the United States, California and New Mexico, Latinos surpass whites as the largest racial/ethnic group. Here we get to the crux of the matter. What is a Latino? What is a "white?" Aren't these labels self-imposed? Having lived in Latin America for many years, I can hardly go along with a generalization about either the race or ethnicity of "Hispanics." For example, it your family came from Argentina, does that make you a Latino? What if your Argentine family was of German origin and spoke German and Spanish in the home? Does that make you a Latino? In this particular example, aren't we talking about language? If you speak Spanish as your native language, doesn't that make you a Latino in the United States regardless of your ethnic origin? Are the California universities going to start adding English-speaking whites to their minorities studies departments?

From a genealogical standpoint the concept of a "minority" is useless. At one point in time, every single group of immigrants, including the English, were a minority as they came to America. How many Native Americans were there in what we now call Massachusetts when the Pilgrims arrived? Who was the minority? At the same time, there are certain historical facts about the way "minorities" were treated as they arrived in America that governs where and how their important genealogical records were kept. Researching African American populations in the mid-1800s certainly requires some specialized methodologies and background knowledge that is distinctive from researching German immigrants in Pennsylvania. Recognizing the different cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of our ancestors is fundamental to genealogical research. In addition, it is important to recognize that as these people moved across political, ethnic, social and other artificially imposed boundaries, the methodology of tracing their history also likely changed.

Where the concept of a minority is generally unhelpful is when the descendants of a minority start to believe that genealogy is "different for their minority." Genealogical research is a broad brush that has techniques and methods that apply to people and are not different simply because someone is labeled a minority. Genealogists learn to appreciate the facts of history that records change depending on political, social, religious and cultural movements and changes, but the process of researching those records is still fundamentally the same. For example, to give an analogy, if I am trying to drive across Los Angeles, I will need to know certain information about freeways and the names of towns. This is considerably different than navigating my way around in rural Pennsylvania. But the process of using maps and navigating is the same. Similarly, if I am researching Hispanic records in California, I use the same genealogical tools as I do when I research records in Pennsylvania. Of course, there are always those "specialists" that have a greater knowledge of their own local records (or streets to continue the analogy) but we are both involved in essentially the same activity.

As Jimmy Parker points out, the key to all of this is knowing the history and background of your ancestors. I am sometimes appalled and even amazed at the lack of awareness of researchers. They dive right into looking for an ancestor without knowing anything about the area where they are researching. I find that many times they do not even know which state they are researching or if the state or county even existed at the time their ancestor lived. My point is that genealogy is not so much a search for names and dates as it is a search for records. Every one of our ancestors came from a different place and we need to know if there are records for the time and place before we start searching for names.

Here are links to the previous posts in this series:

Gambling vs. Genealogy

In Nevada alone, gambling is an over $8 billion dollar a year revenue generator. See State of Nevada, Nevada Gaming Commission and State Gaming Control Board, Quarterly Report for the Quarter ended March, 2014.  Not surprisingly, statistics on gamblers and gambling (euphemistically called the gaming industry) are rather difficult to find. A report in the United Kingdom estimates that 1% of the total population are problem gamblers. Those over 65 are the fastest growing group of problem gamblers. In a recent Deseret News article by Michael De Groote, entitled "Gray gambling: How gaming impacts seniors" it states,
According to a 2013 report by the American Gaming Association, one-third of Americans (34 percent) visited a casino in the past 12 months. Twenty-eight percent of people aged 65 and older visited a casino in the past 12 months. An article in Psychology Today, however, puts the percentage much higher: David Oslin at the University of Pennsylvania claims that 70 percent of people 65 years and older "had gambled in the previous year and that one in 11 had bet more than he or she could comfortably afford to lose.
What has this got to do with genealogy? Genealogy is looked upon as a "leisure time" activity and primarily an activity of the retired and elderly. If the segment of our society most interested in genealogy is also that same segment that is rapidly becoming more involved in gambling there should be some concern. From my perspective, anytime a huge part of our population are spending their resources in a non-productive way, we have cause for concern. Of course, I cannot reasonably expect people to stop going to casinos and start doing genealogy, but perhaps we should be aware of the impact of gambling and the associated activities on the potential for expansion of the genealogical community. This problem is not confined to the elderly. The U.S. National Institute of Health issued a report in 2009 finding the following:
Problem gambling and substance misuse are prevalent among young people. For instance, 17% of youth reported gambling 52 or more times in the past year, and the same percentage of youth drank five or more drinks on 12 or more days in the past year. Ten percent of youth reported having three or more gambling problems in the past year, and 15% of young people reported having three or more alcohol problems. Controlling for gender, age, and socioeconomic status, black youth have a significantly increased probability of frequent gambling compared with other racial/ethnic groups, yet they have a significantly decreased probability of heavy drinking. Alcohol problems and gambling problems show high co-occurrence, especially for male youth and black youth.
I am not so callous as to be wringing my hands because potential genealogists are ruining their lives, these children are our families. What are the chances that someone with an addiction problem (other than being addicted to genealogy) will become actively engaged in genealogical research? In a report from a BYU Professor, Dr. Lane Fischer, Ph.D. entitled, Exploring Genealogical Roots and Family History and their Influence on College Student Identity Development: A Qualitative Study, points out that experience with genealogy can help younger participants form a positive identity. I would suggest that this is the same for everyone. Working to identify your ancestors is more that pastime. It can have a significantly positive impact on your self image and self value.

Any negative activity, such as gambling, is counter to the positive influence of genealogy. We each make a decision as to how we allocate our time and money. If we choose to spend both in non-productive ways, we diminish our capacity to spend that same time in more productive ways. The spread of activities such as casino gambling are destructive, not just of our society as a whole, but also of our particular interest in preserving our family traditions and history.

Update on the Cultural Heritage of Novi Sad



I mentioned this Serbian cultural website in a post entitled, "New Cultural Heritage Website in Novi Sad, Serbia" earlier this year. Now the website is available in English. Here is a screenshot of the home page:


As I noted previously,
This new website is a a gorgeous new digital heritage platform using the Digital Public Library of America’s open source technology. The platform, Digital Heritage of Novi Sad (bbns.rs), provides access to digitized cultural and historical materials from approximately 200 institutions in or around Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia, all searchable by place, time, and subject. According to project leaders, they are in the final phase of equipping a modern digital laboratory with scanners and graphics processing workstations for digitizing new material into the platform.
For genealogists, the development of this type of website in an area where records have very limited availability is like opening a new door to history. Here is screenshot of the present exhibitions to give you a flavor of the type of information that is becoming available:


In the United States, there is USA Serbs Community Network, a website with links to resources and Serbian organizations across the country.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Family Stories -- Helpful or Misleading?

It seems like the old, traditional genealogy myths keep turing up in different forms, time after time, as I talk to people about their genealogy. Proving or disproving a traditional family story can be complicated. This is true not only from the historical perspective but also because disproving the story can lead to bad feelings and in some cases, extreme antagonism. Unfortunately, I am speaking from personal experience. In some cases, even the accumulation of a mountain of facts, cannot dissuade a believer from repeating the story online or disseminating the falsely identified photograph. I have written about this issue before, but like everything else in genealogy, it keeps being thrown in my face from time to time.

I am presently investigating a complicated family story for a friend. I have already found facts that seem to contradict parts of the story, but so far, the core story resists either proof or disproof. In this case, the core story has one of the classic elements of genealogical myth, the three brothers story. However, the facts here have two brothers and a sister. It also involves orphans, name changes and other classic elements of a good family story.

The classic genealogy myth collection usually involves a vaguely identified ancestor who is distinctive in some way but substantiation is missing and of course, there are no sources that can be verified. Here are a few of the traditional themes:

  • The Three Brothers Myth -- Three brothers come to America from somewhere in Europe or elsewhere, one goes north and makes his fortune, one goes south and one goes west and is never heard of again. The variations on this story are rampant, but it usually revolves around the number three. 
  • The Indian Princess Myth -- This is one myth that can sometimes be proved or disproved. I have had some notable experiences helping people prove their connection to Native American ancestors, but never an Indian Princess. I am not sure that there is any documented evidence of the existence of Indian Princesses. I suspect that this story is related to the true history of Pocahontas, who ended up married to an Englishman, John Rolfe.
  • The Name Change -- It is undoubtedly true that many immigrants to the U.S. or North America or elsewhere, changed their names for a variety of reasons. But I hear the story that the ancestor's name was changed by the government or whatever over and over. The U.S. Government did not have the policy of changing names at Ellis Island or elsewhere. I am aware that Native American children who were forcibly enrolled in Boarding Schools had their Indian names changed to Anglicized names. But virtually all of the name changes originated with the immigrant. In my own family's history, the name change occurred before the immigrant left Europe. 
  • Relationship to a famous person -- These types of claims are usually the easiest to dispel. For some reason, people seem to feel more important if they are related to someone important. I have mentioned before a story in my own family, based solely on the same surname, that I was related to Daniel Boone. That story took me all of about an hour to disprove. Despite the ease of disproof, these can be amazing persistent stories.
  • Back to Adam -- No not again. Is it really time to mention this horrible example of lack of historicity again? Oh well, if you believe your pedigree goes back to Adam, there is not a whole lot I can do to help you. 
  • The Ethnic Myth -- This is another myth that is very persistent and sometimes hard to prove or disprove. Most commonly, the myth claims that the family came from some particular place. Since everyone came from somewhere, this is a difficult issue to confront. Most of the time, this myth originates in a lack of accurate information about the location of the family's origin as it existed historically. Usually, this myth takes the form of claiming that the family came from "Germany" at time when Germany did not exist as a country or some other variation on this theme. 
  • My Family has a Coat of Arms or Crest -- This myth is just plain silly. Proving entitlement to a Coat of Arms or Crest is very involved and requires strict documentation. If it makes you feel important to have a Coat of Arms, I suggest you read up on the subject before making any public claims. 
  • The Burned Courthouse -- Well, courthouses, like other buildings, do burn, but the conclusion that there are no family records available subsequent to the burn is more of an excuse than a consequence. The existence of a burned courthouse is an open invitation to do real genealogical research. 
  • Descent from an Identified Group -- In the U.S. this is usually the Mayflower passengers, an ancestor who fought in some war or another type of organization that requires so degree of genealogical proof for admittance. I usually see this when the researcher is certain there is a connection but has one or more missing links that need to be verified. 
Until you have personally confronted a myth that you have disproven and seen the reaction of your family members to this situation, you have no idea how unpopular you can be. There are other myths that have to do with the way genealogy works or whether or not all of genealogy can be done online and such, but these are not really family stories. I suggest that family stories can be a marvelous motivation for people to get involved in genealogy, but they can also short circuit the whole process and prove to be a boat anchor for accurate research.