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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Response to Should Cursive Handwriting Die?
[Note: you might have to read the linked blog post from FamilySearch to understand some of my comments.]

Many of my own ancestors did not know how to write. The direct evidence of their lives is an "X" mark on a deed or marriage record. Today, the ability to communicate by voice and text is almost universal although there are still pockets of humanity that do not have the tools of communication. When I was very young, I lived in a small isolated town. Our only form of communication with the outside world besides handwritten letters was a rudimentary telephone system. I had virtually no contact with relatives who did not live in the same small town. Today, in a matter of seconds, I can connect with any one of my seven children's families and, if we care to do so, see and talk to them as if they were sitting in the same room.

We often have feelings of nostalgia for conditions in the past. In many ways, my early childhood in a small town has some very appealing characteristics, but in longing for the past, we tend to skip over the problems and challenges that were inherent in what was comparatively a primitive society. For example, when we got sick, there were no Urgent Care facilities, no doctors without hours of travel and no drugstores with an array of medications that actually worked.

From a genealogical standpoint, we sometimes wring our hands over the loss of the ability to write in cursive. I have written several posts over the years about the fact that cursive is no longer universally taught in our schools in the United States. Very few children today are comfortable writing at all much less writing in cursive. But let's take a quick check at a genealogical reality: none of us initially have the background to read handwriting from 100 or 200 years ago. We all have a steep learning curve if we reach the point where we do research into old, handwritten documents.

In my small town, everyone knew how to ride a horse. I have a number of photographs showing my grandmother, who died long before I was born, riding a horse. People still have horses and still ride them, but few have a horse as their only method of transportation other than walking. Personally, I do not care to ride horses. I have done a lot of horseback riding even for extended periods of time and I do not nostalgically long for the days of horseback riding. For me, horseback riding was painful and unappealing.

Guess what, I have exactly the same attitude towards handwriting. During my entire life, I have had a condition called "essential tremors" that make small motor skills almost impossible. Handwriting is a torture to me. Without a keyboard, I would not write much at all. (Just think what you would have been spared from reading!)

I am certainly not taking the position that quantity equals quality. But to take the attitude that poetry and all of the world's literature will die simply because we cannot write by hand is a little bit silly. It is also a long stretch to claim that we will all become stupid because we do not learn to write by hand. How much of the world's literature was lost in the past because of the time-consuming effort it took to write it all out by hand?

What about the ability to "read old cursive handwriting?' Here is an example of some very good handwriting from Entre Rios, Argentina in the 18th Century. You can click on the image to see it larger.

"Argentina, Entre Ríos, registros parroquiales, 1764-1983," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 19 May 2014), Paraná > Nuestra Señora del Rosario > image 2 of 386; parroquias Católicas, Entre Ríos (Catholic Church parishes, Entre Ríos).
Are you able to write in cursive? Can you read this text?

Learning to read old documents is a different skill from writing in cursive. Just because you learned to write cursive in school does not mean you can read. Reading and writing are two different skills and reading in a language that is not your own is an additional skill. Even if you know the language this text was written in, it would still be a challenge to read it.

This example points out a simple fact: the ability to do genealogical research is a challenging skill that must be learned. Learning to write cursive conveys no special abilities to those who are trying to read old handwriting in a language they do not know. Genealogists may be more aware of the loss of the skill of cursive writing in today's schools, but to assume that our society will collapse because of this one skill makes no sense.

Quoting from the above post, the writer asks this question:
Without skills in writing and reading cursive, how can future generations read such important and carefully preserved original documents as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution?
When was the last time you read the U.S. Constitution in its original form? Have you ever read the U.S. Constitution in its original format? I must admit that even though I have taught college courses in Constitution Law, I have never actually read the entire U.S. Constitution in its original handwritten form. Why would I need to do so?

What is really lacking among today's youth and even most older Americans, is a feeling for and knowledge of history. The examples given by the author of the FamilySearch post points out the need to rediscover and benefit from our collective history. The most telling statement made in the post is the following:
Family heritage is preserved in handwritten records. Nonprofit FamilySearch International’s free online databases of historical documents relies [on] more than a million online volunteers who read digital images of handwritten documents from all over the world, identifying formal names and critical facts to make the digital images easily searchable online. 
“We are heavily dependent on individuals who can read not only handwriting, but variations of older cursive writing used over time in over 100 languages,” said Collin Smith, FamilySearch indexing manager. While fewer people are currently learning cursive, Smith noted, many tools and handwriting tutorials can help volunteers of all ages learn to read old styles of handwriting.
Hmm. What is there that is fun and easy about genealogy? By the way, when was the last time you read a Browning sonnet either the original handwritten document or even a printed version? Have any of the original Browning manuscripts even survived? The answer is actually, yes. Here is a sample of Robert Browning's handwriting.

25 June 1888. Robert Browning and Sarianna Browning to Fannie Browning and Robert Barrett Browning.

Can you read it? My point exactly.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What ever happened to Family Tree Maker?

For some time now, the Family Tree Maker program has been among the most popular programs for recording personal genealogical research. In the past, it is been sold through mass merchandise such as Costco. The program was developed and sold by Over a year ago, discontinued selling the program and eventually at the end of 2016 discontinued support for the program. However, just over a year ago rights to the program were purchased by a company called Just recently, released a new version of the popular Family Tree Maker program. Here is a link to a description of the newly updated program.

What is and What is Not Private for Genealogists

The question of privacy seems to arise frequently in the context of what is what is not private when putting genealogical data online particularly in public family trees. To start out, most if not all of the online family tree programs have provisions to hide information about living people. For example, the Family Tree program creates a "Private Space" for all living contributors. Anything created for a living person is hidden from public view. In addition, any individual added to the Family Tree without a death date or marking deceased will not appear or be visible to anyone besides the person who created or entered the individual.

Notwithstanding these safeguards for living people, many potential contributors are afraid to add even basic vital information about living people. In the case of the Family Tree, as I already indicated, none of this information about "living" people is visible to anyone except the main contributor. There is one exception where living people in photographs may become visible to the general public if a dead person in the photo is tagged.

At least in the United States, there is a substantial disconnect between what is considered private by individuals and what actually turns out to be private. The entire subject of "privacy" is controversial and very political. In the process of writing this post, the following news post appeared, "The House just voted to wipe away the FCC’s landmark Internet privacy protections." Because this post uses the word "privacy" you would tend to believe that it concerns what you consider to be "privacy." But in thinking this, you would be wrong. The issue really involves differing political opinions about the government regulation of internet service providers.

On any given day, there is probably an online news story that involves some issue about "privacy." The reality is that the degree of isolation people could maintain when they lived on farms and there were no methods of communication other than writing letters and the spoken word have long since disappeared in almost the entire world. Let me give an example. You live in a house or an apartment. Do you receive mail from the U.S. Post Office? Is your home address public or private? Have you ever received a birthday card or letter? If you work, does your office celebrate or acknowledge your birthday? Have you every obtained a driver's license in the United States? Did you have to fill in a form that asked for your date of birth? Have you ever gotten any medical treatment in the United States? When you got a vaccination or obtained some medicine, did you have to tell the provider your name and birth date? What makes you think either your physical home address or your birthdate are private information?

I will examine each of the three major types of vital records and indicate what is and what is not private.

Birth Information
Names, dates, and places are the basic building blocks of genealogical research. Contrary to common belief, information about vital records is entirely public in the United States. Since the early 1900s, birth registration has been universal in the United States. I routinely obtain the birth and death information about my ancestors. It is only slightly less complicated to find the birth information about anyone living today. For example, how many times have you seen birthday greetings on Facebook? It is just silly to think that birth information in the United States is private information. Many newspapers routinely publish birth information and people send out birth announcements to friends and relatives either my traditional mail or online. When a child goes to school in the United States, they will need a birth certificate to prove eligibility. There is nothing private about birth information.

Marriage Information
Marriage records are even less private than birth information. If you buy or sell any property in the United States you have to identify your spouse and usually, the spouse has to sign some sort of document. This is the case because marriage affects property interests. Do not assume that because a state or local agency will not release information about a birth or marriage to anyone on demand that the information that this has to do with privacy. The main reason is that the agency charges and fee for the information and they want to protect the revenue stream. Some types of official documents are restricted because they can be used for illegal purposes.

Death Information
There is even less "privacy" about a death in the United States. Have you ever attended a funeral and been given a funeral program. I happen to have dozens of these programs that I routinely use to post death information to my genealogy files. Obituaries are published in newspapers even in this age of online news. Cemeteries are certainly not private and headstones can be viewed by anyone who wishes to drive or walk to a cemetery.

These short illustrations are only the beginning. Are tax returns private information? We hear a lot of news about public figures being forced to disclose their tax returns. Does this make the returns private? No. You file your Federal tax return with the U.S. government. How private is that? Do you really know who can and who cannot see your tax return? I could go on and on, but the idea that the information gathered by genealogists is somehow private is ridiculous.

Here are some simple rules about what is and what is not private information.

1. If anything about you can be obtained by searching the internet or paying a fee to a government entity, that information is not private.

2. If you tell anyone about something that you consider to be "private" then that information is no longer private.

3. If you engage in any publicly available activity, then what you did or how you obtained access to that activity i.e. going to the doctor or buying something in a store, is not at all private.

4. Any information that can be obtained through legal action in the United States can not be considered to be private.

This list could also go on and on. Privacy is a bugaboo. People are unduly concerned about their privacy because they do not realize how little there is about their lives that is truly private.

Monday, March 27, 2017

New York State Archives for Genealogists -- Part Three

Genealogists become accustomed to searching for names, dates and sometimes places. This focus on specific information about their ancestors and relatives often prevents them from realizing the need to expand their research into the greater historical context of the time and place where their ancestors lived. For this reason alone, searching in the online documents, photos and other material on a website such as the New York State Archives seems for many researchers to be a waste of time and effort. A quick search for ancestral names that does not produce an instant link to a relative means that they need to move on to another venue.

I can go to any one of the large online websites that host family trees and look through hundreds of entries and I will almost never find a source reference to anything other than the standard census/vital records type information cited by any of the contributors. It is like the researchers are playing a game of baseball with their research, as long as they circle the bases and touch each base, they are home free. When I start talking to patrons in the Brigham Young University Family History Library about maps and history, they get nervous and start asking when I am going find their ancestor. To most, there is only one way to play the game and I am not following the rules.

The New York State Archives is a good example of the broad, eclectic type of collections found in historical archives. It may not be immediately apparent to an inexperienced researcher that valuable information about their ancestral families may be embedded in the seemingly random collections. For example, I searched in the New York State Archives for my Tanner surname and found only four seemingly unrelated documents. But my direct line family, the Tanners, lived in New York for many years and it is likely that some of their descendants still live in New York state. So what else should I be doing?

The key here, as it always is when this question arises, is to broaden my search. I need to be searching for all sorts of categories of documents that might contain information about my family. For example, my Great-great-grandfather Sidney Tanner was born in Greenwich, Washington, New York and lived in Bolton's Landing on Lake George. What would happen if I started searching for documents about these places for a start?

The first thing I found was a map of the Champlain Canal Survey for Greenwich showing the names of property owners along the route fo the canal.

Do I know where in Greenwich my ancestor lived? How do I know that one of these maps does not show his property? The answer is that I don't. But I would also have to search for other family names in order to determine if this particular set of maps applies to my family. Likewise, here is a map of Bolton Landing, where my third great-grandfather owned a huge tract of land.

The key here is searching for more than names. I actually found a photo of some of the land my 3rd Great-grandfather, John Tanner, owned. He owned Green Island where this large hotel was constructed after he left and sold his property

One of my ancestral families lived and stayed in New York, the Stewart family. I found many more items linked to the Stewarts than I did for the Tanners. But then there are searches to be made for the places where they lived and their occupations and their schools and on and on and on.

How many more subjects can I search on? What will I find? Those are the questions you need to be asking yourself when you are researching in depth.

You can find the first posts in this series here:

Sunday, March 26, 2017

MyHeritage DNA matches add my Australian Cousins

I regularly get new DNA matches by email from Recently, I began to see matches from Australia. This is interesting because two of my direct ancestral lines originate in England and come through Australia.

I have had direct contact from some of my Australian relatives in the past, but it is interesting and helpful to find some new ones, especially those that share their DNA and have family trees on Of course, I will have to determine if I want to contact any of these relatives, but it reassuring to see that my research is substantiated, in part, by the DNA test.

MyHeritage has expanded citation options

Those users who are adding Record Matches from to their family trees have been provided with a new citation feature. Above is a match for one of my Tanner relatives to a book called "Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah: Comprising Photographs, Genealogies, Biographies, Vol. 1, 1913." When this Record Match shows up on the website, my first step is to evaluate the match and determine if it applies to my relative. I can then either confirm the match or reject it. By the way, at the same time, I got an additional 30 related Record Detective results.

There is really no excuse for those with family trees to have entries that are not supported by sources. Of course, you still have to evaluate the sources to make sure they apply to your relative or ancestor, but that is relatively easy when you can compare the information you have with any new or missing information from the suggested source side-by-side.

Once I determine that the suggested source applies to my relative, I can then make the comparison and extract the information for my family tree.

At the bottom of the right-hand side document comparison, there is complete source citation information.

You can then use this to fill in the blanks for other genealogy programs you may be using or to create a more formal citation format for other purposes. There is also a provision to save the entry to another person.

In the past, online family trees have been notorious for their lack of substantial documentation. There is really no excuse now for those on not to have extensive documentation.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Where are the rest of the records?

With the overwhelming number of digitized, genealogically significant records going online almost daily, we might have a tendency to believe that "everything is being digitized." This impression is far removed from reality. What is out there that we have yet to identify, catalog, digitize and index? I live here in Provo, Utah, home of the largest private university in the United States, and predominantly inhabited by people who appreciate the importance of records. Are there still significant numbers of records here in Provo that need to be digitized both for research and preservation? Absolutely.

Probably one of the largest such accumulations of records resides in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library in the Harold B. Lee Library on the campus of the Brigham Young University. Here is a description of this huge collection from the BYU website,
The L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library preserves and houses materials requiring regulation. Because of their uniqueness, value, or fragility, these materials are given great care to protect them from damage or theft and to ensure their proper long-term use.
Hence, Special Collections acquires, preserves, and makes available for use printed materials (280,000 books, pamphlets, prints, etc.) and a vast array of items comprising manuscript materials (8,000 manuscript collections including diaries, journals, papers, music scores, university records [including records of retired faculty], and 500,000 photographs).
I am not picking on this particular university, there are approximately 24 public and private universities and colleges in the State of Utah, not counting those operated for profit. Each of those schools has a library and it is almost certain that there are significant portions of the books, documents, and records in those libraries that have yet to be digitized or preserved.

I use this only as an example if you extrapolate this fact across the United States to all of the colleges and universities, approximately 4,000 or so, you can imagine the number of documents, manuscripts and other records that remain on paper and researchable on at each of these institutions' libraries. We delude ourselves if we think that the process of digitizing all the world's records is in anything more than its infancy.

I have another illustration from here in Utah. This past week or so, I was asked to look for a copy of a book containing the reports of the cases from the Supreme Court of Utah. I have been used to using digitized case law for many years. But I was surprised to find that the particular volume from the early 1900s was not readily available online. One of the very, very few losses I have suffered as a result of retiring from my law practice was losing access to the online legal database programs such as I was surprised that these early Utah Supreme Court cases were not readily available online. I did locate a copy in the BYU Special Collections Library, but in this particular case, the researcher that asked the question found a copy online in the

The is a partnership community of universities and colleges in the United States that provide digital, online access to their library records. Surprisingly, Brigham Young University is not listed as a partner and the number of partners is far fewer than the more than 4000 such institutions in the United States.

So, any genealogical researcher who claims to have done a reasonably exhaustive search of existing records would have to have spent a considerable amount of time in a significant number of special collections libraries depending on the area of the United States where the research was being conducted. In reality, I suspect that no individual during an entire lifetime, adequately review even a small portion of the records available in the United States that are still on paper and uncataloged, unindexed and undigitized.

If you expand this view of records to local public and private libraries, historical societies, museums and other repositories, you can begin to see the vast scope of what is left to digitize in the United States alone. I cannot tell you how many people have come to me and claimed the "they have looked everywhere for records of their ancestors" and after I asked if they had searched in newspapers, special collections, historical societies and elsewhere, have come to realize that their research had only just begun.

As genealogists, we need to become more aware of the records around us and become knowledgeable about the need to digitize, index and preserve these valuable records. As a community we need to become more proactive is facilitating the digitization and preservation of the existing records. I will refer you again to the post entitled, "Preserving Historical Records: Lesson of the National Personnel Records Center Fire."