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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Free and the World of Genealogy

"A world of records; free online" sounds like a promotional statement, but the concept of "free" is something all genealogists need to think about. I pay a monthly fee and own an expensive iPhone, just so I can access "free" information online. I also pay another fee and have access to Google Fiber so I can view my "free" content on an expensive iMac computer. I get in my car and drive a couple miles to a "free public library" so I can check out a book using my library card. Of course, I pay local taxes on almost everything I do to support this "free" library and for that I get a library card. It seems to me that there is something about the word "free" that I don't quite understand. Here is a quote that I think applies to our use of the word "free."
"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
William Goldman, The Princess Bride
I have written about the reaction I get to the concept of "free" from older genealogists who are on a "limited budget." How we view the expenses involved in obtaining an Internet connection, purchasing computers and maintaining them, buying software and subscribing to online websites, all depends on our relative economic position. But more important than our absolute economic position is the way we allocate our spending. For example, what I spend per month on Google Fiber is the equivalent of a dinner for two at an expensive restaurant or about ten meals at McDonald's. Going to a movie in the United States today costs, on the average, $8.61 per ticket. We have a major football stadium in Provo for the Brigham Young University football team. If I were to purchase three individual tickets to the next three football games if would cost me $234. To take my wife, it would cost $468.00 more than the price of a new computer system, just to go to three football games with my wife. By the way, that would be more than six months of Google Fiber Internet Access. By the way, the national average is that Americans spend 14 percent of their income on cigarettes and about 1 percent of their income on alcohol. See USA Today, "20 ways Americans are blowing their money."

Poverty is real. Suffering is real. Since the average demographic of a genealogist is a woman, over 50 years of age with a college degree and no children at home, it is not so likely that poverty, per se, is a major obstacle to doing genealogy. The current poverty rate in the United States is 14.8 percent from the U.S. Census Bureau but the poverty percentage for people over 65 is 10%. There is a real issue that we call the Information Divide separating the poor from access to information. But as far as genealogy is concerned, the real limitation is interest not poverty. Many public libraries and all Family History Centers around the world provide free access to online genealogy programs. Yes, there is a concern about both Internet access and computer access, but the number of people interested in actually doing genealogical research is very, very small compared to the number of people in the entire world. Lack of computer skills, physical disabilities, lack of initiative and many other limitations are much more a part of the limits on genealogical interest than poverty.

So what part does "free" play in the world of genealogy? My perspective is that it is basically acting like a boat anchor. The general expectation is that everything concerned with genealogy should be free and there are a significant number of people that don't think paying for genealogical information is a "necessary" or even optional expense. Here in Utah, hunting, riding ATVs, snow skiing and other outdoor activities are very popular. All of these "sports" cost hundreds and into the thousands of dollars a year. The cost of a season pass to one of the ski resorts in Utah is almost $1000 and that does not include the cost of the equipment. I could get a senior (over 70) pass for $525. That is just one resort, the cost of a multi-pass can run over $3,000 per person per year.

Now, what does it really cost to do genealogy? Even if I purchased a new computer every year and paid for premium Internet access, I would spend far less than any one of the "expensive" activities that involve many people in the United States. Also, since I have lived in both Argentina and Panama for years of my life, I know what "real" poverty is and looks like.

If you think about genealogy as an activity, it is very inexpensive. If you think about the time it takes, it can absorb your entire life. Genealogy is not really a hobby, it is a passion and an avocation.

RootsTech 2016 Ambassadors

RootsTech 2016 will be bigger and better than ever. Registration is now open. Since its inception, RootsTech has invited bloggers to participate and write about the Conference. For the past two years, these Bloggers have been called "Ambassadors" and those organizing the Conference from FamilySearch have invited bloggers who are not a part of the "traditional" genealogical community. But at the core are a number of well-known genealogical bloggers. As you can see from my badge, I will once again be at RootsTech and be blogging away.

I recently got an updated list of the bloggers who have been invited and I was interested to see what perspective some of them would give to the Conference. There are lots of names I recognize, but many I do not. I am hoping to have the opportunity to meet more of the bloggers during the Conference. Of course, the reality of RootsTech is that there are so many people and events and vendors and classes and more people, that I usually have little time for socializing after I spend my time writing.

I was happy to see Sharn White of FamilyHistory4u and Jill Ball of GeniAus and  from Australia on the list. I think they are both attending the Conference. I have ancestral ties to Australia and I am presently researching my two Australian lines, beginning in England. There are 74 Bloggers on the list but I only recognize the names of about twenty, so either I have completely lost touch with the genealogical community or there are a lot of eclectic names on the list. This is quite a change from the first RootsTech Conference where we were a very small group.

The Bloggers have access to the Media Hub on the Exhibit Floor. They also have an opportunity to interview various people in a glass interview booth.

If you are attending RootsTech 2016, be sure and drop by the Media Hub and say hello. I look forward to see all of those who attend. If you are a blogger, please introduce yourself, if we haven't met before.

Click here to go to the RootsTech 2016 page.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Follow up on the Longfellow Quote

In a recent blog post, I referenced a quote attributed to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He reportedly wrote, "It takes less time to do a thing right than to explain why you did it wrong." This quote appears with the reference to Longfellow in over 2000 website references using a Google search. Normally, when I quote anything, I spend the time to verify the original and cite the original. To my surprise, this particular quote does not appear anywhere in any Longfellow source. After an exhaustive search online in websites, books and through in libraries, I cannot find any connection between this quote an anything written by Longfellow, the poet. In fact, the statement does not sound like Longfellow's writings or other quotes.

A commentator made the suggestion to search in books here in the Brigham Young University Library. So, since I am writing this in the Library this evening, I took time to go to the section with books of quotes. I looked through about ten of them. Including these two very comprehensive books:

Bartlett, John, and Justin Kaplan. Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002.

Partington, Angela. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Oxford: Oxford university press, 1996.

Not only was there no reference in the section of each for Longfellow, the quote itself was not in any of the books I looked at. 

At this point, my search is over. As far as I am concerned, the statement is a modern one attributed to Longfellow with no real connection whatsoever.

Now, this should be an important lesson for every researcher, genealogical or otherwise, check your original sources. You just may find that a widely accepted fact is actually false. 

Tablets, iPads and Notebooks -- The battery challenge

As I was sitting in a recent genealogy conference, I noticed that those sitting around me were "taking notes" with a variety of devices. Some, of course, had a pad of paper and a pen or pencil, but many were using a variety of electronic devices. I happened to have my MacBook Pro laptop open and was searching around for somewhere to plug it in.

If you are accustomed to taking notes on an electronic device, you recognize this challenge. Most of the devices have a limited battery life. My older MacBook Pro will last a few hours, but attending an all-day conference is a challenge. If I do not have access to an electrical outlet, my computer is shut down by the afternoon. Battery life has been a major issue with mobile devices since their inception. Today, one of the first features mentioned about a new device is the battery life. The new Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is no exception. The promotional materials advertise a battery life of "up to 9 hours." Of course there is a qualifying footnote that says, "Testing conducted by Microsoft in September 2015 using preproduction Intel® Core™ i5, 256GB, 8 GB RAM device. Testing consisted of full battery discharge during video playback. All settings were default except: Wi-Fi was associated with a network. Battery life varies significantly with settings, usage, and other factors." In other words, your experience may vary.

With all my electronic devices and especially with those I carry around to various locations, I am constantly aware of the need to watch the battery indicator. In our car, we have various mobile plugin devices including an inverter that allows us to charge a computer or other device by converting the 12 volt direct current to 120 volt alternating current. In addition, we have to make sure we have cables with all the proper connectors.

I have noticed that in some of the airports around the country that the airlines are providing "free" charging stations and many of the seats in the lobbies have electrical plugs. However, I also note that someone riding a train in England who plugged into a convenient socket, was arrested for stealing electricity. The story went viral around the world. Apparently, the authorities in England did not back down, but indicated that the outlets were marked for cleaning personnel only. Apparently, no one took a photo of the outlet in question.

When I travel from Provo to Salt Lake City on the FrontRunner commuter train, they have tables and free outlets for charging any sort of device. I can plug in my computer and type away for the whole hour of the trip. This makes life easier than sitting on a freeway and risking a 2 or 3 hour traffic tie up. Of course, last week the train was delayed. In Utah, people have a tendency to run the intersections or get stuck on the tracks causing a train accident.

Realizing this issue, I have started carrying extra battery backup devices for my iPhone. But since we are often out of range of any signal, whether or not the battery is charged is a moot point and by the time we are back in a car, we have the car to use as a charger (rather expensive phone charging device). There are hundreds of these devices available for sale.

Since so much of my own work is online, I am also acutely aware of Internet service connections. In addition to supplying free electrical connections at every table (there are usually four to six of them available in every car), the train also has free WiFi. This is sometimes very slow, especially during high traffic hours, but I can still get a fair amount of work done.

WiFi reception in most major conferences is either very spotty or very expensive or both. Hotels hosting conventions usually charge attendees to hook up to WiFi for the day of the conference. At the upcoming RootsTech 2016 Conference in the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah, we haven't heard anything about WiFi yet, but in past years, the coverage has been poor to spotty and when all the people get there, it has been non-existent. However, the Ambassadors (Bloggers for the most part) have media hub with higher speed Internet cable connections.

Battery life will likely continue to increase. For smaller devices such as smartphones, the batteries already last for more than a day's worth of usage. For larger devices, I suspect that battery life will continue to be a major issue absent some revolutionary breakthrough in battery technology.

The Single Record Researcher

I have observed that genealogical researchers go through several developmental stages. I characterize the first stage as the "Census and Vital Records" Stage. It could also be characterized as the "Single Record" Stage. Some researchers move through this stage quickly, others never seem to get past it.

At the Single Record Stage, the researcher finds a record about his or her ancestral family and immediately moves on to the next generation. The move to the next generation is usually made using family tradition rather than the information contained in the one, found record. The significance of the information contained in that one record is entirely lost. If that one record turns out to be a U.S. Federal Census Record and if the person examines the record, they often note that there is a discrepancy between the estimated dates in the Census and their memory of birth dates.  Even if I explain the reason why birth dates in census records are not accurate, the idea that their own, traditional date may be wrong never occurs them.

How do we move past this stage in our genealogical development? Today, some of the larger, online genealogical family tree programs generate record hints. The users of these programs get the idea that adding record hints is sort of like moving up to the next level in a video game, but they don't seem to realize that despite nearly 100% claimed accuracy, many of those hints do not apply to their family members. They may accumulate many more than just a single record source, but mixed in with valid sources there may be ones that do not correspond to the family at all.

As you accumulate genealogical data, you are creating a pattern. Many commentators have compared that pattern to a puzzle, but the puzzle analogy breaks down because genealogical relationships are much more complex than the one-to-one relationships between puzzle pieces and the rest of the puzzle. This is particularly true when related individuals have intermarried. My own parents were second cousins and this type of situation creates some interesting descendancy patterns as well as family dynamics.

Until a researcher begins to see the patterns in the genealogical foreground and the significance of the background information, both the accuracy and the consistency of the genealogical pattern suffer. A U.S. Census record, for example, contains many levels of information, including some or all of the following:

  • Names
  • Dates
  • Places
  • Occupations
  • Numbers of Children
  • Ages
  • Marital Status
  • Linguistic Background
  • Origin
  • Naturalization Status
and many more categories. As the researcher begins to acquire a certain degree of sophistication, the pattern created by the Census record becomes apparent. Some of the search engine algorithms employed by the larger, online genealogical database programs use these patterns to increase their accuracy. But no matter how sophisticated the program, There are levels of patterns in the data that the programs cannot comprehend or utilize. For example, the position of a family within a greater ethnic neighborhood is lost on a computer program and barely discernible to a seasoned researcher. These higher level patterns are only discoverable by asking why questions. 

Let's suppose that the early researcher finds an ancestral family living in Pennsylvania in the very early 1800s. Do the historical events known as the Whiskey Rebellion and the German-American tax revolt have any significance in the lives of these ancestors? There are in fact, patterns upon patterns upon patterns in history and our ancestors were either players in or subject to those patterns. 

I have been writing about this topic for many years now and it seems that the issue still arises repeatedly. Every new crop of researchers has to go through the same process and it is inevitable that some will continue their progress and others will stall at some level or another. Doing genealogical research is an evolving activity. I was looking at a source the other day that I just used to solve a significant issue with one ancestral family. I realized that I had a digital copy of that same source on my computer. But at the time I first copied it, I did not look carefully enough at the record to realize its significance. 

How do we move forward in our recognition of important historical patterns? We continue to learn, study and examine. After spending some time learning about the research process, we go back to that same census record we gathered early on and find out that it contains a wealth of information that we previously ignored. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Are You Being Thorough and Accurate?

Details matter. There are many skills associated with genealogical research, but the most important are being thorough and accurate. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reportedly wrote, "It takes less time to do a thing right than to explain why you did it wrong." Now, I could just quote Longfellow and leave it at that. But how do you know that this statement really originated with the poet, Longfellow? I would also question the validity of the statement. Sometimes, doing something right takes a considerable time and effort. How would you go about researching whether or not Longfellow really originated this quote and if this is what he actually said?

Of course, I started with a Google search. But my initial efforts merely produced a multitude of copies of the same statement with no references. Does this sound familiar in genealogical research? I have often found that commonly quoted sayings are either wrongly attributed or misquoted from the original. After spending some initial time searching for the original source of the quote, I became intrigued with the quote and its origin. At this point, it began to look more and more like entries in online family trees that simply copied over and over the information about an ancestor without a citation to the original. I found hundreds of copies of the quote and still no attribution to the original source.

At this point, I began to question both the author and accuracy of the quote. The longer I spent looking for the actual source, the more convinced I became that the quote was likely not accurately reported. Most of the websites were nothing more than lists of quotes with a supposed name of the author. I finally began to get into academic use of the quote, but still no one seemed to know where the original was located. I began to be somewhat amazed at the fact that this quote was so commonly attributed to Longfellow without anyone having bothered to verify the origin or give a citation to the original.

As I went through more and more pages of quotes on Google, I decided I had to devise a different strategy. I added some search terms, such as, "source" and "original." Up to this point, I had been searching on the entire quote in quotation marks. That didn't seem to help, so I moved to searching in Google Books directly. By adding those qualifiers, plus adding the word, "Longfellow," I still had over 258,000 results.

More search with multiple terms still produced no information on the origin of the saying. Everyone seems to love the saying but no one seems to challenge the assumption. It looks like to me that none of the people using the quote followed its advice. Again, this was sounding very much like what was happening too often in genealogy.

Then I began searching for the quote directly in books authored by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Still no luck even when I was search books containing his "complete works." I finally ended up on the Internet Archive ( searching books both by Longfellow and about him. I finally ended up searching the following:

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, and Andrew R Hilen. The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

This book has six volumes. The quote is not in this book. I also discovered the Harvard University collection of

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 1807-1882, recipient. Letters to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1761-1904: Guide. 36 linear feet in 73 boxes. 

I was beginning to conclude that the quote was spurious. Well, I ran out of time and patience to verify this quote, but I can certainly say that it does in fact take more time to do something wrong than it does to do it right. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a lot, but it appears that he didn't write the quote I started with.

Now, perhaps you can see the analogy here. Genealogy is much like this supposed quote from Longfellow. It should have taken me just a few minutes, not over an hour, of searching to find the origin of the quote. The fact that it took me longer than a few minutes indicates that the quote is either wrongly attributed or bogus. We need to be very careful when we copy something that appears to be "well accepted" and accurate. We need to question everything.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

British Isles: Research Guide added to has announced the publication of another book in their research series,

Hansen, Holly T., Judith E. Wight, Arlene H. Eakle, and James L. Tanner. British Isles: Research Guide. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

This book is available on the website in the Store or on You can search on Amazon for the name of the books or by author. Here is an updated list of the books on Amazon:

Hansen, Holly T., Ruth E. Maness AG, Arlene H. Eakle PhD, and James L. Tanner. Scandinavian Research Guide: Sources and Strategies. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
Hansen, Holly T., Arlene H. Eakle, and James L. Tanner. The Power of Marriage Documents: Research Guide. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
Hansen, Holly T., James L. Tanner, and Arlene H. Eakle. US Land and Tax Records: Research Guide. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
Hansen, Holly T., James L. Tanner, and Arlene H. Eakle Ph.D. The Ins and Outs of Probate for Genealogists: Research Guide. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
Hansen, Holly T., Judith E. Wight, Arlene H. Eakle, and James L. Tanner. British Isles: Research Guide. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

Many more books, DVDs and other items are for sale in the Store.