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

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Sirens' Call of Names in Genealogical Research

Silhouettes, Human, Mankind, Circle, Network, Social

Over the years, I have often been asked is I am related to other Tanners around the country. Very early on, I came to realize that having the surname "Tanner" meant little or nothing about being genealogically related. Notwithstanding my own realization the having the same or similar surname was not decisive in determining relationships, I constantly see articles, blog posts and other comments about the origin of surnames and the meaning of various surnames.

Not too long ago I wrote some posts on patronymics. Almost every culture in the world has some sort of patronymical surname system. There are still countries, such as Iceland, where patronymics are still used. In any place where patronymics are used, or even matronymics, having a surname in common is certainly no indication of relationship. However, surname patterns and concentrations of people with the same or very similar surnames in a particular geographic area can be helpful tools in some areas of genealogical inquiry.

As societies evolved around the world, identification of the individual and the ability to distinguish individuals is strongly associated with societal complexity. The various governments' ability to impose taxes, raise armies and conduct complex business transactions with written documents has driven the need to more positively identify people. In less structured societies, individuals with the same name are usually distinguished by the addition of a descriptive tag such as John the Younger or Peter the Small. In some societies, names change during the different phases of a person's life and take on religious or cultural significance.

Surnames often indicate social standing and cultural differences. In my own experience, as I live within the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I am often asked if I am related to prominent leaders in the Church who have the same surname. I almost all such cases, I actually am related to these people for the simple reason that we share a common progenitor who joined the Church shortly after its organization.

In any given country of the world, you can determine an approximate time period when surnames became predominant. In England, for example, surnames became used in the 11th Century but were not common until well into the 16th Century. In countries such as Denmark and Sweden, patronymics were used commonly used until well into the 19th Century.

For genealogists, all of this means that names are not a reliable basis for establishing relationships and this general rule is even more restrictive when researchers begin to assume that people with the same name are the same person without other substantiating documentation.

Surnames are derived from a variety of sources:

  • Patronymics and Matronymics -- surnames derived from the given name of a parent
  • Occupation -- such as my own surname, Tanner, from the occupation
  • Topographic -- names after landscape features such as hill, lake and valley
  • Descriptive -- such as young, white, strong etc.
In today's society, both given names and surnames are sometimes simply made up or created. We have a tradition in Utah of having very innovative names. Here is a video that you might enjoy showing the variety of Utah names:

I hope that this short video helps you to not put too much confidence in either common surnames for identification or spelling or any other unreliable method of identifying your ancestors.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Advantages and Limitations of Indexes

Genealogical finding aids are currently a hot topic. Indexing existing records seems to be an obvious way to make information more available, particularly to beginning researchers. But in some cases, indexes hinder rather than assist finding a particular record.

To understand my concern, it is necessary to understand how and why indexes exist. Historically, an index was provided in conjunction with a written manuscript to aid the reader in finding particular information in a long document. For example, as a genealogical researcher, I commonly find indexes or lists of names in parish registers and New England Town Records. The priest or the town clerk spent the time to compile a list of the entries so that he could find the same entries in the future. However, parish registers are a good example of documents where indexes have limited utility.

Creating an index requires the indexer to select specific items within the text to include in the index list. An index differs from a catalog in that a catalog organizes information by subject and may be based on geography, chronologically or in some other fashion. An indexer reviews the entire document and makes a somewhat arbitrary selection of items to include in a usually alphanumeric list with page numbers showing where the terms can be found. Technology now provides an alternative; full text indexing. Documents can be digitized and then a complete "index" of every word becomes available through search programs (engines) and optical character recognition or OCR.

OCR has its limitations. The most significant one for genealogists is the lack of a reliable way to consistently and reliably read handwritten records. Hence the need for indexing. But as researchers we need to always be aware of the limitations of relying solely on indexes to find information. Unfortunately, there is always a background need to bulldoze the information, that is, to look at each entry.

Indexes may have a high level of reliability, but the rely heavily on the accuracy of the original record. For example, if a census enumerator wrote down your ancestor's name phonetically, the indexer will usually add the name the way it was spelled in the original record. Even if you, as a researcher, go back and examine the original record, you may not recognize the entry for your ancestor because it was so badly written in the first instance. Because indexes are derivitive, they add an additional layer of possible inaccuracy. It is always important to look at the original records, if they are available.

One serious mistake of unseasoned researchers is to assume that the index contains all of the information from the original record. This is usually not the case. Most indexes are selective and there may be much more information in the original.

The rule is that the absence of information about an ancestor in an index is not conclusive as to what information there may be in the original documents.

Of course, there are indexes that are the "original" document. For example, a telephone book or city directory is a form of index, but both can be considered as the "original." It is always a good practice to verify the information that is initially found in an index or index-like record with other sources.

None of these comments diminish in any way the importance of indexes as finding aids, but researchers should always be aware of and evaluate the reliability of any document used as a source for genealogical information.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ancestry reports its 2nd Quarter Financials

Ancestry's second quarter 2016 revenues increased 25% over the same quarter in 2015. If genealogists needed any more proof that genealogy can be a big business then reading the Ancestry report should dispel any doubt. The report also shows that during the same period, added millions of new records. This report dispels any concern about the future of the large, online genealogy companies.

Here are the links to the press release and blog post from Ancestry.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

MyHeritage announces SuperSearch Alerts

What happens when you do a search on and then they add more records? Before now, you would have to do the search over again even if you were not aware that additional records had been added. Now, SuperSearch Alert will automatically notify you when new results are available for your previous searches that did not exist when you did the original search.

Here is a more detailed explanation of the process from the blog post dated July 18, 2016.
MyHeritage's SuperSearch contains a wealth of useful content to explore. Currently home to 6.85 billion historical records, SuperSearch includes MyHeritage family trees, public photos, census records, birth, marriage and death records, family history books and a lot more. We're constantly adding new content to SuperSearch, with 1 million historical records and 2 million family tree profiles added on average every day. So, even if you don't find what you're looking for on SuperSearch, chances are we'll have it for you sooner or later. But how would you know when the records you need (or records you didn't know existed) for the people you are searching for, have been added? We now have the answer! Instead of coming back to repeat the same searches manually, you don't need to do a thing. Instead, we do all the work for you. 
From now on, we will automatically repeat old searches you've made on SuperSearch, in the background, every two months. We detect relevant results that were not available previously. We then send you an email about the new results found, with links to view the records. As with any record on SuperSearch, once you view it, if you consider it relevant, you can easily save it to your family tree (creating a citation pointing to the record) and extract information to the relevant people in your family tree, or add new individuals to your tree. 
SuperSearch Alerts cover every search you've made (when you were logged in to MyHeritage) since SuperSearch was launched in 2012, satisfying every condition you've specified in every search (such as birth years, death years, relatives, places, etc). Searches for extremely common names or searches that yield too many results are automatically excluded from SuperSearch Alerts, because when there are too many results, chances are that the new results are not relevant, and we don't want to waste your time.
There is some time and some concerns as this new program is being implemented. Again quoting from the blog post:
Receiving SuperSearch Alerts is free. Viewing results from some data collections are also free (e.g., Billion Graves, Compilation of Published Sources, Social Security Death Index, etc.), but viewing most records requires a Data subscription. 
SuperSearch Alert emails will be sent to you at most once a week, so they won't clog your mailbox. At the bottom of every SuperSearch Alert email, you'll find the option to turn off this feature entirely, and a link to the new configuration page listing all your previous searches, where you can easily select which ones you'd like us to re-run periodically for you. 
SuperSearch Alerts are being rolled out gradually to our user base, with the first group of 10 million users starting now, to allow us to monitor system load and user satisfaction. If you are not getting them during the next few weeks, don't worry. It probably means your account hasn't been activated yet for SuperSearch Alerts. Please be patient as we roll it out.

Genealogy, Identity Theft and the Electronic Chip Credit Card

Shredded Paper, Shred, Shredder, Destroy, Confidential

I think that the preoccupation of the American public with identity theft is finally on the decline. But I still talk to genealogists who are inordinately preoccupied with such a concern and even fear that somehow their identity will be compromised by putting their genealogy online.

In making this observation, I remember years ago, when I was actively practicing law, we went through a huge wave of black mold cases. For about five or so years I had a constant stream of potential clients claiming damages from some sort of mold infection on their real property. Those claims were based on a huge jury verdict awarded in a mold case in Texas or some other state. Finally, the insurance companies began excluding coverage for mold related claims in all their policy renewals. Almost immediately, the mold claims dried up. In fact, in the last ten years or so of my practice I do not remember ever reviewing a claim for mold damage.

From my perspective, faddish legal issues come and go. Identity theft fears constitute one of those legal fads that is now definitely declining. As I have pointed out quite a few times in past posts, there has been no uniformly accepted definition of identity theft. Over the past few years, legislatures have grappled with the difficulty in defining what is essentially a conglomeration of different legal issues referred to under the umbrella term of "identity theft." The U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics defines identity theft as follows:
For the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), the definition of identity theft includes three general types of incidents:
  • unauthorized use or attempted use of an existing account
  • unauthorized use or attempted use of personal information to open a new account
  • misuse of personal information for a fraudulent purpose.
As the Justice Department points out, statistics on identity theft are based on surveys and complaints not criminal prosecutions or convictions. The rise in statistics is from reports not criminal complaints. What is usually not emphasized by the reports is that the vast majority of the so-called identity theft complaints relate to credit card issues. The Victims of Identity Theft, 2014 report clearly states this as follows:
  • About 7% of persons age 16 or older were victims of identity theft in 2014, similar to findings in 2012. „
  • The majority of identity theft victims (86%) experienced the fraudulent use of existing account information, such as credit card or bank account information.
  • The number of elderly victims of identity theft increased from 2.1 million in 2012 to 2.6 million in 2014.
  • About 14% of identity theft victims experienced out-of-pocket losses of $1 or more. Of these victims, about half suffered losses of less than $100.
  • „ Half of identity theft victims who were able to resolve any associated problems did so in a day or less.
It is interesting that in the first statement the statistics show that there is no overall increase in reported instance of identity theft from 2013 through 2014. These reports do not reflect the government mandated use of computer chips in credit cards. By the way, the U.S. is the last developed country in the world to switch to what is known as EMV chips. Here are some of the statistics on the decline of credit card fraud in countries that are using the chips.
Other countries have seen a benefit in adopting EMV technology. In the U.K., counterfeit fraud has fallen 56 percent since the country rolled out EMV cards in 2005, the Aite Group report says. In Australia, counterfeit fraud is down 38 percent. In Canada, the figure is 49 percent.
Where does genealogy fit into all this? The simple answer is that it doesn't. If someone tells you it does, then they are most likely selling something. First of all, no financial data, including social security numbers should be put online in genealogy files. Stupidly, banks still use simple relationship questions as security questions for bank accounts such as asking for your mother's maiden name. 

Now, what is the problem? The main issues include putting unnecessary personal information about living people online and improperly managing credit cards. Your perception of the problem will also change dramatically if you have a perspective about what is already available online about nearly everyone, alive or dead. But to be concerned about putting historic, family history information online due to fears of identity theft is really not an issue.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Where is all the genealogy? Part Six: Special Collections

Library, Books, Knowledge, Information, Bookshelves

The National Center for Education Statistics indicates that there were 3026 public and private degree awarding universities and colleges in the United States in 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available. If you live in the United States, you probably have one or more of these institutions relatively near where you live. But for genealogical purposes, researchers should be very much aware of such institutions in the areas where their ancestors lived. The reason for this is simple. Nearly all of these colleges and universities are going to have libraries and as part of those academic libraries, there are very likely to be sections or departments for "special collections."

Special collections libraries or sections of libraries are the academic equivalent of black holes. They suck in anything that crosses their event horizon. From time to time, I have written about these institutions but I do not see any particular movement among genealogical researchers to utilize these vast collections. You just might want to search the catalogs of the special collections libraries in the areas where your ancestors lived and for a considerable distance around where they lived. Special collections libraries (or parts of libraries) may contain almost anything; books, documents, letters, Bibles, manuscripts, papers of all kinds and classifications. The amount of information you can find may be overwhelming.

Just to give an example I have used before. I found over six feet of documents about my Great-grandfather in the Cline Library at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. But what was interesting about these documents is that they included biographies, letters, journals, diaries and other such items from dozens of other individuals and families that lived in the same area as my ancestor. These documents were not digitized or indexed and to do the research, you would have to read through the entire stack.

This brings up an important issue about genealogical or historical research. There is no free lunch. Genealogical research ultimately becomes research that must be done page by page, entry by entry. Indexes and finding aids are helpful, but not the ultimate answer to finding all the information contained in the records. It is basic procedure that even when you have an index available, the only way to be sure that the indexed document does not contain information about your ancestor is to search it page by page or entry by entry yourself. Even then, you may find yourself going back to the same document multiple times and finding more information you missed the first times you searched.

Special collections libraries are extreme toy valuable resources for this kind of detailed information. There is often no substitute for sitting down with the special collections librarians and asking about the kinds of documents and resources that might be helpful in your research.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Yours, mine and ours: genealogy and ownership

It seems like I regularly run into a situation where a careful, perhaps even meticulous genealogist is expressing frustration with the status of the online family trees. They are mostly upset with either inaccurate (sloppy) entries in "their" portion of the family tree or arbitrary and unsupported changes. This seems particularly true with unified family trees (i.e. wiki-based) such as the Family Tree. These complaints most commonly come from people who exhibit two basic genealogical traits; a sense of ownership of the data they have collected and a sense of superiority that their research is absolutely "correct" and all the other data put online is suspect. I had that experience again today. When this happens, I have learned just to be pleasant and not say anything in response to the complaints about either issue.

But politeness does not keep me from writing about the situation. As I have said and written many times: you do not own your ancestors.

I can approach this from either a legal, a social or a cultural standpoint, or all three. Ownership entitlement is ingrained in most people in the United States by the time they finish kindergarten or even earlier in nursery school. Put a bunch of American two- or three-year-olds in a room with an assortment of toys and soon they will begin to claim ownership. In American history, church members in New England could donate money to the congregation and receive "ownership" of their particular pew. Beginning with the drafting of the United States Constitution, the idea of ownership of intellectual property was codified in the copyright laws. Ownership and entitlement are twin stalwarts of the American cultural scene.

Naturally, when an American genealogists spends his or her time accumulating documents and information about their ancestors, they fall prey to the cultural norm and begin to acquire a sense of ownership. The irony in this situation is that what they are accumulating is historical information that is by its very nature entire communal. Each succeeding generation of research has the potential to geometrically increase the number of equally valid claimants to ownership of that same information. The counter-argument becomes simply, the little red hen syndrome or "I did the work, I own the product."

But the bread baked by the little red hen was not a pedigree of her ancestral line, it was a physical product. For most people I talk to, the idea that by doing the research they have accumulated ownership rights to the data is as certain as a geometric theorem. They fail to realize that all the aurguments supporting such a claim as tantalogical. U.S. Copyright Law recognizes this very situation by excluding copyright claims to ideas, facts and concepts. Quoting from the U.S. Copyright Office website:
Copyright law does not protect ideas, methods, or systems. Copyright protection is therefore not available for ideas or procedures for doing, making, or building things; scientific or technical methods or discoveries; business operations or procedures; mathematical principles; formulas or algorithms; or any other concept, process, or method of operation.
Genealogists should not be in the business of creating or inventing their own pedigrees (although it has been done). Their work is not "original" in the copyright sense of an original creation. Protection does extend to any part of the work that can be considered to be "original" but even if copyright protection is claimed, the claim only applies to the original part of the work. If you would like to dispute this position, just think about what would happen if I did genealogical work on your ancestors and then claimed that I owned the data I had produced and tried to prevent you from discovering your own pedigree without paying me a royalty.

I am not saying that if I did do the research about your ancestors that I had to give you my work for free. What I am saying is that I have no legal method of preventing you from doing the same research and finding out the same information. More importantly, if you redo the work, or not, you can put whatever you want into your "own" pedigree even if we share the same ancestors. Just because I judge your work to be inferior to my own, does not give me possessory rights to the pedigree. If we are working on a unified, community based family tree such as the Family Tree, we each have equal rights to change, correct or modify the information. Just because you believe your information is more accurate than mine, does not give you any superior claim of ownership to the data.

Now, we have to take this whole situation a step further. If I elect to put whatever work I do online in a wiki-based program, then I give up even my claim to require you to do the acquisition work over again. By entering my information into a wiki, I relinquish all claims to ownership, whether I like it or not. Intent when entering the information does not change that reality.

You cannot have it both ways. Either you relinquish your rights or you lose the advantages of having your work shown in the program. Get used to the idea.