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

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Looking back to the origins of Genealogy's Star

My first blog post on Genealogy's Star blog was two short paragraphs about the FamilySearch Research Wiki.

Since that small beginning, I have written and published 4468 posts and have kept writing now for almost eight years. When I wrote that first short blog post, I had no idea how extensively writing online would affect my life. Genealogically speaking, I have come a long way since that first, very tentative, offering.

Probably the most interesting part of the whole experience has been meeting so many wonderful people. Of course, if you know me, you realize that if I am not writing, I am probably talking. So one of the spinoffs of the writing experience has been teaching a steady stream of classes and presentations.

As an additional benefit of writing this blog, I have been asked to participate as a blogger at the annual RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Now, that we live in Provo, about an hour south of downtown Salt Lake, it is not quite as much of a production to attend the conference, but it is still a highlight of the year. My participation has turned out to involve the entire week of the conference, starting with the Brigham Young University Family History Technology Workshop on Tuesday and the Innovator Summit on Wednesday. This next year will probably be even more interesting than past years. The past two years, I have concentrated more on writing and meeting than presenting, but I have still had a constant schedule of meetings during all of the conferences and parts.

Just as a side note, you may want to go to and keep updated on the conference scheduled for February 8 - 11, 2017. Hotel rooms tend to fill up for the conference and it is a good idea to plan way ahead.

Of course, the most dramatic change that has come in part from my involvement in genealogy is our move to Provo and my involvement with the Brigham Young University Family History Library. I have seven additional live, online webinars to present in September, 2016 and the spin off of this constant stream of webinars has been even more far reaching than the blogs. By posting the webinars on Google's YouTube on the BYU Family History Library Channel, I have seen a steady increase in the impact of this more immediate media outlet.

One interesting side effect of moving to Provo was that I almost completely stopped being invited to speak at conferences around the U.S. and Canada. In reality, that turned out to be a benefit, because now, I spend my time writing presentations for video output. But I have been involved in a lot of local conferences, in fact, both my wife and I are teach three classes each this Saturday for the Provo Grandview South Stake here in Provo.

Now another word about the name of this blog. If I had it to do over again, I would probably choose a different name. I was mostly thinking of an analogy to a guiding star or the sense that the term "star" is used by newspapers, particularly in Arizona. But I soon was embarrassed to realize my choice was somewhat presumptuous, but by that time, I was committed with the name and ran with it. Well, here we are, still writing away.

You would think I would run out of topics, but in reality I have long lists of topics to write on that I haven't had time to get to yet. When I run out of things to say, I will let you know.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Using Smart Technology to Jump-Start Your Genealogical Research: Part One

Genealogical research can seem tedious and time consuming and it often is exactly that. But we are presently going through a life changing technological revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we do our work. It can now be truthfully said that smart technology can jump-start your genealogical research.

Using the new "smart" technology is a lot more involved than merely searching on the Internet or using a word processing program on your computer. Some of the technological springboards available right now include the following:
  • Automated record hint capabilities that find suggested original sources
  • Online document storage and organization programs
  • Source citation programs that automatically format your citations and create bibliographies
  • News aggregator programs that keep you informed of posts to blogs and other websites
  • Billions of digitized source documents in thousands of archive websites
  • Comprehensive mapping and gazetteer programs that open windows into historical locations
  • Huge online geographic names databases 
  • A multitude of devices from digital cameras to smartphones, tablets and other computer devices can take images of documents for research and store them or share them with your other devices.
This is only a very partial list of all of the marvelous technological helps that are now available or are becoming available.

I am going to start with something very basic: digitizing our paper records. The advantages of having digital copies of our paper records may not seem evident to those who are not "connected" in the current sense of the word.

Smartphone cameras are quickly becoming ubiquitous. But what may not be obvious is that the same smartphone or cell phone camera you use to take snapshots of family members and family gatherings, can be used to gather highly readable copies of documents you find as you do research or already have in paper files. Here is an example of a photo of a page from a parish register I took from a microfilm reader:

This was taken with my 8 Megapixel iPhone camera. There is a "hot spot" where the reader's light was reflected from the surface of the old style reader, but the image is highly readable and useful. Here is a magnified section of the image:

Although the image would not be considered to be "archive quality," it is readable and very useful. I could get better images with a better camera, but the iPhone camera was the one I had with me when I was doing research in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. We may find ourselves in a situation where we find genealogically interesting documents or records, such as a chance visit to a cemetery or archive, and we can use this new technology to take photos on the spur of the moment.

Now, let's extend this technology a lot further. Once I have an image in my smartphone, I can immediately share it with relatives or upload it online. For example, has its Shoebox app. Here is a description of the app from Ancestry:
Shoebox turns your iPhone or Android into a high-quality photo scanner. With Shoebox, you can quickly scan paper photos, add important historical information like dates and places, and upload directly to your family tree.
You can also edit the photo and its description:
Editing dates, places, tags, and captions is easy. After you’ve cropped a photo, you will be taken to a “Edit details” page. Use the icons at the bottom to tag family members, date your photo, add a location, and write your own description.
You can also do many of the same things with the Memories App. Here is a description of the features of the Memories app:

  • Store memories for free forever, deep within the FamilySearch vaults.
  • Pick up where you left off on any device since the app automatically syncs to
  • Take family memories wherever you go—the app works even without Internet access.
  • Snap photos of any family moment, such as recitals, dates, graduations, reunions, and memorials, and add them to your family tree.
  • Use the app to take photos of old photos and documents too!
  • Use the app to interview family members and record audio details of their life stories and favorite memories.
  • Write family stories, jokes, and sayings with the keyboard, or use the mic key to record what you say.
  • Enrich written stories by adding descriptive photos.
  • Identify relatives in photos, stories, and recordings to add those memories automatically to their collection in Family Tree.
There are several other such convenient programs that can add this functionality to your smartphone.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Homage to the Agricultural Laboror

One of the realities of history and genealogy is that there are a lot more common people than there are rich, famous or royalty. The American fascination with royalty has hardly diminished. I can trace back almost every one of my family lines on the Family Tree and eventually someone has connected that family line to a royal line in Europe. However, careful review of the English census records usually reveals that my ancestors were tradesmen or "Agricultural Laborers" and had no claims to royal descent.

This topic came up recently when I traced one family line to a widow in the English Census who was identified as a pauper and the widow of an agricultural laborer or "AL." For some reason, it touched my heart that my own ancestors had suffered so much deprivation and poverty. But it did explain why they ultimately immigrated to Australia.

OK, so it is possible that one or two of your ancestral lines can be traced back to royalty. After all, kings and rich guys had children so why couldn't there be one or two in your own family lines? Well, for those of us who can trace some of your lines back a ways in America, it is entirely possible to find one or two who connect to a Gateway Ancestors with documented royal connections. If you have aspirations of royal descent, then you need to be very familiar with the term "gateway ancestors." I suggest you start with a FamilySearch post by my friend, Nathan Murphy, entitled "Documenting Royal Ancestry, written back in October of 2015. Here is a key quote from that article:
If the immigrant in your family is a valid gateway, you are on track to documenting royal ancestry. If your immigrant is not on the list, the royal lineage presented to you is probably underproven or false.
I might mention that this whole concept goes to claims of descent from an "Indian Princess" also. But in that case, I would suggest a comprehensive DNA test before you start trying to prove you have access to living on an Indian Reservation.

Personally, I am becoming more and more impressed with the tenacity of my poor and very common ancestors who apparently survived the difficulties of being agricultural laborers and became my own ancestors.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Do I need a "genealogy program" to do my genealogy?

This is not another post about paper vs. computerized genealogy. My question addresses a serious issue that goes to the heart of what most people consider "doing their genealogy." At one end of the spectrum we have "professional" genealogists who, after doing intensive research, write "proof statements" based on the "Genealogical Proof Standard." The process is usually described something like this:
The Genealogical Proof Standard is the standard set by the genealogical field to build a solid case, especially when there is no direct evidence providing an answer, or when there are conflicts in the evidence. 
See Amazon ad for the following book,

Rose, Christine. Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case. San Jose, Calif: CR Publications, 2014.

The fact of the matter is that a "professional genealogist" could do everything they do for clients using a word processor and a copy machine or other scanning device. In fact, they could do without a word processing program and still use a typewriter. There is nothing about doing genealogical research that would have to rely on a computer or any particular computer program. Professional genealogists would not accept a "computer generated" genealogy as an acceptable professional document. 

But what about online research and digitized sources? Of course, almost all genealogists now recognized the need to do some research online, but in the end, there is still a major issue with the completeness of research if you rely only on online sources. 

I acknowledge that this level of genealogical research is still necessary in some instances and because this is the case, there is a real issue about the need for the spectrum of "genealogy" programs now available. Some have taken umbrage with my use of the term "program." I use the term in its most general sense, i.e. a set of instructions given to a computer. From my standpoint, any time I turn on any electronic device, it is using a program. You can call it what you want, app, routine, subroutine, to me they are all "programs."

Many of the computer programs stylized as "genealogy specific" are in effect specialized database programs written in a particular computer language. Each of these programs reflect the understanding of the programmers about what a potential genealogical user would like to store about his or her family. But none of these programs actually do genealogy. They are simply elaborate methods of storing information. A professional genealogist would immediately reject almost all of the programs because the source and citation style does not conform to a recognizable standard. For example, none of the currently available genealogical database programs will automatically produce a source citation that conforms to the Chicago Manual of Style. Why would I use such a program if I have to rewrite every one of the citations the programs produces?

If a computer program developer develops a program either for individual use on one computer or for general use online and calls it a "genealogy" program, does that mean that the program is necessary to do genealogy? If my primary activity as a "genealogist" is writing Case Studies and Proof Arguments, isn't my primary genealogy program a word processor? 

What if I don't really care about proof statements or client reports? What if all I want to do is see my family in a pedigree chart? Do I really need a program to do that? 

I think the answer to all this is simple. What we do as genealogists depends on our expectations and the end product of our research. The various electronically designed devices and programs may be tools, but our main activity involves our individual research and writing. I use the tools to save time and to organize my research. But it is always a good idea to question whether or not using a particular program is helping me to achieve my goals. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Challenges of Adding Sources to Family Trees -- Part One: The Historical Reality

Genealogy is not immune to movements, fashions and fads. Some of these turn out to be beneficial to individual genealogists, others not so much. In the past, a considerable amount of the genealogical effort went into compiling "surname books," the generic term for compiled family histories that either detailed the descendants of a remote ancestor or the ancestors of a more recent person. Many of these books were compiled from "personal information" or undocumented sources. I have at least five of these family history books about branches of my family tree and none of the five cite any significant number of sources. Errors in these publications have proliferated into the current crop of online family tree.

Until quite recently, the concept of documenting the sources of information referred to in compiling a family tree was almost completely missing from in the entire genealogical community. In fact, adding sources was actively discouraged by the paper forms used to record family information. Here is a screenshot of a "family group record" actively used for recording research between about 1940 and the present day which I selected at random from the website Historical Record Collections.

I certainly don't fault the people who were compiling and submitting these forms for their lack of documentation. Here is a close up of the section allowed for source citations.

The number for the item identified as a "Tanner Gen" does not appear in the Catalog. The number is very likely as modified form of a method of marking the relationships of the people in a book to the beginning or most prominent individual. The point here is that this old, and still commonly used form does not encourage documentation and the documentation that was provided is entirely insufficient to identify the source. Some of the more sophisticated genealogical researchers used the backs of the forms to type in a list of sources; but this rarely happened.

It would be impossible to accurately determine how many of the now-existing, online family trees owe their genesis to these undocumented family group records. As far as I know, the individual shown above, Harry Tanner, is not my relative. There are several unrelated Tanner families in the United States from England and Switzerland. By the way, there are over 2,500 individuals named "Harry Tanner" listed in the Family Tree and  incidentally, there is no such place as Hermon, Connecticut where the wife is supposed to have been from. I did find a reference to this same Harry Tanner in an family tree and the source for the information was listed as the Ancestral File, a compilation of these same family group records.

So the cycle is repeated. The original reference is in an undocumented surname book which is then copied to a family group record and then incorporated in the Ancestral File which is used to add the individual, unchanged, to an online family tree on the website.

Here is the entry for Harry Tanner from the Ancestral File.

Interestingly, the entry in the Ancestral File gives you a way to cite the reference:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Ancestral File," database, FamilySearch( : accessed 2016-08-20), entry for Harry TANNER.
If I were to believe this undocumented entry, I would find that indeed Harry Tanner and I are related as the pedigree shown in the Ancestral File goes back to our common ancestor.  Unfortunately, the entries in the Family Tree about this common ancestor are presently duplicative and unsupported. In fact, as it now stands, the descendants of the common ancestor do not include this particular family line. To date, there is no documented connection between the early, colonial Tanner family in Connecticut and my Tanner family in Rhode Island.

This phase of genealogical research in which documentation was almost uniformly lacking is still with with us. As I have noted on many occasions, most of the online family trees are lacking in documentation and as I have demonstrated, the origin of some of the information is highly unreliable.

The idea behind this series is to examine the present cultural attitudes and physical limitations placed on researchers who wish to adequately document their research.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Editing limitations added to the FamilySearch Family History Wiki

The following announcement was made by FamilySearch concerning the Family History Wiki (previously called the Research Wiki):
For many years, the FamilySearch wiki allowed open editing for everyone. In recent weeks, however, the wiki has been plagued by spammers taking advantage of this system. The wiki team is now asking that you register as an editor by filling out a simple survey form. You will be cleared by the wiki team and given editing rights. The process may take up to 48 hours but probably will be much quicker.
I might point out that the Research or Family History Wiki has always only been open to editing by registered users of the website. I might also point out that the Family Tree is also a wiki based product and some of us believe that some of the additions to the Family Tree also constitute "spam" in a general use of the term. If both programs want to maintain their integrity in a highly politicized and religiously persecuted world, then controls on the contributors were and will be inevitable. Maybe it is time to examine the "contributions" of the "registered" users of both programs?

The following notification has been put on each of the pages of the Family History Research Wiki. 

The red letters say:
If you are unable to edit the wiki after logging in, you will need to request editing rights using this form. You will be notified when editing rights are granted.
Not too long ago, I wrote a post about the fact that most of the contributing and editing of the Research Wiki was moving "in house." In response, I got a series of protestations that editing and contributing were still open to the general, genealogical community. However, communication regarding the Research Wiki has become entirely internalized in an "invitation only" Yammer forum.

Currently, the number of active users or contributors has crashed to just over 200 in the last 30 days. In the past the number has been close to 1000.

The value and content of the Research Wiki have not been diminished at all by this lull in activity. I am guessing that most of the slowdown in activity is a result of the fact that adding useful information that is not already present is getting to be a much harder task and requires a much higher level of expertise. As a side note, I am expecting the Family Tree to go through the same cycle of activity.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Department of Justice files antitrust suits against heir location companies

News stories are appearing about a United States, Department of Justice investigation of antitrust violations among heir location firms around the country. The news broke here locally in Utah with the filing of an antitrust case against Salt Lake City based company called Kemp and Associates. See "Utah firm that finds distant heirs accused in antitrust case." Quoting from the U.S. Department of Justice website about the first lawsuits:
Bradley N. Davis, president of Brandenburger & Davis, and his firm will plead guilty to conspiring between 2003 and 2012 to eliminate competition in the heir location services industry. Heir location services firms identify people who may be entitled to an inheritance from the estate of a relative who died without a will. The heir location services firms then help heirs secure their inheritances in exchange for a contingency fee paid out of the inheritances they are due to receive.

“The defendants conspired for nearly a decade to enrich themselves at the expense of beneficiaries,” said Assistant Attorney General Baer. “Heirs of relatives who died without a will deserve better. Working with the FBI and our other law enforcement partners, the Antitrust Division will continue to hold the leaders of companies that corrupt the competitive process accountable for their crimes.” 
Brandenburger & Davis has agreed to pay an $890,000 criminal fine for its role in the conspiracy. In a separate plea agreement, Davis and the Antitrust Division have jointly agreed to allow the court to determine an appropriate criminal sentence. In addition, both the company and Davis have agreed to assist the government in its investigation. The charge was filed today in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois. The terms of the plea agreements are subject to approval of the court.
 An heir location firm generally agrees to attempt to find the unknown heirs of a deceased person for a percentage of the estate should the heirs be located. The Utah article explains the process:
The allegations stem from a Justice Department investigation into anti-competitive practices in the industry in which companies track down distant relations when someone dies without a will or close family. 
Workers sift through probate filings in search of recently deceased people who may have missing or unknown heirs. 
For competitive reasons, details of the estate are typically withheld until the heir signs a contract with the company. 
The firms then use court records, genealogical documents and other public data to help them secure the inheritance in exchange for part of the assets. 
The industry defends its practices, saying it has helped heirs secure millions of dollars in inheritances they otherwise would never have known about.
 Even though I practiced probate law for many years and represented clients in probate cases, I never had the need to employ one of these companies. The appeal of this type of investigation is in representing very large estates where the recovery would warrant a sizable fee. Those who perform heir investigation services do not have to be attorneys neither are they regulated. Although this type of antitrust action may result in their regulation by the government in the future. This is a rather rare occurrence, when a genealogy-related activity makes the national news.