RootsTech 2015

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

Friday, October 31, 2014

Analyzing Search Strategies for Genealogists

There are a number of very distinct methods for searching online. Not only does each search engine have a distinct set of algorithms, but search methodology varies for each major type of online database collection. To start out with this explanation, we need to know that genealogists are very likely to use two or more different kinds of databases every time they do online research. Lack of awareness of the different types of databases and their peculiar search requirements can lead to frustration and an attitude that the Internet or a particular database, "does not work" when the truth is that the researcher simply needs to adapt to use the different types of searches.

First, a few definitions.
  • search engine - a specialized type of program that works with a particular database enabling the users to find documents or entries in the database.
  • database - a collection of copies of documents or written entries dealing with a particular subject. 
  • algorithm - a set of programming sub-routines that follow a basic pattern and work together to enable a program to operate, more generally a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.
  • methodology - a set of related steps to accomplish a particular objective.
  • string - a particular set of characters i.e. a word or name.
  • string-search - a type of search that looks for combinations of letter or characters.
I group the online databases into three major categories:
  • string-search engine based databases such as Google
  • catalogs or catalog-type databases
  • wiki or wiki-like databases
To some extent, the content of the database determines the function of the search engine or other search functions. Every time you do a search online, you need to remember that you can't get water out of a dry well. At a very minimum, you must be aware of the extent of the content of the particular database you are searching. However, this works both ways. You cannot know in advance if information about an ancestral family is in one of the collections in a particular database that you would never think of searching.

I had an interesting experience yesterday at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah that illustrates this principle. One of the patrons I was assisting was looking for Italian records. She had been unqualifiedly told by the Library volunteers that the records she was looking for were not in the Historical Record Collections or even in the FamilySearch Catalog. I spent some time with her researching the location of her ancestors' home town and then finding the churches situated near the town. Then I went to the Catholic Directory and determined the parishes and the diocese for those churches. Once we knew where to look, I found that indeed, the records were not only in the FamilySearch Catalog but were also digitized and in the Historical Record Collections. However, the records were Civil Registrations, not Catholic Church Records.

This example points out an important fact. You must do your homework and know what you are looking for before you begin an online search. In this case, finding the records involved different levels of pre-searching before you could even determine if the records were possibly in the target database. Obviously, the patron still has to search through a huge number of unindexed records in this case, but she is at least no relying on bad advice and thereby ignoring a valuable source for such a search.

Today, I had a similar experience. In this case, the patron was looking for books on German places i.e. gazetteers. She did not find them on the shelf although she found the Dewey Decimal classification numbers in the online FamilySearch Catalog. She went to the reference desk and was told that these records were in a California Family History Center. I took her back to the online catalog and found the books again and the entry said they were Reference Books. We quickly located the books on the Reference Shelf. Here the key was realizing that the reference books were not shelved with the rest of the books.

In each of the three different categories outlined above, I find that part of the success of searching is determined by how well you know the subject of your search. In genealogical searches this knowledge almost always involved knowing the exact location of an ancestral event. Of course, you can use the computer to search for locations as well as any other information.

Now to the summaries of the different types of searches.

String-search, example Google
An example of a string search is searching for a name. If I were to search for my Great-grandfather, I would be searching for the string: "Henry Martin Tanner." In this case, the capital letters are not necessary but the quotation marks tell Google that I am searching for that particular string and not the individual words. Google will still give me instances of each of the three names and any combination of those names, but the primary results will only include instances when all three names appear in the order specified. In essence, in searching in an online program such as Google (or any other search engine based program) the search entails guessing for an exact string of characters in the target website. So a thorough search will involve multiple individual searches varying the words and word order. The more you search, the better your results. Practice makes you better, if not perfect.

Catalogs and Catalog type databases
The essence of a catalog is an organization of information, such as books, manuscripts etc., based on subject matter. German books are gathered into a section of the repository, Spanish books in another etc. Although there are suggested cataloging categories, such as the Library of Congress Catalog terms, very few people, without extensive library experience, can guess  the way books and other materials are gathered in a library. Here experience with library catalogs is the best teacher. It is also common that books and other materials in a library are cataloged in different physical parts of the same library. So, searching a catalog, for most people, is simply a matter of guesswork. Within a library catalog, for example, entries may be arranged alphabetically by author or even the title of the material. Neither of these simply organizational methods makes finding individual items easier if you are looking for a particular subject or in a particular location. The example here is the Catalog.

Wiki or wiki-like databases
Searching in a wiki is substantially different than searching in either of the preceding types of databases. The more specific your search, the less likely you are going be in finding what you are searching for. Wikis thrive on general searches. The program itself is designed to lead you to more specific topics. So if you were searching in the Research Wiki, for example, then you would ideally begin your search with a general term such as "United States" and then let the wiki lead you to individual states, counties and even cities. Note that you do not have to use capital letters or include the quotation marks in a wiki. The FamilySearch Research Wiki is organized in the same way that records are created and located around the world, that is by geographic location.

It looks like I need to add more to this at a later date

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Note About Migration Patterns

Our ancestors' movements across the world did not happen in a random fashion. A combination of the availability of transportation, natural barriers and the routes available through and across those barriers determined where and when they moved from place to place. Population movements were determined by the availability of land for farming or settlement, political unrest or wars, natural disasters and many other factors. In many cases, when an ancestral family seems to disappear from the historical record, they were just following the general trend of the greater population and moving on to a new home.

I came across the impact of this historical context several times this week as I helped people with their research in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. In one case, a family moved from Connecticut to upper New York state in the late 1700s. There was another move in around 1816. The researcher seemed entirely unaware of the circumstances that would have initiated such moves. I pointed out that at that time, upper New York state was the frontier and that 1816 was the "year without a summer" due, in part, to the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies. 

The history of the world is replete with huge population migrations and awareness of those particular migrations that affected your ancestors is a necessary part of understanding their movements as well as an adjunct to finding those families that seem to disappear. In the U.S., most of these movements are reflected in the development of the available land. So many researchers seem baffled by the historically very predictable movements of their ancestors. Much of this confusion could be completely eliminated by spending a little bit of time reading up on the history of the country both from a national and local perspective. 

If you think about your own life, you can ask several simple questions such as the following:
  • How did my parents meet each other?
  • Where did they get married (if they did)?
  • Why was I born where I was born?
  • Why did my family move from one place to another?
  • Why did they stay in the same place?
These types of questions seem highly personal, but if the answers are looked at in the general context of the time periods involved, they become part of a larger pattern of economic development (or the lack thereof), employment opportunities, wars, and other developments. There are always some anomalies, but over time, the general trends determined your ancestors movements. 

What is generally missing from history education in the United States is enough detail to allow students to understand and visualize these migrations. As I have mentioned previously, I had the opportunity to review a granddaughter's junior high school "American History" book. There were a total of four pages of text (mostly pictures) devoted to the entire western expansion across the United States. Such a treatment will guarantee that she is only vaguely aware of major historical factors such as the 1849 California Gold Rush and the Oregon Trail, much less some of the lesser known, but equally important issues in the European settlement of the West. 

You can start this education process by simply asking why. Why did your ancestor leave his or her European homeland and come to America? Where did the settle? Why did the choose that location to settle? Where did their descendants move and why? These types of questions will start the process of analysis. Here is a very good website of books and links to learn about migration:
American Migration Patterns

National Library of Estonia to Introduce Digitized Newspaper Portal

I have written about the National Library of Estonia (Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu) previously. The latest news is that the Library is opening a digital newspaper portal. Here is a quote from the press release:
The National Library of Estonia launched DIGAR Estonian Newspapers portal (, which is one of a kind in the world considering the searchable text and the planned amount of the data. The portal will be presented on 15 October at 11.00 in the National Library of Estonia. 
The new portal DIGAR Estonian Newspapers has been compiled in order to provide searchable full-texts of Estonian and foreign Estonian newspapers since their publishing. This goal will be fully achieved by the end of 2015, since the papers from 1944-2013 are still missing and are currently added. Fresh papers can be found from the portal no later than on the following working day of the publishing, but their full-texts are made available according to the agreements with publishers.
The project is designed to do the following according to the statement:
Currently the portal gives access to 85 newspapers, including over 100 000 pages published before 1944 and papers issued since 1 January 2014. Also the newspapers digitised by the cooperation partners of the National Library will be made available through the portal. The newspapers provided by the Tartu University Library and Estonian Literary Museum are the first to come. 
The prospective key users of the portal are the researchers of language, media, history and genealogy and other fields, information specialists, creative industry and others in addition to the consumers of the everyday information.
DIGAR is a user environment created by the National Library, which currently provides access to the digital editions stored. Among them are e-books, newspapers, magazines, maps, sheet music, photographs, postcards, posters, illustrations, audio books, and music files. Books and periodicals format is usually pdf or epub, jpeg pildimaterjalil recordings and wav.

I managed to get all this information from the website in Estonian using Google Translate. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Second Keynote Speaker Announced for #RootsTech 2015

FamilySearch has announced the second Keynote Speaker for #RootsTech 2015. In addition to the already announced Donny Osmond, they have arranged for the following, quoted from their press release and blog:

What do George and Barbara Bush, Daniel Radcliffe, Abraham Lincoln, and Gwyneth Paltrow have in common? They’re all cousins of RootsTech 2015 keynote speaker A.J. Jacobs!

We are excited to announce that best-selling author, Esquire magazine editor, and founder of the Global Family Reunion, A.J. Jacobs will be joining RootsTech 2015 as a keynote speaker on Friday, February 13. Through his unique ability to be sincere, laugh-aloud funny, and intelligent, he will inspire you to discover and share your family stories and connections—past and present.
FamilySearch explains the "Global Family Reunion" with the following comment:
Jacobs’s fascination with genealogy started when he got an email from one of his readers in Israel pointing out that he and Jacobs were distantly related along with 80,000 other relatives the reader had tracked down. Since then, Jacobs has made it his mission to connect with as many cousins as he can find and to organize the world’s largest family reunion.

“We’re not alone,” Jacobs has learned. “We’re connected to people all over the world. Some of them are going to be great, and some of them are going to be irritating. But they are all related to me.”
See for more information.

It's time to push ahead with technology and stop being pulled

Are you one of those people who feels overwhelmed by technology? Perhaps you are not just a passive recipient of technological change, but an active luddite decrying the changes and advocating a return to the simple, more pastoral days before computers? There is a refrain from a popular song by Bob Dylan (originally Robert Allen Zimmerman, b. 1941 Hebrew name שבתאי זיסל בן אברהם [Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham])
Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.
The Dylan song refers to political and social change, but both of those blow past genealogists, it is the technological changes that make genealogy's older demographic go off the deep end. The inexorable march of digitization and online programs forces even the most reluctant genealogist to acknowledge that genealogy is indeed changing and doing so rapidly.

It is time to face reality. Technology, i.e. computers, are here to stay and are going to keep becoming a more important factor in genealogical research. There are ways to learn and grow with this new technology. In one of my last posts, I wrote about the issues raised by the nearly constant changes to's Family Tree program. Some of the reactions to these changes include anger, frustration, exasperation, despondency and other negative emotions. Rather than seeing the changes as an opportunity to grow and develop new, more efficient methods of finding ancestors, many people reject the changes and cling to their paper records as if they were some kind of totem that would make all the changes go away.

Granted, there are both positive and negative aspects to the technological changes. At the time I am writing this post, I am sitting in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. As I look around, I see six people with all of their research spread out on the tables. All six are in the "older" demographic category. Each of them is completely adsorbed in their work. Three of them have computers and three do not. The ones without a computer are hand copying records from books. I decided to walk around the library on the 3rd Floor and see how many other patrons were working on computers vs. those who were copying records by handwriting. The results of this straw poll were overwhelmingly in favor of computers. I did not count the people who were here working on the Family History Library computers, but only those who had their own laptops. There were 21 people using computers and only 6 who did not have a computer.

But even though many of the patrons were using computers, that did not mean they were happy doing so. Maybe those who complain to me about technology are simply in a very small, but vocal, minority? But my point is that we should not be so much reacting to technological changes as we should be anticipating them. It reminds me of my grandmother who I never saw drive a car. In fact, I was quite old when my own mother got her first driver's license.

Another impression from the Family History Library here is Salt Lake is the increasing number of patron computer stations. I am aware that the Mesa FamilySearch Library, where I used to serve, will be remodeling their entire facility during the weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year officially from Monday, Nov 24, 2014 through Saturday, Jan 3, 2015. One of the main changes will be do nearly double the number of computer stations. This is the reality.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How do you master FamilySearch Family Tree?

The answer to the question in the post's title is simple: practice. But what do you practice? The answer to that question is also simple: you use the Family Tree Training Lessons and Videos. Here is the description of the Lessons and Videos:
This curriculum is a set of individualized lessons designed to give the user an extensive understanding of Family Tree. Level One has 28 short lessons that are done on your own account and 21 short lessons that are done on a fake or sandbox account. This level is designed for the very beginner. Level Two is an intermediate course with 35 lessons that are done in your own account and 57 lessons that are done in a fake or sandbox account. Level Three is an advanced problem-solving curriculum designed for those who need to understand how to fix the big problems encountered in the tree. Level three has 30 lessons done in a fake or sandbox account.
If you are having the slightest difficulty learning to use the Family Tree, you need to seriously consider viewing the videos and working through the lesson based on the "sandbox." The sandbox is a "dummy" version of the real program where you can practice entering data and making changes without using the "real" live version of the program. There are enough problems with the real version of Family Tree without inexperienced and unknowledgeable folks trying to learn about the program by making random changes.

I am familiar with the "sandbox" concept since I have been using it for years as part of the structure of the Research Wiki. In fact, I have my own sandbox pages I have used when working on difficult formatting and development of pages. We have also collaborated on proposes changes by constructing the proposed page changes in a sandbox where we could make comments before implementing the changes in the live version of the Research Wiki.

The Family Tree Training Lessons and Videos are a boon to Family History Centers and Family History Consultants around the world. Here is a screenshot of the startup page for the Lessons:

You don't just watch the videos and think you have learned something, you actually need to work through the written lessons. If you are flailing around and drowning in a sea of uncertainty about Family Tree, here is the life preserver. Get busy. Here is screenshot of the lessons:

As I said above, get busy learning and stop drowning. 

Understanding Audio File Formats for Archiving

Now that's Family Tree and other programs such as's Family Tree Maker and's Family Tree Builder, accept audio files, there is a need to understand audio file formats. The requirements imposed by the program allow only two file formats: .mp3 and .mp4a. The size of these files is limited to 15MB. There are dozens of audio file formats, that is, different ways audio is recorded by a digital device such as a recorder, smartphone, tablet etc. You can review a partial list on Wikipedia: Audio file format. As an example, the new iPhone 6 supports the following audio file formats: AAC (8 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), HE-AAC, MP3 (8 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX, and AAX+), Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV.

The simple way to approach this issue is to make sure your audio recording equipment supports the two acceptable file formats and follow the device's instructions about saving files in an appropriate file format. The challenge of encountering an audio file in an unknown format is finding a device and/or program that will play the file format. If you find a suspected audio file in an old hardware format such as a cassette tape or on dictation machine, your challenge will be finding a working device that will "play" the particular media found.

Current digital recorders start at less than $50 and have as good a quality as older recorders costing ten times as much. Many cell phone also have the capability to record audio files. There are quite a few websites that discuss procedures for recording personal oral histories. Here is a limited selection: