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

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ignoring the Online Miracle with Misconceptions: Part Two - The Paper Trap

To some genealogists paper is reassuring. It is familiar and seems permanent and durable. On the other hand digital technology seems evanescent and transitory. If I give my email address to some one who is paper-based, they will try and find something to write on and a pencil or pen. If I give my email addresses to some one who is tech-based, they will take out their phone and put me in as a contact. As long as I can remember, I have been bound to a calendar and a "day timer." Keeping track of my schedule has been one of the major challenges of my life. On the other hand, with a centralized, online calendar, I have managed to keep a complex schedule going for many years with a minimum of missed appointments even with almost constant changes. Probably one of the most obvious examples of transition is the computer with rows of paper Post It Notes stuck across the bottom of the screen.

The issue of paper vs. digital is a much deeper and more complex problem for genealogical researchers. It is true that much of the world's genealogically valuable information is still on paper or the equivalent microfilm. It is also true that some people simply feel more comfortable looking at a piece of paper than they do working on an electronic device. But if you look around, you will start to see that this is not an either/or situation but an issue of obtaining a balance between the two forms of record keeping and communication.

For example, my wife is not likely to stop sending paper birthday cards to our grandchildren any time soon. She would not consider sending an "electronic" card. Equally, some genealogists will always refer to a paper pedigree chart or keep paper copies of documents and research notes. But in thinking about this subject from time to time, I realize that the main reason that almost everything I do is not on some type of electronic device (I am writing this on my iPad Pro) is because it is a huge and difficult effort for me to hand write anything for any period of time. I learned to type in high school and have been typing almost everything since then. I also love the way my computer corrects my spelling and most of my typos as I am typing along.  What I see as a major obstacle to digital integration is an inability to type (or keyboard or whatever).

Why have I returned to one of my common themes in the context of misconceptions? Because there really are a lot of misconceptions about the transition from paper to digital. The first misconception is the idea of paper's permanence and duribility. A paper copy of my calendar, for example, can only exist in one place at one time. If I misplace my paper calendar, which I have done by the way, I am essentially lost. On the other hand, as I add entries to my online, electronic calendar, I instantly have a copy of the entry on every one of my devices. If I go to the library and do some research and write all my notes on paper, like I used to years ago, I often fail to look at that research ever again and I often lost the notes in my huge pile of similar notes. But if I enter the information immediately into my centralized and ever present family tree program, I always keep going. Sure, the paper is durably lost in my piles of paper.

When I was young, one common occurrence, especially in the summer was having our electricity go off and thereby plunging us into the dark. Today, barring a natural disaster of some kind, our electrical power is rarely off and if it is off, it is only for a few minutes or so. Some genealogists cite a loss of power to electronic devices as an incentive to keep writing things down on paper. The misconception here is that they would be doing genealogical research in the dark during a power failure. We can all imagine dystopian scenarios where there are no longer any of the more common, current devices available, but really, are you also imagining yourself doing genealogical research in an end of the world type situation?

One of the most common genealogical issues I encounter is the situation where someone is trying to find the origin of an immigrant ancestor. I was recently helping a patron at the BYU Family History Library with some research about her ancestor. She had spent years looking for his origin. We made some progress, but she had to leave. She returned at a time when I was not in the Library and asked for help from another missionary. She discovered that this missionary was a relative and had been searching for the same ancestor and making progress. This is the misconception that we are all alone in our search for our ancstors which is reinforced by having all the research on paper and isolated from all the other family members who might be working on the same problem. If we work online in a collaborative environment, like the Family Tree, then we have a much greater possiblitity of finding other relatives with more information than we have been able to find.

There are obvious advantages to working on electronic devices and most of these advantages are only apparent to those who have integrated electronic devices into their research. It is a misconception to think that a paper based system of research is somehow superior to a digital one.

See the first part of this series here:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The End of Privacy From a Genealogical Perspective

Recently, there have been several huge internet hacking events. Hacking of emails has even made it into U.S. national politics. Whether we like it or not, genealogists are included as the victims of this nefarious online activity. The compromised information includes everything from bank records to credit card and social security numbers. What is even more disconcerting are the revelations of government surveillance of Google and Yahoo accounts and even telephone records for ordinary U.S. citizens.

In a Pew Research Center report entitled "The state of privacy in post-Snowden America," those surveyed indicated that they had taken the following actions to avoid surveillance:
Some 86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints, but many say they would like to do more or are unaware of tools they could use. The actions that users have taken range from clearing cookies to encrypting their email, from avoiding using their name to using virtual networks that mask their internet protocol (IP) address. And 55% of internet users have taken steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations or the government. Many say the purpose of their attempted anonymity is to avoid “social surveillance” by friends and colleagues, rather than the government or law enforcement. 
At the same time, many express a desire to take additional steps to protect their data online. When asked if they feel as though their own efforts to protect the privacy of their personal information online are sufficient, 61% say they feel they “would like to do more,” while 37% say they “already do enough.” Even after news broke about the NSA surveillance programs, few Americans took sophisticated steps to protect their data, and many were unaware of robust actions they could take to hide their online activities. Some 34% of those who said they were aware of the NSA surveillance programs in a July 2013 survey (30% of all adults) had taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government. But most of those actions were simple steps, such as changing their privacy settings on social media or avoiding certain apps, rather than tools like email encryption programs, “don’t track” plug-ins for browsers or anonymity software.
 These types of actions show an innate distrust of many online companies and government activities. As genealogists, some of this distrust spills over and is applied to online genealogical programs. The Pew Research Center report also shows that few American adults are confident that their records will remain private and secure. I encounter this distrust and insecurity regularly as I talk to people about putting their family records online. The irony of this situation is that genealogists are concerned about putting their ancestral information online when much of the information they have acquired came from public and very accessible sources such as United States Federal Census Records and vital records.

As a genealogist I would rather not see or have online information about any personal records of living people. The fact that most of the large online genealogy programs make an effort to keep that information private, does not console me.

But what is reality? What is privacy in today's saturated world of communication technology? The answer is very difficult to ascertain. For example, financial information is anything but private if you have a bank account and use credit cards, almost every transaction you make is highly public in nature. There is precious little information about you and your family that cannot be discovered if someone had enough time and money to do so.

Genealogy is not about you. It is about dead people and dead people have no privacy. As long as you don't put any of your own "private" information on a family tree online, you are no better or worse off for the effort from the standpoint of privacy. Genealogy is not a privacy issue. The only real issue out there is the ridiculous and silly continued use of grandparents names or other such information for "security" purposes. Bottom line, genealogy is not a privacy issue.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Denial of Service (DDoS) and Genealogy

Despite our seemingly advanced technology, we can still do very little about the weather and it seems like we are also learning that we can do little about attacks on the internet that disrupt large portions of the county's online activity. As genealogists become more and more dependent on their own electronic devices we are among those thrown out into the rough internet weather along with the rest of the world.

This past week we have suffered through two outages; one extremely local and one wide spread across the United States. First, it is important to understand that neither of these events had anything to do with a loss of our data.

The local event involved a reported upgrade of the firewall protecting the Brigham Young Library the ended up knocking the website off the network but only in the Library and not anyplace else. This was not one of the regular lapses in service we have seen from FamilySearch, this one lasted a day and half and was caused by the internal security concerns of the Library technical staff, or so it was reported. The effect was that a large class got cancelled and we were prevented from providing support using for the duration of the outage. The Library was very quiet for the day and half it took to remedy the situation.

From my own standpoint, I have converted almost all my classes and presentations to previously prepared slide shows either in Apple's Keynote or Microsoft Power Point to avoid the issues that loss of connection to the internet often cause.

The second and more serious outage did not impact our access so much as it could have. The genealogy programs kept operating despite a huge Denial of Service attack on a major internet service provider. As USA Today points out in its article entitled, "Hacked home devices cause massive Internet outage:"
SAN FRANCISCO — Eleven hours after a massive online attack that blocked access to many popular websites, the company under assault has finally restored its service. 
Dyn, a New Hampshire-based company that monitors and routes Internet traffic, was the victim of a massive attack that began at 7:10 a.m. ET Friday morning. The issue kept some users on the East Coast from accessing Twitter, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, Tumblr, Reddit, PayPal and other sites. 
At 6:17 p.m. ET Friday, Dyn updated its website to say it had resolved the large-scale distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) and service had been restored.
The outage was enabled by the attacker's remote control use of internet connected devices such as alarm systems and  security cameras to flood the websites with millions and millions of signals that effectively disrupt the ability of the website to operate. As individual users of the internet, there is nothing you or I can do to prevent this type of takeover. Understanding how or why this happened is really a lot like the weather. I may understand why I am stranded in the snow or being flooded out, but that knowledge adds nothing to my ability to overcome the problem. Likewise, the technicians' explanations about how such an internet outage occurs, does nothing to keep the same thing from happening again and again.

How does this impact genealogists? Despite the fact that this particular outage did not affect file storage, it does point out the underlying fragile nature of the internet. For some time now, using online storage has been touted as a solution to our backup and file storage issues. As I have in the past stated many times, we always need to be careful to back up our genealogical data to a variety of devices and services. It is still ultimately important to back up you work to external devices such as multiple hard drives or flash memory drives as well as the judicious use of online storage.

By the way, I was out camping in southern Utah during the general outage and was off the network and without mobile phone service at all and didn't learn about the whole problem until we returned to mobile phone coverage. Likewise, unless you happened to be using one of the websites that was knocked off the internet, you probably missed the whole thing. This reminds me of living in the low deserts of Arizona where it could be raining on one side of the street and not the other.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ignoring the Online Miracle with Misconceptions: Part One - The Large Genealogy Websites

For a genealogist who started over thirty years ago in a world dominated by paper, the obvious advantages of online genealogy seem positively miraculous. I can now do research in minutes that used to take a special trip to Salt Lake City, Utah to visit the Family History Library. Libraries still dominate my life, but even in the library I use a computer more than anything else to teach, research and learn.

Some of the greatest online resources are the huge online genealogy programs. Six of these large, online database programs have joined in a mutually beneficial partnership. has opened part of its vast collection of records to these partners in exchange for the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints receiving free memberships in each of these vast resources. But I was aware of or using them before the partnership was implemented.

Interestingly, I constantly receive feedback from genealogists who are either unaware of even the large database websites or simply not interested enough to become informed about the records available online at all. There are several very common and persistent false assumptions out there that I seem to hear regularly. The danger in pointing out any general misconception is that those who have the misconception don't recognize that they have it and those who don't have it can't believe that anyone would have that misconception.

For the purpose of this post, I am confining my comments to the following websites:
I am not including subsidiary websites such as which is owned by Ancestry or large included websites such as which is included in and

From my perspective, the most common misconception concerns thinking that the large online database websites all have the same resources. Granted, there is some overlap such as the United States Federal Census Records, but each of these large database programs have unique resources that are not duplicated by any other genealogy website. One way to begin to understand this misconception is to routinely do Google searches on the names of the database programs on each website. It is also entirely possible that one website has an index of a collection that is completely imaged on another website. A superficial search of any of the listed websites will show some overlap, but the real question is whether or not they have the documents you need to find your own ancestors and if you fail to search the larger websites for whatever reason, you are simply operating under a misconception.

Here is where we get into the issue of defining the contents of these websites in different ways. All of the larger websites use different terms to describe their holdings. These terms, such as records, collections, documents, individuals, etc. are arbitrary and have different definitions on each website.

Let me start with an example from As is the case with each of these websites, the key to identifying the contents of their holdings is their catalog of all of their collections. The Catalog is as complete a listing of the records and other publications held by FamilySearch as is available. My example is a book about my Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner. Here is the book from the catalog:

Since this book is now digitized and online on, the book is no longer available in paper format in the Family History Library.

This book is not available from Google books and is not found any other place online and especially not found in any of the other large genealogy websites.

Here is another example of a unique database this time on The database is called the
"Great Britain, Atlas and Index of Parish Registers" and it is based, in part, on "The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers." This extremely useful database contains maps of the English parishes and the date of the earliest registers in each parish. 

I could go on and on with examples of unique databases or collections as they are usually called. However two more examples will probably be enough to illustrate that those who have the misconception that these large online websites all have the same information is a gross misconception. My last examples on this topic are's vast Books and Publications database with 447,870 completely searchable items and's even more extensive collection of 725,872 old books from around the world also completely searchable. 

Stay tuned

Friday, October 21, 2016

LeVar Burton - RootsTech Keynote Speaker Announced

FamilySearch seems to be able to get some extraordinary people for the Keynotes at RootsTech and RootsTech 2017 is no exception. The Friday, February Keynote will be given by LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow, Star Trek the Next Generation, and the impactful 1970s television miniseries that launched his career, Roots. Here is the announcement:
RootsTech is thrilled to announce LeVar Burton as a featured keynote speaker on Friday, February 10, 2017. This celebrated individual has touched countless lives in his various roles as actor, director, producer, writer, and speaker. His passion for literacy, storytelling, and imagination has generated millions of fans throughout the world. Come see why his inspiring life experiences make him a perfect match for the RootsTech stage.
We are starting to ramp up for the upcoming RootsTech 2017 on February 8th through the 11th, 2017.  Here is some more information about LeVar Burton.
LeVar Burton is known by millions as the face of Reading Rainbow, the beloved, long running PBS children’s television series, and for his role as Geordi La Forge, Chief Engineer in the iconic Star Trek: The Next Generation series. Many also remember seeing his talent debut in 1977 when he was cast in the groundbreaking role of Kunta Kinte in the landmark television miniseries Roots. In addition to his familiar talent as an actor, he is an accomplished director, producer, writer, speaker, educator, and entrepreneur. He is the honored recipient of 12 Emmy Awards, a Grammy and five NAACP Awards. Burton has experienced continual success in his innovative efforts to promote his passion for literature, storytelling, and imagination. He is the Co-Founder and Curator-in-Chief of RRKIDZ, the online home of Reading Rainbow and Skybrary. With millions of fans throughout the world, he continues his mission to inspire, entertain and educate.
If you haven't registered, it is time to do so. Also, RootsTech 2017 starts with two break-out sessions on Wednesday, February 8, 2017 so plan accordingly. Most of the hotels are close to being sold out also.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Copyright Boat Anchor on Creativity and Research

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, known as the Copyright Clause, empowers the United States Congress:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
This particular two line sentence in the U.S. Constitution has been turned into morass of complex regulations and interpretations of those regulations numbering into the thousands of pages. Originally styled to protect authors and inventors, the United States Copyright Law now primarily protects publishers and aggregators that take advantage of the extended terms of copyright protection to take advantage of the authors and make money through contractual limitations that go far beyond the original intent of the Constitution.

Presently, under the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. This legislation lengthens copyrights for works created on or after January 1, 1978 to “life of the author plus 70 years,” and extends copyrights for corporate works to 95 years from the year of first publication, or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever expires first. The reason why these extensions were passed by the U.S. Legislature was that Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse was in danger of passing into the public domain. With the new laws, Walt Disney now has an extension to 2023 and enough time to seek further extensions to the copyright act. These extensions were not created to protect authors, but to protect the United States Balance of Payments. See Copyright Extension. See also, "When is 1923 Going to Arrive and Other Complications of the U.S. Public Domain." If you think you understand copyright law, I suggest you read this article carefully.

Determining when and if the copyright on any particular work has expired has become a complicated and almost impenetrable morass of changing laws and regulations, not to mention thousands of court cases that have interpreted those same confusing rules. Some large aggregator companies have used this intense legal confusion to create large digitized collections of books and other material and under a claim of copyright protection have contractually limited the use of the items even when some are clearly in the public domain. Essentially, these companies are circumventing the law by claiming that they have the ability to enforce a contract with those who agree to their provisions. I seriously doubt that these companies have negotiated a contract with each of the actual copyright holders of all of the thousands and perhaps millions of books that they include under their contractual umbrella. It is now common to claim that "copyright law was supposed to prevent publishers from literally stealing each other's business." See comments to "Is it legal to scan a book you own to create an ebook for your own personal use?" I suggest that this commentator and all those others who believe that publishers were intended to be protected read Article 1, Section 8 quoted above. 

In an attempt to get some control over the interpretation of the laws and regulations, Cornell University has since 1999 published a summary of the current status of the copyright laws called "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States 1 January 2016."  If you examine this chart carefully, you can see that certain works, those unpublished works when the death date of the author is not known, are protected as far back as 1896, however, most works registered or first published before 1923 have now passed into the public domain.

Copyright law in the United States and most of the rest of the world is a good idea that has been twisted and changed until the original concept is hardly recognizable. Copyright reform on a large scale is long overdue. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

How many books have been digitized?

I am always interested in the disparity between our perception of reality and what is actually happening in the world around us. Genealogists are no exception to this perceptual myopia. Genealogists' main activity is discovering records about their ancestors and relatives. From this, you might expect that they would have an active interest in finding these valuable records. One reality is that these valuable records of our collective past history are in published books. As I have observed in previous writings, from my own observations, very few genealogists are aware of the trove of genealogical books even when they are sitting in a large library.

If some lucky genealogist happens to stumble across a book, such as a surname books written about an ancestor, they then likely become convinced that the book is absolutely true and start adding everything in the book into their family tree, but that is another issue.

One of the main limitations with books has always been finding them. Libraries are a wonderful place to explore the world of books, but you do have to go to the library and spend time looking. Many of us have extensive experience in local, public libraries. Unfortunately, very few of these local institutions have many books that are helpful to genealogical research. If your family happens to be from the area where the library is located, the library may have some extremely valuable items for research but generally, a smaller, local library will have a few of the more "popular" books on genealogy and little else.

Please do not misunderstand me, local libraries usually have specific research opportunities in the form of locally donated books. They may also have other donated or accumulated items of interest including newspaper collections and local memorabilia. But they have limited space and limited book collections.

Larger libraries with huge book collections and vast research opportunities are primarily either in large cities or associated with larger colleges and universities. The fact that they are destination research centers makes their use primarily limited to the serious researcher.

Now we come to the impact of digitization. Now, for all practical purposes, anyone with a connection to the internet can access millions upon millions of books that include overwhelming number of genealogically relevant items. The main challenge with this monumental digitization effort is that the digital books, also called ebooks, are scattered all over the internet in thousands of different websites. Determining whether or not a particular book can be accessed on the internet in digital format can be a daunting research task.

Copyright law in the United States and elsewhere imposes a really strange and daunting limitation on research. I can go into a physical library and look at any book that is available regardless of the copyright status of the book. I do not have to know the copyright status of the book to check it out of the library. But digital books are viewed as a threat to the publishing industry and so copyrighted digital material is highly regulated as you can see anytime you rent a video and have to read the "FBI Warning." So, I can find a particular copyright protected book online and see that there is a digital copy available, but only under some very restricted circumstances can I actually read the digital copy of the book even though I could visit the library and read the physical copy of the book without that same limitation.

This restriction is slowly being eroded by digital libraries such as, but as yet, these online lending library arrangement contain very, very few books of research interest. Fortunately for genealogists, many of the books we find valuable for research purposes are in the public domain, so these books are more generally available online.

So how many books have now been digitized and where are they? That is the question. It is only through exceptionally diligent online research that anyone can find relevant digital books that are freely available. Some websites even restrict the use of public domain digital material as if they had ownership rights. For example, the Brigham Young University has a huge online collection of digital books numbering in the millions of volumes but access to the collection is limited to students, faculty and some staff members only. The books cannot even be researched on a limited basis by non-students. The irony of this situation is that if the BYU library were part of the organization, the public domain portion of their collection would be freely available online to anyone who was interested. What is even more interesting about this situation is that many much smaller and less important university libraries are active participants in the organization. See the HathiTrust Partnership Community.

My example of the Brigham Young University Library is just one of many examples of the spotty availability of digital books. One institution may make a given book freely available while the same book is classified in a restricted section of another website.

The question of numbers is really nearly impossible to answer. For example, Google Books has millions of digital books online but does not publish the total number anyplace that is discoverable. Some websites provide a number but the manner in which individual items are counted differs dramatically from website to website so an accurate count is impossible. All I can really say is that there are millions upon millions of books available online and that perhaps a subset of millions of those books have genealogical interest. I can also only say that as genealogists we need to remember to include detailed online book searches in all our general research efforts. The days of relying on local and larger libraries for this material are over. We still need to go to libraries for the yet-to-be-digitized items, but we can access so much online now that we should focus our initial efforts on online sources.