RootsTech 2014

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

Monday, July 28, 2014

IAJGS Conference -- A Short Course in Hebrew


It never hurts to learn a little bit more than you already know. I took a couple of years of Hebrew language while at the University of Utah. So, I was interested in getting the genealogical perspective on my rusty old Hebrew. So I decided to go to the class entitled, "A Very Short Course in Hebrew for Family Researchers" by Vivian Kahn and Rony Golan. I used to verify book orders in Hebrew for the University of Utah Library when I worked as a bibliographer. OK, so there is a connection and now I am doing genealogy and may have the need to look into records that are in Hebrew characters or script. I am privileged to have the opportunity to expand my research capabilities and go back to my early linguistic roots.

There are two basic kinds of Hebrew letters: DFUS and KTAV. DFUS are the printed or block letters on headstones and formal documents. KTAV is the cursive or handwritten letters. I have only the briefest knowledge of Hebrew cursive since my studies primarily were focused on Biblical Hebrew. If you need more information see the following:




IAJGS Conference -- Day One (for me)

The International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies Conference starts for me on Monday morning at 4:40 am as I get ready to go on the FrontRunner Train from Provo to Salt Lake City. Actually, this process goes extremely well and I am able to use the WiFi on the train to work during the trip to Salt Lake. This is much better than sitting in traffic on the Freeway. Also, no parking problems or cost. Double benefit.

The first class of the day is my friend, Daniel Horowitz, from MyHeritage.com. His presentation is entitled, "The Jews who left Spain and their genealogy." Now, why am I here. I frequently do Latin American and Spanish research. I also speak Spanish fluently. That alone is enough to be here. Here is a description of Daniel's presentation from the IAJGS website:
Since the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 d.e.c., Jews have moved all across the world chased by the enemy. In every place they were forced to embrace local customs and behave according to other people laws. This was not different for Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. This lecture will take us on a virtual journey in time and space looking at Jewish names and how they changed as Jews moved from place to place. Come and learn the origin of your relatives’ last names, the reasons for these names and in many cases, the trips and clues they can provide for your family research.
 This is a very good review of Jewish surnames and the history of the Jews in Spain. Here is one question, why would you want to know this information assuming your family did not come from Spain? Or were Jewish? The answer to this question is not simple. As I have said many times before, genealogy is genealogy. There is always the possibility that something I learn will help with the research I have in some entirely seemingly unrelated area.

Back to Daniel's presentation. Very interesting to find out the number of Jewish surnames of the crews of the three ships taken by Columbus to America. It is interesting, as Daniel points out, that Columbus left Spain exactly at the time the Jews were ordered out of Spain by the Spanish rulers. The story of the movement of the Jews is shown by the changing surnames as they moved from country to country.

Take a lesson from this. Showing the history of Jewish surnames is similar to the same history of surnames in general throughout Europe and elsewhere. This is important history to understanding early genealogy. It is interesting to see the earliest dates that surnames began to be used or were mandated by the ruler or rulers in any given country. See Wikipedia: Family name for an introduction and some links. For Jewish surnames see How the Jews Got Their Last Names see also Wikipedia: Jewish surname.

Web Basics for Genealogists -- String Searches


A string, in computer language, is a sequence of characters. If you need an example of this, try searching for random sets of characters on Google. You will soon see that the Google search engine (as do many others) will find any set of characters in any text online. For a further example, here is a screenshot of a search on "xyz123:"


This result should suggest that using Google to do searches for names and places for genealogical research would be profitable. In fact, it is. I usually suggest that people look for names and places and any other information about their ancestors. Since the number of websites for any given search is effectively infinite (no one has the time to look at every single results of a general search), you never know what you will find. You search for names by putting the search terms in quotation marks, like this: "John Doe." You can add qualifying terms such as a location, occupation etc. There is no need to put in a "+" sign between terms. Google assumes concatenation.

In a previous post, I discussed searching in a catalog. The differences between a catalog search and a string search are significant. A catalog is an arbitrary scheme of organization into categories. Further organization is usually accomplished by organizing the items in alphanumeric order. Online catalogs are usually a hybrid between a string search and subject headings. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether or not the string search applies to the entire catalog or only to the presently selected catalog area.

Some people assume that a string search is automatically superior to any possible catalog system. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Successful string searches depend entirely on ability of the researcher to "guess" words or character strings (mixtures of words and numbers) that can be found in the target document. In addition, general searches, such as searching for a very common name, can return an overwhelming number of results. The ability to guess the right search terms is a skill that is acquired by searching over an over again.

To illustrate the difference between a string search and a catalog search, I will use a hypothetical search for an ancestor with with a relatively common name. Let's assume that you have identified at least one place where an event occurred in your ancestor's life. This step is necessary because otherwise either type of search, a string search or a catalog search, will be unproductive. Without the anchor of a geographic location, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between individuals of the same or very similar name. OK. so now you start your search. The catalog search will likely produce a series of documents or collections of documents that relate to the place you identified. You will then search in the individual collections for your ancestor.

Now, let's suppose that you simple use a string search, without the benefit of the organization of documents imposed by a cataloging system. You are at the mercy of the documents. If the any document has the name of the individual you are searching for and the place, then it could be found by a string search. You should also remember that the string search will not find the content of images, whereas a catalog system may identify documents that are only available as images. Are all the contents of the catalogs subject to string searches? Unfortunately, not. Most entities such as libraries, do not allow access to their data storage to Google or anyone else.

Is this an either/or situation? Not really. A reasonably comprehensive search or exhaustive search would require a search online with a search engine such as Google, but would also require a search of the contents of any relevant repositories. Sometimes neither method is adequate and it is necessary to do a physical or manual search of the contents of any given repository. For example, if I am researching at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, I will commonly go to the shelves and look at every single item on the shelves for an entire state to make sure I am not missing something that may contain the information I am seeking.

It is also important to remember that much of the world's genealogical information is not yet online or is still locked up in images and that there is no substitute for pursuing research on location.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Off to the IAJGS Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah

As I mentioned in previous posts, courtesy of the IAJGS, I will be attending the Conference the next five days in Salt Lake City, Utah. I plan to travel to Salt Lake from Provo on the FrontRunner train. I will see how that works out. If I drive, it takes about an hour or so with parking and all, I can ride the train and not have a parking issue and work while I am on the train (hopefully). I am not really aware of some of the logistics of the Conference so that part of the experience will probably be an adventure. One thing in my favor is that I very well acquainted with downtown Salt Lake and should have no trouble in that regard.

I am certainly looking forward to saying hello to friends at the Conference and making some new ones. If any of you were wondering if I would get involved in genealogy after my move to Utah and particularly to Provo, I can set your minds at ease, I will be just as busy or busier here in Utah than I was in Arizona.

I hope to blog regularly about the Conference. Depending on the WiFi availability, I may be writing at the conference and then posting when I get a connection.

A Short Note on Spam Comments

Comments are, for the most part, very helpful to bloggers and especially to genealogy bloggers. I read an think about every comment. If there is an issue, I try to respond, at least with an acknowledgement that I saw the comment. But recently, we are getting a whole new category of comments, "spam comments." These comments are purposely deceptively complimentary. They usually tell how wonderful the post is and then leave a long or short link or mention of an unrelated business entity. It is getting to the point that if I see anything complimentary that is not very specific about a post, I immediately assume it is spam. I try to delete all of these before they are published, but some are harder to detect than others. Many times the effusive nature of these spam comments does not match the content of the post at all.

My suggestion is that we unitedly, as bloggers, delete all such comments before they are published. We can use any number of systems for reviewing all comments before they are published and making those who comment prove they are human, but what it comes down to is that the comments should not be allowed to go online.

It is my nature, in an event, when someone starts complementing me, I immediately suspect something. This is probably a conditioned reflex from practicing law for nearly 40 years, but it keeps me from getting too carried away with my own importance. As I get effusive and complimentary comments, I always remind myself, being thought important in genealogy is like being the Mayor of Nutrioso, Arizona, a title and not much more (my apologies to the real mayor of Nutrioso, Arizona if there is one).

Where does the antagonism against the big genealogy websites come from?

I suppose this should really be a post on psychology not genealogy, but I am the one stuck with the brunt of the antagonism against the large online genealogy websites. If I am out and about, teaching classes and helping people with their genealogy, I get an almost constant negative stream of comments about the larger genealogy companies. It would not be so noticeable if it were not so constantly repetitious.  The complaints seem to fall into categories, so I will discuss the main categories I detect. Some of the criticism is so contradictory as to be ridiculous, but some of the comments reflect some of my own feelings (maybe I need the psychology also).

Complaints about the inability to "find" what researchers are looking for are the most common. There seems to be an underlying assumption here that because they are big, they should have every record. If the researcher fails to find the specific record they are searching for, it is not their own fault for failing to search properly, but the fault of the website for "not having the record." It never seems to occur to the complainers that the record may be missing or never applied to their ancestor. This common complaint seems to be consistent with a general societal feeling of entitlement. It is as if they feel they have a right to find the record and the failure of the website to instantly provide what they want at that moment is a violation of their right to entitlement. How dare the websites make them think and search further!

This complaint of entitlement blends into a complaint that the websites change too frequently. I still get comments to old blog posts complaining about the demise of the old, old, FamilySearch.org website or the loss of the old search engine used by Ancestry.com. This would seem to come with the demographics of the genealogy community of an older, very conservative group. But the desire to go back to an old search engine or a very limited old website verge on something more than merely being uncomfortable with change. This complaint brings up the next one, complaints about having to learn yet another program.

It is interesting to me how many negative comments I get about change in general and new programs in particular. Every time there is a round of upgrades, I get the same round of comments. I don't have a clear view of what other countries experience in this regard, but our society seems resistant to change in any form. Genealogists seem to look at changes to websites and programs as threats rather than opportunities. It is as if the need to learn is an imposition. These complaints are focused on the large genealogy companies because this is where the researchers see the most changes. They use these programs the most and therefore are most upset when they change. It is as if they blame the large companies for the changes.

Another dimension of the complaints comes from the size of the big companies. This is especially true of FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. I find that even if genealogists are familiar with findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com, they do not see either as being a prominent or big company. In fact, when I teach about MyHeritage.com for example, those in my class are always very surprised to learn how large and influential this company really is. I got an interesting comment about MyHeritage.com this past week, when one of the class participants asked why they did not have saturation advertising on TV like Ancestry.com if they were so big? It was almost as if the questioner equated advertising with validation.

Then, of course, there are the conspiracists. They think there is a conspiracy around every corner and under every rock. The most common comments I get involve the purchase of one or the other of the large companies. I might say, that this may be one area where anything is possible. I usually get this question about whether Ancestry.com is going to buy FamilySearch.org or the opposite, whether FamilySearch is going to by Ancestry. In that same class this week, I got the question as to whether Ancestry.com was going to buy MyHeritage.com. I am not sure where these types of questions come from, but the endless series of acquisitions by the three commercial companies I am sure contributes to this viewpoint.

Among genealogists who use each of the big websites frequently, there are a whole different class of negative comments. These always seem to revolve around one or more features of the programs. The complainers always seem to want some other feature or do not like some feature or another. Sometimes in begin to feel like the cartoon character Lucy, with her booth saying Psychiatric Help 5 cents, and the sign that the doctor is in.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Web Basics for Genealogists -- Catalog Searches

This post is an expansion of some topics I introduced in an earlier post entitled, "Web Basics for Genealogists -- Part Two: Beginning our Understanding of Searches." I decided that each of the different types of searches warranted its own post. This particular post will focus on catalogs and catalog searches. The other two types of searches, wiki and string search, will follow shortly.

Important to know. Most online catalogs are not accessible by a Google search. For example, the entries in the FamilySearch Catalog are searchable by the catalog search, not by Google. This is why this article was written.

If you are old enough, you probably remember working with a "card catalog" made up of drawers of 3x5 or so inch cards in long pull-out drawers. I vaguely remember sitting in the library during high school while the librarian gave us instruction about how to find things in the library. By that time, I had been looking for books in the card catalog since I was about 8 or 9 years old and already knew the subject areas I was interested in reading about. I guess it would make a good story if I could tell about how I was inspired to read and research by a dedicated librarian, but the reality was that they tolerated me and I mostly ignored them. Most of my early library experiences were in the Phoenix Public Library on hot summer days when it was one of the few air conditioned buildings that I could visit on my own without a parent in tow.

Two things about the catalog were easily understood and very apparent, books and other materials were organized by subject and and also alphanumerically. Many years later, I began a job as a bibliographer at the University of Utah Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. As I worked at the library over the next four years, I learned a lot more about library organization and cataloging. I realized that cataloging was partially a science but more of an art. I also found that in a large library, it was easy to discover that books with exactly the same subject matter were cataloged and therefore located physically in different parts of the library. If you really wanted to find books on a specific topic, you "walked the shelves." Walking the shelves consisted of walking slowly along the stacks of books and looking up and down to identify every subject covered and then randomly pulling out books of interest. Since my job was to find books ordered by professors and others, and verify whether or not the books were in the library before they were ordered, we spent a whole lot of time looking at catalogs and books.

I probably spent 20 hours a week or more for years, looking at the library's huge card catalog and other catalog sources such as the National Union Catalog. Here is the description of the NUC from the Library of Congress:
The National Union Catalog (NUC) is a record of publications held in more than eleven hundred libraries in the United States and Canada, including the Library of Congress. Major portions of the NUC are published in two principal series: one covering post-1955 publications and the other pre-1956 imprints. Since 1983, the NUC has been issued on microfiche. The NUC, an author catalog, contains some entries for works in the Library's collections that are not listed in its own general catalogs; consequently, it should be consulted in any thorough examination of the Library's resources.
Now, don't be discouraged. Learning to use catalogs does not involve a lifetime of experience, but it does help to have some experience. I relate my background so you will understand why I would be writing about this kind of subject.

The idea of a catalog is that a collection of information (historically books, manuscripts, periodicals etc.) is organized in some fashion to allow researchers to find what they are searching for. The Dewey Decimal System is one such type of classification. It began back in 1876 and was invented by Melvil Dewey. See Wikipedia: Dewey Decimal Classification.  Now, learning about libraries and cataloging systems is not likely on many people's must learn list, but as genealogists, we actually live and die with catalogs whether we realize their importance or not.

Now fast forward to the present. Many libraries still use the Dewey Decimal classification system. In addition, however, larger libraries are converting to computer-based classification and searching systems. The most prominent of these is the Online Computer Library Center, Inc. or the OCLC. Founded back in 1967, OCLC now operates the WorldCat.org online catalog, easiest the largest catalog in the world.

Think for a minute. How many books about genealogy or containing genealogically valuable information have the words "genealogy" or "family history" in their title? Would you be able to identify a valuable genealogy book by the name of its author? How do you know if a book or other publication contains information about your family? In answering all of these questions, we rely on catalogers or people who look at books and tell us what they are about. If you want to know how complicated this can become, you can start by looking at the Library of Congress Classification Outline and then trying to find how genealogy is classified by the Library of Congress. Just so you don't get frustrated, genealogy is classified as "C -- Auxiliary Sciences of History" and the further as "CS -- Genealogy."

When you go to FamilySearch.org, for example, and then click on the Search link, you will find a further link to the FamilySearch Catalog. You will also see the follow link to the OCLC WorldCat.org catalog and the Archive Grid.


Under the explanation about the contents, you will see the link that says, "Learn more about the catalog and how to access materials." How many times have you taken the time to read what they say? The link goes to an article in the FamilySearch Research Wiki entitled, "Introduction to the FamilySearch Catalog." Before you dive in and do another frustrating catalog search, I suggest you read about how the catalog works and what you can expect. The important thing to know about catalogs of all types, is that they require a lot of work from the user before they become very useful.

Every time you go to a website or actually visit a research repository, you are probably depending on some type of catalog to locate what you are searching for. Do you know how each of these catalogs work? Do you usually take some time figuring out how the catalog works before you start searching? How many times do you abandon your search because you can't find anything you think will help your with your research?

Remember, a catalog is an arbitrary organization of its contents. You may or may not find what you are looking for unless you understand how the particular catalog you are searching is organized and how it works. Every time you click on a website and it refers to "search the catalog" you are entering this world of catalogs. Unfortunately, almost every catalog is unique and requires you to learn about how best to use its resources.

The promise is as you keep working with catalogs and searches, the process becomes more familiar, never really easy, but manageable.



First Annual SLIG Colloquium to be Held in January 2015

A colloquium is an academic conference or seminar. SLIG is the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy sponsored by the Utah Genealogical Association.  The announcement is as follows:
The first annual SLIG Colloquium will be held in January 2015.

This colloquium will consist of the reading and discussion of four papers meant to advance our profession. For example, anything that puts forward a new theory, a new analysis tool, or a new way to look at a genealogical problem. 
The colloquium will be held January 10, 2015, the Saturday before the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy in Salt Lake City. The event will consist of a networking lunch (prices to be determined) and an evening banquet. The evening banquet will be open to the public and will include a brief overview of the papers presented. 
The papers will be edited and combined into a publication available for purchase through the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. This will be an annual event and hope that it aids the genealogy profession by creating a body of advanced literature.

Paper submissions are due to Christy Fillerup no later than October 1st. They will be reviewed by a selection committee and four papers will be chosen for presentation. More than four papers may be chosen for publication.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Old and archaic family relationship terms

The MyHeritage.com blog had a post entitled "Avuncles and Niblings: Unusual words for the family." The post was taken from another post in the mental_floss blog with the further title of "11 Little-Known Words for Specific Family Members." You might want to test your knowledge on the following words and then go to the articles for the answers:

  • Patruel
  • Avuncle
  • Niblings
  • Fadu
  • Modrige
  • FŒdra
  • Eam
  • Brother-uterine
  • Brother-German
  • Double cousin
  • Machetonim

The post with the longer list makes the observation, more than once, that the words are "not in the dictionary." All of the words except, patruel, do show up in the dictionary. I began to wonder what dictionary they were referring to. The simplest way to to find the meaning of any strange word is to do a Google search using the format: "define [enter the unusual word]." This means if I wanted to know the meaning of patruel, I would type in "define patruel." Doing this takes me to an earlier blog post in blog entitled, Words Gone Wild, with an extensive definition. Other results from this simple search give references to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which, by the way is what I would call, The Dictionary. The official OED website is a subscription site, but it is possible that your library subscribes. I don't really think the OED wants individual subscriptions, the price is very high for a dictionary website. By the way, even the Old English term was found instantly by Google. 

If you like books, you can also used two that I found interesting. 

Evans, Barbara Jean. A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists & Historians. Alexandria, VA: Hearthside Press, 1995.

and

FitzHugh, Terrick V. H. The Dictionary of Genealogy. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1985.

Oh, the reason the words may not "show up in the dictionary" you might be using is because some of them are really in Latin or Yiddish or Old English or whatever. 

American University of Beirut to create 100,000 volume online Arabic Library

In an article in albawaba Business, the American University of Beirut Libraries have joined Arabic Collections Online (ACO), a five-year project funded by New York University Abu Dhabi that aims to digitize and make accessible worldwide over 100,000 volumes of Arabic content.

Quoting from the article,
Along with New York University Libraries and its partners, the AUB libraries will create the Arabic Collections Online (ACO) project, a major digitization project funded by New York University Abu Dhabi, whose aim is to create a digital library of public-domain Arabic language content of over 100,000 volumes. Partners in this substantial digitization of Arabic content already include numerous prominent North American institutions, and the AUB Libraries are the first ones outside the United States to join the project. The AUB Libraries will contribute several thousand titles from their growing rich and historical Arabic collections in a variety of subjects and disciplines.

The AUB Libraries are widely regarded as one of the best academic libraries in the Middle East and North Africa. Their collections include over 1.2 million volumes of print and electronic books, 10,000 rare and unique books, 10,000 print periodicals (of which 3,500 are in Arabic), 140,000 electronic journals and conference proceedings, 300 electronic databases, hundreds of major reference works, and 1.2 million audiovisual items in various formats (the majority of which are microforms of local and regional newspapers and magazines dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries). The Archives and Special Collections contain 700 linear feet of archival material (including papers of famous Lebanese and Arab intellectuals); 1,400 manuscripts; 9,000 volumes of AUB theses and dissertations dating back to 1907; 5,000 posters; 1,900 maps; and 50,000 photographs. The collections are developed and enriched on an ongoing basis to support the academic and research programs of the AUB, one of the leading universities in the region.
I see almost no news such as this from the Middle East. I have a number of friends and genealogical researchers from Lebanon and I find this to be a significant breakthrough.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

findmypast.com adds newspaper and ancient parish records

I haven't written about any additions to the large online genealogy database programs for a while. Since the new records are added online regularly, I simply suggest that if you are interested, you check back periodically to see what new records have gone online. The announcements from findmypast.com did catch my attention however.

The first one was a post entitled, "Over half a million English baptism records dating back to 1530 available." This was interesting for two reasons, the number of records and the dates of the records. Here is the explanation from the post;
Records predating normal English parish collections 
Spanning the years 1530 to 1886, the 580,361 baptism records now available comprise transcripts of the registers from over 150 Wiltshire parishes compiled by Wiltshire Family History Society. 
The Wiltshire baptisms are very unusual, as some of the earliest records in the collection are 484 years old, predating the vast majority of English parish records.
This short note gives you a very good idea of the absolute limit of the English records about individuals outside of royalty and other very important people. This is further explained by the announcement as follows:
The records begin in 1530, eight years before the Vicar General of England, Thomas Cromwell, ordered all of the nation’s parish churches to keep a record of all baptisms, marriages and burials.
If you are researching back into the 1600s or even earlier, you need to make absolutely sure you are not searching for a chimera. Before searching again and again, you might want to take time to establish the dates of the oldest records available in any given record category. 

The second article that caught my eye is entitled, "Time for another newspaper roundup… nearly a quarter of a million pages added from 1752-1954." I was interested in this because of my recent never-ending project to list a link to all the digital newspaper websites in the U.S. by state. The article explains, simply, "We’ve added nearly a quarter of a million new newspaper pages to our collection, so you’ll have plenty of articles to peruse this month." The list of newspapers added and the years of the additions are listed in the article. 


Some must read books for genealogists

Yes, I do mean you need to read a book. Some of these might be available in ebook format, but there is a good reason for reading a whole book on one subject, especially if that subject is genealogy. Of course this list will change if you live somewhere besides the U.S. or the U.K., but the differences are cosmetic. Genealogical research is genealogical research no matter where your family comes from. For example, I may read about the process a genealogist had in finding an ancestor in Germany and benefit from the explanation even if I have no ancestral lines in Germany. There are some very specific records and types of records that are unique to a particular geographic area or time but the methods of proceeding with research are similar around the world.

If you still doubt the utility of general genealogical study, I can give another example. When I was working on a graduate degree in Linguistics, we studied many different languages. Each of these languages was unique, but the idea was not necessarily to learn to speak the language, but to learn how the language worked and thereby advance our knowledge of "language" in general. The same principle applies to genealogy. If you study many different genealogical challenges, you will ultimately figure out how they all help you understand how to do your own genealogical research.

My list of books is certainly open to expansion and could go on endlessly, but there are a few books that I return to constantly that have helped me understand how genealogy works. I am going to start my short list with this classic:

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1990.

Even though this book was published in 1990, it has been released again in 2013, see

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. 2013.

In my opinion, there is no better book for understanding the process and sources for genealogy in the United States. If you look up any of the books I mention in WorldCat.org, you can find a library close by that has a copy of the book. This book is not yet available for public use in ebook format, but if you have contact with a member university, you can see the ebook from the Hathi Trust Digital Library

Here are a couple of more classics. You might argue that online sources have entirely supplanted the need to look at a mere "paper" book. You may also argue that these books are now woefully out of date. Arguments can be made both ways, but I still find that I am using the paper versions regularly even though I sit all day in front of a computer. Here is the list:

Eakle, Arlene. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Publ. Co, 1984.

My friend, Arlene Eakle, began this monumental work and it has since be edited and re-published and is now incorporated into the online Ancestry.com Wiki. The latest edition of the book was published in 2006,

Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006.

The only thing you have to remember about whether or not the material in the book is still useful, is to check to see if the records mentioned have been put online somewhere. The book is gem of information. 

In my opinion, the U.K. equivalent to the Greenwood book is the following:

Herber, Mark D. 1997. "Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History".

As with all of these classics, this book has been republished multiple times. The latest edition is,

Herber, Mark D. Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History. Stroud, Gloucestershire [England]: History Press, 2008.

These books are substantial. They are likely intimidating to those whose reading habits are confined to popular novels and iPads. I suggest that they are substantial for a reason. Genealogy is substantial and cannot be explained or properly understood in a few simple online 5-minute videos. Sorry (not really).

Next are two semi-genealogy historical classics.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Weil, François. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. 2013.

I say semi-genealogy because both of these books fall into the category of history. Both are masterpieces of clarity and give any genealogist a better understanding of who we are and why we believe the things we do about genealogy and history in general. 

Another book I have been reviewing serially lately needs to be added to the list. 

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

Along with the Weil book, this one is very new, genealogically speaking. But it still has all the marks of a classic. I thought it important enough to comment on each chapter individually.

Here are a couple of more very valuable and classic books to add to list and then I will quit rather than get into an endless list of everything in my library and my head.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2012.

Eichholz, Alice. Redbook: American State, County & Town Sources. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2001.

Yes, Ms. Mills has two books on the list. Good work. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Web Basics for Genealogists -- Part Two Beginning our Understanding of Searches

Because of technological advances, one of genealogists' most important activities has become searching for sources online. Using a computer to search online involves a number of complex skills. Unfortunately, almost all genealogical researchers are literally on their own in learning any of these skill. Unless the researcher just happens to have a technological background coupled with knowledge of library science or some other information science experience, it is unlikely that their online searching is either very productive or pleasant.

The number and variety of "educational opportunities" are overwhelming, starting with classes on computers at local colleges and universities, but how many genealogists spend the time obtain a degree in computer science or information science before starting out to do research on their family?

Basic computer skills involve the physical mechanics of entering data using a keyboard and mouse to understanding file structure and the operation of complex programs. But even with a good background in computer usage, it is a fact of life that the technology changes constantly. So the today's genealogist is confronted with learning about computers while trying to understand the equally complex field of genealogy. As a side note, many people involved in genealogy assume that younger people, who have grown up using computers and cell phones are a "step ahead" in entering the field of genealogy because of their background in technology. This is an illusion. Genealogical research requires additional skills of analysis and evaluation that are gained only by experience. It may be discouraging to the beginner, but learning computer skills is only the first step in doing effective genealogical research using all of the vast online sources.

I am going to have to assume that the readers of this blog post have at least a basic idea about how to use a computer or other computer-based device or they would not have gotten to this venue. This particular post is called Web basics because I find that even with good computer skills, researchers are not aware of the different ways you need to conduct searches online.

There are three basically different online search techniques that reflect three completely different ways of organizing information. Like it or not, as genealogists we are involved in the analysis, collection, classification, manipulation, storage, retrieval, movement, and dissemination of information. But to perform any of those activities, we have to first find the information. Following is a short analysis of the three different methods of approaching the finding function of online research.

You can think of research in the abstract as searching through an infinitely large pile of paper. Each piece of paper has a small piece of information. If you were to sit by the side of the pile and randomly pull out pieces of paper, what would be the chance that you would find what you were looking for? My guess is that the probability of finding what you want is close to zero. What is more, how do you know what you are looking for is even in the pile? Genealogists should be painfully aware that not all the information they need has yet been transferred to the vast online pile.

So ignoring the three different search techniques for a while, we should also have a basic idea of the types of records we are searching for and whether or not the particular types we need have migrated to the Web, that is been digitized and indexed. Hmm. That brings up another issue. Genealogical information may be on the web as images of documents. Unfortunately, the technology for searching images of documents is sadly very rudimentary. So as genealogists we rely heavily on indexing and indexes. Even with all our vast electronic wonders, we still have to rely on someone, someplace looking at each document image and manually transcribing the information. Of course, if the information we seek is text, it is much easier to find and search. But if the information is locked up in an image, we are back to visually searching the records which is no different than going to a library or searching through microfilm copies.

 Now back to the infinite pile. We all seem to instinctively understand that the pile needs to be organized in some way so that we can find what we are looking for. But how do we organize the pile? Well, librarians have been organizing their piles for quite a long time. They use a variety of complex cataloging systems. As children going to a school library, we probably heard of the "Dewey Decimal System" or organization and the corresponding card catalog. Books were (and still are in some libraries) organized on shelves by subject and then numbered in a way to make it easier to find the books. For genealogists this is an awkward system because almost everything ends up in Dewey Decimal Classification number 929. Here is a list of categories:
929.1 Genealogy
929.2 Family Histories
929.3 Genealogical sources
929.4 Personal names
929.5 Cemetery records
929.6 Heraldry
929.7 Royal houses, peerage, orders of knighthood
929.8 Order, decorations, autographs
929.9 Forms of insignia and identification
You can see that this set of categories is not all that useful. In any event the whole Dewey Decimal System of classification has been supplanted by other more complex cataloging systems such as the Library of Congress Standards. Warning: getting into this area of searching can be very discouraging, as in, I had no idea how complicated this could be. Just for fun, here are the Library of Congress Standards by category:

Resource Description Formats
Digital Library Standards
Information Resource Retrieval Protocols
ISO Standards
  • ISO 639-2: Codes for the representation of names of languages-- Part 2: Alpha-3 code.
  • ISO 639-5: Codes for the representation of names of languages-- Part 5: Alpha-3 code for language families and groups.
  • ISO/DIS 25577 - Information and documentation -- MarcXchange
  • ISO 20775 - Schema for Holdings Information
Metadata for Digital Content: Developing institutional policies and standards at the Library of Congress
Recommended Format Specifications: Best practices for ensuring the preservation of, and long-term access to, the creative output of the national and the world in both analog and digital formats

OK, now you can begin to see the first type of search. That is a search based on a cataloging system developed and imposed on the data pile by someone who makes up the systems. Searching in a catalog is a whole complicated study in itself. I spent my first few years of work as a bibliographer in a major university library. I became very familiar with the complexity of the cataloging systems.

Is there any hope? Sorry. Not much. The second method is the brute strength, bulldozer method called a string search. You can think here of Google. You type in a series of characters and the search engine tries to match your string of characters with any other characters out there in the pile that match. I wish it were just that simple. What really happens is that Google and other such search engines, create their own catalogue or structure of the data before beginning the string search (not string as in tying knots but strings as in a series of text characters). At this point you can probably guess that I am going to write more completely about each type of search but at this point, what you need to know is that you type in a name and the program sees if it can find that name anywhere. Of course, you soon find that the searches return millions of results that simply illustrate the size of the selected pile, so there must be more to searching on Google than simply wishing that your results show up. Yes, there is, but you will have to wait until my subsequent posts.

Last, but certainly not least, computers programmers have come up with an entirely different way of organizing vast quantities of information that they call a wiki. Searching a wiki turns out to be completely different that either a traditional (or even non-traditional) cataloging system and has its unique advantages and some disadvantages.

Perhaps you can now begin to grasp the complexity of the pile of information and the fact that there are different and somewhat complex methods of organizing the piles. As genealogists, I suppose we could blissfully ignore all this and go on our merry ways seeking our ancestors. We might even acquire some or many of the skills necessary over time. But now, we are faced with the huge online world and sitting in a library in Salt Lake City or where ever is not all of the answer to our investigations.

The next posts on this subject will explore each of the three major methods of pile organization and give some ideas of how searches differ or are the same in each method.
929.1Genealogy929.2Family histories929.3Genealogical sources929.4Personal names929.5Cemetery records929.6Heraldry929.7Royal houses, peerage, orders of knighthood929.8Orders, decorations, autographs929.9Forms of insignia and identification
929.1Genealogy929.2Family histories929.3Genealogical sources929.4Personal names929.5Cemetery records929.6Heraldry929.7Royal houses, peerage, orders of knighthood929.8Orders, decorations, autographs929.9Forms of insignia and identification

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Comments on Becoming an Excellent Genealogist -- Chapter Nine

This is an ongoing series of chapter by chapter comments on the book,

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

I am now commenting on Chapter Nine: Researching Minorities in the United States by Jimmy B. Parker, AG, FUGA.

I had a very brief connection with Jimmy Parker, just before he passed away, in working on Native American entries in the FamilySearch Research Wiki. He was instrumental in the creation of the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists before it became an independent organization. There is a wonderful tribute to him in an obituary in the Deseret News dated 11 September 2011. 

Jimmy makes an interesting point about minorities. He states, quoting from page 85 of the book, 
The concept of "minorities research" is an interesting one. What is it, anyway? What about a person or group sets them apart as a minority? Every individual, family, ethnic group, religion, etc. may qualify as a minority under certain conditions. What constitutes a minority may vary with locality, time period, and attitude. And even if a person or group is considered a minority, how does that affect research? Are the record different for that group? Does the research methodology change because of that minority status?
I would have to answer these questions with a qualifications. For example, recent news shows that in two states of the United States, California and New Mexico, Latinos surpass whites as the largest racial/ethnic group. Here we get to the crux of the matter. What is a Latino? What is a "white?" Aren't these labels self-imposed? Having lived in Latin America for many years, I can hardly go along with a generalization about either the race or ethnicity of "Hispanics." For example, it your family came from Argentina, does that make you a Latino? What if your Argentine family was of German origin and spoke German and Spanish in the home? Does that make you a Latino? In this particular example, aren't we talking about language? If you speak Spanish as your native language, doesn't that make you a Latino in the United States regardless of your ethnic origin? Are the California universities going to start adding English-speaking whites to their minorities studies departments?

From a genealogical standpoint the concept of a "minority" is useless. At one point in time, every single group of immigrants, including the English, were a minority as they came to America. How many Native Americans were there in what we now call Massachusetts when the Pilgrims arrived? Who was the minority? At the same time, there are certain historical facts about the way "minorities" were treated as they arrived in America that governs where and how their important genealogical records were kept. Researching African American populations in the mid-1800s certainly requires some specialized methodologies and background knowledge that is distinctive from researching German immigrants in Pennsylvania. Recognizing the different cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of our ancestors is fundamental to genealogical research. In addition, it is important to recognize that as these people moved across political, ethnic, social and other artificially imposed boundaries, the methodology of tracing their history also likely changed.

Where the concept of a minority is generally unhelpful is when the descendants of a minority start to believe that genealogy is "different for their minority." Genealogical research is a broad brush that has techniques and methods that apply to people and are not different simply because someone is labeled a minority. Genealogists learn to appreciate the facts of history that records change depending on political, social, religious and cultural movements and changes, but the process of researching those records is still fundamentally the same. For example, to give an analogy, if I am trying to drive across Los Angeles, I will need to know certain information about freeways and the names of towns. This is considerably different than navigating my way around in rural Pennsylvania. But the process of using maps and navigating is the same. Similarly, if I am researching Hispanic records in California, I use the same genealogical tools as I do when I research records in Pennsylvania. Of course, there are always those "specialists" that have a greater knowledge of their own local records (or streets to continue the analogy) but we are both involved in essentially the same activity.

As Jimmy Parker points out, the key to all of this is knowing the history and background of your ancestors. I am sometimes appalled and even amazed at the lack of awareness of researchers. They dive right into looking for an ancestor without knowing anything about the area where they are researching. I find that many times they do not even know which state they are researching or if the state or county even existed at the time their ancestor lived. My point is that genealogy is not so much a search for names and dates as it is a search for records. Every one of our ancestors came from a different place and we need to know if there are records for the time and place before we start searching for names.

Here are links to the previous posts in this series:

Gambling vs. Genealogy

In Nevada alone, gambling is an over $8 billion dollar a year revenue generator. See State of Nevada, Nevada Gaming Commission and State Gaming Control Board, Quarterly Report for the Quarter ended March, 2014.  Not surprisingly, statistics on gamblers and gambling (euphemistically called the gaming industry) are rather difficult to find. A report in the United Kingdom estimates that 1% of the total population are problem gamblers. Those over 65 are the fastest growing group of problem gamblers. In a recent Deseret News article by Michael De Groote, entitled "Gray gambling: How gaming impacts seniors" it states,
According to a 2013 report by the American Gaming Association, one-third of Americans (34 percent) visited a casino in the past 12 months. Twenty-eight percent of people aged 65 and older visited a casino in the past 12 months. An article in Psychology Today, however, puts the percentage much higher: David Oslin at the University of Pennsylvania claims that 70 percent of people 65 years and older "had gambled in the previous year and that one in 11 had bet more than he or she could comfortably afford to lose.
What has this got to do with genealogy? Genealogy is looked upon as a "leisure time" activity and primarily an activity of the retired and elderly. If the segment of our society most interested in genealogy is also that same segment that is rapidly becoming more involved in gambling there should be some concern. From my perspective, anytime a huge part of our population are spending their resources in a non-productive way, we have cause for concern. Of course, I cannot reasonably expect people to stop going to casinos and start doing genealogy, but perhaps we should be aware of the impact of gambling and the associated activities on the potential for expansion of the genealogical community. This problem is not confined to the elderly. The U.S. National Institute of Health issued a report in 2009 finding the following:
Problem gambling and substance misuse are prevalent among young people. For instance, 17% of youth reported gambling 52 or more times in the past year, and the same percentage of youth drank five or more drinks on 12 or more days in the past year. Ten percent of youth reported having three or more gambling problems in the past year, and 15% of young people reported having three or more alcohol problems. Controlling for gender, age, and socioeconomic status, black youth have a significantly increased probability of frequent gambling compared with other racial/ethnic groups, yet they have a significantly decreased probability of heavy drinking. Alcohol problems and gambling problems show high co-occurrence, especially for male youth and black youth.
I am not so callous as to be wringing my hands because potential genealogists are ruining their lives, these children are our families. What are the chances that someone with an addiction problem (other than being addicted to genealogy) will become actively engaged in genealogical research? In a report from a BYU Professor, Dr. Lane Fischer, Ph.D. entitled, Exploring Genealogical Roots and Family History and their Influence on College Student Identity Development: A Qualitative Study, points out that experience with genealogy can help younger participants form a positive identity. I would suggest that this is the same for everyone. Working to identify your ancestors is more that pastime. It can have a significantly positive impact on your self image and self value.

Any negative activity, such as gambling, is counter to the positive influence of genealogy. We each make a decision as to how we allocate our time and money. If we choose to spend both in non-productive ways, we diminish our capacity to spend that same time in more productive ways. The spread of activities such as casino gambling are destructive, not just of our society as a whole, but also of our particular interest in preserving our family traditions and history.

Update on the Cultural Heritage of Novi Sad



I mentioned this Serbian cultural website in a post entitled, "New Cultural Heritage Website in Novi Sad, Serbia" earlier this year. Now the website is available in English. Here is a screenshot of the home page:


As I noted previously,
This new website is a a gorgeous new digital heritage platform using the Digital Public Library of America’s open source technology. The platform, Digital Heritage of Novi Sad (bbns.rs), provides access to digitized cultural and historical materials from approximately 200 institutions in or around Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia, all searchable by place, time, and subject. According to project leaders, they are in the final phase of equipping a modern digital laboratory with scanners and graphics processing workstations for digitizing new material into the platform.
For genealogists, the development of this type of website in an area where records have very limited availability is like opening a new door to history. Here is screenshot of the present exhibitions to give you a flavor of the type of information that is becoming available:


In the United States, there is USA Serbs Community Network, a website with links to resources and Serbian organizations across the country.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Family Stories -- Helpful or Misleading?

It seems like the old, traditional genealogy myths keep turing up in different forms, time after time, as I talk to people about their genealogy. Proving or disproving a traditional family story can be complicated. This is true not only from the historical perspective but also because disproving the story can lead to bad feelings and in some cases, extreme antagonism. Unfortunately, I am speaking from personal experience. In some cases, even the accumulation of a mountain of facts, cannot dissuade a believer from repeating the story online or disseminating the falsely identified photograph. I have written about this issue before, but like everything else in genealogy, it keeps being thrown in my face from time to time.

I am presently investigating a complicated family story for a friend. I have already found facts that seem to contradict parts of the story, but so far, the core story resists either proof or disproof. In this case, the core story has one of the classic elements of genealogical myth, the three brothers story. However, the facts here have two brothers and a sister. It also involves orphans, name changes and other classic elements of a good family story.

The classic genealogy myth collection usually involves a vaguely identified ancestor who is distinctive in some way but substantiation is missing and of course, there are no sources that can be verified. Here are a few of the traditional themes:

  • The Three Brothers Myth -- Three brothers come to America from somewhere in Europe or elsewhere, one goes north and makes his fortune, one goes south and one goes west and is never heard of again. The variations on this story are rampant, but it usually revolves around the number three. 
  • The Indian Princess Myth -- This is one myth that can sometimes be proved or disproved. I have had some notable experiences helping people prove their connection to Native American ancestors, but never an Indian Princess. I am not sure that there is any documented evidence of the existence of Indian Princesses. I suspect that this story is related to the true history of Pocahontas, who ended up married to an Englishman, John Rolfe.
  • The Name Change -- It is undoubtedly true that many immigrants to the U.S. or North America or elsewhere, changed their names for a variety of reasons. But I hear the story that the ancestor's name was changed by the government or whatever over and over. The U.S. Government did not have the policy of changing names at Ellis Island or elsewhere. I am aware that Native American children who were forcibly enrolled in Boarding Schools had their Indian names changed to Anglicized names. But virtually all of the name changes originated with the immigrant. In my own family's history, the name change occurred before the immigrant left Europe. 
  • Relationship to a famous person -- These types of claims are usually the easiest to dispel. For some reason, people seem to feel more important if they are related to someone important. I have mentioned before a story in my own family, based solely on the same surname, that I was related to Daniel Boone. That story took me all of about an hour to disprove. Despite the ease of disproof, these can be amazing persistent stories.
  • Back to Adam -- No not again. Is it really time to mention this horrible example of lack of historicity again? Oh well, if you believe your pedigree goes back to Adam, there is not a whole lot I can do to help you. 
  • The Ethnic Myth -- This is another myth that is very persistent and sometimes hard to prove or disprove. Most commonly, the myth claims that the family came from some particular place. Since everyone came from somewhere, this is a difficult issue to confront. Most of the time, this myth originates in a lack of accurate information about the location of the family's origin as it existed historically. Usually, this myth takes the form of claiming that the family came from "Germany" at time when Germany did not exist as a country or some other variation on this theme. 
  • My Family has a Coat of Arms or Crest -- This myth is just plain silly. Proving entitlement to a Coat of Arms or Crest is very involved and requires strict documentation. If it makes you feel important to have a Coat of Arms, I suggest you read up on the subject before making any public claims. 
  • The Burned Courthouse -- Well, courthouses, like other buildings, do burn, but the conclusion that there are no family records available subsequent to the burn is more of an excuse than a consequence. The existence of a burned courthouse is an open invitation to do real genealogical research. 
  • Descent from an Identified Group -- In the U.S. this is usually the Mayflower passengers, an ancestor who fought in some war or another type of organization that requires so degree of genealogical proof for admittance. I usually see this when the researcher is certain there is a connection but has one or more missing links that need to be verified. 
Until you have personally confronted a myth that you have disproven and seen the reaction of your family members to this situation, you have no idea how unpopular you can be. There are other myths that have to do with the way genealogy works or whether or not all of genealogy can be done online and such, but these are not really family stories. I suggest that family stories can be a marvelous motivation for people to get involved in genealogy, but they can also short circuit the whole process and prove to be a boat anchor for accurate research. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Cheap Will

FamilySearch.org Family Tree has created an interesting privacy mode. Any information you enter into the program about living people is visible only to you. Any personal information you put into the program is supposed to be visible only to you and no one else. Once exception to this policy has been made for photos. All photos are available to be viewed, by anyone accessing the program. But what about documents? FamilySearch is currently urging living people to document their own lives. Here is the current policy statement from the FamilySearch Help Center:
Records of living people will be visible to you if you entered them, but they will be hidden from everyone else, including the individuals themselves. This answers the frequent question, "Why can't my spouse see records for her living cousins that I can see?" The answer is that you entered those records and she did not. The fact that different people see different things can seem confusing at first, but it is necessary to protect the privacy of living people. 
You cannot do a search to find a living individual using his or her name, even if you contributed the information. However, if you contributed a living individual, you can do a search by ID number to find him or her, by clicking Find and clicking ID Number.
There are slightly different policies for photos, documents and stories from the Help Center:
Photos, Documents, or Stories for living persons that you have added to your tree:
  • You can add photos, documents, or stories for a living person to Family Tree. However, before doing so, you should be aware of local privacy laws and, when necessary, obtain permission from those persons to post the information. Go to his or her Person page, and click Photos and Documents to add a photo or document from there, or click Stories to add a story. (The photos, documents, and stories connected to that person are those that are numbered on his or her summary card or shown on Photos and Documents or Stories on his or her Person page in Family Tree.) As long as you have the rights to see that living person in Family Tree, you will also see the photos, documents, and stories linked to that person.
  • NOTE: If you upload and tag a photo, document, or story for a person, when you click on his or her name to link the tag to the tree, you cannot use the Search option on the pop-up window, Identify this person in Family Tree, to link a living person. Search filters out living persons. Type or paste the ID number into theID number field, and click Link.
  • If the photo, document, or story of your living person is one you added, only you will see the items linked to the person. This is true for your ancestors, spouse, or children.
  • If someone else adds a photo, document, or story to a living person whom he or she has added to his or her tree, even if it is your ancestor or relative, you will not see that living person or his or her photo, etc.
OK, so let me give a hypothetical situation. What happens to my invisible documents when I die? Supposing I put a personal document online, it appears that when I die and a death date is entered into the system, then the documents become public. So, what if I decide to make a will and put the document on Family Tree? Then the will would become "visible" at my death and could be used for probate purposes.

Hmm. I can hear the screams of complaint already. A will is a formal, legal document and has been for thousands of years. But the formalities of making a will have changed and differ from state to state and country to country. There are legal types of wills that fall into the noncupative and holographic categories. Both these types of wills, oral or nuncupative and holographic, are recognized to some extent in almost all (if not all) U.S. states. Given the change in technology, isn't it inevitable that the validity of an online will is something that will be decided at some point? Writing a will online is hardly a new issue. See "How to Write a Will Online" from U.S. News and World Report. 

I am certainly not challenging the methods of validating wills, I am merely pointing out that here is a cheap and easy way to deliver a copy of the valid will to heirs. Create an online will and put a copy of the will into Family Tree and when you die, your heirs can retrieve the copy of the will from Family Tree. Of course, all the same issues remain about validity, will contest, etc. but putting a will online is really no different that having a copy of a will when the original cannot be found. 

I doubt FamilySearch has thought through the consequences of using Family Tree as a post-death delivery system, but that is an interesting sidelight development created by the way the program is designed to work. 


What are public records?

An issue was raised in a recent discussion on Jewishgen.org concerning the availability of birth and death records from the New York City Department of Health. The issue appears in a discussion email from Allan Jordan who inquired about obtaining a birth certificate from 1910 or newer and that quotes the New York City Department of Health reply as stating:
We do not follow that state law. NYC is a closed jurisdiction and we are not public records. For birth and death certificates you must show entitlement. There aren't an amount of years when our records become public yet.
This raises an interesting question for genealogists as to what is and what is not a "public record." It also raises an issue of when governments can declare records to be only available by entitlement when the governmental agency defines entitlement. These issues and others will be part of the discussion of the upcoming International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah from July 27th to August 1st, 2014.

At the beginning of this discussion, it is important to note that this type of attitude and provisions such as these limiting access to certain types of records are general throughout the United States. The time limits and requirements for access vary from state to state as do the charges for obtaining the records. It would be easy to explain this situation as merely a way to enhance revenues, but it is a lot more complicated than that.

Many beginning genealogists assume they have an absolute right to see whatever records they want to research about their "family." They are surprised and sometimes angry when they find out that obtaining so-called "public records" is not as easy as it appears from the word public. Public does not mean free, neither does it mean that anyone has access to the records. So, there are two separate issues; access and fees.

Fees have been charged to obtain copies of records for as long as anyone could figure out that it could be done. As an attorney, I was used to paying all sorts of fees for filing documents, obtaining copies of documents and sometimes merely looking at documents. There are two levels of copies of documents that have emerged; official or certified copies and unofficial copies. For example, here in Utah a Certified Copy of a Birth Certificate has the following charges:
CERTIFIED COPY OF UTAH BIRTH CERTIFICATE
$52.87 Online Processing Fee
$10.95 Authorized Utah Agency Merchant Fee
$35.00 Utah State Government Fee
$98.82 Total Fee (Additional Copies: $60.87 each) 
Delivery Options
$19.00 *UPS Air Shipping Delivery (includes multiple copies)
$16.50 *UPS 2 Day Air Shipping
Free Regular Mail
Mind you, this is for a piece of paper with an official stamp. Also, beware, there are a huge number of companies out there who will obtain a copy of a birth certificate or other document and tack on their own fees in addition to the cost from the state.

Utah is not likely the state with the highest charges but it is certainly up there among the highest. As another example, Florida has a very complicated process, but charges as follows:
(Type of birth certificate and routine processing times)
  1. Computer certification $9.00 | Processed within 1 to 3 days
  2. Photocopy certification $14.00 |For births prior to 2004 processed within 3 to 5 days
  3. Commemorative Certification $34.00 -Signed by the current Governor and certified by the State Registrar. | Processed within 4 to 6 weeks. Refer to section addressing commemorative certificates.
  4. Rush Services- If faster service is desired, you have the option to include an additional fee of $10.00 to expedite the processing time to 1 to 2 business days.
 For most genealogical research issues, unofficial copies of the birth certificates will suffice.

Fees are a fact of life, but what about access? Well, it turns out that every state in the U.S. has some kind of restriction on access to both death and birth records. Florida's requirements for access are indicative of the general types of access requirements:
ELIGIBILITY: Birth certificates can be issued only to:
1. Registrant (the child named on the record) if of legal age (18)
2. Parent(s) listed on the Birth Record
3. Legal Guardian (must provide guardianship papers)
4. Legal representative of one of the above persons
5. Other person(s) by court order (must provide recorded or certified copy of court order)
In the case of a deceased registrant, upon receipt of the death certificate of the decedent, a certification of the birth certificate can be issued to the
spouse, child, grandchild, sibling, if of legal age, or to the legal representative of any of these persons as well as to the parent.
Any person of legal age may be issued a certified copy of a birth record (except for those birth records under seal) for a birth event that occurred
over 100 years ago. 
What should be evident from these examples is that there are definitely different categories of documents generated by state and local agencies. Perhaps you can begin to appreciate what it takes to provide millions of online documents for free or a nominal subscription price.

Although I fully sympathize with the concerns implied by the discussion at the IAJGS Conference, I don't see this system changing any time in the near or distant future. The reasons given by the states and other jurisdictions for withholding or charging for access to certain records include privacy issues and other excuses, some of which are bogus. The charges are essentially a use tax and we are not likely to abolish taxes anytime soon. Access is restricted otherwise there would be no way to justify the tax.

I could discuss the issue of privacy, as I have in the past, but in this context, there is really nothing to discuss. Most, if not all, these restrictions have been in place long before anyone heard of identity theft as an issue. If you can answer this question, you can explain this whole issue. Why does it presently cost $319.00 to file a civil lawsuit in Maricopa County, Arizona?