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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Noise pollution in the genealogy channel

In engineering, noise is defined as a signal that interferes with the detection of or quality of another signal. Noise can also be defined as "acoustic signals which can negatively affect the physiological or psychological well-being of an individual." See Kryter, Karl D. The Handbook of Hearing and the Effects of Noise: Physiology, Psychology, and Public Health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1994. Basically, in genealogy, noise is anything in your environment that is unwanted. Unwanted noise can effectively reduce both the quality of your work and your enjoyment.

As genealogists we put up with all of the normal sources of noise pollution in our complex society, but we have our own brand of noise pollution that is becoming more and more pervasive and intrusive; unwanted incorrect and/or inaccurate data from well meaning co-workers in genealogy.

This is another commentary on New FamilySearch and all the unwanted data in that program, this particular issue comes up much more insidiously. Frequently, I get E-mails from some large online subscription service about how many new relatives they have found for me. I find this happening on Facebook continually. Although I avoid anything except the bare minimum of Facebook activity, I cannot start the program without having several notifications of new relatives they have found for me. It is just one more click to get rid of this unwanted information, but it is a constant background to everything I read on Facebook.

I get the same thing from When I log in, right there on the home page is a list of "Recent Member Connect Activity" I am absolutely sure that I could keep up with thousands of my relatives if I wanted to do so, but when I am working, I do not want to be distracted by someone's 300th copy of my family lines. MyHeritage is another source of noise. I get constant invitations from people who claim to have found me as a relative which is not surprising to me at all. But these invitations are merely a way to get me to sign in to My Heritage. By and large the information coming from these channels is noise because it is inaccurate copies of existing information where people think they are doing genealogy by copying someone else's family tree.

I was very early in putting all of my research onto the Internet. My research has been on the Pedigree Resource File almost from the beginning of that online database and in the Ancestral File since before it was computerized. What is frustrating is trying to separate people who are just throwing back my own research from those who may actually have something to say. I would welcome, with a glad heart, anyone who would like to do some original and helpful research on my lines. I did have an example of that recently, when a cousin in Utah found some original source information about a marriage of a distant ancestor that had never been cited previously.  But for every new fact, there are hundreds of copies.

Just today, I logged into and had a list of Recent Member Connect Activity. Out of curiosity and in conjunction with writing this post, I clicked on the link to see how we might be related. We were related which is not surprising since I have literally tens of thousands of cousins, but then I clicked on the link to the "Owner" and it said "Last log in: Over 6 months ago." OK, this is noise pollution. This person is not actively working on my line. This is trying to sell their program. I just wasted my time looking at a link that is entirely meaningless and redundant.

What I see as a major issue with this problem is that it appears that most of my distant relatives think they are doing genealogy, when all they are really doing is listening to the noise pollution. Sad, but true.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Do you have your genealogical head in the cloud?

One of the most overworked terms in technology lately is "Cloud Computing." The term, that was coined to refer to computer tasks performed on someone else's equipment, has become so overused as to be almost meaningless. But nevertheless the movement of computer services from individual computers and networks to huge online servers is growing inexorably. So why should we care? As genealogists why would we care if, and, the three largest suppliers of cloud computing, are out there competing for business?

Let me list a few of the reasons:,,,,,, and many, many more websites.

What do all of these sites have in common? They offer an online service, keeping you genealogical data, that was previously only available on your own personal computer. Let me give you an example. Let's suppose I am just starting out in genealogy. Instead of buying a computer program to store my family information, I log onto one of the online services and start entering my family information. In essence and fact, I am using cloud computing. I began to notice this phenomena as I talked to people who had all of their genealogy on and resisted the idea of having their own computer database program. Some of these online programs offer more features for storing and sharing your genealogical database than those offered by some of the commercial individual programs available. In addition, the cloud storage companies advertise free service, although in most cases they are a lead-in to some sort of paid service.

Of course the hype about Cloud Computing is due to the involvement of huge multinational corporations who are in the process of transferring corporate computing from a localized activity to one available "in the cloud" or online. Large companies are moving many of their traditionally in-house activities like e-mail, order entry, customer management and payroll, to some other company and some other location online.

There are a whole list of technologies that had to develop before Cloud Computing could even be possible. These technologies included very inexpensive and huge storage capacity as well as extremely high speed Internet connections. In addition, the companies had to develop a way of paying for online services. Another requirement was the expansion of the Internet to be almost universally available. If we were missing any one or more of these developments and Cloud Computing would not have been possible.

What part of your genealogy would you be willing to put online? What if you realized that most of the online options include the ability to keep your data private and only available by login and password?  What if you also realized that you could access your data from anywhere, even your cell phone,  iPod or other device?

I believe the movement towards cloud computing is inevitable and will continue to play a larger and larger part in our online genealogy activities. We can now store our files, photographs and all the rest online and we can also use the online programs to organize our data, but in the future I am sure that most, and probably nearly all software will be Internet based.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It is neither. It is neutral as far as good or bad, it will be a change. Some software developers are already allowing a cut-down version of their program to be downloaded for free, but charging for a 1 year "subscription" to their software to upgrade to a full-blown version of the program.

The down-side? What happens to your data when and if you quit paying the storage or online fees?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Additional implications of the Ancestor Paradox

In my last post, I began to explore the Ancestor Paradox, that is, that in each previous generation the number of your ancestors doubles. You don't have to go back more than a few generations before you realize that practically speaking, this cannot be true. So now let's look at some of the realities of genealogical research.

Although there are some people who can claim to have traced certain of their ancestral lines back 20 generations, in most instances, the practical limit is reached long before that number. In my case, after almost thirty years or so of genealogy, I have lines that end after only six generations. The main reason being the difficulty of identifying any further ancestors in female lines. But from lack of information, I have two lines that end in the 6th generation, nine that end in the 7th generation, thirty-two that end in the 8th generation and so forth. I could solve some of those problems, as did a few of my ancestors, by simply making up the next generation and linking into some famous or royal line of ascent.

But back to the issue at hand, even if there exists an Ancestor Paradox, what is the practical limit to modern genealogy? How far back can I expect to go in doing research? First of all, before you can answer this question, you have to make several invalid assumptions. In thinking this through, I have come up with what I will call the Ancestor Propositions.

Proposition No. 1: All historical (and genealogical) research will ultimately lead to unreliable or missing documents.

My first missing ancestor is the father or mother of Margaret Turner born about 1785.  Although recent research has identified her name, presently, no further information has been found about her parents. This is the classic "end of line." But let's suppose that I did more research and found her parents. That still leads to Proposition No. 1.

Proposition No. 2: All end-of-line ancestors, in fact, had parents.

Now why would I say this? Because we sometimes begin to doubt the truth of the statement. Some people just seem to arise spontaneously into the historical record.

Proposition No. 3: Despite the fact that all end-of-line ancestors had parents, all ancestral lines end.

This is really a re-statement of Proposition No. 1 as it relates to genealogical research. If you were Chinese or a Maori, you might have a line that goes back centuries, but still it would only be one line. All of the other millions of ancestors would be unidentified.

So how does this related to the Ancestor Paradox? The question is whether or not the paradox is purely logical or is based in fact. It is supposed that any vague property which is "sufficiently graded" originates a paradox similar to Heap Paradox. But since the term "ancestor" is not a fuzzy term but an historical verifiable fact, the paradox arises as a result of the lack of records.

Let's suppose, for purposes of this argument, that FamilySearch succeeded in working out the problems with and we could refer to a verifiable family tree of most of mankind. Would it prove or disprove the Ancestor Paradox? What is likely, is that it would take the same shape as my own genealogical lines that is, an engorged snake because it would prove the truth of Proposition No. 3.

Comments are appreciated.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Missing Ancestors or the Ancestor Paradox

It starts with a simple concept, in each generation the number of your ancestors doubles. You have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents and etc. Some of my family lines go back 18 generations. At that level, I would have over 262,000 direct ancestors. By 20 generations the number would increase to 1,048,576. Continuing backward, I would ultimately have more ancestors than the total number of people who have lived on the earth. How does this mathematical concept correspond to reality? At some level, it would appear that everyone in the entire world is somehow related. This is called the Ancestor Paradox.

However, in these ancient times, it is supposed that there were far fewer people than at the present time.  (By the way, if you ever want to see every type of way-out theories from UFOs to asteroid impact, try looking up ancient population figures). So how do the calculated figures of my ancestry correspond to the supposition that there were fewer people living in the past? See Wikipedia. Where are all these missing ancestors?

The easy answer is to acknowledge that some of your ancestors married relatives. Would the impact of intermarriage reduce the actual number of ancestors enough to explain the missing grandparents? It would if everyone married their brother or sister, then there would be no increase in the number of ancestors. But, I have yet to meet anyone who can document an ancestral line of only marriages between brothers and sisters. Another alternative would be to marry only first cousins, then the numbers would increase only by two in each generation instead of doubling. Following this line of reasoning soon gets you to another paradox called Zeno's paradox. I'll let you look that one up.

The seemingly simple concept of the doubling of ancestors in each generation quickly becomes a morass of math and supposition. There are three very citing articles on the subject by Brian Pears beginning in 1985 in the Northumberland & Durham Family History Society Journal.  The three articles are: Our Ancestors, Conceptions, Misconceptions and a Paradox, The Ancestor Paradox Revisited and the Ancestor Paradox Yet Again. Let's just say that I don't find all of the logic in Pears' articles convincing. Before you get going on this question, you can begin by noting the fact that the Ancestor Paradox is not a Heap Paradox question. Neither is it a Bald Man Paradox because those paradoxes rely on the problem of fuzzy sets. (You can look those up also).

In some ways the problem is related to the ancient Theseus's ship paradox. (I know, you can look it up). The real question is whether or not the Ancestor Paradox is a problem in logic or math or is really a issue that can be solved. As was stated by Giangiacomo Gerla in his treatise called Why I have an extra-terrestrial ancestor, "The paradox lies in the possibility of confuting a theory on factual reality by a purely logical argumentation.

From a genealogist's point of view, every ancestor of a given person can be identified, just as we accept the proposition that every living human being had a mother and a father. However, we also jointly assume the opposite of this fact to be true, that it is practically impossible to identify every ancestor of any given person. So it may be logical from examining the simple mathematical progression, to assume that the number of ancestors increases in every generation, when in fact that progression may not be true. The number of ancestors would only increase if each ancestor is considered to be unique. So the problem is not so much one of a paradox but a fallacy. Although I said I did not agree entirely with Pears, I do agree that the flaw in the exposition of the Ancestor Paradox lies in a fallacious assumption, that is, the uniqueness of our ancestral lines.

Any thoughts on this subject? Comments would be appreciated.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Google Books loses one round of copyright lawsuit

Reports on the ongoing litigation over the Google Books project adds some interesting facts to Google's progress in digitizing all of the books in the world. An Associated Press account states that a U.S. Circuit Court Judge in Manhattan rejected a $125 million settlement between Google and the book industry that had drawn hundreds of objections from Google rivals. The story, which has gotten extensive coverage in the media, holds, indicates that New York Judge Denny Chin said the deal gave Google a significant competitive advantage and "would simply go too far" in giving it the power to "exploit" digitized copyrighted works by selling subscriptions to them online without permission. See WestLaw News & Insight. The decision was in the District Court, however, Judge Chin has since been moved to the Circuit Court.

Google was sued in 2005 by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers for violating copyright laws. The case is The Authors Guild et al v. Google, Inc, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 05-08136. A copy of the Court docket can be found at The opinion is 48 pages long and is not really a judgment in the case but a rejection of a settlement in the class action lawsuit referred to in the ruling as the Amended Settlement Agreement or "ASA." The Judge states:

While the digitization of books and the creation of a universal digital library would benefit many, the ASA would simply go too far. It would permit this class action -- which was brought against defendant Google Inc. ("Google") to challenge its scanning of books and display of "snippets" for on-line searching - - to implement a forward-looking business arrangement that would grant Google significant rights to exploit entire books, without permission of the copyright owners. Indeed, the ASA would give Google a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission, while releasing claims well beyond those presented in the case.
The Ruling notes that since 2004, when Google entered into the ASA, it has scanned more than 12 million books. However, news reports indicate that Google has scanned more than 15 million books and those

The controversy pertains primarily to those books that are out-of-print but still under copyright. It has no effect on the millions of out-of-copyright books Google continues to scan. Neither does it apply to any books for which Google has obtained permission to scan. The ASA is a long and complex document. At 166 pages, it is open to criticism from competitors who essentially want a piece of the action. In part of his opinion, the Judge indicates that a solution to the problem is more suited to Congress than the Court. The Judge also expressed anti-trust concerns, privacy concerns, international law concerns and procedural concerns. The Judge specifically allowed the parties to negotiate a revised settlement agreement.

Resolution of this issue will affect only a small percentage of the total number of books available for scanning. Some of the news' estimates were less than 10%.
As genealogists we need to recognize that a search on the term "genealogy" in Google Books presently returns over a million results and any agreement ultimately reached will have some significant effect on the availability of additional online digitized books.

This is only half of my Blog posting

For me, one of the events with the highest impact to come out of the RootsTech Conference was the announcement of the FamilySearch FamilyTech Blog site. The reason was because I went from writing one major Blog to writing two major Blogs. The bulk of my technical writing has been going into Family Tech during the past three months or so. Also, FamilyTech is a different blogging experience because the posts are moderated. That means that the FamilySearch team reviews and edits everything I write. Instead of instantly posting my comments, the whole post goes through several levels of review.

In addition to make things more interesting, the FamilyTech site is powered by WordPress instead of So I had a steep learning curve to come up to speed with WordPress. It wasn't all that difficult, but it was different and I am still getting used to the differences. I had my usual reaction to the challenge, buy a book and read about WordPress and then start my own WordPress site. It still remains to be seen if I will get to the point of moving my Genealogy's Star Blog to WordPress or not. Right now, I have no plans to do so but I wouldn't be surprised if it happens in the future.

There is a significant time commitment in trying to maintain two active Blogs. Actually, I have three now, but the Walking Arizona Blog doesn't eat up much time presently. I do find that writing a tech blog has a pretty high overhead of research. The accuracy of the information has to be checked and that means finding a source on the Internet.  This isn't meant to imply that I don't check Genealogy's Star for accuracy. If I make a mistake, my readers are not shy about telling what is wrong.

Family Tech is evolving into a very interesting and helpful site. Take a moment and check it out.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Where are the books? FamilySearch/BYU Historical Books Collection

For the last couple of years, on and off, I have been monitoring the BYU Historical Books Collection. At one point, the collection was growing rapidly and the counter on the startup page logged over 30,000 books. Today and for almost the past year, that counter has been stuck at 17,765.  Here is a screen shot of the page showing the counter:

One arrow points to the counter and the other to the FamilySearch logo. Recently, as I reported, a link to the Family History Archive was added to the Library Catalog Page on Here is a shot showing the links to the BYU Family History Archive:

The links to the Archive are in the lower left of the screen shot. So what is the status of the Archive? The second arrow above points to the FamilySearch logo on the startup page which has been added recently to replace the BYU logo. But it is apparent that the site is still considered to be a BYU project from the links from I realize that FamilySearch and BYU are both related entities, but the mystery is where are all the books?

For example, the Mesa Regional Family History Center has been scanning books for the project for much more than a year. I had a book for which I owned the copyright scanned almost a year ago. Very few of these scanned files have shown up in the collection. If you click on a few links, you can go to the BYU Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections page. In Collections by Subject, there is a drop-down menu item for Family History. Another click and you have a list including the Family History Archive. In very small letters it lists 37,584 items. This is a lot closer to the number at the time the counter stopped working. Unfortunately, clicking on that link takes you back to the same startup page for the Archive.

From my discussions with FamilySearch representatives at RootsTech, I understood that there was the potential of adding around 400,000 books to this collection, perhaps including the book I had scanned last year? I took heart when the link to the Family History Archives showed up on, but now there is a question about the rest of the books.

Just speculating, but there is always an issue with digitizing about copyrights and usage. Perhaps there was a question that could not be resolved easily or at all with adding books to the site? I can imagine many other reasons why there may be a problem, including working out the "ownership" or funding of the site between FamilySearch and BYU. It is always interesting to speculate, especially when you have no inside knowledge at all.

This is an extremely valuable resource. The participating libraries have thousands of unique or nearly unique items. Although printed family histories are not always reliable, they do give a huge insight into families that otherwise might not be possible and are often a good jumping off place for primary research.

As usual, just wondering what is going on. Just one small note, on the startup page the site is referred to as the "Family History Archives." On the older version of the menu item used the term "Historical Books." No problem, just noting.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Being politically correct in genealogy

One of the hallmarks of our time is the issue of political correctness. It is not my intention to get into a discussion of whether or not we should adapt our daily speech to reflect whatever is currently politically correct, but I note that this attitude of limiting our vocabulary to respond to someone's preconceived notion or correctness is pervading even the genealogical community. Right up front I need to point out that genealogy deals with history. Sometimes history isn't pleasant. I have been re-watching the Ken Burns film on the U.S. Civil War. I also note that 2011 is 150th anniversary of the start of the war with the first shot fired at Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor, April 12, 1861 at 4:30 am. Watch the show if you want to know what I mean about history not being pleasant.

So when we are researching our genealogy, do we gloss over the "politically incorrect" parts and try and make everything as acceptable as possible? In reflecting back on some of the circumstances of my early childhood with an adult perspective, I realized something I never appreciated or understood as a child; I lived in a segregated community. In my case, the segregation was not between Black and White, but between Spanish speaking and English speaking people. To what extent do those early experiences influence how we compile our personal family history. Should we write out any prejudice or discrimination? Do we re-write history to suit the current style of political correctness?

Because of my extensive background in linguistics, I am usually painfully aware of the distinctions made in speech. I learned very early in my life that words that were entirely acceptable in Argentina could have a very offensive meaning in Mexico and the opposite was also true, Mexican words were sometimes taboo in other countries. The same thing happens at all levels of speech with what people think is acceptable. Political correctness deals with how different groups within the same society communicate with and refer to each other. Even in my office at work, I can no longer comfortably refer to any of the employees as "secretaries." They are now either para-legal assistants or simply legal assistants. But does that mean when I find an offensive tern in an historical record that I must change it on the chance that it will offend someone in the present age?

I am not addressing the issue of "delicate" subject matter, facts that would embarrass people still living, but I am looking at the problem of what to call someone or something. Just the other day, I was called a "gringo" and the person using that term referred to the person next to me, who spoke German, with another more offensive term. I was not offended but I wondered if my friend was. Reality is that years ago people used language that if used today would get you fired or arrested. (Some use the same language today). But we are genealogists/historians, to ask the question again, do we sanitize the facts to suit our concept of acceptability?

My answer is a definite no. Facts are facts. Enough history gets re-written as it is without me contributing to the drift off into fantasy. From my present perspective, I may believe my ancestors to be racists bigots, but that does not give me leave to alter their record to make believe they were something else. If you begin to alter your ancestors' history, you might as well go all the way and chose your own pedigree, one you can be proud of and makes you more distinguished. If you would like a few different viewpoints look at this post by DearMYRTLE back in September, 2010.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The impact of technology on genealogy and other subjects

A post by Anne Roach on her Blog, The TechnoGenealogist, called RootsTech: A Replacement for Genealogy Conferences? and the comments made by readers got me thinking. Of course, that is a problem because when I think I either start talking or writing. However, I was too tired to think and so I started to listen to Pandora. After quite a long nap, my brain started back up again which is always a dangerous thing. At this point Pandora was influencing my thinking quite a bit.

When I was young I used to listen to the radio. Even though there are those that think radio hadn't been invented when I was young, I spent a huge amount of time listening. I even had time, when I lived out on the Colorado Plateau, to listen at night. You could only get one really bad radio station during the day, but when the sun went down you could hear stations from all over the country. I spent a lot of time listening to KOMA in Oklahoma City. As I grew older, I lived in Panama. Because all the radio stations were in Spanish and the music was pretty limited, I got a Zenith Transoceanic Radio. It was back to variety and radio stations all around the world. Time and technology marched on. Commercial radio got more and more marginal. I listened to a lot of National Public Radio, both news and classical. I really missed the variety of listening to the world's music however. Then I discovered Pandora. There really is a variety of music left in the world. Now I have even stopped listening to classical music on NPR. I only listen to news. But with Pandora, just like up on the Plateau in the night, I can listen to the world; to anything from Keola Beamer to Sam Cardon and Kurt Bestor. I can listen to Inkuyo or Inti-Illimani; Dolly Parton or The Chieftains, to Tommy Makem or Leo Kottke.  Technology has opened the world to me and what is more surprising I can listen on my iPhone any time, almost anywhere. As a matter of fact, over the Internet I can listen to almost every station in the world.

OK, interesting maybe, but what does this have to do with Anne Roach and RootsTech. Everything. Technology and the Internet has opened up the world's music to me. I no longer have to listen to what some disk jockey in Phoenix thinks I should listen to. I have the ultimate choice of what and when to listen. Unless you have listened to music like I have, not just as a background, but really listened to music all of your life, you couldn't begin to appreciate what a huge impact this has on my musical life. I don't have to listen to some endless classical piece by Gustav Mahler, I can change stations and listen to Enya or Glenn Gould, Sissel or Jerry Douglas. I can listen to Doc Watson and then switch to The Beatles.

The same exact thing is happening to my genealogy. I am no longer stuck in Phoenix with no major genealogy research library. I can travel instantly to the Family History Library or the Library of Congress. Admittedly, there is a lot more music online than original source records but the technogenealogists are working hard to catch up. I can do research in Argentina or Zimbabwe. I can literally travel the world from my computer. Not only is the whole world open to me as a researcher, I have the tools to find it all. I can read whole books that have been locked away in an obscure library some where in the Midwest and in a few seconds be looking at original U.S. Census records.

As with all change there is a tragic side. The tragedy of music is that even though there is a whole world of music out there literally at my finger tips, most of the world has no idea of the riches lying right next to them. They are content to listen to trashy elevator music or enervating pop rather than Jerry Garcia. Just as the technology starved researcher is content to copy from some user submitted family tree rather than enjoy the real pleasure of original documents.

But won't I drown in the ocean of variety? Isn't there too much to comprehend both in music and in genealogy? Have you really heard Jerry Garcia? Not the Grateful Dead, I mean the Jerry Garcia Band. This is what I mean, once you understand that technology isn't an end, it is a means, you can move on to the enjoyment of what technology produces rather than fighting with it and ending up figuratively listening to some garbage can commercial radio station. Is all the music in the world online? Not. Is all the genealogy in the world online? Not. But that does not diminish the advantage of what is online.

Some time ago there was a Bruce Brown movie called The Endless Summer. Two surfers toured the world looking for the perfect surfing spots and enjoying an endless summer. The is the Endless Summer of genealogy. I can surf the world of genealogy without ever having a winter to dim my research efforts.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Did the FamilySearch elves make any changes during the night?

I am sure most of us of Western European extraction have heard the story of the shoemaker and the elves. I think we all secretly wish that some competent person would make all our work disappear overnight while we were asleep. In my case, the elves seem to make more work than the other way around. But getting back to genealogy, it has been a while since I looked to see what the elves at FamilySearch have been doing while I was asleep (they could probably use some sub-elves themselves).

So I rolled out my trusty old browser and went into the workshop to see what had been done. Hmmm. hasn't visibly changed since yesterday, maybe there is something under the hood (I am really good at mixing metaphors).  The number of Historical Record Collections continues to increase and as of today is up to 580 collections. It looks like about 48 collections have been added or updated in March so far with entries from France, Mexico, Spain, Austria, Brazil, Czech Republic, Italy, Chile, El Salvador, England, Wales, Guatemala, Canada, Venezuela, Germany, Argentina, the Philippines and a whole lot of U.S. states. There are hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of records but most of them are images only (a good thing) and so it is difficult to determine an approximate number. I am not sure numbers matter anymore. The collections look like they will have a huge impact on the way we look for original records. I guess their elves have been really busy.

Now to check out the progress on the rest of the website. They did add a link to the BYU Historical Books Collection from the Library Catalog page. This is the ongoing scanning/digitizing of books from the Family History Library and a long list of other places. Clicking on the link, shows the Family History Archives page which no longer has a BYU logo but a FamilySearch logo. Unfortunately, the counter for the page has been stuck on 17,764 for about a year and so we have no way of knowing if anything has been added to this collection. Because we are ongoing in our scanning efforts at the Mesa Family History Center, we know a lot more books have been scanned than show up online. Looks like the elves showed up to work but forgot to do anything yet.

Had to stop to oil my browser, it was getting rusty. OK, back to work. Not all of the elves' action has been in the Historical Record Collections, the FamilySearch Research Wiki has also been worked on. Last week it passed the 50,000 article milestone and already has 51,715 articles by today.  The Wiki is sort of like one of those huge blob monsters in the Japanese Anime movies that just keeps eating everything and getting larger. Here is another mixed analogy, the Wiki is like a huge bulldozer waiting to be used while all the genealogists are working with their hand shovels.

Moving on to another workroom, I am almost afraid to see if the elves have done anything. They managed to let in some few new participants in the program in the form of public users to join into the website. We haven't heard anything yet about these public testers. Maybe they were all sworn to secrecy? Judging from the questions I continue to answer, not much else has changed lately. I notice people still keep adding incorrect information about my Grandfather and other relatives. It looks like the elves still have a lot of work to do. One recent entry that had a wrong birth date for my Grandfather was submitted through the Pedigree Resource File. I will have to leave all that up to the elves, I don't  have enough time to correct my thousands of relatives' bad work.

Anything else going on in the FamilySearch workshop? FamilySearch FamilyTech is moving right along. There are dozens of articles and lots of new ones. I am still writing away on alternative content, you won't read my contributions here in Genealogy's Star anymore. I do get comments from people I talk to about their reading the content which is more than I can say about my own blog. They keep tweaking the website so it is more useful. Check it out, the elves are doing a lot of work here.

Any other evidence of elf activity? Not really, FamilySearch Community Trees continues to grow in the back room working quietly away without any fanfare or even much support. New collections include the Wales: Medieval Records Primarily of Nobility and Gentry: This Welsh database, when complete, will include lineage linked data for approximately 350,000 individuals, living from about 100 A.D. to 1700 A.D. The base data was extracted from Peter Bartrum's "Welsh Genealogies." Maybe they should pay these elves more? Or at least give them some publicity?

Well, on to the tasks of the day. It looks like some of the elves have been busy. I assume they all have but we just can't see what they have done yet. By the way, let's all hope they keep up their good work changing the entire genealogical community one collection at a time.

Oops, I almost forgot the RootsTech elves. They put several of the presentations from the Conference online at It looks like they are planning again for next year in Salt Lake.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

What can I find with Mocavo?

There has been a certain amount of hyperbole in the Blogs about the new genealogy search engine, Being known as the critic has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that no one really expects you to show up on the promotional comments for a new product. Another advantage is that product managers are not calling me for endorsements. So what about

Here are the questions:

Does the new search engine find relevant and usable sources?
How does it compare to what is already online?
If I do some searches, can I expect to find more information than I already knew?

Several times in past posts, I have compared with To compare these two, I use one of the Great-grandfathers, Henry Martin Tanner, as a control subject. Why use Henry Martin Tanner? Because I know that he has thousands of descendants and that there are literally thousands of mentions of him on the Internet. Why not try and find someone obscure or solve a long time brick wall? The answer is simple, there is no way to tell that the same search on another search engine would not have produced the same resolution of the problem. What about the number of hits? I don't find the number of hits to be totally persuasive because who is going to look at thousands of returns? If useful information doesn't come up in the first 50 or so entries, I figure it is not worth my time to do what the search engine does not seem to be able to do. So, I try a different search.

The search results have to be productive and have productive results in the first page or so of returns. But let's go back to numbers. What if I know there are thousands of sites with the information and what if the search engine does not find those thousands? Is that a problem? Yes, definitely. If there are 60 diamonds in a room and your "search engine" only finds 20, would you think that would be a problem? Same thing with information, although no one would actually go through thousands of returns, having that much information returned conveys the idea that the search has been more thorough. In addition, if the search engine returns a thousand hits, you can think about refining the search. If the search engine returns 20 hits, no refining is indicated or necessary.

So the idea here is look for something you know is on the Internet, not for an unknown. If one search engine finds the information and another one does not, then there seems to me to be a valid comparison. Finding unknown information is not persuasive to me without a search for the exactly the same terms on other search engines.

OK, here we go.

The initial search is for Henry Martin Tanner. No quotation marks, nothing but the name. I decided to add one more search engine just for control. In this case, Ask. com. Also, I noted the number of blog post hits because I know that members of my family have posted the name many times so blog posts are good.

Google: 516,000 returns and 9 of the 10 on the first page are my Great-grandfather. All are free sites and 3 are blog posts.
Bing: 3,820,000 returns and 6 of the 10 on the first page are my Great-grandfather. All are free sites and 3 are blog posts.
Ask: No information on the total number of returns and 4 of the 10 on the first page are my Great-grandfather, with 3 blog posts, but 2 of the sites are commercial.
Mocavo: 3 returns with a suggestion to put the name in quotes. None of the returns were my Great-grandfather.

Second round, this time with "Henry Martin Tanner" and no more, just the quotes.

Google: Returns drop to 2,150, all of which, 10 out of 10 are my Great-grandfather. All but one are free sites and 2 are blog posts.
Bing: The returns drop to 26 (yes, 26) and 10 out of 10 are my Great-grandfather. None of the sites are commercial and 5 of the sites are blog posts.
Ask: Still no info on the number of returns, but there are 13 hits on the first page of which three are obvious ads and 9 of the 13 are my Great-grandfather. 3 of the sites are commercial and 7 are blog posts.
Mocavo: 61 returns with all 10 on the first page being my Great-grandfather. However, I must note that 9 of the 10 were for the same website. None of the sites were commercial and none were blog posts.

Third round, this time with "Henry Martin Tanner" Arizona and no more (adding the word Arizona to the search):

Google: Returns drop to 1,070 of which all 10 on the first page are my Great-grandfather. None of the sites are commercial and 4 of the sites were blog posts.
Bing: Returns drop to 18 and all 10 on the first page are my Great-grandfather. Two of the sites are commercial and 6 are blog posts.
Ask: No return number again, 7 of the 13 are my Great-grandfather. But 6 of the sites are commercial and 4 have nothing to do with genealogy or my Great-grandfather.
Mocavo: 22 search returns and all 10 on the first page are the same website of my Great-grandfather and his family.

The test suggests that Google still wins out. But what about looking for a specific piece of information that I know is online. How about an obituary for Henry's father, Sidney Tanner? An obituary appeared in The Deseret Weekly, Volume 51 for December 14, 1895. This is in a digitized book free online from Google Books. Did any other search engine find this source with the same exact search terms? I searched on "Sidney Tanner" obituary Beaver.

Bing:  No.
Ask: No, after looking through two pages of returns.
Mocavo: None out of 4

Will I change from doing Google searches? Not likely. Will I keep the others in mind? Yes, along with hundreds of other strategies for finding information about genealogy online. Why do I say this? Because I happen to know that there are over 2000 references to Henry Martin Tanner, my Great-grandfather on the Internet and Google is the only search engine I have used (out of many, many more than the ones mentioned here) that comes close to finding all the information I am looking for. I do not condemn the other sites, they just aren't my tool of choice. Can you find information you didn't know in all of them? Yes. Definitely.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Speaking Wiki - a genealogist's perspective, Part One

Computer jargon can appear to be a foreign language. This is doubly so with the Internet and web-based applications. Recently, I have been working with the FamilySearch Research Wiki. Although this online resource is relatively new, there will be few, if any, websites that will have a greater impact on genealogy in the future. In the past week the number of articles has increased from the milestone 50,000 to 51,547, that is over 1500 in approximately one week. Additionally, the Research Wiki acts as a front end finding aid for the millions of records going into the Historical Record Collections on

Because of the huge impact this site will have on genealogical research and finding source records online, I will be writing a series of articles highlighting new developments in the Research Wiki and explaining its functions. This first article will start to explain some of the unfamiliar jargon used by wikis in general and specifically by the Research Wiki. Words that are used in special way in wikis will be in bold.

The Research Wiki uses an online program from, the same program used by Wikipedia. Many of the commands, syntax and other features of MediaWiki are exactly the same in the Research Wiki, so most of the online support documents for MediaWiki also apply to the Research Wiki. It is important to understand that the overall structure and form of the wiki is determined by the program. As users add information, their contributions are automatically integrated into the wiki format.

The first thing you need to understand about a wiki is that it is entirely collaborative. That means that all of the information comes from the users. In the case of the Research Wiki, certain information was seeded into the Wiki by personnel at FamilySearch to kick start the project. But currently the new pages or articles are coming from users. A wiki is a collection of pages or articles (essentially the same thing) either with or without an overall theme. In addition to articles about genealogy resources, the Research Wiki contains all of its own instructions. Articles are created and formatted using a markup language called Wikitext.  Here are some references to pages in the Research Wiki that will get you started in contributing to the Wiki:

Help:How to create an article

FamilySearch Wiki:Purpose and Appropriate Topics

FamilySearch Wiki:Conditions of Use

FamilySearch Wiki:Naming conventions

One of the basic organizational functions of a wiki is the concept of namespaces. "A namespace is a high-level category in which articles or pages are created. Namespaces help segregate articles about genealogical research from administrative types of articles, such as those that explain how the Wiki software works" See Help:Namespaces. Here is a list of the namespaces in the Research Wiki:

All the categories used in FamilySearch Research Wiki to help users find and navigate to research topics that would be helpful in their family history research.
FamilySearch Wiki
Information about this wiki; i.e. policies that apply here. This namespace also has an alias, which is the name of the wiki installation.
Documentation about working with the wiki software. This could be mirrored from outside sites, or locally written.
For descriptions of uploaded files or media files. You shouldn't create these directly; they are created when you click the Upload file link in the toolbox.
Use this namespace to link to uploaded files directly, rather than through the description pages.
Use this namespace to change the default system messages, See Help:System message on meta.
Portals are in the process of being deleted.
Each page has a corresponding discussion page. This can be used for feedback/comments about that page, or other local notes that another group may want to associate with the page, without modifying the document directly, or for any other additional information to associate with the document.
This is used for meta-information that is to be transcluded into multiple documents, such as tags to mark the status of a document.
For personal notes. Each User has a corresponding user page for their own information. Users can also create subpages, by using a / after their name.
The discussion page on a user's page can be used for leaving messages. If this page is edited, the next time that user logs in they will see a box notifying them that they have new messages
Pages or articles exist within a namespace, and this can be distinguished using the namespace prefix of a page, which forms part of the title of a page, separated with a colon (:).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

RootsTech 2011 -- a retrospective

Once and while something happens to redefine the landscape. It could be something as huge as an earthquake in Japan or something as little noticed by the world as a genealogy conference. Which of the two events will have the most impact on the world? I wouldn't venture to guess, but the world has disasters all the time, when was the last time you thought about Hurricane Katrina? Or the Haiti earthquake? Ideas tend to have a greater and longer effect than events. RootsTech 2011 was both an event and an idea.

One of the ideas of RootsTech 2011 was that genealogy was a worldwide main stream activity, not some obscure hobby practiced by shuffleboard dropouts, but a viable and living intellectual and technical pursuit. Quoting from a recent news release from RootsTech sent out by FamilySearch's Paul Nauta:
“The scope of the RootsTech conference was unique. We wanted to try to fulfill a need to bring technology users (family history buffs and anyone interested in genealogy) and technology creators (developers, programmers, engineers) together in a unique, fun environment to collaborate and move the genealogy industry forward through technology,” said Anne Roach, RootsTech conference chair. And bring them together it did.
The inaugural conference, hosted by FamilySearch, was a runaway success. With over 3,000 in-person attendees and another 4,500 attending remotely over the Internet, it was arguably one of the largest genealogy-related conferences ever held in the country. In-person attendees hailed from 42 states and 15 countries. Some came from as far away as China, New Zealand, Australia, Namibia, and Israel.
 There were things that happened at RootsTech 2011 that preview how the genealogy world will function in the future. As Paul Nauta, RootsTech public relations chair, reports there were over 40 bloggers in attendance. “Between online articles, blog posts, and nonstop tweets, the online community was buzzing 24 hours a day during the conference and for weeks following—and amazingly, articles and tweets are still going strong,” noted Nauta.

The technological nature of the Conference was emphasized by the extensive community networking. Again quoting from the news release, "A highlight of the conference was the extensive community networking—community zone (exhibit hall), collaboration stations, and unconferencing sessions. These integrated features produced an open conference atmosphere that seemed to be ideal to introduce technology creators to genealogy technology users and to foster discussions, learning, collaboration, and future industry developments.

All these are big words and somewhat vague terms. What it really means is people found out that genealogy is living and breathing and that genealogists are really involved in high tech. Not just hardware, but all kinds of cutting edge activities.

To get a feel of what the Conference was all about, you can watch six of the main presentations on If you want to see how technology impacts genealogy and how genealogy impacts the technology, watch these presentations.

Personally, I came away from RootsTech with a million thoughts running through my head. Underlying all of the talk and meetings, was the fact that so much of the world's written and printed legacy is being digitized. The world is changing one thought and one digitized document at a time.

Thanks again to all those who worked on bringing us a great Conference and an event that helps to redefine genealogy and thereby will have a lasting effect on the world of ideas.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Jumping on the Band Wagon with

We are all out there looking for something new. I guess I will jump in with the rest of the pack and mention the new genealogical search engine, Here are a bunch of Bloggers who have already written about the new site: Genealogy Reporter Randy Seaver Pennington Research Association FeedBlitz  Dick Eastman Tracing the Tribe

There were probably more, but this is enough of a list to get the gist of what is going on with this new genealogy search site. By the way, it doesn't seem to find Blog posts.

Are E-books the Death of Libraries?

The question was asked by Dick Eastman in a recent post entitled, "Do E-Books Spell the End of Lending Libraries." The post linked to a BBC report called, "Can libraries survive in a digital world? In checking on the status of various digital library projects, I found a Wikipedia page listing current digitizing efforts. Note, the links are to Wikipedia pages not to the libraries. Surprisingly, the list did not contain some of the well known genealogical scanning projects such as the Family History Archives and the efforts by both of which contain major genealogically related materials. On the other hand, the list is quite impressive. Now the question asked by the article Dick Eastman referred to "lending" libraries and the British Library is not a lending library and neither is the Family History Library. So what does the digitizing projects have to do with the question? Apparently nothing except an example of what is going on with digitizing.

The BBC news spot really discussed E-Lending and so in order to see how all this works, I went onto the site for my local public library and using my library card signed up for E-Lending. Within a few minutes I was able to download and read two books. (I mean download and start to read, I couldn't read the books in a few minutes). Anyway, my library uses the Adobe Digital Editions program which unfortunately means that I can't download the books to my iPhone. However, that wasn't such a problem since the e-book collection at my library was woefully limited. I constantly read books on my iPhone. I am finishing two of them presently. So where do I get the books if they don't come from the public library?

I normally look for books on Google's E-books where they have more than 6 million books, just a few more than the whole State of Arizona's libraries put together, and of those, over a million come up in a search for the word "genealogy." Do I think that e-books will put the lending libraries out of business? No, but lack of availability of books might. I used to go to my public library about once a week and look through the new book arrivals. Guess what? No, new books. Due to extensive budget shortfalls in our community, the City cut the library budget (of course) and so no new books. So now I go to the library or look at the catalog and guess what? No books on Blogging. No books on Wikis. No books on almost anything current or interesting. So where do I go for books? Back to or maybe to

On Google, I found an electronic copy of a book I had been searching for, for more than two years. Was there a chance that the book would ever be in my local lending libraries? Not on your life.

The idea here is that lending libraries will have to change their operational model to something that can provide an easy and accessible online service. It is true that as digitizing makes greater inroads into the world of books, there are fewer reasons to visit a lending library or even a reference library. Ask yourself this question, would you travel to Salt Lake City, Utah to the Family History Library if all of the microfilms and almost all of the books in their collection were available online for free?

When I was a lot younger, I remember going to the movies and having tables set up in the foyer asking everyone to sign to ban video tapes because they would kill the movie business. Did video tapes kill the movie business? Not. Will E-Lending kill lending libraries. Maybe, especially if they only lend books no one wants to read. Will E-Lending kill book sales? Not a chance. Paper books might decline, but authors and publishers can make as much or more profit from an e-book as they can from a traditional paper one. By the way, you are reading online.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The impact of E-books on genealogy

Yesterday I worked with a patron at the Mesa Regional Family History Center that was looking for a book about one of her remote ancestors, a member of British nobility. She was wondering if there was a book in our library about this individual. I quickly found three bound journal articles containing references to the individual, but also helped her look online for additional material. I decided that this same process would work for many other researchers looking for printed material online.

The name of the distant ancestor was Sir George Beeston. There are several places I could start a search, but I chose to do a Google Books search first. By putting his name in quotes, I did an exact search on his name and found 667 results. Nearly all of these were for this specific individual. Needless to say, the patron was overwhelmed. However, she also wanted to see a physical book. In her words, "I just want to hold it in my hands." Most of the books that were listed on Google Books had free online digital copies. Choosing one,
Debrett, John. Debrett's Baronetage of England: Containing Their Descent and Present State, Their Collateral Branches, Births, Marriages, and Issue, from the Institution of the Order in 1611 ; a Complete and Alphabetical Arrangement of Their Mottoes, with Correct Translations ; a List of Persons Who Have Received the Honour of Knighthood, of Such As Have Been Advanced to the Peerage, and of British Subjects Holding Foreign Orders of Knighthood. London: Printed for C. and J. Rivington, 1824. 
I also found the book in website. The original book proved to be quite rare and not generally available, however there were several other editions and several libraries had copies. At this point she had the option of ordering the book through inter-library loan or being content with an online version of this particular book.

The trick here is figuring out that Google Books, and several other large digitized book databases are interrelated with links to each other. So the total number of scanned books online is extremely large.

What does this explosive growth of digitized books mean to genealogy? In one word: availability. Many genealogically significant books have been entirely unavailable. It is not unusual for someone to research their genealogy for a lifetime and then put all of the information they obtain into a book. My Great-grandmother did just that. But there was one problem, usually the author had little or no funds to print a large number of books. So the books were out of print as soon as the first printing was done. Many of these one-of-a-kind genealogy books have found their way into libraries across the world, but the library may have the only copy available anywhere.

Previously, the one and only copy issue was insurmountable. Even if you had access to the library, there was really no way of knowing that the book was there in the first place. So now we have and its counterpart Google Books. Now, at least, we can find out if the book exists somewhere in a library. For example, the book written by my Great-grandmother can be found in the Brigham Young University (BYU) Library. How would I know if did not tell me? But in addition, there are copies in five other libraries. Now, at least, if I wanted to see a copy of the book, I would have a chance of finding one.

In addition to being able to locate the book in a library, once a book is digitized, it will appear in an online collection. In the case of my Great-grandmother's book, the book was digitized and may some day appear in the Family History Archive, the huge BYU digitized collection. The reason I say someday, is because the website has yet to be updated and even though books are being digitized they do not necessarily show up online.

In many cases, these books have never before had anything approaching a general circulation and in addition, many of the digitized copies are completely searchable. I think we are only just now seeing the beginning of the changes that will come to research as more and more publications become available online.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What drives genealogists over the edge...

Week after week, I look at hundreds of patron "genealogy" records. I put genealogy in quotes because many, not all, but many of the records are patently wrong on their face. Further, because I work frequently with New FamilySearch, I see many of those records show up in that database. It is getting to the point that I can scan down a list of records and pick out the ones that are wrong without doing anything more. Today I hit my limit of patience. I had a list of records that included the following entry:

Harriet M. Wilkinson
Born abt 1837
Massachusetts, United States

Perhaps you can see why this record caught my eye? Actually, there were several things about the record that made me immediately assume that it was either grossly incomplete or simply wrong. First, was the dead give-a-way, she was supposedly born in Massachusetts but had no exact birth date. Massachusetts records are very complete and I assumed that there was a high likelyhood that the record had not been researched and that someone had merely copied it from some other list because an exact birth date for this person existed, assuming she existed at all.

The second give-a-way was the general birth place. No town, no county, simply Massachusetts. This was probably an extracted record from a single source, likely a U.S. Census record.

So after copying down the short info above, I went to my computer to see if Harriet M. Wilkinson existed or not. Within ten minutes I found her and her husband and family in the 1870, 1880, 1900 and 1910 U.S. Census. Guess what? Wilkinson is her married name. She and her husband John N. Wilkinson and family lived in New Ipswich, Hillsborough, New Hampshire. In the same ten minute period of time, I found listed in the New Hampshire Death Records.

Before going further, I want to lay down some ground rules. Any place I search has to be readily available online. So I looked in the New Hampshire Death Records on  The next ground rule is that I search only with the available information. In this case a name, an approximate birth date and a place.  In the New Hampshire Deaths and Burials, 1784 - 1949 I found the following:

It turns out that there are two Harriet M. Wilkinsons both showing in the New Hampshire death records, one married to John N. Wilkinson and born in 1837, another married to Charles Wilkinson and born in 1834. What are the chances?

I changed my search parameters to include a birth place of Massachusetts and did another search. I found the 1900 U.S. Census with her living with a Brother-in-Law. Then I searched on John N. Wilkinson. I found his death record again in the New Hampshire Deaths and Burials, 1784-1949 in's Historical Record Collections. I also found a marriage record in New Hampshire Marriages, 1720-1920 also in's Historical Record Collections. Here is that record:

There is her maiden name, Harriet M. Stevens. She died in Townsend, Massachusetts, which happens to be about 15 miles from New Ipswich. Now I search for Harriet M. Wilkinson born in Massachusetts in 1837 in In the 1910 U.S. Census it shows her living with her spouse John N. Wilkinson (misspelled Williamson) in Townsend, Middlesex, Massachusetts living with her daughter Ellen.

Here is the point, I could go on. I spent a minimal amount of time looking. Where did the information come from? New FamilySearch. Here is a screen shot of the NFS record on the family:

I could go on about this information for a long time, but I won't. It is obvious that her name is incorrect since it is her married name not her maiden name. The birth date for the eldest daughter, 1846 can not be correct since Harriet was only nine years old at the time, and so forth and so forth.

I found the correct information from easily searchable online sources in a matter of minutes. What is the problem here people? Can't we do even a modest amount of the research and come up with some kind of verifiable and accurate information? Why do I have to see this stuff day after day? Especially, when I can't do anything about it. I am all for liberality in accepting work by beginners and those who may never have the skills to do an adequate job, but it still drives me over the edge to see work that is poorly done and could have so easily been more accurate. I didn't even get into the mess with this family in New FamilySearch where one record has John N. Wilkinson as his own father.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Contributing to the FamilySearch Research Wiki -- Do's and Don'ts

http://In  the past week over a thousand articles have been contributed to the FamilySearch Research Wiki. But there are still huge areas of the Wiki that lack detailed information. A wiki, by its nature, is a collaborative website. Everyone is invited to register and contribute information. In addition to the thousands of articles with genealogical research information and links, the Research Wiki also contains its entire operating manual of instructions, principles and policies.

Every genealogist has some specialized information about records or some location that would benefit others. The Wiki is designed expressly for the purpose of sharing this unique personal information with others. As you browse the pages or search for specific information, you may see incomplete or inaccurate entries. All registered users have an automatic invitation to make changes to the Wiki. To make those changes you first need to register. If you already have an LDS Account or a FamilySearch Account, you are already registered. If not, you can click on the "Sign in." Registrations is simple and you can use your login and password for all of the FamilySearch websites.

Once you are registered and sign in, we strongly suggest you go to your User Page. If you look at the right side of the Wiki screen you will see a list of topics. Click on the one that says "Personal Tools" and then click on your login name. This will take you to your own User page. You can edit the page any way you like (within reason and appropriate to the Wiki). I suggest you put up some basic information about your background so you can relate to the other Wiki contributors. You are welcome to go to my User Page for an example. Just type "jamestanner' into the search field and select the User:Jamestanner link.

Now, you are ready to contribute. You should read the Contributor Guidelines however. Search on "Contributor guidelines" or here is the link. Please take the time to read each of the individual guidelines. You may also want to read some of the basic introductory material about how to make edits and changes to the Wiki. Although this seems simple, the Wiki is so dynamic that there is plenty to keep you busy and interested. You may also wish to view the Wiki Contributors Corner in the Forums.

Now something about the don'ts. Don't add personal family history, biographies, pedigrees or other family information to the Wiki. If you have any questions about what is appropriate see the FamilySearch Wiki:Purpose and Appropriate Topics page. Please have the courtesy to follow the guidelines. If you look down the list of things that are not appropriate you will also see that the Wiki is not a place for advertising products or services.

Please think seriously about helping with the Wiki. It is currently growing at a fantastic rate and is the most extensive and helpful resource on the Internet for genealogy already, but you and I can make it even better.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

FamilySearch Research Wiki passes 50,000 article mark

Due to the dramatic growth in the past few months, the FamilySearch Research Wiki has now blown past the 50,000 article mark. The mark was reached early in morning of 9 March 2011. The count today, 10 March 2011, is already at 50,284 and rising rapidly. The access counter on the startup page read 235,731,413 this morning as I write this post. Why is this important? Wikis are only as good as their content.

If you compare the numbers on the FamilySearch Research Wiki with Wikipedia, for example, you might think that the Research Wiki is small potatoes. Today Wikipedia had more than 3,578,000 articles just in English with millions more in 279 other languages. The Research Wiki is available in Spanish, Portuguese and Swedish. But the comparison is far from fair. Wikipedia is a universal encyclopedia while the Research Wiki is focused only on genealogy/family history. Maybe another comparison would be the Family History Wiki but that wiki has only been accessed 852,591 times.

What is on the Research Wiki that makes it such a draw? Loads of information about genealogical sources and methodology. OK, I probably need a disclaimer about this point. I am a Research Wiki fanatic. I am the moderator for Arizona and have been for a couple of years. I am currently on the Support Team for the entire Wiki. We are the folks who are trying to keep this rapidly growing resource relatively sane.

The Research Wiki is the first, go-to place to look for information about everything having to do with genealogy. What kinds of information are going onto the Wiki? Almost everything you can imagine in detail. Here is a brief selection of today's new articles:

Click on the image to see some of the today's new articles. Looking at the whole list of the last 50 pages, the subjects span the gamut from Texas to Finland with a lot of Sweden and England thrown in. With all these additions are the articles useful? Here is a screen shot of one of the most recent pages.

All of those blue entries are links. You may not be interested in Staffordshire, but what if you were? Have you looked for articles in your areas of interest?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thanks to all my readers and Family Tree Magazine for Top 40

Every year the Family Tree Magazine picks the top 40 Blogs in eight different categories. I am honored to be included in this year's lineup. This year's selections were made by readers voting and with an expert panel weighing in on the judging. It is truly amazing to be associated with such outstanding talent and dedication. As I would say in Spanish, "un million de gracias" or a million thanks.

If your favorite Blog didn't get mentioned in this year's selections, then make sure you vote next year.

Why do you think that there has to be a Top 40 Genealogy Blogs (or a Top 40 anything for that matter)? I know some excellent Bloggers who can write professionally and have great content, but they are never mentioned as candidates for Blogger of Honor, Official Blogger or Top 40, so what goes? There seems to be a universal human need to have someone be the best of something. In fairs, races, dance contests, game shows, every where we interact as humans we need to have someone recognized. Genealogy isn't a competition, but at the very least we need a way to gauge how we are doing and some kind of goal.

So how does a Blog get into the Top 40? I would think the first and most important thing is consistency. People may not read everything you write but if you write enough of it, somebody will like it. Second, is writing style. You need to know who your audience is and talk to them. Third is passion. If you aren't passionate, it is very hard to keep writing about anything day after day. Fourth and last for a while, persistence. You have to keep on, keep on writing even when you don't feel like it, even when you are sick of it and even when you can't think of anything to write about. Some of the posts I for which I got the most response were written while I was tired or sick or both.

Thanks again for all the votes and to Family Tree Magazine.

How do you keep up with genealogy news?

One question I am frequently asked is when do I sleep (or if I ever sleep). I can assure you that I do sleep, sometimes when I really should be doing something else. But the real question is how do I keep up with all the genealogy news? There seems to be things happening every day.

Let's take an example. FamilySearch announces the addition of millions of more new records added to the Historical Record Collections on So how do I know this? Simple, I am on an e-mail list from FamilySearch. I also subscribe to a large number of blogs and so there are many eyes watching the news. Why do you think the same announcement shows up in different blog posts at about the same time? We all read the same sources.

But don't I have to spend a lot of time reviewing my e-mail and blog posts? Well, yes and no. All of my e-mail goes directly to my iPhone, so I can review e-mail almost anytime and anyplace. Most of us have a surprising amount of down time every day, that is time where we are waiting or watching and if some of this time is used to keep up with e-mail and such, then the job gets done without any additional time being set aside.

The blog traffic is managed with Google Reader (there are a lot of other readers available). I get a list of headlines of new blog posts and every few hours I can go through the list and read or save anything that looks vaguely interesting. Some people use Facebook and Twitter for the same reason, to keep tabs but not spend a lot of time.

There are some things I don't do. I don't spend a lot of time online on anything other than genealogy and the other things I am interested in. I never "surf" the Web or spend time posting notes to Facebook. I do read a lot of books, especially on technical subjects. I am used to working about 12 to 14 hours a day, so I get a lot done every day. The idea is to focus on the things you want to do, like genealogy and other positive things and try not to waste time doing things that either don't matter or in which you have little or no interest.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Can we have anonymity and privacy in the online world of genealogy?

Today in Facebook there are a variety of posts from marriage to birthdays and software reviews to genealogical conferences. When do these people have time to actually do anything? They seem to live their lives online. On the one hand I occasionally glance through a long list of daily posts on Facebook and at the same time deal with people who think registering a new software program will make them an instant victim of identity theft. Yes, it is again time to talk about privacy in the context of genealogy. At the same time, I need to address the two opposite poles; complete and total anonymity in contrast to the openness and almost complete disclosure of social networking.

Facebook and its counterparts allow those who are interested to connect with family members in a way that could only be imagined a few years ago. Contrasted with this lack of privacy in social networking are those who shun the Internet entirely through fear of identity theft and concerns about privacy in general. In between are those who use the Internet extensively, but wish to remain anonymous.

Anonymity in communication has a long history in its variant form of pseudonymity. Think Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens and you will get the idea. In our online communication age, the pseudonym has been replaced by the avatar. The term "avatar" is defined in Wikipedia as a computer user's representation of himself/herself or alter ego whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in computer games, or a two-dimensional icon (picture) used on Internet forums and other communities. This online phenomena of using an avatar spills over into the Blog world and is extensively used in the genealogical community.

For examples of anonymity, all you have to do is look at a selection of genealogy Blogs. If you need examples, go to Geneabloggers by Thomas MacEntee and click on Geneabloggers' list of current Genealogy Blogs. Start clicking on the Blogs listed and look at the author's name or lack of a name. I didn't do an exhaustive count but there is a definite split between bloggers who are unidentified except for an online name (avatar) and those who are clearly identified. Is there some problem in putting your name on your blog posts? Apparently a significant number of people think so. In asking this question I am not criticizing or condemning anyone for using a online avatar. If you choose to do so, you certainly may. Establishing an online identity can certainly be done using an avatar just as pseudonymity has its place in literature.

The issue is how does the current concepts of privacy and the creation of avatars impact genealogy? Privacy is always a really confused issue. For example, currently in Arizona there are bills before the State Legislature that would allow public officials to redact the identifying information of those who contact them through personal mailing addresses, computers, telephones or other personal electronic devices in the name of privacy. There have been several other major legislative efforts in the past few years to severely limit the availability of personal information especially concerning health care related records. Privacy concerns limit the availability of many records such as the U.S. Census and adoption records.

From a genealogical perspective there are competing interests. On the one hand, there are legitimate concerns about privacy that result in extensive limitations on the availability of records, even of people who have been dead for many years. On the other hand, we have the need for records in order to find our ancestors. Society has obviously put the need for privacy well above the need for access to genealogically important records. Where is privacy's curtain drawn? What is truly private and what is only private in the sense that we do not normally talk about the subjects in polite society?

Many of us would think that something such as the amount of debt we owed or our annual income was somehow private. We would probably be uncomfortable and even angry if this information were published without our consent in a blog post. But both our debt and our income are easily learned from public, online sources. There are also public sources for almost every other type of "private" information from the identity of family members to our work history and what kinds of things we purchase. Anyone who has been online for any longer period of time has little or no privacy in the traditional sense despite their perception to the contrary.

Both anonymity and pseudonymity such as avatars can be used for both good and bad purposes. But it is also clear that both interfere with the availability of records and thereby interfere with the main interest of genealogy, which is building family lines. That said, there are some types of information that are better left off of the Internet entirely. It is true that criminals may use anonymity and avatars to advance their illegal activities online. Even if anonymous activities are not criminal, people can hide behind secrecy to harass and offend. Some of the most obnoxious comments to my blog posts have come from "Anonymous."

One place anonymous contributors cause a lot of grief is in online family trees. People add information to online sites like New FamilySearch and fail to identify themselves making it almost impossible for family members to correct inaccurate or intentionally wrong information.

As long as we recognize that privacy and anonymity are competing interests to genealogy and strike an acceptable balance between protecting peoples' privacy and thereby limiting record availability and destroying the concept of privacy altogether through social networking, we will continue to be able to do genealogical research and at the same time feel comfortable with the level of information available.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Why does a wiki work?

Everything about a wiki is counter-intuitive. Collaboration on a large scale with few rules and no supervision should not work. Especially when the collaborators do not collaborate but work entirely independently on their own projects. Especially when the collaborators have no idea who else is working on the project. How can a project that entirely lacks an overall goal or even a mission statement produce anything of value? Isn't it sort-of like depending on the people driving by a construction site to build the building, without plans or supervision? Do wikis work?

I think the answer to these and many other questions can be answered by examining the structure both cultural and practical of the wiki. First of all, there is the underlying  program structure of the wiki. Using as an example the FamilySearch Research Wiki, there is a standard conceptual and recognizable structure. The Research Wiki uses the dominant WikiMedia open-source program, the same program used by Wikipedia, that is at its core, extremely simple to use. Wikis are described as a self-organizing, self-correcting and never finished online encyclopedias. This is a very long video but interesting, it will give you an idea about why the wiki works:

As you can see from the video, the core value of the wiki is neutrality. The wiki itself does not take a position. If you take the time to view the video, you will also see why the wiki works. 

When I use the term "simple" I mean like E-mail and Blogs. Simple to the point of usefulness. As I have noticed, nearly everyone who reads my blog posts also has a blog. Only a handful of blogs can break out of the blog culture to have a wider appeal. On the other hand, E-mail is becoming pervasive even among the almost entirely computer illiterate. When I ask a class about wikis how many people have used Wikipedia, I find that there is a surprisingly large number of positive respondents. But as you can see from the video, the actual number of active participants is relatively small. The real question is not why does a wiki work, but why will seemingly intelligent people spend their time writing useful articles for free? Deep down, there is a need to communicate. I have noticed that bloggers not only write a lot, they have a tendency to talk a lot also.

In my previous post about the culture of the wiki I was focusing on the exclusive issues of wikis. Obviously, there are more inclusive than exclusive issues or wikis would not be such a phenomena. The FamilySearch Research Wiki currently has an access counter that shows that the startup page has been accessed 234,789,234 times and growing at the rate of thousands of visits a minute. The number of articles will soon pass 50,000. (If you read this in the future, you will see how influential the Research Wiki has become, because these numbers will seem very small).

There is no mystery as to why this particular form of social organization works. Those who contribute have bought in to the system. They know how and why the wiki works. They are also insatiable communicators and get satisfaction from sharing what they know or can research. There is a complex and difficult to penetrate social organization, but it is worth the effort. Ask yourself, if you are one of these people and seriously consider adding your own knowledge and expertise to the mix. It is satisfying to find a project that is worth the effort.

How does a wiki work?

All social interactions are based on a complex behavioral code. I spent a number of years living and working in Latin America. I also spent years studying Spanish and Linguistics and then teaching both Spanish to English speakers and English to Spanish speakers. The complexity of the differences between my own Anglo culture and that in Latin America, was brought home to me recently when I was invited to a wedding reception where I was good friends with the bride's family, who were Anglos, and also good friends with the groom's family who were Latinos. There were substantial numbers of both ethnic groups in attendance and once again I was struck with the contrast between the two cultures. The Spanish speaking people were all related or friends or whatever of each other. When I said hello to a Spanish speaking friend, I was immediately introduced to the entire table and, through a cultural norm, had to shake hands with everyone. As soon as they realized I spoke Spanish, I was immediately friends with everyone.

The contrast was with the Anglos. We knew quite a few people who would say hello, perhaps shake hands and then wander off after exchanging the mandatory formalities. Except for a few parent/child relationships, the Anglos were all there as individuals or couples. They would talk to those who they recognized as friends but I don't recall meeting one person I did not already know. Some of the younger attendees who knew each other, were gathered in groups but not really interacting.

One image at the reception was a group of about 20 or so Latinos standing in a group having their picture taken together. These were not wedding pictures, they were family and friends.

Everyone got along fine, there was almost no apparent friction between the two groups because I assume most people didn't even recognize that there were two groups defined by language, culture and traditions. It is not at all unusual in Mesa, Arizona to have people speaking Spanish since close to half of the people speak Spanish. Many of the people there spoke both Spanish and English.

How does this apply to a wiki? Well, a wiki is in effect a social organization where there are specific rules, customs and traditions. Just as with my experience in noting the cultural differences between the Latino and Anglo people at the reception, when someone uses a wiki they may become more or less aware of the wiki culture and mores. When I lived in Panama, I knew Anglos who would not go out of the Canal Zone. They had lived in the Canal Zone for years and had never been across the imaginary line dividing Panama from the Canal Zone which was essentially like crossing the street as there was no formal fence at the edge of the Zone except signs. As a contrast, my family lived in the heart of Panama City in an apartment building. I assume there are a lot of people out there who will also avoid learning about the wikis.

My cross cultural experience probably helps me to accept the restrictions and rules of other cultural groups, including working with wikis. Some rules are written and obvious, some are less obvious and unwritten.

In the overall online world, it is customary to identify yourself through some method, either as an individual who lives in the "real world" or as an avatar, an imaginary character assumed for the purpose of online conduct. Participants in a wiki soon learn to distinguish between participants who have a "real" identity and those with assumed ones. Participants also soon realize that the wiki is cooperative and that there are definite rules for successful participation. In the long run, participants can only continue to actively contribute from a real identity.

Like living in a non-English speaking country (I avoid the term "foreign" as no country is foreign to me only different), wikis have their own language, Wikitext and HTML. Just as those who visited Panama from the deck of a boat going through the Canal, casual visitors to a wiki may not even be aware that the participants speak Wikitext. Wiki culture is somewhat defined and created by the structure of the wiki itself. Just as I learned Spanish and then after a number of years became accustomed to the Latin American culture, everyone can learn "wiki" but it is only through active participation over a considerable time period, that the person can learn wiki culture.

Just as there were people who lived in the Canal Zone only around the corner from a completely different culture but who never stepped across the line, there are those who will use wikis their whole life and never imagine the underlying cultural complexity of the social context.

Obviously, I understand that any real world culture is far more complex than an online wiki, but I am illustrating the fact with a wiki that there is a language, not generally known, there is a culture, also not generally known and there are other similarities. One difference between the wiki culture and a real world one, is the fact that the participants in a wiki, to some extent, define the culture rather than in the real world where the participants are defined by the culture. Additionally, the individual wikis do take on some of the aspects of the dominant background culture. The FamilySearch Research Wiki is a genealogical community, so it assumes many of the attributes of the genealogical community and culture. Other wikis take on their own culture.

The FamilySearch Research Wiki is a good example of the blend of background culture, in this case, genealogy, with the wiki culture. Since it is a relatively new community, the active participants are still trying to search out their collective identity. Wikis work because there are those who see the advantages of the collective cooperative environment and are willing to participate and contribute even if the participation requires learning a new language and accepting a new or different culture.

Likewise, those who are actively involved in a wiki need to remember that not all those who use the wiki want to be native wiki users. Some just want to be tourists on a boat. Others just want to experience the different culture but do not want to learn the language. Some will learn the language and come to participate and contribute, but those people are few and far between. How many English speakers do you know who have learned to speak Spanish like a native?

I probably have a lot more to say about this subject, but that is all for now.