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

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Wars, Plagues, and Catastrophes and Genealogy

Wars, plagues, and catastrophes play an important part in history and therefore affect every aspect of genealogical research. As genealogists, we ignore these events at the risk of either failing to make progress in our research or losing our way in our ancestral lines. There are few places on the earth that have entirely escaped the effects of one or another of these major events. If you are in the vast majority in the United States, your knowledge of U.S. history is scant and your knowledge of world history is non-existent. Most surveys to determine the extent of the population's knowledge asks questions general historical events relating to civic education, i.e. what knowledge helps citizens participate in a free society. But from a genealogical standpoint, the impact of national events is compounded by very specific local events.

Let me give a specific example. Quoting Wikipedia, the "Johnstown Flood (locally, the Great Flood of 1889) occurred on May 31, 1889, after the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River 14 miles (23 km) upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania." 2,208 people died in that catastrophe. Did any of your ancestors or other relatives live in Johnstown, Pennsylvania? You might make a quick review of your pedigree and conclude that the flood had no impact, genealogically, on your family. But the larger question is whether or not any of your ancestors came from Pennsylvania and if so, did any of their descendants live in Johnstown? In addition, the follow-up question is what else happened in Pennsylvania in 1889? What else happened in the United States in 1889?

Here are a few additional events that occurred in 1889:

  • US President Grover Cleveland signed a bill admitting North and South Dakota, Montana and Washington state to the Union.
  • 1.9 million acres of land in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) went on sale at noon on April 22, 1889
  • The Eiffel Tower opened in Paris on March 31, 1889.
  • The Canadian Pacific Railway was completed from coast to coast on June 3, 1889.
  • Great Fire in Seattle destroys the center of town on June 6, 1889
  • Tijuana, Mexico became a city.
It would be interesting is some of the events actually affected your ancestors, but this list could go on indefinitely. Putting your family into the historical context of their time is not just interesting, it is the only way some genealogical mysteries can be resolved. But many of these mysteries lose their mystique once the background history is investigated. 

How do you start? Motivation may come through frustration, but to avoid the need to go through the frustrating experiences, any genealogical research should start by identifying the salient historical facts about the time when some of your ancestors lived. For example, if any one of your ancestors fought in the U. S. Civil War, then all of the other ancestors and relatives who lived during that time period are candidates for extended research into military records or other records associated with that war. This background research is not time wasted. It is part and parcel of doing genealogical research. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Genealogical Standardization: Friend or Foe?

Genealogical Standardization is a constant background issue in the larger genealogical community. Controversy over standardization has waxed and waned and my own interest in the topic has also cycled as other considerations have become more urgent. A recent online conversation with an old friend brought this topic again to the forefront.

It is probably a good idea to start with some of the basic concepts and where those concepts become controversial and counterproductive. It is also important to mention, right up front, that there is no consensus among genealogists on any aspect of the issues involved.

Standardization involves many levels of concern from the level of uniform data entry to concerns about the methods and standards for exchanging and preserving genealogical data. In this post, I am going to focus on the issue of uniform data entry.

Uniform data entry is primarily an artifact of data processing, i.e. computer programming. However, in genealogy, there is an additional issue and this the is the need to accurately reflect the time and place of historical events to increase accuracy and avoid rampant ambiguity. Let me start with this first example. In different genealogy programs the standard for naming one large country in North America varies as follows:

  • United States
  • USA
  • United States of America
  • The United States of America (the actual name of the country)
  • U.S.A.
  • U S A
  • US of A
  • US
The problem with using the designation "United States" is the fact that there are other countries that incorporate the term "united states" into their official name. If we are going to "standardize" as name, why not use the official name of the place rather than a mere convention? This particular issue may seem trivial but there are actually TWO countries in North America with "United States" in their name; The United States of America and The United States of Mexico (Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos). Hmm. This brings up another standardization issue, why do we translate all of the names of the countries into English? If we were to use the strict rule of genealogy and use the name of the place at the time an event occurred, then wouldn't we need to acknowledge the language changes of place names also? So is correct by choosing "United States" while is wrong for choosing "USA" or are they both wrong? This is likely a situation where you can choose your own preference unless you are working within the confines of a particular program that has created a "standard" on one or the other of the choices. 

Another messy example involves the question about how you designate the early European Colonies in America. For example, Massachusetts. What is the current correct name of Massachusetts? Well, it is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So why don't the genealogy programs use that as the "Standard?" Good question. This is where we start getting into murky waters. The programmers want consistency but they aren't too much interested in historicity or geographic accuracy. The issue of the exact or official name of a certain locality does not become important to genealogical research until you look at a place that may have had multiple name and boundary changes. It may seem convenient to simply use the common name of the state, i.e. Massachusetts. But what happens as we go back in time?

The early settlers in what has become the state of Massachusetts (think Commenwealth) could have lived in any one of several modern states. To add some additional interest The Massachusetts Bay Colony is actually the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Since this original settlement included what are now the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and of course, Massachusetts. If you want a small taste of the complications these standardization issues dip into, take some time to read a history of Maine. You will find some of these places mentioned:
  • Acadia
  • Popham Colony at Phippsburg
  • Castine
  • Plymouth Colony
  • Province of Maine
  • Maine (statehood in 1819)
If you attach time periods to these variations you still have the genealogical research issue as to where the records were created and where they ended up being archived or stored. The idea of standardizing this messy sort of history implies that we will give up a strict historical designation in trade for one that is workable and recognized by a particular entity with a particular set of records. 

What do we do with "standard" designations such as "British Colonial America" or "New England" or "British America?" None of these have a real geographic origin but they all are immediately associated with a particular area even if the association is vague. 

Meanwhile, the fact that any particular programs standardizes on a certain label has to be, to some extent, arbitrary. This places the burden on the genealogical researcher to discover where pertinent records might be located. Boundary changes can make these designations even more complicated especially in smaller jurisdictional levels such as counties. 

OK, is there a solution to these issues? Something comprehensive that can apply to every possible iteration and circumstance? Not unless we can get all the genealogists, all the program developers, all the archivists, all the librarians and a lot of other people to all agree.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Patricia Heaton to Keynote at RootsTech Salt Lake City 2019

Quoting from the RootsTech 2019 announcement:
Nobody knows family quite like Emmy award–winning actress Patricia Heaton. Known for her humorous roles as a typical American housewife in big hit television series like Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle, Patricia has won many prestigious awards and the hearts of television viewers worldwide. 
Behind the scenes of her career as an actress—and adding some serious fuel for her decades of success—is the fact that she really is a wife and the mother of 4 sons. Patricia has a deep love and appreciation for family, making her a perfect fit for the RootsTech audience.
Patricia Heaton will join Jake Shimabukuro, Saroo Brierley, and FamilySearch's own Steve Rockwood as Keynote Speakers. For the full schedule be sure to check the website: RootsTech 2019.

Alabama State Archives: Wonderful Local Sources for Genealogical Research
The Alabama State Archives is part of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Alabama was the first state in the United States to create an official agency to take care of its history. Quoting from a video about the Department:
The Alabama Department of Archives and History was founded in 1901, becoming the nation's first publicly funded, independent state archives agency. The Archives identifies, preserves, and makes accessible records and artifacts of enduring historical value to the state.  Thomas Owen founded the agency and served as its first director. He was succeeded by his wife, Marie Bankhead Owen, who headed the archives for 35 years and was the second woman to lead a state agency.
The Alabama Department of Archives and History has an extensive Channel with almost 200 videos. Recently, they posted a video introducing the Archives.

86 Discovering Alabama State Archives

Of course, this makes my job of writing about the Archives much easier. The Archives YouTube Channel is part of a larger YouTube collection called "Discovering Alabama." I did, just recently, drive through Alabama on my way from Maryland to Utah, but unfortunately, on this trip, I did not have time to stop and explore the state and the Archives. Here is a link to the Alabama Department of Archives and History YouTube Channel.
The Southern States have a reputation among genealogists as a more difficult place to do research, but that impression should not be uniformly applied. What this series on state archives is intended to demonstrate is that genealogical research does not stop with a superficial review of online sources, but must also include, when necessary, extensive onsite research beginning with the state archives and continuing with the local record repositories including state and local historical societies. Although many records have now been digitized and are available online, a visit to a national, state or other archives will quickly convince you otherwise. The actual number of digitized records in almost any state archives is very small compared to the number of records in their collections.

Here is a screenshot of the main collections in the Alabama Department of Archives and History
The Digital Collections are extensive but genealogists cannot expect that all of the collections will relate to genealogical research, many of the collections are historical in nature and only incidentally valuable to genealogists.
Depending on the state, the state archives may or may not have all of the genealogically important records. For example, in Alabama, the probate records are held by the individual counties. However, huge collections of these records are available from the online genealogy websites such as,, and others.

Watch the videos, explore the website, and search for Alabama records online but when you think you are done with your research, take the time to look into a visit to the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Remember to check the requirements for research at the Archives.
Also, remember that each state archive has its own rules and regulations regarding access to the records and that these rules need to be carefully followed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

FamilyTreeWebinars add Closed Captioning to Webinars Closed Captioning

In what well may be the first time the larger genealogical community has provided closed captioning, in conjunction with, who acquired the company last year, have developed and provided closed captioning for 207 past webinars. Quoting from the Press Release dated December 6, 2018:
Legacy Family Tree Webinars, the leading genealogy and DNA webinar platform, announced today the addition of closed captioning to its service. Implemented as a full human-curated transcription via synced subtitles, closed captioning is now available as an option for all live and members-only webinar recordings released since May 1, 2018. In addition, the most popular 50 webinars on the platform and all MyHeritage-specific webinars have been captioned. Legacy will add captioning to all new webinars going forward.
In explaining MyHeritage's involvement, Gilad Japhet is quoted as saying:
“When we acquired Legacy last year, we promised to invest resources to improve the webinar platform and increase its reach, while maintaining its high quality and unique character”, said Gilad Japhet, founder and CEO of MyHeritage. “The addition of closed captioning makes good on this promise and, with translated captioning coming up soon, will help make the webinars accessible to millions of people in Europe and other countries, true to MyHeritage’s goal of making genealogy and DNA testing available to huge consumer audiences worldwide”. 
Access to the closed captioning is available on the Legacy website.

MyHeritage Featured on the Dr. Phil Show
Quoting from the Dr. Phil website:
Dr. Phil says he was always aware of his Irish ancestry, but it wasn’t until he submitted a simple cheek swab to MyHeritage DNA that he realized there was more to his lineage.  
“Dr. Phil, we found that you have three distinct ethnicities in six distinct countries,” says MyHeritage consultant Yvette Corporon.
 I do not watch TV but I am aware of Dr. Phil. The like to his website includes a video of the segment of his show when he learns about the results of his DNA Test. Here is what the MyHeritage test found:
We revealed to Dr. Phil, interesting insights into his family history and from his DNA. Dr. Phil discovered that he is Irish, Scottish, and Welsh (64.3%), English (28.4%), and Iberian (7.3%). He also received 20,000 DNA matches to MyHeritage users from 64 different countries! 
We also explored the lives of some of his ancestors, including his great-great-grandfather who fought in the Mexican war, information about his grandfather, yearbook photos for triplet aunts and uncle, and a surprising family connection to a well known individual.
To see the segment of the show click Here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Expanded Commentary on the Rules of Genealogy: Rule Three

I published the first six Rules of Genealogy back on July 1, 2014. See "Six of the Basic Rules of Genealogy." This short list included the most famous and basic rule of genealogy: "When the baby was born, the mother was there." I added four rules in a post back on August 11, 2017, entitled, "New Rules Added to the old: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited." One more Rule was added to the list on August 2, 2018, in a post entitled, "A New Rule Added: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited Again." You can go back to these original posts to see my original comments and the entire list of Rules.

In this series, I am reviewing each of the Rules and expanding on the reasoning and background of each.

Rule Three: Every person who ever lived has a unique birth order and a unique set of biological parents.

This Rule addresses the challenge of adoptions, foster children, guardianships, step-children, other relationships that may exist in different times and different cultures. You might not see the importance of this Rule unless you have struggled with the identity of an ancestor that may or may not belong in a family. In the recent past, this Rule has been reinforced by the ascendancy of DNA testing as an accepted part of genealogical research. Many of my friends and acquaintances have been surprised to find that the traditional view of their ancestry is not supported by their DNA test. This is particularly true of those who have discovered that they were adopted or that one of their "known" ancestors was not actually their genetic ancestor.

This Rule also implies the need to be acquainted with the changes in the laws of adoption over the years. Adoption in the United States can be divided into two major time periods: before and after the passage of the first modern adoption laws beginning in 1851. In both eras, the idea of protecting the child from knowledge of the adoption has, in many cases, made determining the ancestry of an adoptive child extremely difficult. For example, a tradition in my family was that a particular ancestor was "adopted." After searching for years, I found one church record with the notation that he was adopted. It was only with the advent of online digitized records that we found a likely set of parents for this individual. In this particular case, DNA testing was not reasonably available and in any event, an extensive DNA test among his descendants would not identify his parents.

Here are a few links to websites with information about the history of adoption in the United States. Adoption laws are likely unique in almost every other country in the world. 

So why do we have to be reminded that every person has a unique birth order as well as a unique set of biological parents?

It is apparent from looking at online family trees that there are a multitude of "opinions" about the biological makeup of some families. Here is an extreme example from the Family Tree:

In this case, the list goes on. One of the entries here has the following:

You might look at the dates given in this particular entry. At least three of the children were born after the listed wife's death date. Rule Six is aimed at this common type of error. There is no reason to list all of these potential wives. Obviously, some extensive research is needed before the identity and relationship of these people can be decided. It might be interesting to note that many of the people listed have multiple record sources. 

There are multiple considerations that need to be taken into account before concluding that a child is the child of a particular set of parents. Fundamentally, the birth and death dates of the parents and date of the birth of the child should always be considered. Adoption may be more difficult to detect but continued research or in some cases, DNA testing, may indicate that a child was adopted. 

As is the case with all of the basic Rules of Genealogy, this Rule is a reminder that obvious relationships may not be accurate. 

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Maryland: State Archives: Wonderful Local Sources for Genealogical Research

Maryland Hall of Records
My wife and I spent the last year (2018) digitizing probate records for FamilySearch at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, Maryland. Ultimately, those digital records will be available both at the Archives and on the website. If you want to have an in-depth view of working at the Archives, you can find that in my blog series entitled, "A Family History Mission." If you do a Google search for that title with my name, you will see almost 100 posts about our experiences at the archives. You can also see the following webinar on the BYU Family History Library YouTube Channel.

A Family History Mission: Digitizing Records for Family Search by James Tanner

While working at the Archives, I gained a valuable appreciation for the work of conserving and preserving important genealogical records. Our work at the Archives also gave us an appreciation for the difficulty of creating and maintaining a working archive.

The Maryland State Archives is known as "The Hall of Records." It is located just outside of the historic downtown area of Annapolis, Maryland and adjacent to the United States Naval Academy in the Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse State Archives Building, 350 Rowe Blvd, Annapolis, MD 21401. The Archives features an active outreach program and is open for researchers six days a week except for state and national holidays. As with any government agency, it is best to double check if the Archives will be open before traveling to the facility.

We functioned as volunteers in the Archives and worked a regular shift of 8:00 to 4:30 five days a week. We were primarily involved in preparing individual documents for digitization and then digitizing those same documents plus digitizing large court record books. The focus of the FamilySearch digitization project was probate records from the Maryland State Orphans Court. The Project covers all of the counties in Maryland. Records from the individual counties were being transported to the Archives for the Project. The Project is designed to continue for many years. When we arrived, the Project had been ongoing for about five years and it will continue many years into the future.

Here is a short description of the records from the Archives' website:
The State Archives serves as the central depository for government records of permanent value. Its holdings date from Maryland's founding in 1634, and include colonial and state executive, legislative, and judicial records; county probate, land, and court records; church records; business records; state publications and reports; and special collections of private papers, maps, photographs, and newspapers.
We handled records dating back into the mid-1700s many of the earlier records have already been digitized. This brings up an important point about State Archives. When planning a research trip to an archive, take the time to do some extensive searching online before traveling to the physical location. The digitized records may be available online from one or more of the large online genealogy websites, or may even be available from the archives' websites by searching. The Maryland State Archives has an extensive catalog of records online but the vast majority of those records are only available by visiting the Archives building and asking to see the original records. Some of the digital records are also only available from computers in the Archives building. Another example of the need to physically visit the Archives is the fact that they still maintain a huge paper-based card catalog that contains entries by individual's names as well as by category of records.

Like many other archives around the country, the Maryland State Archives has a web page dedicated to genealogy or family history.

The Archives' website also has links to their digital resources:

There is also a valuable website about the online resources entitled, "Archives of Maryland Online."
My time working at the Archives gave me a graphic example of the reality of records searching in the United States. Despite the huge number of commonly available online records, there is still an unimaginably large number of valuable documents that can be accessed and viewed only by physically visiting the repositories. For example, the probate records we were digitizing contained comprehensive information about entire families, but this information is not likely available anywhere else and until all the records are digitized, there is still a need to look through the individual records even if at some time in the future the main entries are indexed. It is not likely that all the names in these documents will ever be completely indexed.

If you would like a good overview of the Maryland State Archives, you can see a number of videos on their Channel.
The Archives also has a continuing outreach program called Lunch and Learn.
As with every state archives, it is a good idea to spend some time getting acquainted with all the online offerings. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Add The Family History Guide to your AmazonSmile Account

Here is a short description of AmazonSmile (
AmazonSmile is a simple and automatic way for you to support your favorite charitable organization every time you shop, at no cost to you. When you shop at, you’ll find the exact same low prices, vast selection and convenient shopping experience as, with the added bonus that Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price to your favorite charitable organization. You can choose from over one million organizations to support.
So how can you support genealogy with AmazonSmile? Simple. Designate The Family History Guide Association as the recipient. The Family History Guide Association is a qualified 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable organization and all contributions go to support The Family History Guide a free educational program for teaching and learning about genealogy. Your contribution can help you feel good about buying stuff on Amazon. However, if you need a tax deduction, the AmazonSmile contribution is not deductible to you, the money comes from the Amazon Foundation. But you can get a tax deduction by making a contribution directly to The Family History Guide Association.

Go to and designate The Family History Guide Association as the recipient. You will be helping to educate and support the thousands of users of The Family History Guide. If you are already a user of The Family History Guide, then signing up with will help you pay back a small portion of your benefit from the program.

If you still have any questions, please review this page of The Family History Guide Association website.
Yes, I am the Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Family History Guide Association and my wife, Ann, is also on the Board. If you are attending RootsTech 2019 this next year, please stop by our booth and say hello or learn how you can maximize your effectiveness as a genealogist using The Family History Guide for free. The Family History Guide can only be free because of people like you who donate directly or indirectly.

What do you really know about your ancestors?

One of my main activities is helping individuals discover their ancestral past. I have found that this is best done on a one-on-one basis sitting in front of their computer (or one in a Family History Center) and systematically working backward in time looking at what is already recorded. Of course, I do find people all the time who have nothing recorded, not even their own parents. But usually, there is a place to start talking about who these people were who are called our ancestors. Almost uniformly, unless the person has been working on their own genealogy for some time, the person knows next to nothing about anyone beyond their own parents and from time to time, I find people who do not know anything about their parents, even their parents' names.

Why are so many people disconnected from their ancestral heritage?

My early years were spent in a very small town and I had lots of "relatives" that included uncles, aunts, cousins, and various other people who were supposed to be related to me in some way. As new people showed up at our house to visit or to talk to my parents, I was told that they were related some way. But until I got personally interested in genealogy, I really did not know who these people were or how they were related to me. Of course, there was always someone who could rattle off all the relationships, but I didn't understand who all these people really were.

I was married with a number of children before I began to unravel these relationships. In my case, because of our religious and cultural background, once I focused on the relationships, everything fell into place and I could visualize the relationships. But going to a family reunion can still be a challenge. When you get dozens of people together, all of whom are supposed to be related to you in some way, it can be a real challenge to keep everyone straight especially if you don't see or associate with these relatives on a regular basis.

But now let's move back a bit. One question I always ask prospective genealogists is the names of their grandparents and great-grandparents. If those names appear on an online family tree, they can read me the names, but otherwise, very few people know the complete names of all their great-grandparents and can tell me where they lived and where they were born without looking at some reference provided to them by someone else. If I move back one more generation, these people are totally lost.

If someone knows about a grandparent or great-grandparent, or even further back, it is usually the "surname line" that is well known. For example, if I quiz them about the identities of their great-grandmother's parents, they are totally lost. People usually do not know even the maiden names of grandparents.

Now, before you start getting all huffy about how you can name all of your ancestors individually back to Adam, I would suggest we go a little bit further and ask some more questions.

The crucial questions I always ask is where did these people live? When I ask this question, I am searching to find out exactly where they lived not just that they came from Georgia or Michigan or somewhere back East. The beginning of identifying your ancestors is learning about who they were but the beginning of learning about them and properly and accurately identifying them is learning about exactly where they lived. Yes, I do mean exactly down to the house or farm or tenement or village or town.

I start out with questions about where each of the ancestors was born. When I get a vague or missing answer, I know where to start in helping the person really discover their ancestors. Interestingly, many people get frustrated with my questions and say something like, well, its all written down right here or my mother knew all that so why are you asking me these questions? I guess the basic reason is that they are the same questions I had to ask myself many years ago when I got started.

Let me give an example. My surname family has a strong identity and tradition going back to my 3rd great-grandfather, John Tanner. I continually meet people who identify me as a relative by my surname. But if I ask these same people to tell me who their grandparents were going back to John Tanner, they cannot do so. They say all they know is that they are descendants of John Tanner and that usually ends the conversation.

Now, why is all this important? Because once some genealogists get started, all they do is collect names. I frequently hear about a genealogist who has added thousands of names to their family tree or even some who add thousands of names every year. How is this possible other than by collecting names like you would look at billboards on a freeway? Can you possibly remember or know who these people are as they flash by? How can you possibly know the accuracy of all these entries? Of course, you could just assume that everyone with your surname is related to you and add them willy-nilly to your family tree, but is this really genealogy? Is genealogy really a competition sport where the winner is the person with the most names listed?

So here we have two extremes: people who don't know who their parents are and people who have tens of thousands of "relatives" listed in extensive family trees. But guess what? They both have exactly the same problem. They know little or nothing about their ancestors.

Then there is the common response to this issue: why do we care? Why is family important?

I have spent a long time thinking about the answers to both of these questions and I have come to the conclusion that given our brief mortal existence here on this earth, family is one of the few things that really is important. Granted, I am a genealogist. Granted, I have spent a good portion of my life learning about my own ancestors. Granted, not everyone has the inclination, time, or cares to find out about their family but even if you just a soon not know about your family, you are still part of that family and they are a part of you and will come a time to all of us when all that really matters is our family.

If you don't know about your own family, fortunately, the tools to find your family are now abundantly available and they include DNA testing, online family trees that connect families, and many other wonderful resources.

I guess, when it is all said and done, that I keep going doing my own research and helping others with theirs for the simple reason that as I connect with my own family and see others connect with their family, I see how it changes our lives and how we view the world. Ultimately, we find that we are all related and that differences in race, religion, politics and other things really don't matter. We are all related.

But it does help to understand how we are related.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Why I Quote Wikipedia
If you read any number of my blog posts, you may wonder why I use and quote Wikipedia. The answer to that question involves a number of levels of research and legal considerations which mostly revolve around copyright restrictions. The reasons I use Wikipedia also have extensive implications about why I use wiki-based genealogy programs.

Years ago, there was a controversy about the accuracy of Wikipedia and other wikis. The subject of the controversy was whether or not an online "encyclopedia" could be as accurate as a paper encyclopedia such as the Encyclopedia Britannica. The whole question seems a little bit ridiculous today since there is no question that Wikipedia has an unimaginable amount of information compared to the old paper-based encyclopedias. The real problem, however, was and is that the old encyclopedias were copyright protected. If you go to the Encyclopedia Britannica website I just linked to, you will see the copyright notification at the bottom of the page. In other words, the issue isn't just accuracy, it is primarily copyright protection. Wikipedia's Terms of Use require the information to be either in the public domain or under a free and open use license. It is as simple (and complicated) as that.

The greater issue of the accuracy of wikis is still a matter of some controversy. The wiki-type program implies and involves collaborative contributions that are freely editable by any registered user. The content is either moderated by some sponsoring organization or collaboratively watched and moderated by the wiki's users. There are also situations where moderation involves both the sponsor and the users. The larger genealogy community has a number of wiki-based websites such as the Family Tree,, and There is some degree of hand-wringing among genealogists over the fact that wikis are subject to user editing. Although the mechanisms for moderation vary, the main idea of the wiki is that the users will correct any inaccurate information.

Unfortunately, there is a segment of the potential users of wikis that believe that they are inherently inaccurate, incomplete, and therefore unreliable because of this user involvement and the fact that the entries are not static but can be changed. Unknowingly, these detractors are simply expressing the same arguments and doubts about the reliability of wikis that were rampant during their early development. I have been addressing this issue for many years. For example, see "Can the FamilySearch Family Tree become an accurate master reference?" back in 2016 or another post entitled, "Is Wikipedia a Genealogical Source?"

If I were using a paper resource such as a printed encyclopedia and I found a mistake or inaccurate statement, there is nothing that I could reasonably do to correct the information. If I find the same type of inaccurate information in a wiki, I can research the correct information and change the entry and at the same time provide a link to the original source where I obtained the correct information. This is the real difference between the idea of paper sources and the malleability of wikis. In a sense, they are living, breathing entities that can evolve as new information and corrections are made.

Do wikis become more accurate or less accurate over time? There is an extremely extensive and important article in Wikipedia on the subject entitled, "Reliability of Wikipedia." I am not going to quote the entire article but I will point out that the article concludes that wikis and Wikipedia, in particular, are self-correcting and tend to become more accurate over time. There are currently 249 source citations to the article.

Back to the issue of the genealogical wikis. They are wikis. They will have a tendency to become more complete and more accurate over time. If you want to rant about the changes in the Family Tree, read the above article on the Reliability of Wikipedia and look at every one of the sources before you make a comment about why you would never put "your" information in the Family Tree or any other wiki-based program.

The main issues with changes on Wikipedia revolve around controversial celebrities, political, and religious issues. These are areas of controversy in the Family Tree also, primarily with people who are "famous" or who were significant immigrants or other categories. Dismissing the Family Tree because of change is really putting your faith in a chimera. You could only dismiss a wiki program for accuracy if your own "information" was absolutely correct in all respects and you were entirely unwilling to share your information and you did not want to face the prospect that someone else may have information that is more correct than your own. When I get complaints about rampant changes on the Family Tree as the excuse for not participating, I simply respond that, yes, you do have correct errors, but that over time, the errors and changes diminish as the community comes to a consensus.

Genealogical research is always open-ended. There is always the possibility that one more document, record, or analysis will change an entry. Change is inevitable.

Genealogists are predominantly reclusive and claim ownership of their research and are thereby protective of that research. They are threatened by the possibility that their information may be lost but are frequently unwilling or unable to provide a clear way to share and preserve their information. Many genealogists are in the "I am going to publish a book about my ancestors" mode and some of them actually do publish such a book. Many of those who have published a book have stacks of copies of the book that they are trying to "sell off" to pay for the publication and cannot give away. Of course, not all genealogists fall into all of these categories, but I do not have to go far for examples. Professional genealogists are fixated on protecting their research because of their need to sell the results to make a living. Everything they publish must be tightly controlled and copyright protected and they are fierce in protecting their copyright claims.

All of the people with these attitudes towards genealogical research feel threatened by wiki-based, online family trees. They primarily object to and are threatened by the fact that wikis can be changed when the basic strength of all wikis is the fact that they can be edited and changed. They are also concerned that "their" information will be lost. As a side note, there is a lot of genealogical information out there on paper that needs to be corrected and lost. This fear of loss, however, does not extend to backing up their data or providing for its preservation when they die.

I quote Wikipedia for the same reasons I use the Family Tree. Ultimately, I trust both venues because my experience has led me to trust them. No, they are not perfect, but they can be corrected and ultimately, the information in them both will be preserved and corrected and become unimaginably complete. Like the quote attributed to President Harry S. Truman, "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." I would add and don't rant about the kitchen and those of us who can stand the heat. Our gain -- Your loss.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Jake Shimabukuro at RootsTech Salt Lake City!

RootsTech 2019 has announced another fabulous Keynote Speaker. Quoting, in part, from the announcement, "Jake Shimabukuro, will be the featured keynote speaker at RootsTech 2019 on Saturday, March 2 at 11 AM MST. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear Jake’s inspiring story and listen to this one-of-a-kind ukulele master musician play the instrument like you’ve never heard it before."

Unless you are from Hawaii, you may not be familiar with Jake, but the announcement indicates that his keynote will be very special. Again quoting:
Almost everyone in Hawaii has strummed a ukulele at one time or another. But at the age of 14, Jake Shimabukuro realized that he was doing something a little different with the 4-stringed instrument—OK, a lot different. Shimabukuro’s wholly unique approach to the ukulele started early. As a youngster growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii, Shimabukuro started playing the instrument after learning the basics from his mother, and then developing his craft. 
Shimabukuro’s records have topped the Billboard World Music Charts on numerous occasions, and as a live performer, he has become one of the hottest tickets around. He’s played with renowned orchestras and at prestigious venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, the Lincoln Center, and the Sydney Opera House. 
Shimabukuro is also a proud father of two boys. While balancing his career with family, he also remains firmly rooted in his commitment to community, frequently performing at schools in Hawaii and overseas, urging youngsters to find their passion and live drug-free.

Comments on The Future of Online Family Trees

My friend Tony Proctor wrote a thought-provoking post on his Parallax View blog entitled, "The Future of Online Family Trees." I suggest that you read the entire blog post. Although it takes a somewhat dystopian view of the future of online family trees, I think there are several issues raised that should be carefully considered by those who develop online genealogical family tree websites and those who use their services. However, my views do depart from those in the post in certain respects, especially with regard to the possible very positive future of online family trees.

As Tony points out, there have been many people who have written about the ills of online family trees, including my own efforts, but even considering past comments, this is a topic that has not really been thoroughly discussed or considered. My views on the subject diverge from those propounded by Tony, but it is only through exploring a diversity of views and then deciding a course of action that we can possibly alter the inevitability of a dismal future.

I would begin my own comments by noting that Tony's conclusions about online family trees fail to reflect the reality of the paper-based origin of those trees. The extant condition of online family trees is merely an extension of the pre-existing condition of the multitude of individually created genealogies. In fact, most of the original information on these family trees originated from the incorporation of the information from millions of paper family group sheets and pedigree charts. The failings of the online trees are merely the reflection of and a continuation of the condition of genealogical research since its inception. The main differences between the paper version and the digital versions now online are the visibility of the digital versions vs. the obscurity and privacy of the paper versions. All of the problems and challenges of the individual genealogies that Tony vocalizes have been present for more than a hundred years. If we looked at the issues he raises with the assumption that his observations were being made about paper genealogies, almost all the issues would still be evident.

Genealogical activity, in general, has a checkered past and truthfully, online family trees have not done much at all to improve the general situation. More genealogists should become familiar with the history of genealogy as a pursuit. I have only found one good book on the subject at least in English and it is not as well read or well known as it could be. See

Weil, Fran├žois. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013.

If you do some superficial research and tell someone they are related to royalty, they will believe it without any substantial proof. That fact is at the heart of most of the ills of genealogy.

So what do electronic, digital, online family trees add to the issues of varying degrees of accuracy, historicity, and completeness? Not much really as it pertains to accuracy, historicity, and completeness. The problem of multiple copies of inaccurate information is not unique to digital copies. Long before the internet, for example, my relatives were copying verbatim errors made over 100 years ago in a published genealogy about the predecessors of the Tanner family. Those errors did migrate to the digital venue but now that there exists such a venue, there is a way to communicate to a greater number of people and in many cases, at least for those who are willing to look online, correct the errors of the past. Before online family trees existed, there was no way for me or anyone else to even know about the contents of those paper-based documents. If my cousin had an incorrect entry on his own family group record, how would I even know that fact and further, how could I communicate with him and help him correct the information? In most cases, I did not even know the cousin existed.

Tony does not seem to think that by having a collaborative environment that the product of the interaction between individuals can result in a greater degree of accuracy and completeness. Here is where our opinions diverge. After years of working on the Family Tree, for example, I have seen tremendous strides in the correction of vast amounts of data and the addition of blog post information and narratives and serious evaluations. All of these include write-ups of research and analysis of the problems. Granted, there is a long way to go, but what I am seeing is that the collaborative nature of the Family Tree has provided both a venue and a forum for the possible solution of the very problems so well pointed out and discussed in the blog post.

The comments made in the post seem to include wiki-based family trees in the general category of incomplete and inaccurate collaborative family trees. In the past, I have written a lot about the nature of wikis and whether or not they can produce accurate and complete information. To some extent, because of the success of Wikipedia and other wikis, I think this is a dead issue. There is still some considerable resistance to the use of wikis as a source in academic circles, but time has shown that the information contained in wikis does become more accurate and complete over time. So why should wiki-based online family trees be categorized as a "dead end" to incorporating accurate genealogical information? Granted, there needs to be a certain amount of review and moderation, but that comes with time and the whole genus of online family trees is only in its infancy.

In my opinion, Tony is correct in his assessment of the impact of DNA testing on genealogy. It is certain that DNA tests can assist in reinforcing accurate research but it is also true that absent accurate research, DNA testing a far more limited than it is portrayed in the advertisements and claims made by those who benefit monetarily from those same tests.

Right now, one of the greatest challenges is to enhance the ability of good data to be transferred between family trees and restrict the transmission of garbage. In effect, except for their visibility, I cannot really see any way to improve in the myriad of individual family trees online. In fact, I uniformly ignore them. But were there efficient ways to capture well-developed information, it would help to augment the need for extensive personal research.

One point made by the blog post that most heartedly agrees with is the need for a ranking function for all of the family trees. I have advocated for this for many years. It could be stars or numbers or whatever, but all of the entries in all of the online need some sort of ranking that indicates the degree of accuracy. Some websites do rank their opinion of the usefulness of data sources, but what is needed is a ranking system for individual entries. We have online ranking systems for almost everything from soup to nuts, so why not extend that to genealogical entries. For example, if we had something like the following:

Ranked this entry for
Completeness [up to five stars with one star being low]
Reliability [up to five stars with one star being low]
Accuracy [up to five stars with one star being low]

This would go a long way towards making family trees more reliable and at least give us a consensus of the reliability and completeness of the entries. We could also add a "review" such as "Tell us why you marked this entry with one star" etc. If we can use this system to evaluate purchases online, why not genealogical "purchases" from family trees also?

I am sure that the ranking system would make some people discouraged and hurt feelings and some commercial genealogy websites would probably not want their customers to find out that what they had online was junk and this might be a reason why it will never be implemented, but we can all use our own star system of evaluating what is and what is not a good online family tree. Maybe we could extend our star system to blog posts. In that case, I would be able to give Tony five stars and a good review and if I got enough one-star posts myself, I could finally justify quitting and stop compulsively writing almost every day of my life.

The national and international news has had a lot of references lately to "false news." Isn't the issue of copying false or inaccurate family tree information the same issue? Solve false news and you might be able to solve false family trees.

Tony writes as a part of The Family History Information Standards Organisation (FHISO). I have long been in favor of the goals of this organization. Family History, in general, certainly needs some standards and as applied to online and desktop family history websites and programs, the need is even greater. However, given the recent past, it is unlikely that such standards will be adopted anytime soon. Part of the original discussion involved the use of GEDCOM as a standard method for transferring data between genealogy programs, but the with the advent of the internet and online trees, that problem has escalated to unimaginable proportions. I currently find little, if any, interest in the issues and problems.

Thanks to Tony for bringing up the issue once again.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

How do we find records in an archive?

Maryland State Archives Interior
Every state in the United States of America has some kind of archive or similar repository for state historical records. Of course, the United States has the U.S. National Archives system that includes branch archive locations around the country. For genealogists, these stores of records are a rich source of information about individuals and families. Some of the facilities are modern and well organized, others are more difficult to access. Although there are a number of different names applied to the various state archives, in this post, I will generalize and refer to all such repositories as "archives." I do need to mention that some or all of the functions of an archive may also be included in a state library. For example, in Washington, D.C. you could do research in the National Archives but you would be missing an opportunity if you failed to do research in the Library of Congress.

The Archives Library Information Center (ALIC) of the U.S. National Archives has a list of earch of the state archives with links to their websites. There are also many private and even some commercial archives. Harvard University has a web page entitled, "Library Research Guide for Finding Manuscripts and Archival Collections," that will be a help in locating other archival repositories. The Society of American Archivists also has a web page entitled, "Directory of Corporate Archives in the United States and Canada - Introduction," that has links to privately maintained archives. It is also a good idea to search for archives on the local and state level. For example, I found some important records in the Philadelphia City Archives. You may also be familiar with, if not, you should be. Also, its companion website, Here is a quote from the website.
ArchiveGrid includes over 5 million records describing archival materials, bringing together information about historical documents, personal papers, family histories, and more. With over 1,000 different archival institutions represented, ArchiveGrid helps researchers looking for primary source materials held in archives, libraries, museums and historical societies.
Archives differ from your local public library or even a large university library in certain important ways. Depending on your experience when you go to a library, you might expect to see books and other resources on shelves and you might decided to browse around and look for something intersting. If you go to an archive, and are prepared to do research, you might find an office with few evident resources visible and be lost. There is a real need before going to an archive to find out as much as you can about the facility.

There are some basic methods of approaching an archive that will help in doing research almost anywhere. This post is not a guide to doing research in any particular archive or repository but a general guide to beginning research in any such institution.

Although I often extol the huge amounts of genealogical information online, the reality of almost all the archives in the United States is that only very small percentages of their available records have been digitized and are available online. However, to repeat, it is very important to do your initial research online before taking the time and the money to travel to an archive and spending time onsite. Many archives have ongoing digitization projects and the availability of any given type of record will change over time so you may need to revisit the archive online from time to time.

The obvious first step in finding family records in an archive is to search through the online resources. This can be a difficult task but fortunately some archives have posted online guides including videos that assist in your research. Here is one example from the Maryland State Archives:

How to Use the Maryland State Archives Homepage

You should search in or on the websites of the individual archives to see if there are any similar tools to help with your research. Do not expect to just walk in and do research.

The reality of searching in an archive is that your experience in other archives, while generally helpful, is not going to be specfically helpful. Each archive will have its own procedures, rules, and regulations for access. Also, some archives, particularly private ones, may require a researcher to apply for and obtain a license and even be associated with an academic institution to obtain permission to do research. Some, like the Library of Congress and National Archives, require training before you can even gain access to start to do research. If you would like to see what kind of requirements may be necessary, an example is The Huntington Library guide to Using the Library. Other archives and libraries, such as the Library of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants may require a fee or membership in the Society to do research. Another example is the New England Historic Genealogical Society Library. In this case, you will need to be a member of the Society to have access to all of the records online. Here is a video from the Library explaining how to prepare for a visit. It is also a good example of the kind of preparation you might want to make for any other archive.

Preparing for Your Visit to NEHGS

After you have carefully studied all of the information online about your target archive and searched all of their online resources, you may still want to visit the facility. The web page from the New England Historic Genealogical Society has some excellent guidelines. You may also need to note that not all archives have the same rules about computers, cameras, scanners, and other devices. You need to be very specific in your review of the restrictions and do not rely on a brief phone call to the archive about these restrictions. If you are visiting a government archive, you may also realize you or anything you carry with you may be searched before you are allowed entry.

To practice, you may wish to visit a local library or travel to a nearby university library for the experience of doing research onsite. Many genealogists think about visiting the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah for research and we find that certain percentage of first time visitors are frustrated with the experience because of lack of preparation. The most common situations involve finding out that the records you need are stored offsite and not available for days or longer.

For any visit to a library or archive, you need to develop specific research goals. In fact, you have to know exactly what information you need to discover and also whether the particular archive you are planning to visit has records that might help to answer your specific research questions. Granted, I do go to libraries and archives and simply browse through available records but I do this with a purpose in mind. For example, I went through the entire paper card catalog at the Maryland State Archives, section by section, to determine what kinds of records the archive might have that I was interested in researching.

I hope that if you do decided to raise the intensity level of your research that you will consider working your way through libraries, archives, historical societies, museums, and any other repository of valuable historical and genealogical records. You will absolutely find a whole new world openned to you. If you happen to be in the area of Provo, Utah, please feel free to contact me so I can help you do some research in the Brigham Young University Family History Library, the second largest genealogy library in the world.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Are you due for a Genealogical Tuneup?

As a long time genealogical researcher, I have noticed that I have more than a few "projects" that I have started and not finished. From digitization projects to correcting entries in my family tree, I have created a lot of loose ends. Perhaps it is time that I had a "genealogical tuneup" and got all of my projects back on track to be finished. Ongoing projects, such as writing blog posts and working with people who need help are not included. These projects never go away or get finished. So how do I get started?

I realize that there are probably thousands of books on self-help, organization, and motivation, but I am not out to make money or optimize my career, I am merely working on finishing a few dozen unfinished projects. I started by asking myself what I really wanted to accomplish? I also sat down and made a list on Google Docs of all the things I thought needed to be "done." I decided to tackle the easiest and shortest project first. This would give a sense that I was going to make some progress.

Hmm. My list was no help. All of the things I had listed were long-term projects not likely to be finished before I pass away. In fact, as I thought through my list, everything about my genealogical research is a "long-term" project. None of them are simple and none of them will take a definably short amount of time.

So what am I going to do to tune up my genealogical research effort and all the items on my list of things to do?

Part of the solution is prioritizing those items that I find to be more important. However, another issue is the overall fact that genealogical work, per se, will never be "done." This is not just a statement to avoid finishing projects, it is a basic fact of life. More people are born all the time, many of these people as descendants of my own ancestors. Therefore, my pool of relatives continues to expand. It is also possible that I will be able to extend my ancestral lines. Each generation of ancestors added exponentially adds to my ancestral line and to the potential pool of their descendants.

This situation is analogous to my early introduction into the world of collecting postage stamps. I quickly realized that I would probably never have either the money or the time to collect all the postage stamps in the world, so I did what almost all philatelists do, I specialized my interests. I am finding that I need to do the same thing with my genealogy. I need to focus on those areas of research that I find most interesting and productive. I acknowledge that I will never be done, but I do expect to make a significant amount of progress.

What can I do to tune up my efforts?

One of the major challenges of all genealogists is to maintain a high level of documentation and consistency in their ancestral lines. I will continue to focus on correcting the information I already have in my family tree. Fortunately, I now have a powerful "tune-up" tool to accomplish this task. It called the Consistency Checker. With my family tree on, I now have eight generations of my ancestors that are being searched for consistency Here is a description of the Consistency Checker from a MyHeritage blog post:
The Consistency Checker employs 36 different checks on the family tree data, ranging from the obvious (e.g., a person was born before their parent, or when the parent was too young to be a parent) to the subtle and hard to find (e.g., a person was tagged in a photo and the photo is dated before the person’s birth; or two full siblings were born 5 months apart, which is impossible). Some of the issues it finds are factual mistakes (e.g. wrong birth date entered), some are bad practices (e.g. birth year entered as 22 instead of 1922, or prefix entered as part of the first name instead of in the prefix field), some are warnings about possible data entry errors (e.g. a woman’s married surname was apparently entered as her maiden surname, or a place was entered that looks suspiciously like a date) and some are inconsistencies you may want to fix, such as references to the same place name with two different spellings. Any issue you feel is fine and should intentionally not be addressed can easily be marked to be ignored and will not be reported again.
Using this tool, I can begin the long process of correcting the entries in my family tree and using other MyHeritage tools, I can add sources and correct the data. I can also use this same information to correct the entries on my portion of the Family Tree. 

Of course, all these efforts are never ending but that is the attraction of doing genealogical research, you always have something more to do every time you wake up in the morning. I may be retired, but I will never be unemployed.

MyHeritage LIVE Lectures now free online

MyHeritage LIVE Lectures
Videos of the recent LIVE Conference in Oslo, Norway are now available for free online. You can access the videos here: Webinar Library: MyHeritage LIVE 2018

For a full list of all the sessions, lectures and panels, please see this blog post.

MyHeritage LIVE Lectures