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

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ArchiveGrid includes over 5 million records describing archival materials, bringing together information about historical documents, personal papers, family histories, and more.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

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Comments on Biparental Inheritance of Mitochondrial DNA in Humans
The above article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America has resulted in a major response and may ultimately have a dramatic effect on genetics around the world. Although the article has only been available for a matter of days, here are some of the news stories it has generated since the article was published one day ago on November 26, 2018,

Since the concept that mitochondrial or mtDNA inheritance occurs only through the maternal line is central to genealogical testing and to the theory of mitochondrial Eve, there are likely to be a lot of consequences as these new findings are explored more fully. Stay tuned.

Expanded Commentary on the Rules of Genealogy: Rule Two

Rule Two: Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive.

These Rules of Genealogy are not trivial statements. They have deep meaning. This particular rule, which I have called Rule Two, is a good example. It comes from a common circumstance where a genealogical researcher gets hung up looking for a particular document of a particular event to the exclusion of more general research. My conversation with such an individual goes something like this:

Me: How is your research going these days?
Researcher: I am looking for a death record (or any other type of record) for my Great-great-grandfather and I have been searching for that record for the past [fill in the blank] years without success. 
Me: Do you think he is still alive?
Researcher: Oh, of course not!

Rule Two covers this situation. But the real implication of the rule goes well beyond the obvious facts. There are a lot of reasons why we may not be able to find a particular record. The most common is that you are looking in the wrong place. You may also be searching in the wrong time frame. The type of record you are looking for may not have been kept in the way you suppose at the time the event occurred. The record may have been lost, destroyed, or never created. And so forth and so on. 

Yes, vital records are important historical records, but they may even be inaccurate and in many cases, they may be entirely missing.  For example, in most of the United States, birth and death records were not universally mandated and kept until well into the 20th Century. 

Back to my conversation with the Researcher. My next questions include how do you know the person was alive? Did the person have a spouse and children (or not)? If a person was alive in the past more than 100+ years ago, it is a fair assumption that they died. Do we NEED a record proving they died? Not really. Likewise, you can take the same position with regard to every other particular type of record. Fixating on one type of record is counter-productive. It is really a good idea to have a source for every event, but this does not mean that you need a record that was specifically created to support the particular event in question. Approximate dates and ages are acceptable as long as there are supporting documents that include the time and place the events may have occurred.

This means that if you want to estimate a birth date, you have some other document that shows the age of the person on a particular date, i.e. all census records dates of birth or ages are unreliable but helpful in estimating a birth date. But what if you have an Engish census record that includes the birth date? Is that reliable? Well, maybe. The date was not recorded at or near the time of the original event and may or may not be accurate.

However, Rule Two is not an excuse for sloppy or incomplete research. You can't just cop out and say that a record cannot be found, i.e. the courthouse burned down. When you are doing research you need to have a holistic approach. No record of a person's life is inconsequential. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Libraries and Copyright: Why can we check out library books?

Given the huge controversy about our archaic and convoluted copyright system in the United States, why can we still check out books in our local public and private libraries? First of all, we need to understand that U.S. Copyright Law is mired in 18th Century technology. The concept of imposing limitations on the reproduction of an original work and reserving those rights to the "author" is contained in the U.S. Constitution, however, the Constitutional law has now been extended to a degree never imagined by its originators. The main factor that was well beyond the scope of the original copyright law is the involvement of publishers who essentially control the distribution and sale of authored works and thereby benefit from the publication and only share a relatively small portion of the benefits with the author. Copyrights are property interests and are bought, sold, and rented just like any other item of personal property.

So why can I go to my local public library and check out a book that is still covered by the provisions of copyright law? Further, why are only some "libraries" covered by this exception, if there is one?

The "exception" is called "The First Sale Doctrine." Here is a short explanation of the Doctrine from the American Library Association article, "Copyright for Libraries: First Sale Doctrine."
The “first sale” doctrine (17 U.S.C. § 109(a)) gives the owners of copyrighted works the rights to sell, lend, or share their copies without having to obtain permission or pay fees. The copy becomes like any piece of physical property; you’ve purchased it, you own it. You cannot make copies and sell them—the copyright owner retains those rights. But the physical book is yours. First sale has long been important for libraries, as it allows them to lend books without legal hurdles. (Jenkins, Jennifer. 2014. "Last Sale? Libraries’ Rights In The Digital Age". College & Research Libraries News 75 (2): 69-75.)

Quite simply, first sale is what allows libraries to do what we do – lend books and materials to our patrons, the public.
So, what about digital copies of books or ebooks? Why are there some "libraries" that allow you to borrow an ebook and others do not or can not or will not? First, we need to understand digital rights management. Here is a short explanation from the Textbook and Academic Authors Association article entitled, "E-books, digital rights management, and the first-sale doctrine."
As for the technical strategy to prevent the unauthorized use of e-books, many publishers use what is broadly known as Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM refers to any technological measure that limits the use of a copyrighted electronic media. The most familiar form of DRM is copy protection, which limits the user’s ability to copy, transfer, or otherwise duplicate protected data files. DRM is not limited to preventing unauthorized copying and distribution. Indeed, DRM can be used to enforce essentially any restriction the copyright owner can think of. For example, a free e-book may include DRM that allows copying, but prevents alteration of the data file so that the e-book can only be copied and distributed in its original unaltered form. DRM may permit copies of a protected e-book to reside on a limited number of devices at the same time, or it may restrict use of the e-book to one copy on one device. DRM can also block the user from printing or cutting and pasting from an e-book.
 The First Sale Doctrine is codified in Section 109 of the U.S. Copyright Law which states in part:
109. Limitations on exclusive rights: Effect of transfer of particular copy or phonorecord
(a) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106(3), the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord.
The rest of the section is quite complicated. Does the First Sale Doctrine apply to ebooks online? What about other digital content?

As content was developed online including computer programs, the developers of this content sought to protect their rights. Traditional copyright law did not extend to many of the online circumstances. So, the developers, authors, creators etc. began to develop the concept of a "license." You can click on almost any major website today and you will see a long section of "Terms and Conditions." Many of these licenses blatantly modify and extend the law as it existed before copyright. Suffice it to say, it takes a legal specialist to understand the scope of these software licenses. Most of the restrictions online are now viewed as restrictions on copying and distributing and arise from automatically applied licensing provisions and have little or nothing to do with copyright. It is not unusual for a website to claim "copyright" protection when there actually is none and the only claim that has any legal basis is that of a license. You are asked to affirm your adherence to these licenses when you log in or register on a website.

However, if the "copyright" holder agrees, any content can be made available either for free or behind a paywall. If a copyright holder releases an item to the general public, in most cases, they cannot recapture the more limited rights.

One of the largest online sources for digital information is OverDrive, Inc. Here is a description of the company from Wikipedia:
Rakuten OverDrive, Inc. is an American digital distributor of eBooks, audiobooks, music, and video titles. The company provides secure management, digital rights management and download fulfillment services for publishers, libraries, schools, and retailers. OverDrive's catalog includes more than 2 million digital titles from more than 5,000 publishers. The company's global network includes more than 27,000 libraries and schools. OverDrive was founded in 1986 and is in Cleveland, Ohio.
This is all accomplished through negotiated licensing. At the core of the process is the concept of "One Title-One User" and a Subscription Service.  Here is a further explanation from the OverDrive website:
1. One-Title, One-User
Most closely resembling the model in place for circulation of physical books, under the one-title, one-user model, when a library purchases a single unit of a title to add to its digital collection, a single patron at a time can check out the ebook title for the lending period. If the library purchases two or multiple units of a title, the corresponding number of patrons would be able to check out the title. If a patron seeks to check out a title that is currently checked out by another user, the patron can join a waiting list, and is notified by email when the title has become available (i.e. after the lending period has expired). During the term of your agreement with OverDrive, the library will have access to your ebook materials for as long as the library has an effective agreement with OverDrive for the digital collection platform. OverDrive’s agreements with its library customers for the platform are typically multiyear, auto-renewing agreements. OverDrive will pay you a wholesale cost for every unit sold to the library. 
2. Subscription
OverDrive provides additional sales models for eBook titles under a subscription model which allows for concurrent use of digital content, eliminating wait lists or holds. OverDrive offers an annual subscription plan to library partners called Maximum Access (“MaxAccess”) as well as the Single-Title Simultaneous Use ("STSU") program. The MaxAccess model offers supplier’s digital content under a 12 month subscription; pricing is custom to each supplier based on tiers related to library circulation metrics. MaxAccess subscriptions are publisher specific and are generally
offered in groups of 25, 50, 100, etc. titles with the library selecting the digital content for their subscription. The STSU program offers a single title from supplier's digital content catalog for concurrent use under varying terms (e.g. 3 month, 6 month, 1 year). Similar to MaxAccess pricing is based on tiers related to the size of the library however it is specific to each title as it is based on the sale price for the title. For both MaxAccess and STSU the library pays OverDrive the license fee for concurrent access to their chosen collection of eBook titles or specific eBook titles. OverDrive pays you a wholesale cost based on the price of the collection/title licensed by the library.  
My wife and I have been using OverDrive for years to check out book electronically and read them on our devices.

Over time, the process of providing online resources will likely become ubiquitous but right now, it is extremely complicated. There are large collections of online genealogically important resources but unfortunately, most of these are limited in some way either through a paywall or through other limitations.

A Last Note

Many genealogically important documents and books are available in the "public domain" or have less restrictive licensing arrangements. The collections of these books and other items should continue to increase as time passes, but presently we are embedded in our over restrictive system of distribution.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Can you avoid digital death?

As a genealogist, if you are reading this post, you probably have an online presence. This presence could include information on a family tree website, a Facebook page, a blog, or some other online activity that contains information about you and/or your family. What will happen to your online presence when you die? Will your data live on without you? The answer to both these questions depends on a whole list of factors starting with your own preparations.

Digital inheritance is an extremely complex issue especially when the deceased person had multiple accounts subject to different terms of service. An example of the complexity of the subject is determining the locus of the asset. In the United States, the jurisdiction of the court (i.e. the ability to hear a case) is determined by the place where the property of the decedent is located. If you have your genealogical data on a popular online website, where is the data located for the purpose of probating your estate? You could argue that the data was accessed on the deceased computer so you might be able to obtain jurisdiction over the data by filing a probate action in the court where the deceased resided at the time of death. But that claim could be opposed by an argument that the data resided where it is stored, i.e. the location of the internet server where the information is stored. I can also see this issue being decided based on the terms of the agreement between the deceased and the hosting company.

Let's suppose you have on a website protected by a password. After your death, what would your devisees have to do to obtain access to the website? You will find that every website has a different answer. One place to start is to have digital assets language in your will or trust. You may need a qualified attorney to assist you in adding the language to an existing will or you can instruct your attorney to include the language in any future will. See Sample Will and Power of Attorney Language for Digital Assets for an example of the type of language that would be helpful. One simple help is to include a list of passwords and websites with your testamentary documents.

However, as an attorney that spent years in the probate court of Arizona, I can suggest that any wording in any will or trust is only as helpful as the executor, personal representative, or trustee is reliable and trustworthy. I have seen these fiduciaries totally disregard the wording and the intent of a testamentary document.

The reason why this subject is important is the simple fact that many websites deny access to the data on the website when a person dies or when they get notice of the death of a patron. Unless the genealogist's heirs work expeditiously and rapidly, they will likely be locked out of many websites.

We should all know that websites may not last forever. Some large online database companies have already gone out of business. Even with careful testamentary provisions, data may be lost over time. If the genealogist is incapacitated for a period of time, such as with dementia or other condition, the fact that you provide for your death may not matter by the time you die. The damage to your digital assets may already have taken place through a failure to pay the online subscription charges. In this case, it is better to act earlier than later in putting together a Durable Power of Attorney that may assist a caregiver to maintain existing accounts. Once again, if the caregiver does not have some access to a list of websites and their logins and passwords, all the power the law can provide may be futile.

One good alternative for genealogists is to put all of your information on a free, open, website such as I am still getting complaints from people about the fact that the "information could be changed" but those who make this excuse for avoiding the website either have not used it or do not want to spend the time cleaning up and maintaining the information. I have written extensively on this issue and made sever video presentations that are on the BYU Family History Library YouTube Channel about this issue. If you ignore this option, you simply increase the risk that your work will be lost.

The best way to preserve your genealogical digital heritage is to enlist one or more of your heirs in maintaining your research and data. If, for example, your children are involved in genealogical research, you will have a much greater chance of having your work preserved. Even if your heirs are involved in your research, you still need specific digital provisions in any testamentary document.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Light the World 2018 with Family History

As this post says:
As the holiday season approaches, we look forward to the joy of family gatherings, shared meals, and celebrations. Whether you celebrate with presents under the tree, wooden shoes stuffed with straw, or a bonfire made from dried thorn branches, it is a season of joy and togetherness. 
The Christmas season is an opportune time for breaking down barriers and for connecting with those who lighten our lives or whose lives we can make lighter through helpful service. Whether driven by personal convictions of faith or love for mankind, we choose to light the world.
The post suggests four weeks of activities during the month of December. I suggest a few more.

Suggestion #1:
Take the time to record an oral history of one of your older relatives. From my own personal experience, recording oral histories can be a life-changing experience for you and for the person whose memories you preserve.

Suggestion #2:
Join a genealogical or historical society. No matter where you are in the world, there is likely a genealogy or historical society nearby. I have belonged to several such organizations and still do to some, and found that the association with others with similar interests is beneficial to both you and the society.

Suggestion #3:
Upload some photos, documents, or stories to the website or another great sharing website such as

Suggestion #4:
Write your own personal history and share it with family members.

Suggestion #5:
Volunteer to teach a genealogy class at a local library, care center, or other community organization.

You can probably think of a few more ways to Light the World through genealogy and family history. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Basic Uncertainty of all Historical Research

There has been much written about achieving genealogical proof but in many cases, conclusions that a certain opinion or conclusion is "proof" of its accuracy is unwarranted. Let me take an example from a fairly common occurrence. Let's suppose that a person "A" has grown up in a family and has always assumed that he or she is a biological child of his or her parents. Proof of that relationship is a validly issued birth certificate showing that relationship. Because of the popularity of genealogical DNA testing, "A" takes a test and discovers a person who the test indicates is a sibling. As a result, "A" learns that he or she was adopted. But what about the birth certificate? It has been a common practice in some states in the United States to issue a "corrected" or false birth certificate when a young child is adopted. This practice is currently being widely questioned, but there still exists some number of these altered or corrected birth certificates.

The example of an altered birth certificate illustrates a fundamental issue with historical records, There is always a certain measure of uncertainty in any historical research effort. A genealogist who searches historical records for information about a particular family or person will likely discover contradictory documents which, in some cases, cannot be reconciled. Over the years, I have developed some general guidelines concerning the accuracy of any given record. By the way, it is overly simplistic to rely on the commonly disseminated criteria for determining a document's reliability: i.e. proximity of creation to the event and the ability of the observer of an event to accurately record that event. These sorts of seemingly accurate criteria for judging the reliability of a record ignore the basic causes for inaccuracy: faulty observation, mistakes in recording, and misrepresentation. It is also possible that for any given event no record exists. This brings us to Rule Two of the basic rules of genealogical research which can be restated as follows: absence of a record does not imply that the event did not occur. See "A New Rule Added: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited Again."

Genealogists, irrespective of their level of expertise (which includes me) all base their conclusions on the content of the records they are able to find and review. Of course, this assumes that the genealogist has actually spent some time doing research using historical documents and is not just copying the conclusions of others. Although there is some discussion about making "exhaustive searches," the real issue with this admonition is the determination of who becomes exhausted and when that might occur. For example, I may compile a long list of places and historical record collections I have searched, but when I stop searching is always arbitrary and anyone looking at my list could possibly suggest further searches that could be made.

Another example of the issue is the existence of an ancestor's will. Researchers will often assume that inclusion or exclusion of someone from a will is dispositive of a relationship. If a "wife" is mentioned in a will there is often no way to determine if the wife mentioned was the only wife or the one at the time the person made the will. The accuracy of a will can be based entirely on when the will was made. In the United States, particularly since the mid-1900s, people have been encouraged to write a will many years before their expected death date. It is common that these out-of-date wills end up being used in a probate action even despite the lack of application of the provisions. In the past, it is also common to find that a testator has left children or prior spouses out of a will.

So how does anyone ever come to a conclusion about their ancestry? The real answer is that all genealogical research remains a "work in progress." All conclusions, no matter how firmly entrenched in the genealogist's conclusions, should be viewed as temporary awaiting further information. Some conclusions are not ever likely to be revised. For example, if my ancestor was born in 1850, it is fair to assume that he died. But the actual date of death may be subject to revision. Did you catch the restatement of Rule #2?

It is common for online family trees to include substantial amounts of information that lacks any source citations. This automatically calls into question any of the information recorded including the name of the person. But it is just as common for information to be recorded with only one or very few sources. For example, I commonly find a list of sources but none of the sources provides information about the events recorded even by inference such as listing a birth date with only a marriage record attached that make no mention of a birthdate or age. Genealogists have compensated for a lack of records through a number of "rules of thumb" that estimate birth, marriage, and death dates based on the common practices of the time. But in without reliance on a source, these should always be subject to revision.

Another common practice is to estimate a birth date given the date of a church christening. I often find documents that show that a person's christening took place when the person was older and not an infant. In one case recently, I found all the children in a large family christened on the same date.

There should be nothing about this discussion that discourages a researcher from relying on apparently accurate records. But it is important to always remember that the names, dates, and places you have recorded in your genealogical compilation may be subject to revision. Also, opinions and conclusions about events and relationships may differ between equally experienced researchers.

DNA appears to be the ultimate solution to any of these uncertainty issues, but careful, DNA testing, especially for genealogical purposes is based on statistical probability, not absolutes. Close family relationships can be determined with a high degree of accuracy, but the accuracy and reliability decrease with the distance of the relationship asserted. As my first example about birth certificates illustrates, DNA is one more tool for determining relationships but DNA testing will not replace searching historical records.

What about accepting the conclusions of experts? One example is the huge amount of research that has been done by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants or more commonly the Mayflower Society. The Mayflower Society has spent many years and apparently a huge amount of time and money research the descendants of the passengers of the Mayflower. In cases like this, it is very unlikely that a casual researcher is going to encounter any more documentation than has already been found and printed in the Society's books and other publications. But it is possible that an experienced and persistent researcher could dispute one or more entries. But for most purposes, if you find that there is extensive documentation and take the time to understand the conclusions derived from that documentation, you can safely rely on the conclusions. What you should not do is rely on conclusions where the researcher refuses to provide documentation.

MyHeritage Black Friday DNA Sale

Enjoy the lowest price EVER on MyHeritage DNA — ONLY $49! 
This is the perfect opportunity to share this offer with your family and friends, who can discover their ethnic origins and find new relatives. Buy as many kits as you want for ONLY US $49 each! They make truly unique holiday gifts.
USA: Enjoy free shipping on all orders with promo code: FREE18.
Non-USA: Enjoy free shipping on orders of 2+ DNA kits.
MyHeritage DNA kits make the perfect gift for everyone on your list. Hurry up and order now before the sale ends!
Offer expires on November 23, 2018 at 11:59 pm.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Wisconsin: State Archives: Wonderful Local Sources for Genealogical Research
One of my daughters and one of my sons-in-law attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison for graduate school and I also have a sister and her family that live there. I also remember almost freezing to death one winter in Madison waiting for my daughter. So I have some connection to Wisconsin, but it seems like I should spend more time online looking at the resources from each of the Archives. Wait a minute. That is exactly what I am doing. Here is my look at the Wisconsin resources.

The Wisconsin Historical Society is the umbrella organization for the following divisions:
  • The Division of Library, Archives and Museum Collections
  • The Division of Museums and Historic Sites
  • The State Historic Preservation Office
  • The Office of Programs and Outreach
Here is a description from the Wikipedia article, "Wisconsin Historical Society."
The Division of Library-Archives collects and maintains books and documents about the history of Wisconsin, the United States, and Canada. The society's library and archives, which together serve as the library of American history for the University of Wisconsin–Madison, contain nearly four million items, making the society's collection the largest in the world dedicated exclusively to North American history. The Wisconsin Historical Society's extensive newspaper collection is the second largest in the United States after the Library of Congress. 
The society's archives also serve as the official repository for state and local government records. The society coordinates an Area Research Center Network, an alliance between the Historical Society in Madison and four-year campuses of the University of Wisconsin System throughout the state, to make most of the archival collections accessible to state residents.
The Division of Museums and Historic Sites operates the Wisconsin Historical Museum in downtown Madison and 11 historic sites throughout the state. The museum has an archaeology program in collaboration with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Natural Resources that undertakes research, and collects and preserves historical artifacts. The other historic sites are tourist attractions that display historic buildings reflecting Wisconsin history and provide exhibitions and demonstrations of state history, such as ethnic settlement, mining, farming, fur trading, transportation, and pioneering life. 
The Wisconsin Historical Society is located on 814 State Street, Madison, Wisconsin. This location contains the following records:
The headquarters building contains the Society's Library and Archives as well as the offices of most Society programs. Our librarians and archivists are ready to help you enjoy the largest collection of published and unpublished materials documenting the history of North America outside of the Library of Congress. Learn more about our visitor amenities
This is a photo of the Reading Room.

By James Steakley - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Many of the Archives around the United States feature specific resources for genealogists. The Wisconsin Historical Society has this section:
The Wisconsin Historical Society is among the top five institutions for genealogy research in the United States. Quoting in part, their collections contain "nearly every type of genealogical resource can be found - from vital records to military records, to passenger lists, to census records." Plus, their "4,000-title newspaper collection is second only to the Library of Congress." The "collections span the entire United States and Canada and are an invaluable resource for connecting your family's heritage." For a more complete overview see "Family History Collections Overview."

The Society also has twelve different historic sites and museums that are free to visitors.
The Wisconsin Historical Society website has a directory of over 400 local societies and museums.

Genealogists should take note that every one of these societies and museums may have information that is valuable to your research. If you are doing research in Wisconsin, it looks like to me that you have enough resources to last for many years.

But before you get in your car or take an airplane to Wisconsin, you should explore their online resources. You can find links to the collections on the "Explore Our Collections" page. In addition, it always a good idea to explore the holdings of all of the large online genealogy database websites and do an intensive online search for additional resources. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Where are all the genealogy ebooks?

During the past few years, there has been a considerable amount of discussion about the future of paper-based books in light of the development of digitized copies of existing books commonly called ebooks and the fact that a percentage of newly published books are being published only in digital editions. The discussions centered around the future of libraries, bookstores, and all others involved in the traditional book trade. However, the latest statistics on book sales are inconclusive about the future of paper-based books with some statistics that indicate e-book sales are declining and people are returning to printed books. See "Real books are back. E-book sales plunge nearly 20%"

I am certainly a proponent of digital books, especially for research purposes. It is absolutely easier to use a digital book that can be searched word by word than relying on an incomplete index or no index at all in a paper-based book. From the standpoint of doing genealogical research, the issue of digital vs. paper is irrelevant because of an extremely small market for either format. Most of the books that have genealogical research value are either old or of very limited print runs. For example, most of the "surname books" or books about a particular family or individual and his or her descendants or ancestors have perhaps a dozen or less than fifty copies printed. When these books find their way into a library, the library may have the only copy publically available. Even genealogy trade books have very small print runs. Almost all the books I have collected about genealogy over the years are out-of-print and will probably never be reprinted.

The fact that these genealogically valuable books are essentially "rare" makes finding them and using the information contained in the books very difficult. I recently found a reference to a book that apparently was in manuscript format and the only copy was in a library in Florida. I tried to obtain the book through Interlibrary Loan, but the library refused to send the book because they had the only known copy. Fortunately, I found a friend who knew someone who had access to the book and I was able to get the few pages I was interested in sent me as digital images. If that book had been digitized and made available online, I could have been spared the time and necessity of working through a network of researchers to find out whether or not the book was useful. In most cases, the existence of such a book would be well beyond the research resources of anyone who did not have direct access to that library in Florida.

But even supposing that a book is digitized, there is still a huge issue of how to find the book and gain access to the book. A paper book sitting on a shelf in a library somewhere in the world may be accessible but only if you can find the book in the library and only if you can physically travel to the place where the book is located. You might assume that digitizing a book makes it more accessible, but there are a number of barriers that prevent this from happening.

The first barriers to finding and accessing the information in ebooks are the arcane and overly restrictive United States Copyright laws. Unless a book is published as an ebook, there is no incentive for an author to reprint a book as an ebook unless they can maintain the same level of restrictions. Because the genealogy market is so specialized, there are few avenues for authors to publicize their books, so even if the author chooses to publish an ebook, there is little expectation of a high sales volume. In many instances, university libraries turn out the be one of the biggest customers. Libraries provide ebooks to those who have their library cards, but the most common ebook supplier,, does not include more than a small handful of genealogically related ebooks to their inventory.

It is ironic that you can go to a large library, such as the one I live near, the Brigham Young University Harold B. Lee Library, and find thousands of paper-based, valuable genealogy related books on the shelves and as a non-student, none of them are available to me as ebooks.

Of course, the question that needs to be asked is whether or not there are any genealogically related ebooks at all? The answer is yes, there are hundreds of thousands available and they are concentrated in five major websites.

So where are the genealogically related ebooks? presently has an online collection of 372,477 ebooks. But not all of these are readily available. Here is an example of one of the warning messages that come up if you click on a restricted book:

Unfortunately, there are no readily available instructions about how you go about obtaining sufficient rights to view the item. If the "book cannot be viewed online due to copyright restrictions" then why have the book listed in the online catalog at all as an ebook? What is the point? It appears that the actual number of ebooks that are readily available in considerably less than the number claimed to be digitized and online. There are some readily available books, but you may become frustrated with the restrictions. I am going to write a followup post about how to find all these books.

The next online source for genealogically related ebooks is obvious: Google does not publish the numbers of publically available books and determining the number genealogically significant books is probably impossible. Notwithstanding the huge collection of books on Google, they are divided into the following categories as summarized by Wikipedia: Google Books:
The four access levels used on Google Books are:
  • Full view: Books in the public domain are available for "full view" and can be downloaded for free. In-print books acquired through the Partner Program are also available for full view if the publisher has given permission, although this is rare.
  • Preview: For in-print books where permission has been granted, the number of viewable pages is limited to a "preview" set by a variety of access restrictions and security measures, some based on user-tracking. Usually, the publisher can set the percentage of the book available for preview. Users are restricted from copying, downloading or printing book previews. A watermark reading "Copyrighted material" appears at the bottom of pages. All books acquired through the Partner Program are available for preview.
  • Snippet view: A 'snippet view' – two to three lines of text surrounding the queried search term – is displayed in cases where Google does not have permission of the copyright owner to display a preview. This could be because Google cannot identify the owner or the owner declined permission. If a search term appears many times in a book, Google displays no more than three snippets, thus preventing the user from viewing too much of the book. Also, Google does not display any snippets for certain reference books, such as dictionaries, where the display of even snippets can harm the market for the work. Google maintains that no permission is required under copyright law to display the snippet view.
  • No preview: Google also displays search results for books that have not been digitized. As these books have not been scanned, their text is not searchable and only the metadata information such as the title, author, publisher, number of pages, ISBN, subject and copyright information, and in some cases, a table of contents and book summary is available. In effect, this is similar to an online library card catalog.
Once again, you might get frustrated when you search for an ebook and you find that the ebook you want is in one of the 3 out of the 4 restricted categories.

Moving on, we find an online treasure: With 19,379,045 total ebooks and texts, is the far ahead of even the closest competitor and of these 18,547,866 books and other resources are readily available and 672,961 are available to borrow online for up to two weeks. Here is the largest library you probably have access to from your home without any particular restrictions other than logging into the website. How many of these are genealogically significant? Tens of thousands. Why are all these readily available online? What happened to copyright? Nearly all of the items made available on are in the public domain. No copyright restrictions. Why is this significant for genealogists? Because we like old stuff.

What can we do for an encore? How about Well, according to their catalog, they have 447,870 books and publications on their website which are all completely searchable. But is a subscription website. But you could go to a Family History Center and use their institutional version of the program.

Where do we go next? The However, even though this website is free online and currently has 16,797,545 total volumes, most of this collection is restricted to those associated with participating universities but 6,310,561 volumes are in the public domain and can be read and searched online.

Well, other than bumping up against copyright restrictions all the time, you can probably see that there are a huge number of possible genealogically significant books and other digitized texts online. Stay tuned for the next post about how to find all this stuff.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Traveling Home

Utah Valley
During the past year, my wife and I have been serving a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have been writing about our mission experience on my blog, Rejoice, and be exceeding glad... You can find all of the nearly 100 posts by searching for "a family history mission james tanner." We have been serving as Document Preservation Specialists for FamilySearch digitizing documents at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, Maryland.

However, the end of our mission is now approaching rapidly. During the next few days, we will be packing and saying our goodbyes to Annapolis and people we have been working with. We will spend some time visiting family as we travel back across the United States to Utah. As usual, when we are traveling, I will be writing only intermittently depending on time for writing and internet connections. 

We are grateful for the opportunity we had to serve in Annapolis, Maryland and will be looking forward to further service in Utah as we arrive home.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Veterans Records the Target of Reclaim The Records FOI Lawsuit

Here is a quote from Reclaim The Records about their most recent lawsuit to obtain publically available and free US records. I think the whole announcement has some interesting implications for genealogists so I am reproducing the entire statement with all the links.
"Happy Veterans Day, from Reclaim The Records. We're that non-profit organization that likes to (1) identify important historical and genealogical data sets that aren't widely available, (2) request and acquire copies under Freedom of Information laws (sometimes by suing government agencies, if necessary), and (3) publish it all online, for totally free public use, no strings attached. After all, our taxes already paid for the data; why should we have to pay yet again?"
"Today we're announcing that we've launched yet another lawsuit against a government agency that didn't want to turn over public data to the public. It's our very first federal-level Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, as opposed to the various state-level FOI laws we've been using since 2015."
"We're going after another government database that ought to be freely available to the public, but isn't. We're asking the US Department of Veterans Affairs to provide the first free public copy of the Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) Death File."
"This database contains basic information on about fourteen million deceased American veterans who served in the US military and then later received benefits from the VA, such as healthcare or the GI Bill, between approximately 1850-2017. Each record includes the veteran's dates of birth and death, dates of enlistment and release, and branch of service. Some years have a little more information available than others, including the veteran's basic cause of death (i.e. natural or combat-related), gender, and possibly other fields."
"This database is a boon not only to genealogists researching our family members' military service, but also to historians, sociologists, health care researchers, and many other groups. Everyone listed in the database is deceased, so the privacy concerns are minimal. But the information is currently not available on any free website, not even through the main US government open data portal, It's not searchable, and certainly not downloadable."
"Instead, there's only one place on the whole Internet that has access to this important information about American veterans: (Well, and, but that website is now owned by Ancestry, like so much of the genealogy world these days.) And when we asked the VA for a copy of the BIRLS file, they replied that even though they agreed that they had provided a copy to Ancestry a few years ago, the VA didn't want to provide a copy to us, too."
"It's so weird how that "preferential treatment" thing keeps happening, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯"
And so, in a move that will likely not surprise anybody, we sued the government to get the records. We filed Reclaim the Records et al v. United States Department of Veterans Affairs in US District Court, Southern District of New York, on September 17, 2018. It's case number 18-CV-8449, if you want to follow along from home through PACER."
"Three weeks later, on October 10, 2018, the VA suddenly responded to our attorney, but not in a formal lawsuit response. They instead produced a letterthat was conveniently dated (backdated?) September 13, 2018, which was four days before our lawsuit had been filed. No explanation was given by the VA as to why they had not produced this letter prior to our suing them. 🤔"
"This letter says that the VA had suddenly remanded our request to their FOIA Officer for "further consideration, appropriate processing, and the issuance of a subsequent IAD"😏"
"And that sounds promising. So...stay tuned."
"In the meantime, in case you missed it, check out a recent in-depth new article from the senior editor at BuzzFeed News (and fellow genealogy nerd) Katie Notopoulos, covering our Freedom of Information lawsuit against the New York State Department of Health.
(Well, one of our lawsuits against the New York State Department of Health, anyway; we actually have two lawsuits running against that agency right now. But that's a story for another time...)"
"We'll just close by saying that if you support our work to bring public records back to the public, we would really appreciate your financial support, too. We want to fight more government agencies for the return of more public records, but we need your help to do that. We're a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and it's public donations that fund our work and our lawsuits, not expensive annual subscriptions to websites that sell you back your own data."

Monday, November 12, 2018

Looking Forward to RootsTech 2019

Looking forward to #RootsTech 2019, I have heard that hotel accommodations are at a premium close to the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah but there are a lot of options. Many of the local hotels run shuttle services between the hotel and places in Salt Lake City. One we have used many times is the Chrystal Inn Hotel and Suites on 230 W 500 S. but you can also look at the local TRAX line. The TRAX stops right across the street from the Salt Palace. Here are a map and link to the TRAX.
The TRAX line is free in the downtown area, but there is a reasonable charge from the airport and other locations in the Salt Lake Valley. It also connects to the FrontRunner, the train that runs from Provo to Ogden and stops at locations in Salt Lake City.

There is also a somewhat new feature on Google. You can search for a specific business or attraction anyplace and get a long list. For example, if you search for hotels in Salt Lake City, Utah you get a list like this:

By expanding the view, you can see the entire list and filter the results by free parking, WiFi, breakfast and other choices.

From my extensive experience in traveling around the country, I know that the price they put on the ad may not be available for the time and date you need, but the price in Google gives you an indication of what you might have to pay but be prepared to pay more.  By matching the TRAX map to the hotels, you can see which ones would be convenient to travel to the Salt Palace. If the hotel looks like it is within walking distance of the Salt Palace, you need to remember that Salt Lake City blocks are really long and the city is at a high altitude. Remember to ask if they have a shuttle and how long it is available.

We usually stay with family right in the Valley and then drive the short trip to downtown each day, but we have commuted from Provo and that works. You just need to be aware of the schedules for each of the lines. Salt Lake City has a fairly good public transportation system, but it also winter and it might be bad weather.

There are hundreds of places to eat in downtown Salt Lake City. You can use Google to locate ones within walking distance of the Salt Palace.

Parking downtown is really limited and expensive if you aren't used to paying for parking. I can say from experience that it is a lot less expensive and more available than Washington, D.C. or Annapolis, Maryland.

As I have written in the past, the Salt Palace involves a lot of walking. You should wear very comfortable shoes and forget fashion. I went out an bought a pair after my first RootsTech experience.

The weather can be very nice but cold or very bad and very cold so plan accordingly. Snow is possible almost any day in February.

I hope to see as many of you as possible, look for me mostly at The Family History Guide booth.

Dallas Public Library Teams with FamilySearch to Digitize Genealogy Collections

FamilySearch International has recently announced an expansion to their online Books Collection. Here is a copy of the announcement:
The Dallas Public Library is working with FamilySearch International, the largest genealogical organization in the world, to digitize the library’s extensive family history book collection. The initiative will expand free online patron access worldwide to the library’s historical records digitized. Search FamilySearch's Historical Book Collections
“The Dallas Public Library has a long relationship with FamilySearch through microfilming Dallas County records in the 1990s,” said Dallas Public Library Director Jo Giudice. “We’re excited to take the next step in scanning books with the FamilySearch team.”  
Digitizing this collection will give researchers from around the world unprecedented access to rare and one-of-a kind family histories. Dallas Public Library’s family history book collection is a small part of the library’s genealogy collection, considered one of the largest and most comprehensive collections for family history research in the Southwest. The family history book collection will be scanned by FamilySearch volunteers. It contains more than 16,000 volumes of material donated over a 60-year period. The first records digitized will be rare family history books printed before 1923.  
“Dallas Public Library has been a top 5 genealogy library in the U.S. for many years. Partnering with them on the scanning initiative is going to benefit so many family historians far and wide,” said David E. Rencher, director of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.  
The Book Collection ( presently contains 372,477 digitized books. Some of these books are downloadable. However, some are also restricted to viewing either in a Family History Center or only in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The books must be searched through the books collection, they are not searchable in the Historical Records Collection section of The books may also be found in the Catalog. There are links from the books found in the Catalog to the digitized book itself.