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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Look into Genealogical Source Evaluation: Let's Get Real

When I was very young, we used to have books of trading stamps. There were several varieties, but S and H Green Stamps were the most common. The idea persists today with the bar code cards many people carry around to obtain discounts from various merchants. We dutifully produce our bar code card although we aren't quite sure if we are getting anything in return. The difference with Green Stamps was that you could fill books of stamps and redeem them for actual products in S and H Green Stamp redemption locations or by mail.

Well, I think genealogy, in some cases, has become a game of pasting names into a book to get some, usually only partially defined, benefit such as "connecting with our ancestors" or whatever. Don't get me wrong, there are real, fundamentally important reasons for researching our ancestors, but there is a level of genealogical activity that is more interested in filling in the blank spaces then deriving any real value from what is produced. How do we get away from the Green Stamp approach to genealogy? May I suggest that a significant step will be to begin critically examining the information we acquire.

Unlike the generic nature of the trading stamp, our ancestors are not identical items to be pasted into an album or booklet. The real significance of the research comes at the point when you begin to realize that these were real people with real challenges and some significant problems. This realization only comes when you move beyond the superficial collection stage (aka the U.S. Census stage) and start to view your ancestors in their place in the vast sweep of history. In fact, it might be a good idea to start with your own place in history.

I can certainly work at the collection level in genealogy but I also know when I have moved past being a collector into considering the reality of the people I am researching. I think this change comes when I stop looking at my ancestors as blank spots on a fan chart and start asking questions about how much I know about their lives and their circumstances. Perhaps, we all need to spend more time thinking about our ancestor's lives as real people. I can treat genealogy like a puzzle where I look for pieces that fill in the gaps, or I can think of my ancestors as people who lived and died with all the experiences in between where my job becomes understanding and documenting their story.

How do I know this is an issue? When I am asked by researchers how many sources are needed for each person in their family tree.

I spent most of my life being paid to essentially do research. The underlying motivation of all this research was to prove that my clients were right and another attorney's clients were wrong. Of course, the opposing attorney was trying to prove the exact opposite. Some genealogists treat their research as if they were trying to prove a point and as I have written many time before, they adopt a whole hierarchy of levels of ways to "evaluate" the "evidence" and prove their conclusions. Generally, they also have clients that they are trying to represent. When I first started to get really serious about genealogy, I too thought about representing clients and getting paid for my research. But after a very few experiences in "representing clients" I realized that the concept of advocacy in genealogy defeated the ultimate interests in discovering the past.

Every historical document tells a story. If we get caught up in the legalistic evaluation of documents as primary and secondary, original or derivative, direct or indirect, then we a caught in the paradigm that at some point we are going to prevail and prove that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong. Maybe, we should look at documents as individual stories, some are more reliable than others, but each tells us something about the people we are researching. Maybe we will never know the "full story" but we can gather everything we can and come to our own conclusions. But if we ignore this crucial step of critical evaluation, we are shunted back to the level of collectors filling in empty spaces on a chart.

It was interesting to me that after many years of conducting initial client interviews, I could tell rather quickly whether or not my potential client was telling me the truth. What was interesting, especially early on with criminal cases, was that after representing hundreds of criminal defendants, I only had two that I could remember who actually were telling me the truth and in one of those cases, my client was trying to lie to me. I distinctly remember one civil jury trial where I suddenly realized that my client was lying, the opposing client was lying and the opposing attorney was lying. I felt sorry for the jury.

Let's look at a specific issue genealogical issue from the Family Tree for an example of critically examining the documents. Here is an individual I have been researching lately. I used part of this same family as an example in my last post.

You can see that he was supposed to be born in "Wellwood Corners, Mexico, New York" and an exact date is recorded. Let's look at the sources so far.

All of these sources except the Legacy NFS source were added by me. How do we know when James J. Wellwood was born? Well, the 1900 U.S. Federal Census document says that he was born in December of 1810. The 1850 U.S. Federal Census document indicates he was born about 1813. The entry indicates that his birth date is unknown. Lastly, the Legacy new.FamilySearch (NFS) source says that family records give a birth date of 8 November 1811 in Mexico, Oswego, New York.

When and where was he born? The real answer at this point is we don't know. Does this matter? Did James J. Wellwood or Welwood really live? Does the fact that the website has a photo of his grave marker make any difference? Where do we go from here? Here is what the 1900 U.S. Federal Census has to say.

Here is the actual Census record.

It might help to know that there is a place called Wellwood in New York and that there is note in the entry as follows: "Wellwood, also known as South Mexico, was named in honor of James Wellwood who settled there in 1838." From here the plot thickens as they say. Actually, the first Wellwood in the area was likely named John who arrived with his wife Esther Tanner Wellwood in Mexico, New York in 1838 from Rhode Island. The 1900 U.S. Census shows that some one said that James's father was born in England and his mother was born in Connecticut. John Wellwood, James's father is recorded as being born in New York and his mother as being born in Rhode Island.

OK, this is enough to illustrate my point. If I were just copying out the entries from these various "sources" it should be apparent that the family dates and identities would be an unsolvable mess. Somewhere in this mess, there is something reliable, but right now, a lot more research needs to be done. Could we fill in our stamp book with the names and dates we already have? Yes, we could but we are very, very likely wrong about most, if not all of the details and we are still not sure who these people were. Although we may never resolve some of the differences in dates, we can get to the point where we know about this family in a way that makes them distinctive individuals.

Let's get real in our research.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tell Us Where You Got the Information

It looks like it is time to get going about genealogical sources again. Here is my definition of a genealogical source.
The place or person from whence the information was obtained
A source is not a citation. Here is one definition of a citation.
More precisely, a citation is an abbreviated alphanumeric expression embedded in the body of an intellectual work that denotes an entry in the bibliographic references section of the work for the purpose of acknowledging the relevance of the works of others to the topic of discussion at the spot where the citation appears. See Wikipedia: Citation.
We often use the phrase, "cite your sources" to indicate that when you obtain information from somewhere, it is proper to let others know where the information came from. If we use some form of specific information without attributing the source, we are plagiarizing the source. When I quote someone or something, I indent the quotation and then provide a citation or a link to the original statement or source.

I am not concerned here about the "form of citation" used by genealogists. Most genealogists are not academically educated scholars and they are not writing for formal publication in a genealogical journal. Neither are they providing a professional proof statement to a client. But everyone obtains their information from somewhere even it is personal experience and we are entitled to know where they got their information.

There is a measure of discussion among some genealogists about what is and what is not a proper "source." We get into quasi-legalistic arguments over primary and secondary sources and all such nonsense. The truth is that the artificial distinction between a "primary" source and a "secondary" source has been created to try and resolve the problem that all historical sources, no matter how they are derived, are subject to scrutiny and could be unreliable. Just because someone was there when an event occurred and recorded their impressions does not mean what they wrote or said was reliable. It is always possible that any particular witness to an event is lying.

Why do we need to know where historical information came from? There are entire books written on this subject. Some genealogists in their zeal to provide "accurate" information tell people not to reveal their sources if the source was unreliable. For example, I have heard more than once that a certain type of record, such as a Family Group Record created by a family member or an index is unreliable and "should not be used as a source." Hmm. Personally, I would rather have you tell me you got your information from your aunt or from an index than not. The real problem is when information is entered and no mention is made of where that particular information was obtained.

Here is an example from the Family Tree.

Here, Sarah Remington is listed as having been married to two men, both with the same surname. The first entry is to a C. Wellwood and the second entry is to a James J. Wellwood.  The first entry has an approximate marriage date and place, the second entry has no information about the marriage. Someone added the first entry and entered the information about the marriage but left no source information. So far, I have been able to document and cite the second marriage to James J. Wellwood with several sources. But I have yet to find even one reference to a marriage to C. Wellwood. If the person had simply told me that they copied the information from a Family Group Record, that would help me to evaluate the accuracy of the information. I don't really care at this point whether the person provided me with an academically acceptable citation according the Chicago Manual of Style, I would just like to know where the information came from with enough detail to find the source.

Absent this source information, I have to spend my time trying to discover where the information came from and whether or not it is reliable. Even if the said they copied the marriage off of a gum wrapper that would at least give me an idea where to start.

So let's get over this idea that we should exclude any source references at all simply because we judge them to be unreliable. Let's stop telling people that such and such is "not a source" and should not be included in a list of sources. If they got the information from from someplace we would consider to be unreliable we can disregard it. But it is always better to know than not know.

But what about conflicting information? Wow, this is a loaded question. Let's not omit anything for the reason that we personally disagree with the content.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Is that website down right now?

I was doing what I usually do all day and into the night, writing a presentation or a blog post or whatever and I tried to access Here is what I got:

My reaction to this type of message is automatic. I try to log in again by retyping the URL. I got the same results. I tried again to make sure. Most of this was done so automatically, I did not really think about it. Then I opened where I have a link to and tried the link. Nothing happened. My next step was also automatic, but I had started thinking that maybe the website was really down.

I did a quick online Google search to see if my inability to connect was local or general. There are websites that watch that sort of thing. One is "Is It Down Right Now?" Here is a screenshot of the report.

Yes, the website had been down for about 33 minutes. What do I do then? Start doing something else, of course.

By the way, it came up in about two more minutes of waiting.

The Family History Guide looking for Sponsorships

The Family History Guide has become extremely popular since it was incorporated in the Portal and made available in all of the world-wide Family History Centers. Because I immediately saw the value of the website, I have been involved in its promotion since very early in its development. The Family History Guide has been incorporated as low-profit limited liability company or L3C. The L3C is legal form of business entity in the United States that was created to bridge the gap between non-profit and for-profit investing by providing a structure that facilitates investments in socially beneficial, for-profit ventures by simplifying compliance with Internal Revenue Service rules for program-related investments, a type of investment that private foundations are allowed to make. Quoting from the Wikipedia article on Low-profit limited liability companies:
The L3C is designed to make it easier for socially oriented businesses to attract investments from foundations and additional money from private investors.[8]Unlike the traditional LLC, the L3C’s articles of organization are required by law to mirror the federal tax standards for program-related investing. [9] A program-related investment (PRI) is one way in which foundations can satisfy their obligation under the Tax Reform Act of 1969 to distribute at least 5% of their assets every year for charitable purposes.[7] While foundations usually meet this requirement through grants, investments in L3Cs and charities that qualify as PRIs can also fulfill the requirement while allowing the foundations to receive a return.[10]
In short, The Family History Guide is now actively seeking sponsorships. Quoting from a recent notice sent to me,
This is your special invitation … to help thousands of people around the world find and connect with their family roots, and have your logo and website link placed on tens of thousands of desktops, tablets and other devices in over 140 countries! 
Let me introduce myself - I'm Bob Ives, COO and co-founder of The Family History Guide, L3C. We are a low-profit company dedicated to one mission: to greatly increase the number of people actively involved in family history worldwide, and to make everyone’s family history journey easier, more efficient, and more rewarding. Family history involvement builds a stronger sense of identity, culture, and history, and we are proud to be at the forefront of building this involvement worldwide. We have no paid employees and are staffed with volunteers who share our vision. We accomplish our mission by providing a free website, The Family History Guide
with a unique just-in-time learning model that is revolutionizing how people find and connect to their roots.

In keeping with our mission statement, we have no advertising on our website. Still, we have ongoing business expenses that must be met. To address these needs, we are introducing our Sponsorship Campaign, which enables individuals, companies and organizations to donate to this important cause, as well as benefit from PRI's (Program-Related Investments) and tax incentives such as advertising deductions.
To explain how this will work, here is a listed description of the process, again from the notice sent to me.
The Family History Guide is
  • A free website visited by people in over 140 countries.
  • On the main Family Search portal page in over 4,800 Family History Centers and libraries, on over 10,000 desktops and thousands more personal computers worldwide.
  • A semi-finalist in the RootsTech 2016 Innovator Showdown.
  • Used for training family history consultants at the BYU Family History Library, the Riverton, Utah Family History Library, and many other libraries across the U.S.
  • A partner with Family Search, the largest free family history company in the world, and part of the Family Search App Gallery.
  • Part of an L3C company that qualifies to receive PRI's from foundations and other organizations.
  • A website where your logo may qualify as an advertising expenditure for your organization, company, or foundation.
  • A company of all volunteers who do not receive compensation for their time or expenses.
How you can get involved and help this worldwide effort 
You or your organization can help us reach our goal of continuing to provide a free website that enables more people, worldwide, to succeed in family history. Your donation will receive special recognition on the The Family History Guide website: your logo will be prominently displayed and directly linked back to you, plus other benefits depending upon your participation level. 
Become an individual donor, partner or sponsor with The Family History Guide today! 
Click here to get started.
I do not usually get directly involved in fundraising efforts, but in this case, I am making an exception because of the inherent value of this free program.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Using Smart Technology to Jump-Start Your Genealogical Research: Part Two

Automated Record Hints

One of the most impressive, new genealogical technologies to emerge in the last few years has been the advent of automated searches that provide extensive record hints matching the individuals in your online family tree with original sources. Included in this expansive technology is the ability to suggest connections with others that share the same ancestors in their own family trees. All four of the large, online genealogical database programs have implemented this new technology and even extended it to some of their subsidiary websites.

This rapidly developing technology has revolutionized the process of finding information about ancestral families for many users, particularly those with families from the United States, the British Isles and Canada. As the technology develops and more and more of the records are included in the automated searches, the process will become even more valuable to the genealogical researcher. In may cases today, especially for those whose more recent ancestors lived in the United States, sources are found identifying relatives back about 150 to 200 years with great accuracy.

This outstanding technology began with record hints from called the "Shaky Leaf Hints." Significant, ground-breaking improvements to the accuracy and coverage of the technology were implemented by and subsequently, the other websites increased both the incidence and accuracy of their own record hints. The technology is not always 100% accurate and does take some level of evaluation by the user, but by and large it has measurably increased the overall accuracy of the content of the online family trees.

The essential ingredient to facilitate this new technology is that the user enter some basic information into an online family tree associated with each website. Acceptance of the record hints has been dependent on the level of sophistication of the users. Many of the users of the websites have failed to add the sources to their own entries even though they are automatically provided and the process of adding the sources is relatively simple. There is also a significant level of resistance to the idea of maintaining more than one database, so if the user has a family tree in one program, there is a level of resistance in establishing another family tree in another program.

Another rather interesting issue with the implementation of the record hints is the surprising and mistaken impression that many people seem to have that all of the large online, genealogical database programs have the same records. Each of the websites has its own unique records. Of course, the basic limiting factor of the record hint technology is that it only works with indexed records and each of the websites is limited to the records on the website. Fortunately for the researcher, the number of indexed records is increasing extremely rapidly.

The method of marking the existence of a record hint varies with each of the websites. Here are some screenshots showing the various markers in each of the programs with an arrow indicating the icon indicating a record hint.

The way the record hints are handled by each of the programs varies, but the principle is the same. The program suggests a record hint and the user is then called upon to evaluate the suggested source and attach it with the new information or individuals to the user's online family tree in that particular program. The one remaining challenge is the ability to adequately move the information found from one family tree to one in another program. There are a few possibilities but by and large source must be copies one at a time and the information added to the target family tree. The user has to learn each of the methods of attaching and utilizing the information found for each website.

In some cases, the number of record hints can be overwhelming but this only points out the fact that the technology is advancing rapidly and the amount of information being made available is impressive.

Here is the previous post in this series.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Researching Beyond Census Records

It is so simple and reassuring to find someone in a U.S. Census record. Between 1850 and 1940, it is almost a given that anyone in the U.S. can be found with a minimum of effort. Oh, you say, until you can't find them. Well, I found my Great-Uncle Allen Benedict Tanner and his family in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census by the simple expediency of reading through every page of the Census record in the small community of Beaver, Beaver, Utah. By the way, there are only 36 pages in that particular enumeration district, so it only took a few minutes to find the family.

The problem is that when you can't find your family in the U.S. Census where do you go? What do you do? What if you also strike out with searches on and I should mention that when I tried to search on after I found the record by looking at every page, I did a search for "Allen B Tanner" in Beaver, Beaver, Utah and the search engine failed to find him or his family. So had I not already found him through the page by page search, I might have come to the conclusion that "he wasn't in the 1880 U.S. Census." This points out another important rule: always search the original records when they are available.

In short, doing genealogical research is a lot more than census searches and finding a family in the U.S. Census is sometimes a lot more than a census search also. Did I mention that I found my Grandfather in the 1920 U.S. Census when he was indexed as "Tamer" rather than "Tanner?"

The suggestion here is that there are lots of records about your ancestors other than just those in the U.S. Census. For example, Allen Benedict Tanner has twenty sources attached and I know that the number is only a fraction of the total number of places this particular Tanner family is mentioned in records. Just looking down the list already in the Family Tree, I could add in about three times that many sources if I had the time and inclination. But you say, so what? Who cares? And what difference does it make if there is one source or fifty?

Genealogical research is not a numbers game. We are not out to set some kind of record for adding sources to a family. There are no extra points for each source added. So why not stop with the one U.S. Census record or so that establishes the family and leave it at that?

By the way, this is a serious question and one that is posed to me regularly. I am regularly asked "How many sources is enough to add to someone in the Family Tree." My answer is always the same, "All of them." Just yesterday, I was getting frustrated with not being able to find a certain family in either or I did a general Google search and found an extensive biography of the father of the family with a long list of sources.

Is there a specific place to go if you cannot find an individual ancestor or family in the U.S. Census? Not really. The general rule is begin your search with marriage records as they are the most reliably recorded type of record. I eventually found yesterday's difficult family in cemetery records. I might also point out that you aren't through searching until you have looked at every type of record listed in the Research Wiki and the Catalog. I mean every single type of record listed. But usually, you can focus on church records or civil records to find most families.

When things get tough, the tough get going.

Friday, August 26, 2016

How accurate are historical records?

A recent local news article caught my eye, "Roy woman struggling to prove she's alive after government declares her dead." This story highlights a common problem faced by genealogists: conflicting source records. The Utah woman in the article has been fighting with the U.S. Government for over two years when the Social Security Administration reported her dead and her bank and other entities began to close accounts and try to collect for overpayment.

From the genealogical standpoint, we commonly find names misspelled, dates incorrectly recorded, people wrongly identified and myriad of other errors that cannot be corrected and must be dealt with. The list of possible errors also involves simple issues such as the transposition of numbers in dates to the intentional understatement or overstatement of ages. It is also not too uncommon to find where record keepers were faced with or created outright lies.

One of the most common issues and iconic for genealogists, is the fact that Census records are routinely off at least one year in the estimated age and birth date of the people listed. This is caused by the fact that the Census records are officially calculated from the "date of the census" which may affect the calculation of the age or birth date due to the actual date of birth being either before or after the official census date.

Are you bothered by the inconsistency in the records? Do you ignore the fact that the records are inconsistent and adopt one record as the "correct" source or can you live with the inconsistency? Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have said, in part, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds..." Perhaps, we need to try to avoid foolish consistency and realize that historical records can be contradictory.

Let's suppose that you find that a newspaper obituary and the grave marker disagree on the date of death. What do you do? Is there really any possibility or controversy as in the news article above, that the person is really dead? If not, then from a genealogical standpoint, what is the issue? One of the most important aspects of any form of historical research is to increase the breadth of our searches along with the depth. In the case I just cited, if the death date is crucial to identifying the right individual or for some other reason, then the answer is to do more research and find the will or the probate case in the court records. But if the actual date does not matter then why spend time trying to fight with inconsistency?

Too many times, I find people who are obsessed with finding a particular date. I have one friend who has spent a huge amount of time trying to find a death date and place for a relative. Perhaps it is time to realize that he is dead and get on with other research. It is always possible that the date and place of death were never recorded for some reason such as the fact that he was lost at sea or wandered off into the desert or mountains and died.

This whole issue points out the need for research that includes more sources than just one. There is wisdom in the admonition that in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established. See 1 Timothy 5:19.