Sep 16, 2011

Meme: The Tech-Savvy Genealogist

I'm still working on an FGS conference wrap-up post, but this meme was easy to finish. It was started by Geniaus, then expanded on the Transylvanian Dutch Blog, and already posted on several genealogy blogs I read.

The list is annotated in the following manner:
Things I've already done or found: bold face type
Things I'd like to do or find: italicized red type
Things I haven’t done or found and don’t care to: plain strike through type

Which of these apply?
1. Own an Android or Windows tablet or an iPad [I want a TouchPad; then eventually an iPad3]
2. Use a tablet or iPad for genealogy related purposes
3. Use a Kindle, Nook, or other e-reader for genealogy related purposes
4. Have used Skype or Google Video Chat to for genealogy purposes
5. Have used a camera to capture images in a library/archives/ancestor's home
6. Use a genealogy software program on your computer to manage your family tree
7. Use multiple genealogy software programs because they each have different functionalities.
8. Have a Twitter account [but I don't use it]
9. Tweet daily
10. Have a genealogy blog
11. Have more than one genealogy blog [I have enough trouble updating just one]
12. Have lectured/presented to a genealogy group on a technology topic
13. Currently an active member of Genealogy Wise [I'm a member, it just seems redundant, with Google+, Facebook, ...]
14. Have a Facebook Account
15. Have connected with genealogists via Facebook
16. Maintain a genealogy related Facebook Page
17. Maintain a blog or website for a genealogy society
18. Have submitted text corrections online to Ancestry, Trove or a similar site
19. Have added content to a Person Page on Fold3 (formerly Footnote)
20. Have registered a domain name
21. Post regularly to Google+
22. Have participated in a genealogy-related Google+ hangout
23. Have a blog listed on Geneabloggers
24. Have a blog listed on Cyndi's List
25. Have transcribed/indexed records for FamilySearch or a similar project
26. Have converted a family audiotape to digital
27. Have converted a family videotape to digital
28. Have converted family movies pre-dating videotape to digital. [my family has no films that old]
29. Own a Flip-Pal or hand-held scanner [I brought a flatbed scanner on my roadtrip]
30. Can code a webpage in .html
31. Can code a webpage in .html using Notepad (or any other text-only software)
32. Can write scripts for your webpage in at least one programming language
33. Can write scripts for your webpage in multiple programming languages
34. Own a smartphone
35. Have a personal subscription to one or more paid genealogy databases
36. Have a local library card that offers you home access to online databases, and you use that access.
37. Use a digital voice recorder to record genealogy lectures
38. Have contributed to a genealogy blog carnival
39. Have hosted a genealogy blog carnival
40. Use an Internet Browser that didn’t come installed on your computer
41. Have participated in a genealogy webinar
42. Have taken a DNA test for genealogy purposes
43. Have a personal genealogy website
44. Have found mention of an ancestor in an online newspaper archive
45. Have tweeted during a genealogy lecture
46. Have tweeted during a family reunion
47. Have scanned your hardcopy genealogy files
48. Use an RSS Reader to follow genealogy news and blogs
49. Have uploaded a gedcom file to a site like Geni, MyHeritage or Ancestry
50. Own a netbook [I already have a laptop and smartphone; I'd rather use a tablet]
51. Use a computer/tablet/smartphone to take genealogy lecture notes
52. Have a profile on LinkedIn that mentions your genealogy habit [maybe if I ever work as a genealogist]
53. Have developed a genealogy software program, app or widget
54. Have listened to a genealogy podcast online
55. Have downloaded genealogy podcasts for later listening
56. Backup your files to a portable hard drive
57. Have a copy of your genealogy files stored offsite
58. Know about RootsTech [I was at the inaugural RootsTech!]
59. Have listened to a BlogTalk radio session about genealogy
60. Use Dropbox, SugarSync or other service to save documents in the cloud
61. Schedule regular email backups [Google does it for me]
62. Have contributed to the FamilySearch Wiki
63. Have scanned and tagged your genealogy photographs
64. Have published a genealogy book in an online/digital format [someday]
65. Brought a USB device to a microfilm repository so you could download instead of print. [my first choice, if possible]
66. Have a wearable USB device containing important files. (Watch, keychain necklace, etc) [that's what pockets are for]
67. Created a map on Google Maps plotting ancestral homes or businesses.
68. Recorded the GPS coordinates for a tombstone, or ancestral home
69. Edited the Wikipedia entry for an ancestor, or their kin
70. Created an entry at FindAGrave for a person
71. Created an entry at FindAGrave for a cemetery
72. Uploaded the MediaWiki software (or TikiWiki, or PhpWiki) to your family website.
73. Have downloaded a video (for genealogical purposes) from YouTube or other streaming video site using KeepVid.com, or in some other fashion
74. Have transferred a video from a DVR to your computer for genealogical purposes
75. Have participated in a ScanFest
76. Have started a Genealogy-related meme at least one other geneablogger participated in.
77. Have started a Genealogy-related weekly blogging theme other geneabloggers participated in.
78. Have used Photoshop (or other editing software) to ‘clean up’ an old family photo
79. Done digital scrapbooking [I'm not exactly sure what qualifies as scrapbooking]
80. Printed out a satellite photo from Google Maps of a cemetery, and marked where a tombstone was located on it.

To sum up, yes, I am a nerd.

Sep 9, 2011

FGS Mid-Conference Report

This is my second major genealogy conference, after RootsTech. It's got a different feel to it, but still a great experience. I'm actually meeting people at this conference, for two reasons. The first day of sessions didn't interest me much. They were geared towards people who are officers or otherwise very active in a genealogical society. I am a member of a couple, but don't participate often, since I don't live very close to their events. So instead, I volunteered at the conference, and met several other volunteers. Also, last night, I went to the bloggers' get together, and met some of the bloggers I follow, in real life. Now they know my secret identity, which truthfully isn't a big secret, I just choose to blog pseudonymously.

The day before, I took advantage of a conference discount, and toured the Abraham Lincoln Museum. It's pretty new, and it showed. Besides lots of artifacts related to Lincoln's life and the Civil War, it had multimedia presentations, which reminded me of the so-called "4D" movies at Sea World or Disney Land. They had a documentary video projected onto three large screens, while smaller screens in front of them came down from the ceiling at certain points to create a 3D effect, highlighting different documents or photos. The main screens were also pulled up at times, to reveal silhouettes of log cabins, trees, etc. in the background. Besides surround sound, when there was a storm during the movie, fans or air compressors blew "wind" in the theater, and lights flickered to simulate lightning, for added effect. It's definitely enough to hold the attention of children, or people who aren't history nerds like me. Overall, the museum was very interesting. The only strange thing is the presence of a Subway restaurant, within the museum. On the tour map, between the listing of exhibits, one of the sections of the building is labeled SUBWAY®. Kind of tacky if you ask me, but I guess the museum needs to raise funds somehow. Later today, I'm going on a behind-the-scenes tour of the associated Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library (not to be confused with Springfield's public library, called the Lincoln Library).

That night, FGS held an "Old Fashioned Prairie Social." It was just dessert, so I ate beforehand, which turned out to be a huge mistake. Although ice cream, cake, and candy don't make for a very nutritious dinner, I probably had two meals' worth of calories. Abe and Mary (Todd) Lincoln impersonators were in attendance, and many people dressed up in old-fashioned costumes. There were also some fun activities planned; I was on a winning Genea-Jeopardy team.

You've got to love any conference where the Archivist of the United States (AOTUS)–essentially the top librarian in the federal government–is treated like a rock star. Several people went up to have their picture taken with him before his keynote address. If I had any interest in being a high-ranking political appointee, that's the job I'd want. An ambassadorship may sound like a good gig, because I love to travel, but that would involve wearing a tux far too often.

I went to four sessions yesterday, all very good. First was a session on common surnames, since I have Davis, Martin, and Harris among my ancestors. That's nothing compared to well-known professional genealogist, Thomas Jones, who presented a case-study of finding the parents of one of his ancestors named Charles Jones. There were dozens listed in the counties where he lived, and his wife was Jane (Jones) Jones! It took more than ten years to sort them all out. I don't know if I have that kind of patience. None of his strategies were really new to me, but the depth and breadth of his research was impressive. I haven't come anywhere close to exhausting the possible avenues of research on my ancestors with common surnames.

The second session was on immigrant cluster communities, by Lisa Alzo. She's a specialist in Eastern Europe research, so I've read several of her articles before, for ways to research my Polish ancestors. Her talk involved the town where she grew up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which had a large Slovak population. It easily resonated with me, because Minnesota has several towns, or neighborhoods within cities, that still have palpable ethnic influence, which I've blogged about before. The main thing I got from her talk, is that I really need to join some of the ethnic genealogical societies affiliated with the Minnesota Genealogical Society. She also gave some ideas for creating virtual cluster communities, to collaborate with others researching the same village or ethnicity. I think I might try something like that.

The next session was also on immigrants–how to find their origin in US records, by David Ouimette. He's an Irish research consultant at the Family History Library, and people often come in wanting to dive straight into the Irish records, when usually they haven't done the necessary research on this side of the pond yet. He gave a ton of examples how many different records can be used to find the origin of our immigrant ancestors. It gave me some ideas I can use for some of my ancestors; all I know is the country where they were born. And again, he also stressed the value of joining an ethnic genealogical society. These two sessions really hammered that point home. I need to stop procrastinating and just join some of them.

The last session I attended was another by Thomas Jones. It was filled to capacity; I almost didn't get a seat. He titled it "Going Beyond the Bare Bones" and literally talked about fleshing out stories about our ancestors that go further than just listing names, dates, and places. I haven't yet written much of my genealogy, but I'm approaching the point where I'm about ready to write some family history to share with relatives. I've already started to mentally outline what I know about specific ancestors I have enough to write on. With some, I have plenty of details, from numerous records and oral history from older relatives who remember them, or at least stories about them. Some of the best examples he shared came from letters. They can help get to know their personality. I need to reach out to more of my distant relatives, and newly found ones, to find any letters that may have been passed down.

Sep 5, 2011

FGS 2011

I've been seriously delinquent in my blogging. Hopefully, I'll have some time in the near future to complete some of the many substantive posts in draft and keep this thing going.

In the mean time, I'm in Springfield, Illinois, for the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) 2011 conference. I know there will be several genealogy bloggers at the conference (both official and otherwise), so I hope to meet many of them in person.

Jul 16, 2011

Trash Talk-1850s Style & All the News That's Fit to Print

I spent a few hours at the Stearns History Museum, reading 19th century newspapers on microfilm. My third great grandfather, Isaac Parks (1820-1894), opened up a brickyard in St Cloud, Minnesota in 1858 with a business partner, George Dunton. So far, I've gone through various St Cloud newspapers from 1858 to mid-1860, but to no avail. There are plenty of ads for different kinds of stores, attorneys, surveyors/engineers, carpenters, a mason/plasterer, and lime and other construction materials. If there was a need for a mason and lime, there must've been bricks, but apparently they didn't advertise much. I did find Isaac's death notice in The Avalanche newspaper from Sauk Centre, Minnesota, but it didn't provide any new information.

However, in the process of skimming the newspapers, I ran across several amusing articles. My favorite was a snippet from a Pennsylvania newspaper, announcing a hunter had killed a 140 lb deer. The subsequent trash-talking commentary is hilarious:1
We're justifiably proud of our deer in Minnesota–they're generally bigger than deer in other parts of the country.

The second story was kind of sad [but I didn't think to scan it]. Some conjoined twin girls (Siamese twins) were kidnapped from their family, and literally sold from one freak show to another. Eventually, they were reunited with their mother, and she was offered $50,000 to give up her daughters. Not a small sum of money in those days, but the mother didn't budge and the family was back together for good. At least it had a happy ending.

Finally, you may recall the Jackass cast member who killed himself and his passenger last month, driving over 130 MPH while drunk.2 One hundred fifty one years prior, this article shows people have always found ways to kill themselves when being careless:3
I think that would qualify for a Darwin Award, had they been around in 1860. But a larger point can be taken from this: newspapers have always printed sensational stories to attract readership. The old cliche, "if it bleeds, it leads," has been true for a long time. Radio, TV, and other media today have merely followed the same trend.

1. "Deer Hunting," St Cloud Democrat, St Cloud, Minnesota, 25 November 1858, page 2, column 6; microfilm, Minnesota Historical Society, St Paul, Minnesota.
2. Alan Duke, "Police: 'Jackass' star Ryan Dunn was drunk and driving over 132 mph," CNN, West Goshen, Pennsylvania, 22 June 2011 (http://articles.cnn.com/2011-06-22/entertainment/ryan.dunn.drunk_1_fiery-crash-jackass-star-car-crash : accessed 16 July 2011).
3. "Cut Off His Own Head," St Cloud Democrat, St Cloud, Minnesota, 23 August 1860, page 3, column 1;
microfilm, Minnesota Historical Society, St Paul, Minnesota.

Saturday Night Genealogy Fun: My Heritage Pie Chart

I've been seriously procrastinating about blogging lately. There are several posts in various stages of draft, but none I'm ready to publish. Randy Seaver has a good idea for "Saturday Night Genealogy Fun." Create a pie chart based on the birthplaces of our great-great-grandparents. I should probably brainstorm more ideas like this to write quick, easy blog posts, but mine usually end up as novels.

His list is very detailed, including the exact dates and places of birth, marriage, and death. I'm going to take a couple shortcuts, since I don't know those for some of my ancestors. I'll just list the years, and as close of a place as I know. But I'm going to up the ante, so to say, on the chart. A few of my great-great-grandparents were born in America, which says little about their "heritage." As a result, I'm going to create charts based on birthplace and ethnicity.

Plus, I'm not a big fan of the software he and some of the prior bloggers used to create the charts. They're simple, static graphs, and not very high resolution. I think it's geared more towards children (it is hosted on a website called Kids' Zone). Instead, I'll continue using the spreadsheet on Google Docs to create nice, interactive SVG charts.

Here are my great-great-grandparents (in alphabetical order):
  • Frederick Otto Behrend, born 1850 in Germany, died 1931 in Sauk Rapids, Benton county, Minnesota, USA. German.
  • Johanna Berqvist, born 1841 in Spjutstorp, Tomelilla, Scania, Sweden, died 1920 in Sauk Rapids, Benton county, Minnesota, USA. Swedish.
  • George Burtram Callahan, born 1862 in Marion county, Indiana, USA, died 1940 in Grey Eagle, Todd county, Minnesota, USA. Father Irish and English; mother Welsh, Irish, English, and Scottish.
  • Edward William Click, born 1853 probably in USA?, died 1913 in Elmdale township, Morrison county, Minnesota, USA. Parents unknown, ethnicity unknown.
  • Jacob Cziok, born 1853 in Poland, died 1924 in Sauk Rapids, Benton county, Minnesota, USA. Polish.
  • Isabella Hannah Harris, born 1865 in Eagle Lake, Blue Earth county, Minnesota, USA, died 1951 in Grey Eagle, Todd county, Minnesota, USA. Father English and Irish; mother English and Danish.
  • Wilhelmina Hill, born 1854 in Germany, died 1928 in St Cloud, Stearns county, Minnesota, USA. German.
  • Amalie Christiane Friederike Koerber, born 1840 in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, died 1919 in Russell, Russell county, Kansas, USA. German.
  • Ole Nels Lagergren, born 1837 in Lunnarp, Tomelilla, Scania, Sweden, died 1918 in Sauk Rapids, Benton county, Minnesota, USA. Swedish.
  • Ludwig Matschulatis, born 1853 in Warglitten a Hohenstein, Osterode, Königsberg, East Prussia, Prussia (now Warlity Wielkie, Ostróda, Ostróda, Warmia-Masuria, Poland), died 1938 in Sauk Rapids, Benton county, Minnesota, USA. Father Prussian (Sudovian or Old Prussian) and Polish, mother Polish.
  • Wilhelmina Carolina Mittelstaedt, born 1843 in Posen, Prussia (now Poznań, Greater Poland, Poland), died 1903 in Bass Lake, Starke county, Indiana, USA. German.
  • Margaret Rebella Parks, born 1861 in St Cloud, Stearns county, Minnesota, USA, died 1940 in Upsala, Morrison county, Minnesota, USA. Father English; mother Irish.
  • Anna Rehberg, born 1853 in East Prussia, Prussia (now Warmia-Masuria, Poland), died 1910 in Sauk Rapids, Benton county, Minnesota, USA. Father German, mother Polish.
  • Gottliebe Sontopski, born 1855 in Poland, died 1919 in Mayhew Lake township, Benton county, Minnesota, USA. Polish.
  • August Stein, born 1845 in Gailsbach, Schwabisch Hall, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, died 1912 in Russell, Russell county, Kansas, USA. German.
  • August Ferdinand Wobith, born 1843 in Pyritz, Pomerania, Prussia (now Pyrzyce, West Pomerania, Poland), died 1922 in Wanatah, LaPorte county, Indiana, USA. Pomeranian (probably mixed Germanic and Slavic).
The chart based on the country where they were born, as it was known at the time, isn't very interesting. Of my 16 great-great-grandparents, ten were born in Prussia, which no longer exists.

Of those ten, six were born in what is now Poland, and four in present-day Germany.

What's more interesting to me is their ethnicity, based on as far back as the ancestors on those lines have been traced at present.

So what's all this mean? I'm a complete mutt, and 100% American.

Jun 22, 2011

Callahans in Benton County

A while back, I was browsing through a history of Benton county, Minnesota, where many of my ancestors lived. On a listing of county officials from 1912, I ran across the name of W. B. Callahan. It immediately piqued my interest, because that's a surname of my ancestors, and there weren't many Irish in Benton county, let alone Callahans. There were a few Callahans across the Mississippi River in Stearns county, from St Cloud and St Wendel. But since at least 1997, no Callahans have lived in Benton county (or at least none are listed in any telephone or other public directory). I didn't recognize the initials W. B. as one of my relatives, so I copied down the information for further research.

Later, while researching at the Benton County Historical Society, I found his obituary and his mother's death certificate. His parents were recent immigrants from Ireland, so we aren't related. I can trace my Callahan ancestors back to Indiana in the 19th century, and Kentucky in the late-18th century. However, this Callahan led an eventful life. He had been the county sheriff for eight years, a probate judge for 18 years, and fire chief for 35 years. I've since found his signature on several probate records for my relatives. But the most interesting detail to me, is one sentence in the middle of his obituary:
"He also was regarded as the first man to own an automobile in Benton county."1 I suppose back then that was quite a big deal. It was deemed important enough by the newspaper to set apart from the rest of the text and print the whole sentence in boldface. I want my obituary to say I was the first person to own a flying car in my county. But alas, I don't think our Jetsons future will be here anytime soon, at least not during my lifetime.

So why am I posting about an unrelated man who died more than 60 years ago? One of the reasons I started a blog was so relatives searching for information on our ancestors might find my blog, and contact me. I'm more than willing to share what I've found on unrelated people too. Since there were few people with the surname Callahan in central Minnesota, I make copies of everything I find, including some who might not be related. (That wouldn't work for some of the more common German surnames. There are simply too many.) I visited the St Cloud Public Library for a few hours one day and scanned every obituary of possible relatives from microfilm–it was less than 200. A few turned out to be completely unrelated; more were relatives of people who married into my extended family. But the majority of obituaries were indeed relatives.

1. W. B. Callahan obituary, Benton County News, Foley, Minnesota, 10 November 1948.

Scientific vs. Traditional Genealogy

Update: If you're following this discussion at all, you have to read Michael Hait's article on the subject. He also has a second, shorter post on it.

I haven't posted in a while, because I was "camping" for a couple weeks. Catching up on my blog reading, I found a new controversy in the genealogy blogosphere. Never a dull moment...

It all started in the comments to Randy Seaver's Saturday Night Genealogy Fun. The activity was to post your "most recent unknown ancestor." Dutch genealogy blogger and computer scientist, Tamura Jones, replied with a comment that could be literally true in many cases, but somewhat insensitive:
The scientific genealogy truth is simple: for most of you, your most recent unknown ancestors are your parents.
Another commenter was offended, and the discussion became a bit heated. So Randy wrote a separate blog post Monday with his own thoughts on the issue. As usual, Randy's response was measured and thoughtful; he could see the merit to both sides of the argument. Then yesterday, he allowed Jones to guest post on his blog, further explaining the purported distinction between scientific and traditional genealogy.

I've read many of Jones' articles distinguishing between biological, official, and legal genealogy. (Start here, here, here, and here. They have links to other related articles.) He tends to be a bit blunt, but his articles are always interesting, and often very thought provoking. It's good to take a step back every once in a while and think about what it is we're actually doing in genealogy–a philosophy of genealogy, if you will. But just as few scientists spend much time contemplating the philosophy of science, these genealogical distinctions aren't important to every genealogist (the same goes for practitioners in many fields).

First, even with modern DNA tests, it's still impossible to definitively prove any relationship. Two men may share the exact value on every Y-DNA marker tested, but all it means is they probably share a paternal ancestor. Based on the test alone, they're just as likely to be father-son, uncle-nephew, grandfather-grandson, paternal fifth cousins, etc. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is even more problematic. It's less useful than Y-DNA since maternal surnames typically change every generation. And because mtDNA changes so infrequently, large numbers of people can match without sharing a common ancestor in thousands of years.

An autosomal DNA test of over 1 million SNPs can reduce the likelihood of non-parentage to infinitesimal odds, e.g. 1 in a billion or more, but they're still just odds (and that's without considering the possibility of identical twins, who have the same DNA). Plus, the usefulness of autosomal DNA is reduced each generation further back. After about five or six generations, we're just as likely to inherit DNA as not from any individual ancestor. This raises another distinction between genealogies I don't see on Jones' website (he may have written about it somewhere, I can't claim to have made a reasonably exhaustive search).

There's a difference between our genetic family tree and our genealogical family tree. The latter includes all of our ancestors, but our genetic family tree doesn't include each individual ancestor. It certainly includes one or two of our family lines straight back for about as far as they go, because of the unique qualities of the Y chromosome (in men only) and mitochondrial DNA. Unlike the rest of our DNA, sections of these don't recombine, so they're passed down virtually unchanged for hundreds or thousands of years. However, the remaining DNA does recombine every generation, so we don't inherit any detectable DNA from some of our ancestors after only a few generations. And to top it off, it would be almost impossible to determine how much of our DNA came from which ancestor, unless there were multiple, surviving relatives from every single branch, and they were all tested.

Second, official and biological genealogy track each other pretty closely. The rule of thumb derived from various genetic studies is about a 2-5% rate of non-paternal events (NPEs) per generation. So at the highest estimate, 1 out of 20 "official" paternal relationships is possibly incorrect. The overwhelming majority are the same as what's written on the birth certificate. Besides, while the identity of the father can sometimes be called into question, it would be rather difficult to fake motherhood. There are usually several witnesses to a child's birth: parents, grandparents, doctors, midwives, nurses, etc. And those are just the people physically present in the delivery and waiting rooms. Plenty of other family, friends, and neighbors saw the pregnant woman before she left for the hospital, and came back with a baby. Barring the exceedingly rare case when the baby is switched at the hospital, the parentage of most children is a known fact.

Third, biological family isn't the only type of relationship researched by genealogists. There are several adoptees in my extended family. We may not be related by blood, but I consider them just as much family as my other relatives. (Of course, there are times I'd rather not admit I'm related to certain blood relatives.) It's quite possible some people who've researched their family history got it all wrong (biologically), because of an unknown adoption or other NPE. While biology is undoubtedly important to how we turn out, the people who raise us also pass down cultural and social values.  To most genealogists, the people they know as their parents and grandparents are the ones whose ancestry they're interested in. I know some adopted genealogists who research both their biological and adopted families. And I know of at least one genealogist who knows they're adopted, but isn't interested in their biological family. To each their own.

Finally, in his guest post on Randy's blog, Jones made this bold statement:
We have a scientific basis for genealogy that enables us to leave traditional genealogy behind.
That's simply not true. I'm a major enthusiast regarding genetic genealogy, and I can imagine even more uses for it in the future. But a DNA test is merely another tool in the kit for genealogists. It can't replace traditional methodology, only supplement it. Earlier, I wrote that a Y-DNA test alone gives no indication what the relationship between two men would be, only that they're paternally related. It's only in conjunction with other sources that we can determine the actual relationship.

Ultimately, the title I gave this post is a misnomer. Scientific and traditional genealogy aren't at odds, they're two aspects with lots of overlap. There are probably some traditional genealogical practices that are outdated and unnecessary. For my own research, I try to skip the whole paper step, and go straight to digital (I've got enough mess without printouts of all my genealogical data). On the other hand, many people have thoroughly researched, well-documented family trees that could be considered "scientific" genealogy in every sense, without ever taking a DNA test. I think the distinction should be more about the methodological rigor than the particular set of tools used in the process.

May 31, 2011

Book Review: Genealogy as Pastime and Profession

Genealogy as Pastime and Profession, Second EditionI first heard about Donald Lines Jacobus and this book in a footnote to a blog post earlier this year, by Thomas MacEntee. He made an analogy to the Great Awakenings in American history, with the work of Jacobus as the first one for genealogy. Being new to the literature of professional genealogists, I looked it up. It sounded like an interesting book, so I added it my Amazon wishlist, to read someday. Later, I found a copy in the public library, and skimmed through it. It seemed even more compelling up close, so I checked it out. Now that I've finished it, I'm glad I didn't wait.

Most of the book is just as relevant today as when he first published it in 1930. The methodology of genealogical research and analysis hasn't really changed all that much. Although a wide variety of resources, instantly available at our fingertips online, have made research easier and more accessible today, the principles remain the same.

Only two sections of the book seem antiquated from today's vantage point. One is a rather quaint discussion of writing family history aimed for publication.1 Publishing has undergone such a radical transformation in the last few years that books about it from just ten years ago are obsolete and seem ancient today. Now, anyone with an internet connection could write and publish a professional-looking book from home, printed on-demand by one of several publishing firms.

The other is his chapter on Genealogy and Eugenics.2 As historians, we must remain disinterested in the subject at hand. If we're reading the book as history (both as a source of primary information about genealogical practices of the period, and secondary information on the sources and case studies included), we must remember the view he represents was widely accepted at the time. Recall the infamous statement of otherwise revered supreme court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."3 However, it's difficult to stay objective with repulsive paragraphs like this:
By learning how nature works, and by utilizing human reason in the deliberate application of natural laws, the process of elimination of the unfit can be hastened, and needless suffering reduced to a minimum. Experience with plant and animal breeding proves that the program of eugenics is definitely within the realm of the possible. The kindest way to eliminate the unfit, and thus raise the average of human efficiency, is to prevent the reproduction of the unfit when the family history clearly indicates that most of the progeny are almost certain to be defective.4
It wasn't until the horrors of the Nazi regime were uncovered, which had taken both positive and negative eugenics to their logical conclusion, that this pseudo-scientific movement began to lose support. Unfortunately, its application didn't end right away in America. That the chapter was even included in the 1968 edition shows the movement still existed–indeed, there are still remnants in contemporary society. Other places in the book have minor updates or added explanatory notes, but there are none in this chapter. Let its continued inclusion serve as a grim reminder and warning.

On a lighter note, there's much in the book still useful for the beginning or intermediate genealogist. As a specialist in New England research, the case studies and sources he discusses are mostly from that area. I've only recently begun seriously researching my colonial ancestors, so many of the examples he used were new to me, or revealing about information I've already found.

To summarize his advice on the use of published family histories: don't take them at face value. There might be lots of useful data, but it's important to have a critical eye. They're likely to be most accurate for a couple generations prior to those living at the time it was written. He even mentioned a specific work I'd already found on some of my ancestors. What Jacobus calls a "magnificent history of the Henry Whitney family" nonetheless included a falsified pedigree of the progenitor from another source, uncritically accepted as fact.5 (I already knew the purported English ancestry in the book was based on a fraudulent genealogy, but only because I read the front matter.6 There aren't any notes within the text itself to alert readers of this fact.)

Not only does the book offer good advice on research, analysis, and writing, but it's an enjoyable read. I particularly liked this humorous explanation for why ages in the census can often be wrong:
Do not feel upset if inconsistencies or errors are occasionally encountered. If you obtain a listing of the family in both 1850 and 1860, you may find that your granny's age increased less than ten years during the decade, for that is a woman's privilege.7
Aside from one minor, but not insignificant flaw, this book is still a valuable resource. I didn't even touch on many of the subjects covered by the book. Besides the aforementioned topics, there are useful sections on Puritan society, naming practices, royalty, the profession of genealogy, more on using sources, estimating the number of descendants, and a good explanation of the switch to the Gregorian calendar. It's only 120 pages long, divided into bite-size chapters, so it can easily be read in a weekend. I think I could get even more utility out of the book, so I'm going to buy a copy to keep on my shelf.

1. Donald Lines Jacobus, Genealogy as Pastime and Profession, 2nd edition (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1968), 93-95.
2. Jacobus, 102-105.
3. Buck v. Bell, 274 US 200 (1927), FindLaw (http://laws.findlaw.com/us/274/200.html : accessed 31 May 2011).
4. Jacobus, 104.
5. Jacobus, 37.
6. S. Whitney Phoenix, The Whitney Family of Connecticut, and its Affiliations; Being an Attempt to Trace the Descendants, as Well in the Female as the Male Lines, of Henry Whitney, from 1649 to 1878; to Which is Prefixed Some Account of the Whitneys of England (New York: privately printed, 1878), handwritten insert at the beginning of the book; online database, Ancestry.com (http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=27285 : accessed 31 May 2011), images 0_5 and 0_6.
7. Jacobus, 115.

May 30, 2011

Mystery Man

Edward William Click is my most elusive ancestor. He appeared, seemingly out of thin air, 16 Jul 1881, when he married Margaret Rebella "Bella" Parks (1861-1940) in Todd county, Minnesota. From that time forward, he's well documented, but his past is still an enigma. I know when he was born, which is mostly consistent in the sources, but not where. He's listed on several censuses, but the birthplace is inconsistent:
  • 1885 MN Census: 30, New York
  • 1895 MN Census: 40, California
  • 1900 US Census: Jan 1853, 47, Minnesota
  • 1905 MN Census: 52, Minnesota
  • 1910 US Census: 56, Minnesota
To top it off, his death certificate says he was born 14 Feb 1852, in Wisconsin. His children's listings in subsequent censuses give their father's birthplace as Wisconsin, probably reflecting the information on his death certificate. I know nothing about his ethnic ancestry. Messages on various online forums claim Click is an anglicized surname of German, Dutch, or Jewish origin. His family eventually settled in Elmdale township in Morrison county, near the town of Upsala. Most of his neighbors there were Swedes. The censuses that list his parents' birthplaces are equally unhelpful:
  • 1900 US Census: father Ohio, mother Pennsylvania
  • 1905 MN Census: father Kansas, mother Kansas
  • 1910 US Census: father US, mother US
On his death certificate, the names and birthplaces of his parents simply say unknown. His wife of 32 years reported the information, so I'm guessing he either didn't know his parentage, or else didn't want anyone else to know. There is some family lore that says he was raised by Native Americans, but you know how those stories go. The only other clue I have is a scrap of paper in my grandparents' papers:
Ed. Click. born in Okla. adopted lived by family Brown. Baptist cemetery Upsala, white church on hill.
Ed, Bella, & Bert Click
Both his sons are buried in that cemetery, but Edward either didn't have a headstone, or it's long since been covered up by soil and grass. And there were probably hundreds of Brown families in Oklahoma territory, and thousands elsewhere. I know, because I've probably looked at every Brown family with an Ed born around the right time period in the US Census from 1860 to 1880. (The only relevant, surviving census from Oklahoma is 1860, listed under Arkansas.) I've also found a few Ed Clicks, and several William Clicks in those censuses, but most of them can be followed in subsequent censuses in the same area. Plus, there's nothing to connect any of them with this Ed Click. Besides, I have no idea of the provenance of that information. It's quite possible Click wasn't even his real surname.

Ed and Bella had ten children, but only eight survived to adulthood, and neither son ever married or had children. That rules out a Y-DNA test, which would have been the most helpful to find paternal relatives. Autosomal DNA tests can find relatives from any branch, and I've already had one. But since he was my great-great-grandfather, I probably only inherited about 6.25% of my DNA from him. And absent another relative from that branch testing, so we can triangulate, there's no way to tell if any of my matches are through him.

May 19, 2011

Silly Movies with Genealogy

The other day I watched a cheesy, 1980s, sci-fi movie for some mindless entertainment, called Trancers. I'd never heard of it before. It must not have been in theaters very long, if at all. The special effects were bad, the acting wasn't great, and about the only person I recognized was Helen Hunt. But it had a decent story, and an ingenious plot device related to genealogy.

In the future, time travel to the past becomes possible, but only if you identify one of your ancestors who lived in the time and place you want to go back to. (I so wish that was possible. It would be great for research!) If you want a diversion from more serious matters, Trancers is available to stream on Netflix. It's only 76 minutes long, and there's plenty of unintended comedy.

Kind Hearts and Coronets: The Criterion Collection
The only other movie I could think of with genealogy as a major plot point (besides Roots) is another comedy, King Ralph. A brief search on IMDb turned up Kind Hearts and Coronets, with Alec Guinness playing eight different parts! It even has a literal family tree on the cover. I added it to my Netflix queue. Besides documentaries, are there any other "genealogy" movies? Silly or serious, suggestions are welcome.

May 18, 2011

Ethnicity in Minnesota (Another Chart, plus Commentary)

This is the promised followup to my post about making interactive charts, in which I used the example of ethnicity in America. For this post, I'll include the same type of chart for ethnicity in Minnesota, and say more about patterns of immigration and settlement.

Everyone knows the stereotypical Minnesota accent, performed to excess in the movie Fargo. (A movie I don't particularly like. For a better movie, see Drop Dead Gorgeous. It's another dark comedy set in Minnesota–a mockumentary of beauty pageants.) While some people in out-state Minnesota do talk similar to that, very few people in the Twin Cities area sound anything like it. But the essence of the accent is found here, due to the mix of immigrants to the state.

Americans with German ancestry (2000 US Census)
Like the US as a whole, the single largest reported ethnicity in Minnesota is German. For the overall country that amounts to less than 15% of Americans. The percentage here is almost double–more than 29%. Some parts of the state are well-known for their German heritage, like New Ulm, in southern Minnesota. The area where many of my ancestors lived, central Minnesota around St Cloud, is overwhelmingly German–both Roman Catholics and Lutherans. The Midwest in general was heavily settled by Germans, with Minnesota at the center, as you can see on this map from Wikipedia.

The next highest ethnicity in Minnesota is an anomaly from the rest of the country. While less than 2% of Americans report Norwegian ancestry, almost 14% of Minnesotans are part Norwegian. There are many counties with Norwegian majorities; a few in southern and western Minnesota, and the entire Red River valley along the border with North Dakota. I don't have any Norwegian ancestors, but they've contributed much to our common Minnesota culture. You can often tell when someone has Norwegian ancestry if they have a patronymic surname. If it ends in -son, they could be Swedish, English, etc. but a -sen ending usually indicates a Norwegian background. This doesn't always work, because many families Anglicized the spelling to the more familiar -son. (In fact, while Smith is the most common surname in America, it's not even in the top five in Minnesota. According to this interactive National Geographic map, it's beat out by Johnson, Anderson, Nelson, Olson, Peterson...)

The percentage of Minnesotans who claim Irish descent is a bit less than the rest of Americans (8.9% vs. 10.6%). They settled in several areas around the state, but nowhere form even a plurality of the population. However, the fightin' Irish have been punching above their weight for a long time. Despite their small numbers, the Irish have wielded a disproportionate amount of influence in our capital city, St Paul. From the ginormous St Paul Cathedral on John Ireland Blvd (named after a Roman Catholic archbishop), to the lively Irish cultural life, celebrated at the large, annual Irish fair, and passed on by organizations like the Center for Irish Music. The Irish Genealogical Society International (IGSI) is headquartered in St Paul.

I do have Scandinavian ancestors, from Sweden. Compared to just over 1% of Americans with Swedish ancestry, we have almost 8% here. Minneapolis is home to the American Swedish Institute. Swedes tended to settle in different areas than Norwegians, particularly in east central Minnesota. Vilhelm Moberg wrote a series of four novels about Swedish immigrants to Minnesota in the 1850s. Apparently they're quite well-regarded in Sweden. The English translations help understand the life of 19th century immigrants here. He also wrote a book of essays about his research for writing the novels (with an afterword in the current edition–he'd soured on America over Vietnam). For readers in a different target market [young girls], there's a set of books in the American Girl series on the same subject. However, I can't vouch for them, never having been a member of said demographic.

Minnesotans who claim English ancestry are lower than the national average, 5% vs. 8.5%. I suspect that's under reported, in both cases. The reason few people report English ancestry is probably because it was much easier for them to adapt to life in America. Without any real language barrier, it wouldn't take three generations to assimilate. They were some of the first European settlers in Minnesota, after the French-Canadian Voyageurs in the fur trade. Like much of America, many of the prominent citizens and civic leaders among early settlers had English (or more generally British) ancestry. My ancestor Isaac Parks, whom I've written about before, opened a brickyard in St Cloud the same year Minnesota became a state.

There isn't much difference between Polish ancestry in Minnesota and the country as a whole (7th place with 3.9% here, vs. 8th place with 3.1% for the US). Many Poles settled in central Minnesota, including my ancestors in Benton county. There, they lived intermixed with German immigrants of the same origin, namely East Prussia and other German provinces now part of Poland. Census records from the area can be confusing for that reason. For example, the 1900 US Census lists the origin of one of my great-grandfathers as Prussia. Then in 1910, it says Ger[many]-Polish, as opposed to the family next door, which said Ger[many]-German. In 1920 and 1930, he's also listed as a German speaker from Germany. Granted, he spoke both languages, but identified more as Polish. There was also significant Polish settlement in northeast Minneapolis, along with other east Slavic immigrants. "Nordeast" Minneapolis today still retains its East European character.

French ancestry is even closer to the national average in Minnesota (2.9% vs. 3.3%). The census has a separate category for French Canadian, but I'm guessing those are more recent immigrants, and I wouldn't know how to differentiate them, without asking. As I alluded to earlier, the first Europeans in Minnesota were the Voyageurs, who traded with the Native Americans for fur. As a result, many place names in Minnesota are French, and our state motto is also French: "L'Étoile du Nord."

Italian immigrants to Minnesota were far fewer than elsewhere in America (1.8% vs. 5.5%). Some settled in northeast Minnesota to work in the mines on the Iron Range, along with many other smaller ethnic groups. They also settled in St Paul with their fellow Roman Catholics. Now, there are many good Italian restaurants in St Paul.

That rounds out the top ten, except the 9th place entry of "United States or American." I suppose some people don't actually know their ethnic background. I've known mine in general since I was a child, but my research is revealing parts I didn't know, nor did my parents. It's exciting when you break through those brick walls, and discover another generation of your ancestors. I think it's even more so when they came from somewhere I didn't know much about previously.

The University of Minnesota library has some useful maps where people of different ethnic groups live in Minnesota, based on 1990 US Census data. Unfortunately, the site is a bit difficult to navigate, and some maps are missing, but they're useful. To see them, click on one of the listed ethnic groups. Then, click on the link to maps of America, Minnesota, or several regions within Minnesota.

May 15, 2011

Book Review: Shaking the Family Tree

Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental GenealogistI couldn't fit another big genealogy conference into the budget, so I'm following NGS vicariously through other blogs. It seems one of the highlights of the first day was a keynote by Buzzy Jackson, author of Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist. (See here, here, or here.) I read the book last year, so I'll write a brief review for those who didn't get a chance to hear her talk. (I meant to post this earlier, but the Blogger outage prevented it. At least it gave me some time to refresh my memory.)

She describes herself as an accidental genealogist, which is exactly how I found her book–accidentally. I was browsing the paltry selection of genealogy books at a Barnes & Noble, which mostly consists of "reference" books with URLs for genealogy websites. You know, the kind of book that's already obsolete the minute it's printed. I wasn't looking for anything specific, and the blurb on the back sounded interesting. Plus, she wrote a whole chapter on DNA testing, which I was then contemplating myself.

Shaking the Family Tree isn't a published genealogy, or anything like a traditional family history book. Nor is it a genealogy how-to book. But in the process of telling her story about getting involved in genealogy, she imparts quite a bit of her family history, and weaves in plenty of tips and tricks for the beginning genealogist. It's a light, quick read, and flows very well. I read it in just a few sittings over the course of a weekend.

When Jackson decided to start researching her family history, she dove right in, and hit the ground running (I know I'm mixing metaphors). Right away, she joined a local genealogical society–something I didn't do until I had years of research under my belt. Then she does the standard first steps of interviewing family, finding sources close at hand, etc. Next, she shows how committed she is to the pursuit, by going on a genealogy cruise. Probably not common among beginning genealogists, but it allows her to attend lectures from many of the luminaries of the genealogy world. Later, she takes a genealogy roadtrip with a cousin, and makes the obligatory pilgrimage to research at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

The chapter on DNA is a great introduction to genetic genealogy. She covers all the bases: the science and technology of testing, possible medical implications, and even race and identity issues. Unfamiliar words are explained in terms the non-scientist will understand. The DNA sample provided by her father matched others in the Jackson surname DNA project, which ultimately led to a previously unknown cousin and a well-documented family tree for that line back to the 17th century! While I haven't had nearly the success she did, I love reading stories how DNA can complement traditional genealogical methods. I still highly recommend Smolenyak and Turner's book, but the chapter in this book is more than enough if you're not planning on starting your own surname project.

Overall, it's a well-written, fun book about her experience as a newcomer to genealogy. Admittedly, she was very well prepared to do genealogical research. She has a PhD in American history from a top-tier university (UC Berkeley), and already wrote one book (an adaptation of her dissertation on women blues singers). But Shaking the Family Tree isn't dense or dry, like many books by academics. The tone and substance almost remind me of reading good genealogy blogs, except with an overarching, coherent structure. If you like reading how others became interested in genealogy, and the journey that followed, you'll enjoy this book.

May 11, 2011

Slow but Steady Progress

In an earlier post, I described how I found the baptism record of my great-great-great-grandfather, Isaac Parks. It also allowed me to identify his parents and reconstruct the rest of the family, based on his siblings' baptism records. At the time, I still didn't know when he immigrated to America. He was born 1820 in England, and first shows up in Pennsylvania on the 1850 US Census, already married with four children. The oldest child was seven, and all their birthplaces were listed as Pennsylvania, but that still left a fairly large window: 1820-1843. And since he died in 1894, none of the censuses he was recorded on have a year of immigration or naturalization.

1827 New York
Over the past few years, I'd searched for his immigration record, but that period saw several men named Isaac Park(e)s immigrate–too many around the right age to be certain I'd found the correct record. Now, after a recent search, I was able to positively identify his record, only because his whole family immigrated with him. The ship's manifest matched his parents and all his siblings from baptism records. (Except they substituted the name Isabella for his mother Rebella, as I've found in other records.) I previously had no inkling he had other relatives who came to America–no records, letters, family lore, legends, or anything. But once I discovered that fact, it was relatively easy to trace the family in Pennsylvania. I found several census records that show the family settling in Cambria county and adding three more children to the fold. His father's naturalization petition was transcribed and uploaded to the Cambria county page on USGenWeb. His mother's grave was transcribed on Find A Grave. I'm now researching his siblings' descendants, and already made contact with a previously unknown distant cousin.

But the previous generation is going to be more difficult. Now that I know when his parents were born, I'm confident the baptism record I found earlier is his father's. His grandfather was also named Isaac, but I hesitate to label them Sr, Jr, III, IV, etc. because I don't know how many generations of Isaacs there were. His grandmother had a rather common name, Ann, and there were several Isaac Parkes in that area.

Three Isaac Parkes were married in the same parish the children were baptized in, within 5 years of each other: 1810, 1812, and 1815. The latter makes the most sense, as it was one year before their first child, and the bride is listed as Isabella. The names of the other two brides were nothing like Rebella. I haven't seen an image of the actual parish register yet, so it may actually say Rebella, and got indexed incorrectly. It wouldn't be the first time.

Now onto this Isaac's siblings and parents. I've found baptism records there for at least nine children whose parents were Isaac and Ann Parkes. The first was born in 1771, then a large gap until 1788 with two records, two more in 1791, one in 1793, and finally 1796 with three records, including Isaac. This must be at least two families, possibly three because of the spread. The only sibling of Isaac I know for sure is Sarah, born 1788, because she and her husband Joseph Haynes also immigrated to America, and a history book on Cambria county identifies Isaac as her brother.

May 5, 2011

George Washington's Beer Recipe

GW's beer recipe, 1757 (NYPL)
Genealogists are some of the most frequent users of old manuscripts at libraries and archives. But this post isn't about genealogy. Among the collections at the New York Public Library (NYPL) are a number of George Washington's personal papers. In a notebook from 1757, he wrote down a recipe for beer, of which a batch has been brewed for sampling at the library's centennial.

I hope they decide to make more of the beer to sell. It would be a good gift for beer-drinking history buffs, and probably less expensive than the limited edition whiskey made from his recipe at Mt Vernon last year: $95 for a 375 mL bottle. At least you can still tour George Washington's distillery.

May 2, 2011

Really Fancy Chart: Genetic Admixture

These are the kinds of graphics I was referring to in my first post on how to create interactive charts with Google Docs. They're based off Davidski's work in the Eurogenes Genetic Ancestry Project, which now includes DNA from one of the kits I manage.

I've now had DNA samples from family members tested with both Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) and 23andMe, which each has their advantages and disadvantages. (I'm going to post more on this subject in the future. For now I'll suffice to say, if you're interested in genetic testing for genealogical purposes, FTDNA is the way to go.) The raw data files from FTDNA's Family Finder test, and 23andMe's only product offering, can be downloaded and used for this type of analysis. Although I've played around with the genetic software Davidski used to produce this data, my understanding is still too limited to make my own charts from scratch. (The file format from each company use a slightly different format, so I've only been able to use 23andMe data in my experiments thus far.) I merely used the data in his spreadsheet to create these charts, including only the populations I'm interested in.

I'm not even going to attempt to explain what these charts really mean, except to say the software infers genetic ancestry based on DNA similarity. The samples shown in the charts are identical, but each of them was produced by telling the software to divide the dataset into K ancestral populations.

Apr 22, 2011

Fancy Chart How-To: Ethnicity in America

After the series on money and careers this week, I needed some mindless blogging I could churn out without too much thought. This post is mostly just an excuse to try out some interactive charts. I first saw these on the Artemis Project blog. It's another hobbyist project doing cutting edge analysis of genetic tests, like the Eurogenes, Dodecad, and Harappa Ancestry projects. The graphics on both the Artemis and Harappa projects really stood out. At first, I was impressed, and wondered how they created them. I discovered it's actually very easy using spreadsheets on Google Docs. I'll use an example chart I made from census data, then explain how to create your own.

The subject of this post is a simple breakdown of the top 20 ethnicities of Americans in the 2000 US Census. Such macro-level demographic data might not sound very useful, but combined with county-level maps (see below), it can help find likely places an ancestor might have settled, or passed through, after immigrating to America. During the late 19th and early 20th century, new immigrants tended to stick together with people from their own ethnicity for a generation or so. Many of them didn't initially speak English, so they wanted to live near others they could communicate with.

Data from the 2000 US Census, and previous ones, are available to download from the Census Bureau. If you explore their website, you can find all kinds of data, for the country as a whole and separate geographical divisions. Also keep in mind that "ancestry," as the census records it, is self-reported. So take it for what it's worth. Here's a chart I created from the data. If you move your mouse over the bars, tooltips will popup and display the actual percentages:To make your very own charts like the example above (or far more complex ones), either import an existing spreadsheet into Google Docs, or create a new one. Editing spreadsheets there works much like Microsoft Excel, so I'm not going to explain that. Once you've entered some data, created a chart from it, and edited its appearance to your liking, you're ready to embed it in a web page.

Here's how it works: Use the "Publish chart..." command under the pull-down menu on the chart itself (see left). It pops up a message with the HTML code to embed in any web page (see right). Just copy the text and paste it into the source code of the web page where you want to display the chart. For example, if you're embedding it in a post here on Blogger, click the "Edit HTML" tab at the top of the editor. Don't be alarmed it doesn't show up in the "Compose" mode. The editor doesn't execute the script needed to display the chart. When you preview or publish the post, the chart will display correctly. I must add one minor caveat, that might require some hand-editing of the code. On my blog, the main content column is too narrow to fit the default chart size. However, if you look at the source code for the chart, there are some easily understandable parameters for height and width. In my case, the original code from Google Docs specified "width":600. Just experiment with different numbers to find a value that fits.

There are a wide variety of maps created from census data on Wikipedia. For example, here's a breakdown of all 3143 counties/parishes in the US, color-coded by the predominant ethnicity reported:

This is an extremely simple example of the kind of great looking, interactive charts made possible by Google Docs. As a follow-up to this post, I'll create another chart with the ethnicity of Minnesotans. Eventually, I want to make some fancy genetic admixture charts like the aforementioned genome bloggers, but I'm still just experimenting with the software for now.

Money Changes Everything – Or Does It?

[The final chapter in a week-long series at GeneaBloggers. My previous post was What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free?]

I like the title Thomas gave today's topic, because money can change people, just probably not the amount you're likely to make as a professional genealogist. Think big money, like Powerball. Many lottery winners end up in worse shape than before they won, just a few years later. If you have the disposable income to spare, fine, but the people who spend the most money on lotteries probably shouldn't. I'm not necessarily anti-gambling, but let's be frank about what the lottery really is: a regressive tax. Or as I like to call it, a tax for people who are bad at math. If your plan for success includes winning the lottery, I'm not going to take you seriously.

Likewise, we should be serious about whether blogging is a viable source of income for genealogists, or anyone else. Apparently, there are bloggers somewhere making a living at it, but I haven't seen one in the wild yet. None of the several posts I read on the subject this week expect to make much, beyond keeping the lights on for the blog itself, and most had doubts about even that. I started my contribution to this series Monday, describing other benefits I derive from blogging. For me, it's mostly just writing practice, a creative outlet, and hopefully a place for my unknown relatives to find me.

Tuesday was about making genealogy a career, which I've seriously considered, but haven't yet made the leap. I like the idea of working for myself, but hate the idea of all the mundane business and administrative details that would entail. I wish there were job openings for pure researchers, or apprentice genealogists. I'm sure there are many like me, who feel we have almost all the skills we need to take clients. Gaining experience for a year or two, as an understudy to an established professional, could be just the jumpstart we need.

Wednesday's topic was popular. It generated more traffic and comments than pretty much all my previous posts combined! Most of the commenters were supportive, but one must not have read the entire post. Or maybe I hadn't explained myself well enough. I was trying to get across the often misunderstood point, that no cost to you doesn't mean no cost at all. There really, truly, honestly is no such thing as a free lunch. Blogs, forums, and other websites have monetary costs associated with running the servers and providing enough bandwidth for people to access them. The money might be part of the membership dues to your local genealogical society, corporate sponsorship as a form of marketing, or a passionate individual who funds their own website. It's possible to use many of the resources at no cost, and I don't fault anyone who does so. We just need to realize those resources might not be there someday if their patrons don't feel it's in their interest to continue supporting them.

Besides the direct costs, there are innumerable indirect costs, whose total value can't be measured. But I'd bet the latter would eclipse the former by several orders of magnitude. Think of all the indexing projects, transcriptions of records and gravestones, and all the other genealogical information available online. Then extend that work into the physical world, where the same types of activities were going on long before the internet existed. The public library here has an old style card catalog, with an index of manually typed cards; more than fifty years of names from the local newspaper, for every birth, engagement, and wedding announcement, obituary, and even plain news stories. The library had nothing to do with its creation; a group of genealogists did the work, and donated it. The opportunity cost alone for that project is staggering. And that's a relatively easy undertaking, intellectually. Anyone who can read and write could contribute.

Now think of all the forums, mailing lists, society newsletters, and now blogs, where people answer questions, offer tips, and in myriad other ways prevent us from making dumb mistakes in our research. The pool of experience and expertise in this community is immense. The time it takes to read queries and respond is minor, compared to the wealth of knowledge that takes years of study and practice to acquire. I could continue to bloviate on this point, but I think you get it by now. Many genealogists volunteer countless hours helping others, and they should be applauded for their efforts. Volunteers aren't given nearly enough recognition for all the time and effort they contribute to the community. I'd personally like to know who spent all the time indexing the local newspapers, so I could thank them. It's saved me weeks or even months of research.

We should also think of the inverse situation. Some genealogists choose to become professionals, and charge clients money, for doing what many of us do ourselves, as a labor of love. Nobody should give them any grief for choosing that path, and fortunately I don't think that's happening. A few comments I read on other blogs said as much; something along the lines of "is this really a problem that needs to be discussed?" Yes, and I think the discussion was overdue. Let's continue this thought experiment, and increase the scale. What if somebody started a genealogy company that became really successful? I mean on the order of thousands of customers, and millions in revenue? Doesn't sound plausible? How about Ancestry.com? They've become the whipping boy for the whole community. All these great free online resources are filled with hundreds of comments haranguing Ancestry.com. Some people have legitimate complaints, but many seem to have trouble expressing them in a constructive manner.

Subscriptions to Ancestry.com aren't cheap, but the value you get for the money is easily worth it. Both the content, and how they deliver it, are the best in the industry. (I'm referring only to the online trees, I don't use any desktop genealogy software.) The tight integration between their databases and tree interface make it easy to attach sources with information to the facts and events of people in a family tree. How you determine what's evidence and analyze it to conclude anything is still left to the genealogist, as always. Don't get me wrong, I still have lots of issues with them. There's lots of room for improvement, and they do some things plainly wrong in my opinion. But as far as I'm concerned, they're the best game in town. The online arm of FamilySearch may catch up to them eventually, but for now Ancestry.com has them beat. The research I've conducted on my family tree there in the last couple years alone would've taken literally decades otherwise.

If you don't want to use Ancestry.com, you don't have to. There are enough free online genealogical resources to keep you busy researching for years. But please stop beating the dead horse already. Don't malign either individual professional genealogists, or corporations, just because they're making a profit. Can we dispense with the false notion that volunteering, or working for a non-profit or the government, somehow places a person on some moral high ground? Nothing the government or any non-profit organization does would be possible if they didn't get money from people and corporations who are making a profit. The word profit has been endlessly disparaged in modern society. Profit isn't evil. Nobody should feel guilty for making a profit, if they're doing it honestly. When you and I work to our own benefit, we all gain in the end. Some old, dead, white guy, named Adam Smith, explained it eloquently, way back in 1776:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
I also think a distinction needs to be made between self-interest and selfishness, Ayn Rand notwithstanding. The profit motive can be a powerful force, for good or ill. But far too many people equate profit with greed, and they're fundamentally different. Greed, like selfishness, is excess, a desire for money gone too far. The old cliche, "everything in moderation," is a good guideline. And it is possible to have too much of a good thing (my waistline can attest to that).

OK, I'll get down off my soapbox. I didn't mean for this post to be so long, it just turned out that way. I didn't even get to everything I was planning to say, but I'll leave something for future posts.

Apr 20, 2011

What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free?

[Part three in a week-long series at GeneaBloggers. My previous post was Careers in Genealogy.]

I'm going to try very hard to keep this post from lapsing into a political rant. This subject is one of my pet peeves, and I could go on for hours, but this isn't a political blog. There are plenty of those already.

I'll start with a simple observation many people don't seem to understand. Nothing tangible is free! If you can taste it, touch it, smell it, or hold it in your hand, somebody had to pay for it. We've all heard the old saw, "there's no such thing as a free lunch," but most of us behave otherwise. I'm as guilty as anyone in this regard. It's only natural for people to take advantage of opportunities where you feel like you're getting something for nothing. Don't believe me? Witness two wedding receptions: one with an open bar, and the other with a cash bar. Need I say more? The difference between them is like night and day.

If people don't have to spend money out of their own pocket, they'll get the biggest, best, and most of everything. That's one of the reasons why our health care system in America is so expensive. When the actual cost of medical care is shielded behind layers of insurance companies and government bureaucracy, people treat health care like an open bar, profligate spending reigns, and we're all the losers for it. We've become something of an entitlement society. People feel they're owed something, for no particular reason. The vast majority of the American populace is largely ignorant about economics, and politicians from every party pander to economic populism. But I think the root cause of the predicament of this topic is a perfect storm of dying business models and spoiled kids (metaphorically speaking, I include lots of adults in that category).

Most traditional media companies, whether publishers, movie studios, record labels, newspapers, TV broadcasters, or even software developers, are trying desperately to cling to their old ways of doing business. Technology is eroding the very foundation their businesses were built upon, and they're stubborn. There are a few bright lights experimenting with new business models who seem to understand the sea-change taking place, but they're exceptional cases. I imagine it must have been similar after Gutenberg invented the printing press. Suddenly, the livelihoods of hundreds of scribes were threatened by the ease with which a printing press could crank out dozens of identical books, at a fraction of the cost.

Add to this mix the unrealistic expectations of young people. That's one of the telltale signs of youth and immaturity. Eventually people grow up, and realize they have to work for a living. But more and more, this attitude remains even in adulthood. It's neatly captured in the chorus from an old Queen song, "I want it all, and I want it now." It also informs their consumption of products from the dinosaur media. Peer-to-peer networking made it easy to share music, software, and movies. Why pay for content when you can get it online for free? Then they rationalize their theft with an internet-era cliche, "information wants to be free." Unfortunately, the media companies overreact, using lawsuits as weapons to delay the inevitable. (But please don't follow their rhetoric and call it piracy. It's common thievery, nothing more. Piracy is what's happening off the coast of Somalia. Those are real pirates, using real guns, taking over ships and a few idiots in private yachts with lots of money but little sense, who think sailing there sounded like a good idea. Now I'm way off-topic...) Another related factor is the current mess of copyright law, but that's the subject for another post. We're in a transitional period right now, where norms and rules haven't yet caught up with the technological means at our disposal. Who knows how it will all sort out, but there are opportunities for the taking if you pay close attention.

This new reality has many consequences specifically for the genealogy community. In today's GeneaBloggers post on the topic, Thomas wrote about the "Freemium Concept," more traditionally known as a loss leader. Companies have been doing this for eons, and they'll continue as long as they can benefit. The standard example of a loss leader is Gillette. They charge very little for the handle of the razor, but the blades cost an arm and a leg. Many desktop genealogical software programs are using this model. You can download a lite version for free, which gets you hooked on using the software. They make their money by enticing people to pay for the full version with more features, or access to genealogical databases.

Some people don't realize all corporate charitable giving is a marketing campaign. Companies are going green for the same reason. If you have the impression a company's "doing the right thing," you're more likely to pay higher prices for identical products you could buy cheaper generic. There are many generous philanthropists, but you have to make money first if you want to give it away. The founder of the Internet Archive, Brewster Kahle, delivered one of the keynotes at RootsTech (you can watch it online, for free, or at least no cost to you). It was a good speech, and he and his organization are truly doing some great work. One of the programs he mentioned gives free books to disadvantaged children, in this country and all over the world. But it's only possible because they're using old books in the public domain (actual cost around $1 per physical book), and the fact Kahle is a dot.com millionaire. He founded one business that AOL bought, and co-founded Alexa, which was bought by Amazon.com.

Genealogists love to complain about Ancestry.com. I'm a regular customer, and overall I'm satisfied. Their subscriptions aren't cheap, and as the largest genealogy company, they've grown to the size which makes it difficult to be responsive to customer feedback. But I'm able to do research in their databases, and easily find many records, which might have taken weeks in the olden days. Even if you're not their customer, it's in your interest they stay in business. There are many free genealogy resources online. Among the foremost is RootsWeb, which is still run by volunteers, but only possible because it's sponsored by Ancestry.com. Just today, DNA Heritage, a British genealogical DNA testing company, announced they're essentially going out of business. Besides the paid services they offered, they also operated a free database for Y-DNA test results, called Ybase. Fortunately, in this case, there's a successful company in the same market who were able to buy them out. But that's not always the case. Sometimes those resources are lost for good.

In any case, those free resources are dependent on volunteers. They may not charge anything for using the fruits of their labor, but the time they spent working on it was valuable nonetheless. I read various genealogy forums, sometimes asking questions, more often answering them nowadays. My level of participation doesn't take a big time commitment, since I don't need to research many of the questions asked by newbies. I've benefited tremendously from the advice of more experienced genealogists in the past, so I'm happy to do the same for others.

Thomas also wrote quite a bit about webinars. I've participated in both free and pay genealogy webinars. Think about how much it would cost if you had to travel somewhere, pay for attending the seminar, plus lodging, food, expenses, etc. Now those webinars look like a pretty good deal. This is an area I think genealogists are on the cutting edge. It's only very recently the technology and infrastructure was in place to make them possible. DearMyrtle wrote a post earlier today about the technology she uses to conduct webinars, and how it can be used to reach an even wider audience. The GeneaWebinars blog consolidates many of the schedules of upcoming webinars, so there's one central place to find more avenues for education and skill-building.

In summary, people need to realize that nothing is truly free. It's only the profit generated by successful companies, and the countless hours put in by numerous volunteers that makes the many free genealogy resources possible. By all means, use the opportunities presented to you wisely, and if you benefit from it, pass it on.