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

Monday, March 27, 2017

New York State Archives for Genealogists -- Part Three

Genealogists become accustomed to searching for names, dates and sometimes places. This focus on specific information about their ancestors and relatives often prevents them from realizing the need to expand their research into the greater historical context of the time and place where their ancestors lived. For this reason alone, searching in the online documents, photos and other material on a website such as the New York State Archives seems for many researchers to be a waste of time and effort. A quick search for ancestral names that does not produce an instant link to a relative means that they need to move on to another venue.

I can go to any one of the large online websites that host family trees and look through hundreds of entries and I will almost never find a source reference to anything other than the standard census/vital records type information cited by any of the contributors. It is like the researchers are playing a game of baseball with their research, as long as they circle the bases and touch each base, they are home free. When I start talking to patrons in the Brigham Young University Family History Library about maps and history, they get nervous and start asking when I am going find their ancestor. To most, there is only one way to play the game and I am not following the rules.

The New York State Archives is a good example of the broad, eclectic type of collections found in historical archives. It may not be immediately apparent to an inexperienced researcher that valuable information about their ancestral families may be embedded in the seemingly random collections. For example, I searched in the New York State Archives for my Tanner surname and found only four seemingly unrelated documents. But my direct line family, the Tanners, lived in New York for many years and it is likely that some of their descendants still live in New York state. So what else should I be doing?

The key here, as it always is when this question arises, is to broaden my search. I need to be searching for all sorts of categories of documents that might contain information about my family. For example, my Great-great-grandfather Sidney Tanner was born in Greenwich, Washington, New York and lived in Bolton's Landing on Lake George. What would happen if I started searching for documents about these places for a start?

The first thing I found was a map of the Champlain Canal Survey for Greenwich showing the names of property owners along the route fo the canal.

Do I know where in Greenwich my ancestor lived? How do I know that one of these maps does not show his property? The answer is that I don't. But I would also have to search for other family names in order to determine if this particular set of maps applies to my family. Likewise, here is a map of Bolton Landing, where my third great-grandfather owned a huge tract of land.

The key here is searching for more than names. I actually found a photo of some of the land my 3rd Great-grandfather, John Tanner, owned. He owned Green Island where this large hotel was constructed after he left and sold his property

One of my ancestral families lived and stayed in New York, the Stewart family. I found many more items linked to the Stewarts than I did for the Tanners. But then there are searches to be made for the places where they lived and their occupations and their schools and on and on and on.

How many more subjects can I search on? What will I find? Those are the questions you need to be asking yourself when you are researching in depth.

You can find the first posts in this series here:

Sunday, March 26, 2017

MyHeritage DNA matches add my Australian Cousins

I regularly get new DNA matches by email from Recently, I began to see matches from Australia. This is interesting because two of my direct ancestral lines originate in England and come through Australia.

I have had direct contact from some of my Australian relatives in the past, but it is interesting and helpful to find some new ones, especially those that share their DNA and have family trees on Of course, I will have to determine if I want to contact any of these relatives, but it reassuring to see that my research is substantiated, in part, by the DNA test.

MyHeritage has expanded citation options

Those users who are adding Record Matches from to their family trees have been provided with a new citation feature. Above is a match for one of my Tanner relatives to a book called "Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah: Comprising Photographs, Genealogies, Biographies, Vol. 1, 1913." When this Record Match shows up on the website, my first step is to evaluate the match and determine if it applies to my relative. I can then either confirm the match or reject it. By the way, at the same time, I got an additional 30 related Record Detective results.

There is really no excuse for those with family trees to have entries that are not supported by sources. Of course, you still have to evaluate the sources to make sure they apply to your relative or ancestor, but that is relatively easy when you can compare the information you have with any new or missing information from the suggested source side-by-side.

Once I determine that the suggested source applies to my relative, I can then make the comparison and extract the information for my family tree.

At the bottom of the right-hand side document comparison, there is complete source citation information.

You can then use this to fill in the blanks for other genealogy programs you may be using or to create a more formal citation format for other purposes. There is also a provision to save the entry to another person.

In the past, online family trees have been notorious for their lack of substantial documentation. There is really no excuse now for those on not to have extensive documentation.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Where are the rest of the records?

With the overwhelming number of digitized, genealogically significant records going online almost daily, we might have a tendency to believe that "everything is being digitized." This impression is far removed from reality. What is out there that we have yet to identify, catalog, digitize and index? I live here in Provo, Utah, home of the largest private university in the United States, and predominantly inhabited by people who appreciate the importance of records. Are there still significant numbers of records here in Provo that need to be digitized both for research and preservation? Absolutely.

Probably one of the largest such accumulations of records resides in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library in the Harold B. Lee Library on the campus of the Brigham Young University. Here is a description of this huge collection from the BYU website,
The L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library preserves and houses materials requiring regulation. Because of their uniqueness, value, or fragility, these materials are given great care to protect them from damage or theft and to ensure their proper long-term use.
Hence, Special Collections acquires, preserves, and makes available for use printed materials (280,000 books, pamphlets, prints, etc.) and a vast array of items comprising manuscript materials (8,000 manuscript collections including diaries, journals, papers, music scores, university records [including records of retired faculty], and 500,000 photographs).
I am not picking on this particular university, there are approximately 24 public and private universities and colleges in the State of Utah, not counting those operated for profit. Each of those schools has a library and it is almost certain that there are significant portions of the books, documents, and records in those libraries that have yet to be digitized or preserved.

I use this only as an example if you extrapolate this fact across the United States to all of the colleges and universities, approximately 4,000 or so, you can imagine the number of documents, manuscripts and other records that remain on paper and researchable on at each of these institutions' libraries. We delude ourselves if we think that the process of digitizing all the world's records is in anything more than its infancy.

I have another illustration from here in Utah. This past week or so, I was asked to look for a copy of a book containing the reports of the cases from the Supreme Court of Utah. I have been used to using digitized case law for many years. But I was surprised to find that the particular volume from the early 1900s was not readily available online. One of the very, very few losses I have suffered as a result of retiring from my law practice was losing access to the online legal database programs such as I was surprised that these early Utah Supreme Court cases were not readily available online. I did locate a copy in the BYU Special Collections Library, but in this particular case, the researcher that asked the question found a copy online in the

The is a partnership community of universities and colleges in the United States that provide digital, online access to their library records. Surprisingly, Brigham Young University is not listed as a partner and the number of partners is far fewer than the more than 4000 such institutions in the United States.

So, any genealogical researcher who claims to have done a reasonably exhaustive search of existing records would have to have spent a considerable amount of time in a significant number of special collections libraries depending on the area of the United States where the research was being conducted. In reality, I suspect that no individual during an entire lifetime, adequately review even a small portion of the records available in the United States that are still on paper and uncataloged, unindexed and undigitized.

If you expand this view of records to local public and private libraries, historical societies, museums and other repositories, you can begin to see the vast scope of what is left to digitize in the United States alone. I cannot tell you how many people have come to me and claimed the "they have looked everywhere for records of their ancestors" and after I asked if they had searched in newspapers, special collections, historical societies and elsewhere, have come to realize that their research had only just begun.

As genealogists, we need to become more aware of the records around us and become knowledgeable about the need to digitize, index and preserve these valuable records. As a community we need to become more proactive is facilitating the digitization and preservation of the existing records. I will refer you again to the post entitled, "Preserving Historical Records: Lesson of the National Personnel Records Center Fire."

Friday, March 24, 2017

New York State Archives for Genealogists -- Part Two

Libraries and archives are realizing that digitization fulfills severals of their main objectives including preservation and making their collections available for research and study. The New York State Archives, like many other repositories, creates an income stream from selling copies of the digitized documents. Here is a description of the New York Archives collections from the website:
The New York State Archives' Digital Collections provides access to photographs, textual records, artifacts, government documents, manuscripts, and other materials. Most items come from the holdings of the New York State Archives, but this collection also includes material from the New York State Museum, State Library, and project partners across New York State. 
If you have questions about our holdings, or if you would like to request copies of State Archives materials, please contact our reference desk at or 518-474-8955.
When any collection of documents is digitized, there is always a background issue of copyright protection for some or all of the items. A genealogical researcher needs to have a general knowledge of the categories of copyright restrictions that apply in the countries where the researcher intends to copy documents. In the United States, the copyright laws are unclear and very complex. A good summary of the laws is available online from Cornell University's website, "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States." This summary is updated each year and it a good idea to review the summary from time to time to refresh your memory of the overall restrictions and to become aware of any new changes to the law. Here is the statement made by the New York Archives concerning the copyright status of their online collections:
Copyright and Use Statement

The Office of Cultural Education, NYS Department of Education, is providing access to these materials for educational and research purposes. Please read the following terms of use, as they will guide the appropriate use of the materials found in this resource. 
While every effort has been made to select and present material in the public domain, some materials, particularly State Agency records, may be protected by the copyright laws. The nature of these materials may make copyright difficult or impossible to determine. When known, information on permissions is noted. The written permission of the copyright owners and/or other rights holders is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use of protected items beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemptions. Responsibility for securing any necessary permission ultimately rests with the user. 
Please note: This website contains high quality images from the New York State Archives, New York State Library, and New York State Museum. If you wish to receive high quality copies of images from the other repositories represented, you must request reproduction from the institution listed for each record. 
Credit Line: Material on this website is drawn from the resources of the New York State Archives, New York State Library, New York State Museum, and a variety of project partners. Please carefully check each image, text, or other material for the appropriate credit line. 
The Office of Cultural Education is eager to hear from any copyright owners who are not properly identified so that appropriate information may be provided in the future. Please contact us at
This is a very fair and reasonable statement of the possible issues arising from copying items online. One import statement is the need to provide attribution for anything copied that is not specifically noted to be in the public domain. However, for research purposes, genealogists should not only be aware of the need for attribution but should also be providing detailed and complete citations for each record used for making historical conclusions. We should all be providing a clear explanation of our conclusions and providing complete and very adequate references or citations to the place where the records or documents can be viewed or obtained. 

In short, failure to give attribution is not simply a matter of courtesy, it can be part of the copyright law of the country. Items in the public domain are exempt from this requirement, but all other materials copied should be carefully cited according to the particular requirements of the originator of the work. 

Going back to the digital collections online from the New York State Archives, they have several ways to search their collections: Browsing by Collections, by Places, by Repositories or by State Agencies. 

Stay tuned for a more detailed analysis of the contents in the next post in this series.

You can find the first post in this series here:

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What is a genealogically significant document?

By focusing on a narrow topic, such as the lineage of a single family, genealogists tend to be rather parochial in their consideration of where and how to find information. In fact, in my experience, genealogist are not only parochial, but also provincial in doing their genealogical research. I have written in the past about the extreme manifestations of both of these attitudes but since this subject comes up frequently, I seem to always return to say more.

The two most common manifestations of these attitudes are the tendency of genealogical research to focus on an extremely narrow and confined definition of "genealogically significant documents" and their tendency to avoid any records or documents that take effort either to decipher or to find. For example, I find very few researchers who use books or microfilm. Because of the vast number of records that have been digitized and are available in some form online, they seem to feel that unless a document is readily available on one of the huge, online, genealogy database websites, then it is too much trouble to go any further. They then complain about their genealogical "brick wall."

OK, there are exceptions. I know a few really talented and dedicated researchers who have traveled all over the United States and the world looking in libraries and record repositories for records about their families. But even in the relatively very small community of persistently active researchers, there are only a few that make any effort to break out of the confines of the online digital records.

Part of the reason for this insular view of genealogy comes from an inability to visualize their ancestral families in their historical context. Genealogical research becomes a simple task of adding a name, a date and sometimes a place. We are rewarded for the number of slots we can fill up on our pedigree. Now, I have to point out that I live in many different genealogical sub-communities and depending on your own background and experience, you will either consider me to beneath your notice because I do not have the "credentials" of a "real" genealogist or at the other end of spectrum, I become an elitist who refuses to see the perspective of "common genealogist" and their concerns and limitations.

But reality is that this dichotomy actually does exist within the genealogical community and it is primarily caused by a lack of awareness of the breadth of the historical context and the realization that there are no insignificant historical facts. I can quickly determine the level of historical interest and knowledge of a researcher by posing the following questions:

  • Have you searched the tax records?
  • Have you search livestock brand records?
  • Have you considered mortuary records?
  • What was the religious affiliation of your ancestors?
The list could go on and on. The last question I listed, about religious affiliation, is one that indicates best the attitude of the researcher. I am not talking about people who are just beginning to do genealogical research. I am talking about people who are not open to suggestions that they will have more success if they take the time and make the effort to search beyond the obvious census and civil registration records. Of course, I am also pretty much aware that these same people will probably never read a genealogy blog. 

So what is the definition of a genealogically significant document? My answer is that a genealogically significant document can be any document that was created during the lifetime of the ancestor and has any possible connection to the place where the ancestor lived without consideration as to the category of document. Until you understand the social, political and cultural context of your ancestors' lives, you will not be able to identify genealogically significant documents. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What do Siri, Google Home, Amazon Echo and Alexa have to with Genealogy?

The answer to the question posed in the title of this post is simply this: almost nothing! I have recently written about my long involvement with voice recognition or VR software and since my latest return to using this software, I continue to be impressed with the improvements in the software's accuracy and utility. However, VR software, such as Dragon Dictate on my Apple devices, is not the same as the voice command devices listed in the title to this post.

Genealogy is a highly involved and complex pursuit involving intense research into historical documents. Part of the research process involves documenting and recording our discoveries. Some genealogists also spend a great deal of time teaching, writing and presenting online and in person. These activities could be done with a piece of paper and pencil, but over the years most writers have moved first to typewriters and then to computers. When I first started practicing law, my father, who was also an attorney, wrote everything out by hand on sheets of yellow paper. When my father retired from the practice of law after nearly fifty years of active practice, he was still writing almost everything he did on yellow sheets of paper with a pencil. When I started, I used voice dictation equipment. I would speak into the dictation machine, actually a specialized voice recording device, and then an assistant (used to be called a secretary) would transcribe the tapes by typing out the words. Then I would review the transcription and make changes and then it would be retyped, sometimes several times. If copies were needed we used carbon paper.

When I had been practicing law for a few years, technology began to develop in the form of expensive and rather massive "word processing" devices, such as the Wang Word Processor. Lawyers were not in the forefront of those adopting new technology. But I was fascinated by the possibility that I could speed up the process of producing written documents. This could turn into a long story. To summarize, I tried every level of word processing program that developed. I tried to get the other attorneys around me to change and finally, after nearly thirty years of practicing law, many attorneys had started to use computers in their document processing activities, but most relied on their legal assistants and were still dictating documents.

Now, fast forwarding to today, I write even more than I did during my law practice and I am still looking for ways to be faster and more productive. Voice recognition software has the promise of achieving more productivity and greater speed, but it is still, even with the advances, more like a cranky and willful child than an experienced assistant. Right now, for example, I am using my keyboard to type this post. Why aren't I using voice recognition? Because I have a cold and cannot talk. Hmm. There seems to be something missing here with the whole technology advancing aspect of our modern world.

Now, what about voice controlled devices? Obviously, they are a boon to those with limited mobility. But don't mistake these devices for advances in productivity. They are billed as convenience devices. My experience with Apple's Siri is an example of why these devices do not assist me as a genealogical researcher. The Siri program simply cannot do anything I need done. I do know a lot of people who use voice command devices regularly. I just don't happen to see the need. I can turn on lights with a switch and not have to think about the process. I do not want my devices talking to me and distracting me from my work. I have enough interruptions as it is.

In analyzing the whole development of voice controlled devices, I am reminded of the time when the more affluent members of our society had human servants. As genealogists, we are reminded of this every time we discover a family on a census record with one or more seemingly unrelated family members who are sometimes identified as servants or farm laborers. I come from a more independent background. I would rather do for myself. The main reason I like computers and the internet is that they actually do something productive, not just something convenient. They are tools that extend my own capabilities.

To illustrate what I mean, I would refer you to the complete list of Amazon's Alexa commands. See "The complete list of Alexa command so far." If you look at what this "amazing" device can do, the commands fall into several categories: turning off and on music or media, telling you the time and date, recording lists, turning on news and weather, finding restaurants or simple questions about music, doing simple math, asking about sports, ordering from Amazon.

Now, if you want to spend thousands of dollars, you can also have these devices connected to even more "smart" devices and run the lights, heating and cooling and other parts of your home.

Guess what? None of those things help me to do anything I need done. Not one of those things help me with my genealogical research, in fact, they are mostly a distraction. So, when I am writing and talking about voice recognition software, I do not include voice controlled devices. As an experiment to illustrate my point, ask Siri or Alexa to open your genealogy program and search for your great-grandfather.