RootsTech 2014

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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

OCR finds millions of Open Library images

Time travel through millions of historic Open Library images with the Internet Archive's extraction of more than 2.6 million images on Flickr. I have written about this before, but I thought an update would be helpful. Nearly all of these images are in the public domain. The images come from a process of OCR examination of the 600 million pages of library books scanned by the Internet Archive ( For more information, you can see the BBC News Technology article "Million of historical images posted to Flickr" and the Open Library Blog post entitled, "Time travel though millions of historic Open Library images."

It might also help you to know that the Open Library is a part of the Internet Archive.

Scottish Independence and Genealogy

On 18 September 2014 there is a national referendum scheduled on the question of whether Scotland should be an independent country. The outcome of this referendum will have a profound effect on genealogical research no matter whether the results are independence or remaining a part of the United Kingdom. To understand this issue you only need to ask some seemingly simple questions: where are the records from the American colonies located prior to 1776? Where are the records for Mexico located prior to 1821? Of course, the questions could go on into more detail such as where are the records for Arizona located prior to 1848? (Beware, this is a trick question).

The common theme of each of these and endless other questions is the change in political boundaries and governments that end up changing the way genealogically important records are maintained or changing the location where they are maintained and/or archived. These changes may be as simple as the annexation of an area by a city or municipality or a boundary change in a county or as complex as a multi-year revolutionary war. In every case, the change in the jurisdiction results in some adjustment, either major or minor, to the stream of records.

In the extreme case, boundary change and changes in political jurisdictions result in the destruction of records. The new jurisdiction wants to "erase" any evidence of the old one. But in most cases, the records are moved and not lost, although the movement itself may result in the loss of the records when the record of the movement is not "remembered" by either the old or new jurisdiction.

Even though these types of changes are extremely common, most genealogists I work with seem to be oblivious to the history involved in locations where their particular ancestors lived. For example, while teaching a class on research, when I mention the location of a simple way to determine the changes in U.S. county borders starting in 1620 long before independence, most of the class is surprised that there is a free website with all this information. (This is a test. Can you name the website without me telling you? If not, you have likely made some major mistakes in assigning counties to events in your ancestors' lives). Clue: I have put the URL to the website at the bottom of this post. The link is the word "Counties."

My experience in helping genealogical researchers find their ancestors when they reach a "brick wall" has shown that the vast majority of these brick wall situations are caused by looking for records in the wrong place. Here is a series questions to ask yourself about all of your research:

  • When did an event in the life of my ancestor occur?
  • How accurate is the date of the event?
  • How did I determine the date of the event?
  • Exactly where did the event occur?
  • How did I determine the location of the event?
  • What were all of the political entities with jurisdiction over the location of the event at the time the event occurred?
  • What records could have been kept by each of those political entities?
  • What social, business, military or other types of entities may have existed in the area of the event at the time the event occurred?
  • Have I identified every possible type of document that could have been maintained for the time and place of each event?

An so forth. OK, the clue is Counties.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Are Names a Game in Genealogy?

Genealogy will never be truly global until its methods of recording family information reflect the great diversity around the world. Tony Proctor has analyzed some of the cultural variations in names in a post entitled, "The Game of the Name." This post may seem comprehensive but there are around 6000 languages and the way names are expressed can vary from language to language. Some languages are spoken by only a very few people, but the diversity is much greater than people expect. In addition, the variations within languages are sometimes great enough to keep those who supposedly speak the same language from understanding each other.

The dominant form of genealogical representation is based on a single naming pattern and single kinship systems. I have written about this issue before with virtually no response from comments or otherwise. As genealogists we profess to be interested in records and record preservation. With languages, we not only have the record preservation issue, but we also have the preservation of an entire culture as an issue. If you would like a very limited perspective in this area, see the Wikipedia article "List of languages by number of native speakers." If you read the disclaimer you will also see that the numbers are based on estimates and, I might add, the lumping together of people who really cannot understand one another.

If you were to go back in your own ancestry, how many different languages did your ancestors speak? Do any of these languages imply a different kinship system and naming pattern? How do you record those kinship systems and naming patterns that are different from the English used in this blog post? In the United States, we have a huge Spanish speaking population. Spanish naming patterns and kinship systems are dramatically different from those in English speaking countries. Even if a Spanish speaker uses one of the genealogy programs "translated" into Spanish, the kinship system is often ignored. As far as I can tell, Tony Proctor is one of the very few people in the online genealogical community who is trying to accommodate these differences in some sort of organized way. is the only major online genealogy database that accommodates more than the standard widely spoken languages. Here is the list they presently support:
Afrikaans, Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese-Mandarin, Chinese Traditional, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malay, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Portuguese – Brazil, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovakian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish and Ukrainian.
There is an application of the law of diminishing returns here. Even though there may be thousands of languages, most of the studies of those languages do not discount the number of people who are also proficient in an additional language or speak many languages. Many of the Spanish speaking people in the U.S., for example, also speak some English. On the other hand, even though I would be considered a native English speaker, I also speak Spanish fluently. The diminishing return here is that once you have translated your program into a certain number of languages, there is not a great enough demand from speakers of additional languages to justify the expense of translation and maintaining websites in each new language.

Even with, the process of translating the program into a target language is just that, a translation. For example, if I switch to Spanish in I get a screen that is only partially in Spanish. I am not picking on, none of the other large online programs do much better.

If you find yourself involved with ancestors that spoke a language different from the one you presently speak, there is hope. It is possible to translate those languages into your native language; it just takes a little more time and effort. But then you will be faced with recording the kinship system in a way that preserves the relationships. Most of the programs available allow you to name your own specialized fields for entering information. It is important that you understand why and how this function exists.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Heart of the Story -- The Oral Interview

This is a masterful example of an oral interview. If the story is the heart of genealogy, then the oral interview is the heart of the story. Think of what is lost without the sound and music of this wonderful lady. Then consider how many people you know who have their own stories. Then think what would happen if that story was lost. Get yourself an inexpensive digital recorder and sit down and preserve the stories.

It might be a good idea to be prepared. Take time to talk to the person who has the story. Help them feel comfortable with the process and let them handle your recorder. Make sure you get their permission to conduct the interview and have it preserved. In my current round of oral interviews, I have arranged with the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library at Brigham Young University to archive, transcribe and catalog the interviews. This can be one interview or a whole series on a specific topic.

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of websites dedicated to oral interviews. I suggest looking at the sites that are academically involved in collecting history and folkways. My favorite is the Library of Congress, The American Folklife Center. I have been listening to parts of the Alan Lomax Collection since I was a teenager. Another one of my favorites is Studs Terkel. On the radio for over 45 years, to quote his website, Studs Terkel discussed every aspect of 20th-century life with movers, shakers, artists, celebrities, and working folks. From civil rights to labor to jazz, his work spanned an impressive array of topics and figures. The current archive of his "interviews" is on Popup

Don't get bogged down in dates, names and places. Tell your prospective interviewee that you are interested in stories. Don't stop them once they get started and stop asking questions as long as they talk. Do not ask for names and dates, ask for memories. I only wish I had done more interviewing and less talking.

For more information see the following documents:

Don't get wrapped up in technique. Just let them talk.

Citations: Rules or Principles?

As genealogists are we governed by rules or principles? However, upon reflection, I guess the proper question to ask is whether we are governed at all? We recently did some construction, finishing off our basement. All through the process we had a series of inspections. When the job was completed, there were several items that needed to be fixed before the final inspection. Analogously, my blog is constantly inspected and reader submit comments requesting corrections all the time. But in my genealogy work, there are no periodic inspections unless I share my files with others, I get no feedback at all.

It seems to me that even if we all could somehow agree that there are certain rules and/or principles that apply to genealogy, there is no enforcement mechanism at all and any such rules etc. would be observed only by the most assiduously competent and careful. But there is a segment of the genealogical community that operates as though there were carefully crafted universal rules and further, that those rules apply to all genealogists no matter their degree of involvement or skill. Interestingly, these self-appointed guardians of the genealogical norm, cannot seem to agree very much among themselves as to the content of the rules or even which of the rules apply.

Nowhere in the realm is this lack of uniformity more obvious than in the world of citations of authorities and sources. It thought it would be interesting to look at some of the guidelines for submission of articles to the more prominent genealogical publications and see how much uniformity exists. Who would know more about the "rules of citations" than the editors of the genealogical society magazines?

My first example is the Guidelines for Writers published by the National Genealogical Society (NGS). Hmm. The Guidelines for Writers is very short and concise and any reference to citations is missing. The only statement about format is the following:
NGS Magazine reserves the right to edit all submissions to conform to house style and needs. The NGS Magazine editor agrees to make every reasonable effort to make available to the Writer the final, edited version of the article while there is still time to make corrections.
That seems fair enough, I would suppose that if you were too far off base, they would reject the article altogether or tell you to rewrite it with some kind of citations. If I were going to submit an article, I would probably look at several back issues of the magazine and try to emulate the format.

Next in line is The Genealogist, a publication of the American Society of Genealogists. Their guidelines are even more terse than the NGS.
The editors are particularly interested in single family studies and compiled family genealogies, single-line descents, and articles that solve a specific problem while demonstrating a technique for solution of similar problems. The editors will not draw arbitrary geographic or chronological limits for articles but will continue to exclude queries, which have a proper place in many other publications.
They rely on sample articles entirely, which, by the way, are full of lovely footnotes.

Moving right along, I found a more fertile field in the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about certification from the Board for Certification for Genealogists. They even include a definition of genealogy which seems very helpful. They answer the question very specifically:
8. Question: What is the genealogical standard for documentation (source citation)? 
Answer: Every statement of “fact” that is not “public knowledge” is expected to carry its own specific citation of source. (For instance, a statement that the Civil War began in 1861 would be “public knowledge” because that date is easily found in an array of sources; no source needs to be cited. However, a statement that a certain individual enlisted in a specific unit on a certain day is not public knowledge and must be supported by a reliable source.) Undocumented works are usable for clues but are never considered “proof.”
They also refer potential applicants to a "Style Guide." The Style Guides section of the FAQ are also instructive:
41. Question: Does it really matter what “style guides” I use for writing and citing? As style and reference guides, Genealogy Standards recommends Chicago Manual of Style's ("humanities style,” not “scientific style”) and Evidence Explained! Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (which covers many original record types not handled by CMS). I have published genealogical articles in two major peer-reviewed journals, one in genealogy and one in another academic field. Each of those had its own preferred style. Would those peer-reviewed articles be acceptable "sample work products" to submit at renewal? 
Answer: Different journals, publishers, and fields do have different style preferences that reflect their needs—often economy or certain situations that exist in their research areas. When submitting work to any press, writers are expected to follow the prescribed style of that press. However, even when major scholarly journals publish abbreviated citations, the research they publish will have undergone extensive peer-review and fact-checking to ensure that it meets standards of the field. 
BCG welcomes work samples of a genealogical nature that have been published in peer-reviewed journals. Several examples, from a variety of genealogical journals, appear at this "Sample Work Products" link. Your judges will make their own evaluations of everything you submit, based upon their own expertise, but they would not "penalize" you for the fact that your published material reflects the particular house-style of a journal. In order for them to better evaluate your own work, most judges would prefer that you also include a copy of your manuscript, as you submitted it, as well as the final, edited publication. 
When you submit either unpublished work or published work samples from genealogical magazines that allow you to choose your own presentation styles, BCG's judges would expect you to cite your sources fully by the standards of its recommended guides.
So, the answer is The Chicago Manual of Style, currently in its 16th edition (I realized I am one edition behind in my own copy)

The Chicago Manual of Style. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2012.

which is currently in its second edition (another wake up call, I have the first edition). 

Of course, I already knew that different journals, publishers and fields have different style preferences when I began this post. If I continued on with my examples, all it show would be that each one of the publications is different than the others. 

So, here I am, a lone genealogist out here in genealogyland and what am I supposed to do with my citations? What if I have absolutely no aspirations of ever publishing anything anywhere much less in some prestigious genealogy journal? How am I even going to be able to begin to understand or even become aware of the hundreds of pages of instructions in the the two books cited above? Maybe I begin to wonder why there is such a big deal made about citations at all if even the various organizations and publications of genealogy stuff can't agree? 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Storytelling, Oral Histories, and More

We had a storytelling festival in Mesa, Arizona for a few years. Some of the local people got together and organized a wonderful event with storytellers from all over the country. After a couple of very successful years, the event was turned over to the City of Mesa who managed to kill off the whole event in a couple of years. In Utah, the Timpanogos Story Telling Festival has been going now for 25 years and it is a major community event and attracts people from all over the world. This is the first time we have had the opportunity to attend in Orem, Utah and we were super impressed with the organization and quality of the event. The City of Orem and many, many local and national businesses are sponsors. There were hundreds of school children bussed in to attend and all was done with a high degree of professionalism.

A note about the word "timpanogos." It is derived from a Paiute or Shoshone Indian word roughly translated meaning, "narrow or neck of rocks." This likely refers to the steep walled canyons in the wall of the Wasatch Mountains along the east side of the Utah Valley where Orem and Provo and other cities are located. While at the University of Utah in about 1967 through 1970, I helped write an English/Shoshone Shoshone/English dictionary using the main frame computer at the University. Timponogos is the name of a very prominent mountain visible from almost all parts of Utah Valley.

If you don't know what this has to do with genealogy, then you haven't been listening to your heart. Genealogy really is all about stories. I went through the "names and dates" phase of my genealogical development when I first started investigating my ancestry about 32 years ago. But even then, I took the time to preserve every scrap of paper that pertained to my ancestry. In my other blog, Rejoice, and be exceeding glad..., I have been writing about the loss of genealogical information when people hoard their research and refuse to share with others. I realized very early in my genealogical research efforts that the heart of the matter lay in the stories and sharing those stories is really what we do as genealogists.

I get really annoyed when someone makes disparaging remarks about genealogists as if genealogists were somehow the opposite of the storytellers. This is most evident in statements that say "you don't need to be a genealogist to..." Well, that may be true at one level or another. You certainly do not have to be a genealogist to enjoy stories about your family or help to preserve those stories. But it is the genealogists who discovered or preserved those stories in the first place. Preserving oral traditions is a lot more effort than simply uploading a few copied stories to a website.

When Dr. Wick R. Miller rode out into the deserts of Nevada to preserve the last remnants of the Shoshone language and stories, he had to spend a huge amount of time and effort to preserve what he could find in local communities. See Wick R. Miller Collection. Here is a description of the collection:
The collection includes two binders that Wick R. Miller compiled based on the interactions that he and his students had with the Shoshone and Gosiute communities in Nevada and California during the years 1965-1968. These binders contain a wealth of information in their 511 pages, including summaries of interviews with over 100 Shoshoni speakers, and profiles of about 40 speech communities, reservations, and colonies.
This is what was preserved:
The profiles of Shoshoni speakers include kinship information, places they had lived, and language background. Some of these interviews included memories of traditional practices that date to the early part of the 20th century or commentary on the state of the American Indian people in the late 1960s. There are in-depth descriptions of woven spoons, pine-nut harvesting, fandangos people traveled to as children, and how particular geographical features tie into traditional stories. 
Some of the community profiles are extensive and include maps and information on the internal political climate of the communities and insight into the ways the communities were dealing with pressure from outside policies and increasing contact with mainstream American culture. Others are very brief, illustrating the weakening of many peoples’ ties with the Shoshoni community as only a few (or no) Shoshoni speakers who lived there could be named. 
The information contained in these binders gives us a glimpse back to a place in time that cannot be recovered. Many of the people named are no longer living and much of this information is not available elsewhere.
Now exactly the same things could be said about the families of any number of diligent genealogists and historians. Talking about the impact of stories in one thing, collecting and preserving those stories is another thing. I started collecting stores, back when I was still a student working on the Shoshone project at the University of Utah. My very first effort was a tape recording of my grandmother who was a resident of a care center near the campus. Since then, I have collected stories, diaries, journals, oral histories and more. I must admit, I should have done more than I did. I lost a lot of opportunities to talk to older relatives and that loss is permanent.

I am currently, once again, involved in yet another oral history project, preserving the oral histories of some of the older people that live in my Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now, if we are going to be promoting stories, photos and documents as artifacts of our family history, I think it would be a good idea to promote the capturing and preservation of these same artifacts from the members of our families today for our descendants. I will write more about this later.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Timpanogos Storytelling Festival

Friday, 29 August and Saturday, 30 August, 2014, we are attending the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival. This too is family history at its storytelling best. Sorry for any delay in posting more articles to read. Take this time to read some of the more recent ones you skipped.