RootsTech 2015

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Genealogy and Information Literacy

Every time I go to the Brigham Young University Family History Library (many times a week) I see a sign for a University office entitled, "Information Literacy." As I began to notice the sign, I became more and more curious about this academic subject. What is information literacy? Of course, I could search the Internet for the answer and so I did. I immediately found a website for the Association of College and Research Libraries, a Division of the American Library Association with an article entitled, "Introduction to Information Literacy." Here I found the definition of Information Literacy:
Information Literacy is the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information.
The definition is expanded with a quote from the American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. The quote says:
“Ultimately, information literate people are those who have learned how to learn. They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information, and how to use information in such a way that others can learn from them. They are people prepared for lifelong learning, because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand.”
This definition was extremely interesting to me because for the first time, I had a name and a concept for many of my observations over the years. I have often thought and written about the divide in genealogy between those who have the skills set forth in the description and those who have not acquired those skills. It is sometimes very helpful to know that the thing you are concerned about has a name and that there are people out there studying the issues. It is sort-of like learning that some physical condition you have is really a categorized illness.

I further found it profoundly interesting that the descriptions of observed problem applied so directly to genealogical research. Here is a further quote from the Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report back on January 10, 1989 in Washington, D.C. As you read this, think about the fact that this statement was made at a time when the Internet, as we know it today, was barely in its infancy.
No other change in American society has offered greater challenges than the emergence of the Information Age. Information is expanding at an unprecedented rate, and enormously rapid strides are being made in the technology for storing, organizing, and accessing the ever growing tidal wave of information. The combined effect of these factors is an increasingly fragmented information base---large components of which are only available to people with money and/or acceptable institutional affiliations.
This statement refers to the "ever growing tidal wave of information" at a time when they could not see what that would really mean.

Later on in the same article, there is an outline of the learning process faced by people in every instance of acquiring information:
  • knowing when they have a need for information
  • identifying information needed to address a given problem or issue
  • finding needed information and evaluating the information
  • organizing the information
  • using the information effectively to address the problem or issue at hand.
 This succinctly describes the issues I see genealogical researchers facing nearly every day. Here are some of my own rewriting of these processes in the context of genealogy:

  • Genealogical researchers copy information from existing family trees, accept unsupported conclusions from others and make invalid relational conclusion because they do not know that they have a need for information.
  • When confronted with a difficult family relationship, many genealogical researchers do not know how to identify the information the need to address a given problem or issue. In fact, they cannot recognize when an issue exists.
  • Many genealogical researchers do not know how to find needed information or how to evaluate that information once it is found. Note, finding and evaluating are two separate and important functions.
  • A considerable number of genealogists lack organizational skills and do not know how to adequately use the available genealogical database programs.
  • Even when given the proper information about a particular ancestral relationship, they reject the information because they do not know how to use it.

Of course observing a problem and solving it are also two distinct things. The problems I observe in the genealogical community have their roots in the challenges of society in general. Many genealogically related individuals seem to see that the problems faced by genealogists can be solved by resort to incorporating younger, more computer savvy, people into the genealogical community. That only makes sense if those younger people are informationally literate. Informational Literacy is not just a set of skills used to manipulate computers and similar devices such as smartphones, it is much more complicated than that. As I see it, the lack of Information Literacy among those involved in and promoting genealogy is not limited to any one age group. It is a much deeper reflection of our shallow educational system and the consequences of failing to challenge students in a way that fosters true learning. Preparing students to pass a standardized test is not going to develop Information Literacy.

Here is a final quote from the Association of College and Research Libraries, a Division of the American Library Association on the subject in another article entitled, "Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education."
Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." 1 Information literacy also is increasingly important in the contemporary environment of rapid technological change and proliferating information resources. Because of the escalating complexity of this environment, individuals are faced with diverse, abundant information choices--in their academic studies, in the workplace, and in their personal lives. Information is available through libraries, community resources, special interest organizations, media, and the Internet--and increasingly, information comes to individuals in unfiltered formats, raising questions about its authenticity, validity, and reliability. In addition, information is available through multiple media, including graphical, aural, and textual, and these pose new challenges for individuals in evaluating and understanding it. The uncertain quality and expanding quantity of information pose large challenges for society. The sheer abundance of information will not in itself create a more informed citizenry without a complementary cluster of abilities necessary to use information effectively.
Try substituting the word "genealogists" for the word "individuals" and "citizenry" see what I mean.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Ins and Outs of Probate for Genealogists - Part Four - What is Probate?

Probate is a court supervised procedure for the orderly transfer of property after a person's death. At the bottom of this post, you will find links to the previous posts on this process. In the United States, the term "probate" has a decidedly negative connotation. This has occurred primarily from two factors; the fact that some attorneys have charged a fixed percentage of an estate's value for shepherding a probate case through court and the promotional efforts of those individuals who purport to provide "estate planning."

The one event in the history of probate in the United States that could be considered the beginning of modern probate practice was the publication in 1966 of a book by Norman F. Dacey entitled, "How to avoid probate." This national bestseller went through multiple editions and is still popular. The idea was that probate per se was bad and that avoiding probate per se was beneficial. It is true, that some of the fees charged by attorneys for being involved in the probate practice were exorbitant and bore no relation to the amount of work done and that there were some rather simple things that could be done to avoid those costs. Over time, in some states, most of the original issues raised by the book have become less of an issue due to dramatic changes in the probate laws, such as the adoption of the Uniform Probate Code that provided changed the way attorneys were paid for their work.

Over the years, I have found that the main factor driving huge attorney's fees in a probate case has been fighting among the heirs. The vast majority of the cases I handled were routine and the fees were minimal. In fact, if the deceased had spent the money for the estate planning advocated by those promoting an avoidance of probate, the costs would have been many times the actual probate fees. Today's cost for a probate avoidance, estate planning package can run into the thousands of dollars and there are a host of estate planning practitioners who fail to tell their clients the truth about the real costs involved in a probate action, assuming one is needed at all.

That said, the actual need for and the complexity of a probate action is determined entirely by the size and value of an estate and the ability of the heirs to agree among themselves. The need for a way to transfer property upon the death of the owner has existed since property ownership existed. The current procedures in the United States go back to English Common Law and the Court system that developed starting in the Middle Ages in England and other countries. The driving force for creating probate procedures is the existence of "titled property," that is property ownership that is evidenced by some kind of government issued title document created at the time the property is acquired. In our modern age, real estate and automobiles are the most common types of titled property.

As I mentioned, the size or value of the estate is a crucial factor in the need for either estate planning or for probate. The basic idea involved in the so-called estate planning schemes are a way to transfer all of a person's property to a trust or other entity before death. The reason for this is that in some cases, when an estate reaches a certain value, the government imposes transfer taxes, usually called "estate taxes" on the value of the money and other property transferred to the heirs. The idea of estate planning is to minimize the amount of these taxes and to provide cash to pay the taxes if needed. In the United States presently, there is a "standard estate tax deduction" that changes from year to year. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2015, the standard deduction is $5,430,000. See "In 2015, Various Tax Benefits Increase Due to Inflation Adjustments" from the IRS. You can probably guess that most of us will not have any estate tax liability. You should also realize that the amount of the deduction can change during the year depending on Federal legislation.

The issue with titled property is that specific people "own" the property and if an owner dies, then there is legally no one to sign over the deed or title to the heirs (those who by law or trust or will are supposed to receive the property). A will comes into this procedure as the document containing the wishes of the deceased as to which heirs are to receive the property. The probate action considers the interests of the deceased owner, provides for the payment of debts, provides for the payment of any taxes or fees owed by the deceased, decides who gets the residue of the property in the estate and then orders the executor or personal representative to distribute the property and legally sign any necessary titles or deeds.

If a person dies with a will, they are said to have died testate. If there is no will discovered, then the person is said to have died intestate (i.e. without a will). In the case of a person who dies intestate (without a will) most states in the United States now provide a legal structure that essentially writes a will for the deceased person in a very simple way. This is called an intestate probate procedure. In some cases, if no will was found and no heirs located, the property of the deceased person "escheated to the state." This usually only occurred if there was no subsequent legal owner of the property, i.e. no heirs, and there was actual property that the state wanted to acquire.

One of the "boogymen" raised by the estate planning community is the specter of having the estate escheated to the government. In my experience, this was very rare. However, I had many clients whose first fear upon discussing probate was that all their money and property would go to the state. This is apparently still a scare tactic used by those estate planners in the United States who invite older people to a "free lunch or dinner" to discuss their need for estate planning.

Where do genealogists come into this picture? Well, they all die so their estates may need to be probated, but beyond this The entire probate action, including a will, if one is in existence, provide a rich source of information about an individual and his or her family. In the next post in this series, I will discuss some standard probate procedures. Stay tuned.

Nathan Furr, Ph.D., Author of The Innovator’s Method, at #RootsTech Innovator Summit

The Innovator Summit is the more technical side of #RootsTech 2015. It will be held on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 at the Salt Palace, the day before the opening of the main #RootsTech 2015 Conference. To attend the Innovator Summit, you have to specifically register for the event when you register for #RootsTech 2015. Here is a brief description of this event and the Keynote address:
Innovator Summit offers developers, business leaders, and entrepreneur's access to the latest content and resources that provide insight on family history data, services and inspiration for current and future projects. 
This year’s full-day event features keynote speaker Nathan Furr, PhD. Furr is a leading author and recognized expert in innovation and entrepreneurship. 
His keynote address, titled “How to Apply the Innovator’s Method to Increase Your Success and Decrease Your Risk,” will zero in on the impact of learning on new market success and how to capture new opportunities, balance, execution, and flexibility, and develop innovative business models. 
Nathan Furr is an assistant Professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Brigham Young University and has a PhD from Stanford University. His new book, The Innovator’s Method (Harvard Business Review Press, September 2014) combines innovation and entrepreneurship, bringing the radical “lean start-up” approach to innovation into established organizations. His previous book, Nail It Then Scale It (NISI Institute, 2011), shows how the seeds of entrepreneurial success are sown before you build anything. 
In addition to Furr, other exciting and inspiring business and technology speakers at Innovator Summit include: 
  • Harrison Tang, cofounder and chief executive officer of
  • Mike Davis, cofounder and chief executive officer of StoryPress
  • Robert Charles Anderson, FASG, director of the Great Migration Study Project at the New England Historic Genealogical Society
Click here for a schedule of events and other links.

An added incentive for developers is the RootsTech Innovator Challenge. Developers are invited to:
Come and participate in this year’s big, new, and improved challenge for developers and entrepreneurs, with $25,000 in prizes and a huge potential to reach your audience! This year's Innovator Challenge will invite four finalists to the stage to show off their latest creations in front of thousands of RootsTech attendees, including renowned judges, with live-audience voting! Past winners, such as last year’s grand-prize winners, Harvey and Jane Baker of Savings Memories Forever, have gone on to successfully capitalize on the $4 billion family history market and stake a claim for themselves. Whether you have a project in the works now or an idea you want to try, or if you are interested in participating and looking for ideas, check out the RootsTech Innovator Challenge, and get started!
As I have in the past, I am planning on attending the Innovator Summit. I find this the part of #RootsTech 2015 that provides the best information about the direction of genealogy in the coming year.

Famberry adds One Terabyte of free space for users

Generally, there seems to be very little awareness in the United States of genealogy programs in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. I have also seen little notice of programs such as among the blogger based in the U.S. Here is a recent press release that may create more than a little interest:
London, England (December 16th, 2014) To celebrate the move to new server facilities, Famberry, the popular collaborative family tree builder, is giving all users who sign up, a massive one terabyte of space to store their photos and memories. That’s enough space to store over 300,000 photos, so all your family’s memories can be shared for generations to come. All for free. 
As part of the project to move onto new, physically secure, high-grade servers, Famberry has been completely re-written to work even more seamlessly on mobile phones, tablet devices and desktop computers, with no additional software or plug-ins; your family can always stay connected, wherever they are. 
The move to the new server cluster means that you can finally keep your private family memories are safe and secure, with information replicated automatically to 3 different locations within the UK. 
In addition to the award-winning family tree building features that users have grown to love, the new version has hundreds of improvements including:
  • New facilities for cropping and uploading multiple photos 
  • Personal photo albums for each member of the family tree
  • Easier navigation for mobile devices
  • Centralised timeline for the whole Family
… and much more, in fact the site continues to be updated weekly with new features based on user feedback. 
Famberry are only offering this unprecedented offer for a limited time - on a first come, first served basis, so sign up today at to secure a space for your family’s history.
If you want to know more about the company, you can listen to an interview with Steve Bardouille on

Monday, December 15, 2014

Moving Genealogical Collections Index is no longer on This is likely because of's purchase of It may also be the result of's involvement as a competitor, with See this screen shot:

This is a somewhat unanticipated development of the continuing movement in the commercial online world of genealogical databases. You might recall that a website named was acquired by some time ago. The original website purported to be in the process of digitizing a considerable number of documents from the U.S. National Archives. The number and variety of documents was impressive and was proving to be very useful. After the purchase, the name of the website was changed to and the focus of the website became military records only. Some of the more valuable records from the original site are much harder to use and find.

When a genealogy company is acquired or enters into a partnership with another company, the outcome is no different than any other such transaction in the commercial world. The acquired company can continue to exist either with or without it original management team, or the acquired company can cease to exist, either immediately or over time as it is absorbed into the acquiring company. There are several examples of each possible iteration.

It is almost inevitable that additional acquisitions and mergers will occur in the future. For the genealogists who are on the receiving end of these transactions, we will likely see similar movements of the collections from one company to another and as with the Index on, some collections may change availability and location.

Returning to the issue of standardized place names and dates

One of the more significant movements in the world of genealogy programs is the tendency for developers to force users to rely on a list of "standardized place names." Incidentally, they also standardize dates, but the impact of standardized dates is much less than the impact of standardized place names. First off, the place names of many locations around the world have changed over time. Some locations have had multiple place names due to wars, changes in governments, changes in the language spoken over time and many other factors. Some place names have changed simply because the conflicted with a similar place name in another location and mail was being routed incorrectly. 

Standardized place names obscure these changes and make genealogical research immeasurably more difficult and ignore the realities of history. The unsuspecting users of such programs adopt place names that have no relationship to reality, such as including "United States" or a state name in a location long before any such jurisdiction existed.

I must acknowledge that there are genealogists who advocate and teach that the place name should be recorded as it exists today. What they ignore is that the name used today may also change over time and become misleading in the future. The only safe way to record events is to record them with the name of the place as it existed at the time of the event. That name will not change. But to simply record the name of the place at the time the event occurred may also be misleading. Any subsequent, significant name changes should also be recorded. This may actually involve the researcher in doing a little bit of historical research, but such is always good for the soul of a competent genealogist.

What is more frustrating from a research standpoint, is when genealogists list a "current" place name that did not exist at all historically. For example, I once ran across an entry in my research where the birth place of my Great-grandfather who was born in 1778 was listed as Cottonwood, Utah. Yes, South Cottonwood was where he died in 1850, but back in 1778 that area of the country was not yet settled by Europeans and in fact, belonged to Mexico. This may seem like an obvious and trivial example, but the reality is that listing a current place name when such a place did not exist at the time, such as appending "United States" to entries prior to the establishment of the country, can lead to serious misconceptions and errors in research.

Genealogically important records are generally created as a result of the occurrence of an event. Such events occur in a particular and very specific geographic location. The records are usually created by jurisdictions in existence at the time of the event. For example, if a baby is born, the event occurs at a specific location and at a specific time. The date and place for the birth event would be most accurate if it were recorded near in time to the event. This is not always the case. A record of the birth could be made at any time subsequent to the event's occurrence. For example, a record of the birth might not occur until the time of the individual's death or even after his or her death. As genealogists, we soon learn that records created at or near the time of an event's occurrence are more reliable than those created at a later date. We also learn the records of any particular event are usually created in the different jurisdictions, political, social, religious, etc., that exist at the time of the event or subsequent to the event. Another example, suppose an individual was born and no record made of the event (not uncommon), but later, that individual joins some kind of military unit and his or her birthdate is recorded in the military records. Aside from considerations of reliability, the jurisdiction, in this case, the military unit or organization, may not have existed at the time of the individual's birth, but the record is still valid. A record of any particular event could be recorded at any time after the event occurred.

Now, back to standardized place names. The record of an event, to be most genealogically useful, must contain enough information to establish where the event occurred. Not just a general statement, but a specific reference to a specific location. The tendency of current programs to aid the user in substituting a current location for the real, historic one makes finding the true location much more difficult and in some cases impossible. This is particularly true of situations where it is important to distinguish between people of the same or similar name that lived in the same area at the same time. Lack of any specific locations in a record about an individual indicates that the reliability of the entry is for all practical purposes zero.

Let me give an example. If I go to's Family Tree, I can easily click back through my supposed ancestors. In doing so, I get back to a entry that states the following: Margaret Ranken, b. about 1714 in Scotland, deceased. This entry lacks any source records and has Margaret Ranken married to John Stewart, christened 17 August 1712, in Caputh, Perth, Scotland. He is also listed without a death date or place as deceased. The source listed is as follows:

Scotland, Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950," index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 15 December 2014), John Stewart, 17 Aug 1712; citing CAPUTH,PERTH,SCOTLAND, reference ; FHL microfilm 1,040,072, 102,697.

The reason for the conclusion is given as, "This christening in Caputh, Perth, Scotland which is the place that this John Stewart was married."

The source for the marriage is listed as follows:

"Scotland, Marriages, 1561-1910," index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 15 December 2014), John Stewart and Margaret Rankine, 13 Oct 1733; citing Caputh,Perth,Scotland, reference ; FHL microfilm 1,040,072, 1,040,073.

Note: The record apparently gives the spelling of Ranken as Rankine. There is no reference to the different spelling in the Family Tree record. The reason given for this source is "marriage record."

Now let's look at the place these events were supposed to occur. 

Caputh is a village in Perth and Kinross, Scotland. See Wikipedia, Caputh, Perth and Kinross. Perth and Kinross is one of the 32 council areas of Scotland and Lieutenancy Area. It corresponds broadly, but not exactly, with the former counties of Perthshire and Kinross-shire. See Wikiepedia: Perth and Kinross. The single district of Perth and Kinross was not created until 1975. 

But notice that Margaret Ranken (or Rankine) was recorded as born in "Scotland" with no further information. The standardized place name for Caputh, Perth, Scotland is Caputh, Perthshire, Scotland. Well, following this a little further, we find that Perthshire, Scotland was officially called County of Perth and was a local government county from 1890 to 1930. See Wikipedia: Perthshire. But these particular events occurred back in the early 1700s. 

The records referenced turn out to be indexes with no images. There is a digital copy of the Scotland Births and Baptisms in the Historical Record Collections. Here is the description of the record from the Research Wiki:
This index is an electronic index for the years 1564 to 1955. It is not necessarily intended to index any specific set of records. This index is not complete for any particular place or region. This collection may include information previously published in the International Genealogical Index or Vital Records Index collections. 
There are no Scotland indexing projects currently, so this collection is not expected to change in the foreseeable future. 
The index, Scotland Births and Baptisms, 1564-1955, is to be used as a tool to locate and view the original documents. The documents or records record more than what is found in the index.
How do we find Margaret Ranken's (or Rankine) parents from the place listing and the source? Despite the note in the Research Wiki article, there is no indication that the original record was recorded. Further research shows that Caputh, Perth and Kinross was created as a civil parish in 1889. See Wikipedia: Perthshire. In 1887, John Bartholomew's Gazetteer of the British Isles describes Caputh like this: See A Vision of Britain Through Time.
Caputh, par. (partly in Forfarshire, but chiefly in Perthshire) and vil. (wholly in Perthshire), near left bank of river Tay, 1½ m. NW. of Murthly sta. and 5 m. SE. of Dunkeld, 20,359 ac. (870 water), pop. 2096.
From this we can see that Caputh was both a parish and a village. Was this particular John Stewart born in the parish or the village? Were there other John Stewarts in this same parish or village? Is the christening record the same person as the marriage record?

At this point the issue becomes extremely complicated, much more so than the fact that there is a "standardized place name" for Caputh. If you want to see how complicated, go to the Parish of Caputh, which has an extensive explanation of the towns included in the parish taken from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885. Note, there a multiple warnings that the information on this website is subject to copyright and so I did not copy any of the text into this post.

You should be able to see, if you read the link to the Parish of Caputh, that determining if we have the right ancestors could be a very complicated proposition and that the standardized place name is less than useful in this situation as it implies that the record came from the Village of Caputh as opposed to the Parish.

Final note: I am not really sure why these British and Scottish references are put online, since it appears that they don't really want anyone to quote or copy any of these books more than a hundred years old.

Another final note: The issue of using any kind of standardized place name is extremely complicated. My opinion is that the main reason for this issue of standardization involves the desires of the programmers to regularize their data for search purposes. But as you can likely see, this obscures the real issues of where an event occurred and where the records might be found. All we have here in my example is a conclusion drawn from same name = same person. We do not know where the marriage took place and we do not know where either of the spouse was actually born.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

What's in a name? You may find out it is different than you think

I got this very interesting comment from Anita R. Lay, a reader:
Found your article on the evanescence of names very interesting, especially as both my husband's family and my own have several instances of people who obviously disliked their birth name simply refusing from an early age to use it. From the time my husband's ggrandfather became an orphan at the age of 9, he permanently rearranged his name. We only found out many years later that his birth name was Caleb Luther Lay. He was named for a "Caleb" in his mother's family and apparently despised the name. He became Luther C. Lay and later in life L.C. Lay. His own wife and children never knew that his name was Caleb, and for some reason they thought the C. stood for Clark, because Clark was a surname in that family. He bought and sold both land and horses as L.C. Lay, was married under the name Luther C. Lay, and buried under the name Luther C. Lay. Although we have found him in a silver mining camp in what is now Colorado in the 1860 census as L.C. Lay (that most invisible of persons...the itinerant young male without many family ties), he completely disappears in the 1870 census. Our suspicion is he wanted no part of the Civil War and managed to put himself out of harms way. By 1880, he has become a respectable married farmer in Iowa, where he remained the rest of his life. Trying to trace someone backward in the records who is determined to be someone else entirely, not for nefarious reasons but because he loathes the name his parents foisted upon him, is not for the faint of heart.
In the past, I have also done some research on a couple of men who fit the description in the comment above. The past week or so, I have also had a lot of comments about names. The situation where a person decides to informally change his or her name is fairly common. This can be as simple as a nickname or as complex as changing an entire name. We often attribute a sudden name change to an undesirable event such as a criminal record, but my own experience indicates that name changes occur in much less dramatic situations. One of my Great-uncles was named Joseph Lawrence Christensen but during his whole life he was called Joe Christensen and surprisingly, that is the name on his grave marker.

Many genealogists get caught up in the meaning or history of their own or other ancestors' surnames. There are perhaps hundreds of websites dedicated to discussing the meaning and origin of surnames. It is very common to assume that those people with the same surname may be related. For some very limited use surnames, this may be true, but for most of us with relatively common surnames, our names originated at different times and different places. I am always being asked if I am related to some Tanner or another around the United States. As far as I can tell, there are half a dozen different significantly large Tanner families that show up in America from England. There is also one sizable family of Tanners that comes directly from Switzerland.

In many cultures around the world, surnames are used to designate familial affiliation. In the United States, the most common form of name transition is the use of the father's surname. But in many instances, when the mother is unmarried for whatever reason, the child may carry its mother's surname or family name. Naming patterns are one clue in establishing ancestral relationships. But all it takes is one innovative parent to spoil the otherwise perfect pattern.