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

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Does Genealogy have a Free Lunch?

By SpiderWeb-MarketingSystems - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Food, Pasta, Cook, Mass, Flour, Eat, Lunch

Also known by its acronyms, TANSTAAFL or TINSFAAFL, the phrase "There Ain't (is) No Such Thing As a Free Lunch" has been used in a variety of contexts. The word "free" is the key issue discussed by any interpretations of the phrase. I once contemplated writing a book entitled, "How to Live Free in America" but I decided that I did not want to contribute to the cumulating lack of observance of the law and propriety in the country. However, in this context, we need to be careful to distinguish between the concept of "free" and the philosophical concept of "freedom."

A quick search on Google produces over 13 billion references to the word "free." This is a pretty direct example of how grossly overused this word has become, not just in America, but worldwide. If you are one of those who expects to find things free, then your life will be filled with frustrations and disappointments.

Genealogists, probably even more than most in the general population, have been conditioned to expect their genealogical lunch to be free. Even in the much larger online community, free has almost become expected. So, here I am writing a blog post on the "free" Google Blogger program and it is free but only if I happen to have an Internet connection, a connected computer and want to spend my time blogging. Even if I try to work the system and go to a library where I can use a free connection and computer, I will have paid state or local taxes to support the library's free computers.

For years, I have taught classes about both online genealogy programs and those that run on a local computer. In many of those classes the participants expressed outrage and indignation over the fact that there might be some charge for using the program. This was especially true for "upgrades." As hobbies and other interests go, genealogy is relatively inexpensive, but it is and never has been free in any sense of the word. If genealogically important information is found "free" online it is due to the fact that someone has paid to put the information online. In this context, the time to enter information online is considered to be the payment.

During my life, I have had a lot of friends and relatives that ran "home businesses." Almost without exception, as they ran these businesses they looked at the normal business expenses but they commonly neglected to factor in the time they spent in operating the business. They sometimes made an "income" from the business but never applied the income to paying themselves for their time spent. Of course, unless you are planning to become a "professional" genealogist, genealogy is not remunerative.

Stepping back a bit, genealogical software is fairly inexpensive. For example, claims that the average American spends $936 annually on eating out at restaurants. If that amount alone were spent on your genealogical endeavors, you would probably benefit more from learning about your family than eating out. You could also subscribe to all four of the major, online genealogical database programs including the "free" one, But the real point here is that the amount of out-of-pocket money needed to do genealogy is not significant. Genealogy does involve a lot of time spent. It can become "expensive" if you feel the need to travel and visit family locations or to do research in distant locations.

Personally, I have never viewed either the time or the money I spent in pursuing my family history as a burden. We do pretty much what we want to do.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Taking a Look at Tongan Genealogy

Quoting from Wikipedia:
Tonga ([ˈtoŋa]; Tongan: Puleʻanga Fakatuʻi ʻo Tonga), officially the Kingdom of Tonga, is a Polynesian sovereign state and archipelago comprising 169 islands of which 36 are inhabited.[1] The total surface area is about 750 square kilometres (290 sq mi) scattered over 700,000 square kilometres (270,000 sq mi) of the southern Pacific Ocean. It has a population of 103,000 people of whom 70% reside on the main island of Tongatapu.
It is interesting to me that in both Arizona and Utah there are significant immigrant Tongan communities. As a result, from time to time, I am asked questions about researching Tongan genealogy. Now, most English-speaking genealogists would literally throw up their hands in despair even thinking about "doing Tongan genealogy." But the reality is that doing genealogical research has a commonality that transcends language or locality.

Translating any particular language with which you are not personally acquainted is almost inevitable if you expect to do any genealogical research in depth. Even if every one of your ancestors spoke English as the native language, as you go back in time, you will have to contend with Middle English and eventually Old English, both of which appear to be "foreign" languages to modern English speakers. In addition, even older English records are written in Latin, another language challenge.

I have studied enough languages to be comfortable doing research in almost all the Western European countries and non-European languages are only a slightly different challenge. Why did I choose Tongan as my example? Simple. It is spoken by and familiar to very few native English speakers. Here in the Western United States, we can always find someone who speaks both English and Spanish for example, by locating someone who speaks both English and some of the other of the world's languages can be problematic and Tongan is not one of the language available in the Google Translate program.

The key here is that I do not have to speak Tongan to do genealogical research in records written in that language. I also do not have to speak Tongan to help someone else do genealogy in their Tongan family lines. The vocabulary I need to do research or to help is rather limited and the resources to make the translation possible are available online. Here is an example of a Tongan text.

Start with the Research Wiki. Here is a screenshot of the Tongan Genealogy page:

Here the page you need to read to start the process, "Tongan customs and research ideas."

You can start by investigating the language. Here is a Wikipedia article about the Tongan language.

You may also want to get started with a Tongan-English, English-Tongan dictionary. Here are some that are available:

Churchward, C. Maxwell. Tongan Dictionary: Tongan-English and English-Tongan. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Morton, Ermel J. A Tongan-English, an English-Tongan Dictionary. Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 2004.
Schneider, Thomas. Functional Tongan-English, English-Tongan Dictionary. Nukuʻalofa, Tonga: ʻAtenisi University, 1977.
Thompson, Richard H, and ʻOfa Thompson. The Student’s English-Tongan and Tongan-English Dictionary. Palo Alto, Calif.: Friendly Isles Press, 2000.
Tuʻinukuafe, Edgar. A Simplified Dictionary of Modern Tongan. Auckland, N.Z.: Polynesian Press, 1992.

As a final note, you just might want to know that Tonga and Tongan are two different languages. Tonga is spoken in Zambia.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Where is all the genealogy? Part Six: Historical Societies

Oil In Water, Oil Eye, Liquid, Abstract, Texture, Macro

A Google search on the term "historical society" resulted in over 30 million entries. There is also a huge, but very incomplete, list of societies on Wikipedia. See Wikipedia: List of historical Societies. In the United States there are national, state and local societies as well as specialized organizations for the preservation of everything from ships to battlefields. Some of these organizations are just a few individuals while others have thousands of members and maintain major libraries and archives. Many genealogical researchers seem to ignore any organization or website that does not contain the word "genealogy." In doing this, they seem to forget that genealogy is nothing more or less than history.

There is a contrast between "genealogical societies" and "historical societies" but the overlap is significant. A Google search for "genealogical society" results in about 389 thousand results. Clearly there are a considerable number of both types of societies.
In an online article on entitled "History of Historical Societies in the U.S.", author Sara Lawrence makes the following observation:
If the historical societies in the United States today were to be characterized in a single word, no doubt the word would be, “variety.” Some historical societies, like the Massachusetts Historical Society focus on national history, while others specialize in the history of a particular state or locality, such as the Oregon Historical Society, or the Chicago Historical Society. There are historical societies specific to particular ethnic and religious groups, such as the American Jewish Historical Society, or topics of historical interest, such as the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society. Also common are societies that specialize in pioneer history, genealogy, or preservation of antiques or historic buildings. Examples are The Pioneer Historical Society of Benford County, Inc , the Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Society, and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, respectively. A good way to appreciate the breadth of variety among historical societies is to take a look at the list of repositories of primary sources put together by the University of Idaho. It contains links to over 5250 websites which describe the various holdings (manuscripts, archives, rare books, photographs, etc) of different repositories worldwide.
As an example of the emphasis of some genealogists, the huge RootsTech 2016 Conference earlier this year had hundreds of classes and not one of them was directed at learning about historical societies. However, this is not always the case, the upcoming 2016 Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference list of classes includes some specifically directed at historical societies.

Clearly, involvement with and research using the resources of historical societies is a concept that is not acquired by many genealogists until they have a certain degree of research understanding, experience and motivation.

With the resources of the Internet, finding information about an historical society is pretty simple. In many cases, all you need to do is search for a society in the community, county or state where your ancestors lived. For example, I recently traveled through Rutland County, Vermont where some of my ancestors lived and died. Here is what I found online about an historical society in that county:

I would venture to guess that you can find such a society almost anywhere in the world. The Rutland Historical Society makes the following statement on their website:
The Society will investigate your research query upon receipt of a written request. Please include a self-addressed and stamped envelope. Also please share with us as much pertinent information as you may have. Our researchers are all volunteers so we cannot guarantee a quick response. We will charge fifteen cents per page for any pertinent pages copied. The society will do up to an hour of research for a free will donation. If your request requires more than an hour of time we will advise you. In many cases you will be directed to other sources.
Take some time to investigate whether your own research could be aided by connecting with an historical society.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Sirens' Call of Names in Genealogical Research

Silhouettes, Human, Mankind, Circle, Network, Social

Over the years, I have often been asked is I am related to other Tanners around the country. Very early on, I came to realize that having the surname "Tanner" meant little or nothing about being genealogically related. Notwithstanding my own realization the having the same or similar surname was not decisive in determining relationships, I constantly see articles, blog posts and other comments about the origin of surnames and the meaning of various surnames.

Not too long ago I wrote some posts on patronymics. Almost every culture in the world has some sort of patronymical surname system. There are still countries, such as Iceland, where patronymics are still used. In any place where patronymics are used, or even matronymics, having a surname in common is certainly no indication of relationship. However, surname patterns and concentrations of people with the same or very similar surnames in a particular geographic area can be helpful tools in some areas of genealogical inquiry.

As societies evolved around the world, identification of the individual and the ability to distinguish individuals is strongly associated with societal complexity. The various governments' ability to impose taxes, raise armies and conduct complex business transactions with written documents has driven the need to more positively identify people. In less structured societies, individuals with the same name are usually distinguished by the addition of a descriptive tag such as John the Younger or Peter the Small. In some societies, names change during the different phases of a person's life and take on religious or cultural significance.

Surnames often indicate social standing and cultural differences. In my own experience, as I live within the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I am often asked if I am related to prominent leaders in the Church who have the same surname. I almost all such cases, I actually am related to these people for the simple reason that we share a common progenitor who joined the Church shortly after its organization.

In any given country of the world, you can determine an approximate time period when surnames became predominant. In England, for example, surnames became used in the 11th Century but were not common until well into the 16th Century. In countries such as Denmark and Sweden, patronymics were used commonly used until well into the 19th Century.

For genealogists, all of this means that names are not a reliable basis for establishing relationships and this general rule is even more restrictive when researchers begin to assume that people with the same name are the same person without other substantiating documentation.

Surnames are derived from a variety of sources:

  • Patronymics and Matronymics -- surnames derived from the given name of a parent
  • Occupation -- such as my own surname, Tanner, from the occupation
  • Topographic -- names after landscape features such as hill, lake and valley
  • Descriptive -- such as young, white, strong etc.
In today's society, both given names and surnames are sometimes simply made up or created. We have a tradition in Utah of having very innovative names. Here is a video that you might enjoy showing the variety of Utah names:

I hope that this short video helps you to not put too much confidence in either common surnames for identification or spelling or any other unreliable method of identifying your ancestors.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Advantages and Limitations of Indexes

Genealogical finding aids are currently a hot topic. Indexing existing records seems to be an obvious way to make information more available, particularly to beginning researchers. But in some cases, indexes hinder rather than assist finding a particular record.

To understand my concern, it is necessary to understand how and why indexes exist. Historically, an index was provided in conjunction with a written manuscript to aid the reader in finding particular information in a long document. For example, as a genealogical researcher, I commonly find indexes or lists of names in parish registers and New England Town Records. The priest or the town clerk spent the time to compile a list of the entries so that he could find the same entries in the future. However, parish registers are a good example of documents where indexes have limited utility.

Creating an index requires the indexer to select specific items within the text to include in the index list. An index differs from a catalog in that a catalog organizes information by subject and may be based on geography, chronologically or in some other fashion. An indexer reviews the entire document and makes a somewhat arbitrary selection of items to include in a usually alphanumeric list with page numbers showing where the terms can be found. Technology now provides an alternative; full text indexing. Documents can be digitized and then a complete "index" of every word becomes available through search programs (engines) and optical character recognition or OCR.

OCR has its limitations. The most significant one for genealogists is the lack of a reliable way to consistently and reliably read handwritten records. Hence the need for indexing. But as researchers we need to always be aware of the limitations of relying solely on indexes to find information. Unfortunately, there is always a background need to bulldoze the information, that is, to look at each entry.

Indexes may have a high level of reliability, but the rely heavily on the accuracy of the original record. For example, if a census enumerator wrote down your ancestor's name phonetically, the indexer will usually add the name the way it was spelled in the original record. Even if you, as a researcher, go back and examine the original record, you may not recognize the entry for your ancestor because it was so badly written in the first instance. Because indexes are derivitive, they add an additional layer of possible inaccuracy. It is always important to look at the original records, if they are available.

One serious mistake of unseasoned researchers is to assume that the index contains all of the information from the original record. This is usually not the case. Most indexes are selective and there may be much more information in the original.

The rule is that the absence of information about an ancestor in an index is not conclusive as to what information there may be in the original documents.

Of course, there are indexes that are the "original" document. For example, a telephone book or city directory is a form of index, but both can be considered as the "original." It is always a good practice to verify the information that is initially found in an index or index-like record with other sources.

None of these comments diminish in any way the importance of indexes as finding aids, but researchers should always be aware of and evaluate the reliability of any document used as a source for genealogical information.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ancestry reports its 2nd Quarter Financials

Ancestry's second quarter 2016 revenues increased 25% over the same quarter in 2015. If genealogists needed any more proof that genealogy can be a big business then reading the Ancestry report should dispel any doubt. The report also shows that during the same period, added millions of new records. This report dispels any concern about the future of the large, online genealogy companies.

Here are the links to the press release and blog post from Ancestry.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

MyHeritage announces SuperSearch Alerts

What happens when you do a search on and then they add more records? Before now, you would have to do the search over again even if you were not aware that additional records had been added. Now, SuperSearch Alert will automatically notify you when new results are available for your previous searches that did not exist when you did the original search.

Here is a more detailed explanation of the process from the blog post dated July 18, 2016.
MyHeritage's SuperSearch contains a wealth of useful content to explore. Currently home to 6.85 billion historical records, SuperSearch includes MyHeritage family trees, public photos, census records, birth, marriage and death records, family history books and a lot more. We're constantly adding new content to SuperSearch, with 1 million historical records and 2 million family tree profiles added on average every day. So, even if you don't find what you're looking for on SuperSearch, chances are we'll have it for you sooner or later. But how would you know when the records you need (or records you didn't know existed) for the people you are searching for, have been added? We now have the answer! Instead of coming back to repeat the same searches manually, you don't need to do a thing. Instead, we do all the work for you. 
From now on, we will automatically repeat old searches you've made on SuperSearch, in the background, every two months. We detect relevant results that were not available previously. We then send you an email about the new results found, with links to view the records. As with any record on SuperSearch, once you view it, if you consider it relevant, you can easily save it to your family tree (creating a citation pointing to the record) and extract information to the relevant people in your family tree, or add new individuals to your tree. 
SuperSearch Alerts cover every search you've made (when you were logged in to MyHeritage) since SuperSearch was launched in 2012, satisfying every condition you've specified in every search (such as birth years, death years, relatives, places, etc). Searches for extremely common names or searches that yield too many results are automatically excluded from SuperSearch Alerts, because when there are too many results, chances are that the new results are not relevant, and we don't want to waste your time.
There is some time and some concerns as this new program is being implemented. Again quoting from the blog post:
Receiving SuperSearch Alerts is free. Viewing results from some data collections are also free (e.g., Billion Graves, Compilation of Published Sources, Social Security Death Index, etc.), but viewing most records requires a Data subscription. 
SuperSearch Alert emails will be sent to you at most once a week, so they won't clog your mailbox. At the bottom of every SuperSearch Alert email, you'll find the option to turn off this feature entirely, and a link to the new configuration page listing all your previous searches, where you can easily select which ones you'd like us to re-run periodically for you. 
SuperSearch Alerts are being rolled out gradually to our user base, with the first group of 10 million users starting now, to allow us to monitor system load and user satisfaction. If you are not getting them during the next few weeks, don't worry. It probably means your account hasn't been activated yet for SuperSearch Alerts. Please be patient as we roll it out.