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

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Researching Beyond Census Records

It is so simple and reassuring to find someone in a U.S. Census record. Between 1850 and 1940, it is almost a given that anyone in the U.S. can be found with a minimum of effort. Oh, you say, until you can't find them. Well, I found my Great-Uncle Allen Benedict Tanner and his family in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census by the simple expediency of reading through every page of the Census record in the small community of Beaver, Beaver, Utah. By the way, there are only 36 pages in that particular enumeration district, so it only took a few minutes to find the family.

The problem is that when you can't find your family in the U.S. Census where do you go? What do you do? What if you also strike out with searches on and I should mention that when I tried to search on after I found the record by looking at every page, I did a search for "Allen B Tanner" in Beaver, Beaver, Utah and the search engine failed to find him or his family. So had I not already found him through the page by page search, I might have come to the conclusion that "he wasn't in the 1880 U.S. Census." This points out another important rule: always search the original records when they are available.

In short, doing genealogical research is a lot more than census searches and finding a family in the U.S. Census is sometimes a lot more than a census search also. Did I mention that I found my Grandfather in the 1920 U.S. Census when he was indexed as "Tamer" rather than "Tanner?"

The suggestion here is that there are lots of records about your ancestors other than just those in the U.S. Census. For example, Allen Benedict Tanner has twenty sources attached and I know that the number is only a fraction of the total number of places this particular Tanner family is mentioned in records. Just looking down the list already in the Family Tree, I could add in about three times that many sources if I had the time and inclination. But you say, so what? Who cares? And what difference does it make if there is one source or fifty?

Genealogical research is not a numbers game. We are not out to set some kind of record for adding sources to a family. There are no extra points for each source added. So why not stop with the one U.S. Census record or so that establishes the family and leave it at that?

By the way, this is a serious question and one that is posed to me regularly. I am regularly asked "How many sources is enough to add to someone in the Family Tree." My answer is always the same, "All of them." Just yesterday, I was getting frustrated with not being able to find a certain family in either or I did a general Google search and found an extensive biography of the father of the family with a long list of sources.

Is there a specific place to go if you cannot find an individual ancestor or family in the U.S. Census? Not really. The general rule is begin your search with marriage records as they are the most reliably recorded type of record. I eventually found yesterday's difficult family in cemetery records. I might also point out that you aren't through searching until you have looked at every type of record listed in the Research Wiki and the Catalog. I mean every single type of record listed. But usually, you can focus on church records or civil records to find most families.

When things get tough, the tough get going.

Friday, August 26, 2016

How accurate are historical records?

A recent local news article caught my eye, "Roy woman struggling to prove she's alive after government declares her dead." This story highlights a common problem faced by genealogists: conflicting source records. The Utah woman in the article has been fighting with the U.S. Government for over two years when the Social Security Administration reported her dead and her bank and other entities began to close accounts and try to collect for overpayment.

From the genealogical standpoint, we commonly find names misspelled, dates incorrectly recorded, people wrongly identified and myriad of other errors that cannot be corrected and must be dealt with. The list of possible errors also involves simple issues such as the transposition of numbers in dates to the intentional understatement or overstatement of ages. It is also not too uncommon to find where record keepers were faced with or created outright lies.

One of the most common issues and iconic for genealogists, is the fact that Census records are routinely off at least one year in the estimated age and birth date of the people listed. This is caused by the fact that the Census records are officially calculated from the "date of the census" which may affect the calculation of the age or birth date due to the actual date of birth being either before or after the official census date.

Are you bothered by the inconsistency in the records? Do you ignore the fact that the records are inconsistent and adopt one record as the "correct" source or can you live with the inconsistency? Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have said, in part, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds..." Perhaps, we need to try to avoid foolish consistency and realize that historical records can be contradictory.

Let's suppose that you find that a newspaper obituary and the grave marker disagree on the date of death. What do you do? Is there really any possibility or controversy as in the news article above, that the person is really dead? If not, then from a genealogical standpoint, what is the issue? One of the most important aspects of any form of historical research is to increase the breadth of our searches along with the depth. In the case I just cited, if the death date is crucial to identifying the right individual or for some other reason, then the answer is to do more research and find the will or the probate case in the court records. But if the actual date does not matter then why spend time trying to fight with inconsistency?

Too many times, I find people who are obsessed with finding a particular date. I have one friend who has spent a huge amount of time trying to find a death date and place for a relative. Perhaps it is time to realize that he is dead and get on with other research. It is always possible that the date and place of death were never recorded for some reason such as the fact that he was lost at sea or wandered off into the desert or mountains and died.

This whole issue points out the need for research that includes more sources than just one. There is wisdom in the admonition that in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established. See 1 Timothy 5:19.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Can You Hear Me? Can You Hear Me? Comments on VR

By I,, CC BY-SA 3.0,
It is presumed that voice recognition software will replace the keyboard and the manual operating systems of all the world's computers in the future. Well, they have also been predicting flying cars for about 75 years or so and we are really no closer to that reality than we were back in 1940 when this photo was taken.

By Kobel Feature Photos (Frankfort, Indiana) / State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Public Domain,
 The problem with flying cars are similar to those with voice recognition. You can make one, but what you really need is a whole infrastructure of support and a system where the product can be used effectively. You might think that VR or voice recognition is a panacea for those who cannot adequately use a keyboard or a tracking device, i.e. mouse or trackpad. But in reality, the keyboard has one thing that VR has not and that is the ability to make quick and accurate edits of typos.

Even if VR becomes so ubiquitous that it replaces the manual controls of common appliances, the range of commands needed to operate, say a microwave oven, are so simple and limited as to make the problem somewhat trivial. Genealogy is not simple and what we type and record is far from the directions to heat some soup for 30 seconds.

As I have written in the past, I have been using VR for years off and on. There have been tremendous advances made in the accuracy and utility of the products, but for genealogists, we are just about at the very beginning of the development. Let me demonstrate the problem. Here is a rather simple quote from my family tree.
Thomas Parkinson 
12 December 1830
Farcet, Huntingdonshire, England, United Kingdom

12 January 1831
Ramsey, Huntingdonshire, England

3 March 1906
Beaver, Beaver, Utah, United States

5 March 1906
Mountain View Cemetery, Beaver, Beaver, Utah, United States
Not complicated at all, is it? Now, using a very sophisticated VR program, without making any corrections, here is what I get:
Thomas Parkinson 
12 December 1830
Carson, Huntingdon Shire, England, United Kingdom 
12 January 1831
Ramsey, Huntington Shire, England 
3 March 1906
Fever, Beaver, Utah, United States 
5 March 1906 
Mountain View Cemetery, beaver, beaver, Utah, United States
Now, there are commands that could resolve a few of these issues, but the reality is that I can accurately type the entire entry in much less time, with a higher degree of accuracy than I am willing to spend trying to get the VR program to make all the adjustments and correct all the bad entries. It does not really help me to go back to the keyboard and try to correct the entries. The reality is that while I am typing, I am making a lot of mistakes. Most of those I can correct with one or two keystrokes. But with VR, I am forced to use a whole bevy of commands, most of which will end up making it ever harder to correct the final product. 

If I were simply writing a letter or an email, I could use the VR program and probable get as close as I needed to with only a few minor corrections, but that is not what I do all day. My operation of the computer involves a highly complex set of instructions that include a lot of clicking and dragging items from one place on the screen to another. To give oral commands to do something as simple as dragging and dropping an image and then formatting it, would require many commands and my frustration level would be enormous.

Even if I had a quick and easy way to use VR to move from field to field in a genealogy program, how long would it take me to train the program correctly for every place name, i.e. changing from Huntingdon Shire to Huntingdonshire? As it is, I have an extra line feed in the second Burial entry above, that I cannot get rid of using the keyboard, how could I do the same thing with oral commands if I cannot do it with my keyboard and trackpad? To correct that formatting issue, I have to go into the HTML and edit it directly.

Some years ago, a friend of mine had a car that gave audible, voice warnings. One particularly annoying warning said, "Your door is ajar." Of course, every time the car said that, we both said, "The door isn't a jar, it is a door." But you can begin to see the problem. Language usage is highly complex and even if computers get to the point of functioning like they do in some movies, they will still be annoying at times and blatantly wrong at other times, just as humans are.

VR is a wonderful tool but we have to realize that just because something is useful in one way or another does not mean that it the universal replacement for everything. I recall the scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when Scotty is confronted with an old Macintosh computer. He talks to it and of course it doesn't respond, so he says "The keyboard, how quaint." But I am guessing that he would have had a very difficult time entering some complex commands solely using VR as demonstrated by the furious typing that ensues in the movie. By the way, the old Mac would not have the computer power to process the commands that Scotty was trying to enter.

In making these observations, I am not disparaging VR. Here is the last paragraph of my post, entirely using VR.

As genealogist, we need to be open to new technology and adapted [adapt it] to our working methodology. We also need to realize, that not all new technology translates into advantages for accomplishing our genealogical goals. Voice recognition is a powerful tool but it is not quite ready to take over the entire child [field] of interfacing with a computer.

Now, after dictating that paragraph, I went back and made the corrections which are shown in brackets and in red. The errors were real words and not caught by the spell checking capability of my computer. When the spell checker or, in this case, VR substitutes real words, making the corrections much more difficult to detect the typos and make the corrections.

My last note. VR usually refers to "voice recognition." But recently, it is coming to more commonly refer to "virtual reality." Even this type of confusion makes using both types of VR difficult. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Looking back to the origins of Genealogy's Star

My first blog post on Genealogy's Star blog was two short paragraphs about the FamilySearch Research Wiki.

Since that small beginning, I have written and published 4468 posts and have kept writing now for almost eight years. When I wrote that first short blog post, I had no idea how extensively writing online would affect my life. Genealogically speaking, I have come a long way since that first, very tentative, offering.

Probably the most interesting part of the whole experience has been meeting so many wonderful people. Of course, if you know me, you realize that if I am not writing, I am probably talking. So one of the spinoffs of the writing experience has been teaching a steady stream of classes and presentations.

As an additional benefit of writing this blog, I have been asked to participate as a blogger at the annual RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Now, that we live in Provo, about an hour south of downtown Salt Lake, it is not quite as much of a production to attend the conference, but it is still a highlight of the year. My participation has turned out to involve the entire week of the conference, starting with the Brigham Young University Family History Technology Workshop on Tuesday and the Innovator Summit on Wednesday. This next year will probably be even more interesting than past years. The past two years, I have concentrated more on writing and meeting than presenting, but I have still had a constant schedule of meetings during all of the conferences and parts.

Just as a side note, you may want to go to and keep updated on the conference scheduled for February 8 - 11, 2017. Hotel rooms tend to fill up for the conference and it is a good idea to plan way ahead.

Of course, the most dramatic change that has come in part from my involvement in genealogy is our move to Provo and my involvement with the Brigham Young University Family History Library. I have seven additional live, online webinars to present in September, 2016 and the spin off of this constant stream of webinars has been even more far reaching than the blogs. By posting the webinars on Google's YouTube on the BYU Family History Library Channel, I have seen a steady increase in the impact of this more immediate media outlet.

One interesting side effect of moving to Provo was that I almost completely stopped being invited to speak at conferences around the U.S. and Canada. In reality, that turned out to be a benefit, because now, I spend my time writing presentations for video output. But I have been involved in a lot of local conferences, in fact, both my wife and I are teach three classes each this Saturday for the Provo Grandview South Stake here in Provo.

Now another word about the name of this blog. If I had it to do over again, I would probably choose a different name. I was mostly thinking of an analogy to a guiding star or the sense that the term "star" is used by newspapers, particularly in Arizona. But I soon was embarrassed to realize my choice was somewhat presumptuous, but by that time, I was committed with the name and ran with it. Well, here we are, still writing away.

You would think I would run out of topics, but in reality I have long lists of topics to write on that I haven't had time to get to yet. When I run out of things to say, I will let you know.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Using Smart Technology to Jump-Start Your Genealogical Research: Part One

Genealogical research can seem tedious and time consuming and it often is exactly that. But we are presently going through a life changing technological revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we do our work. It can now be truthfully said that smart technology can jump-start your genealogical research.

Using the new "smart" technology is a lot more involved than merely searching on the Internet or using a word processing program on your computer. Some of the technological springboards available right now include the following:
  • Automated record hint capabilities that find suggested original sources
  • Online document storage and organization programs
  • Source citation programs that automatically format your citations and create bibliographies
  • News aggregator programs that keep you informed of posts to blogs and other websites
  • Billions of digitized source documents in thousands of archive websites
  • Comprehensive mapping and gazetteer programs that open windows into historical locations
  • Huge online geographic names databases 
  • A multitude of devices from digital cameras to smartphones, tablets and other computer devices can take images of documents for research and store them or share them with your other devices.
This is only a very partial list of all of the marvelous technological helps that are now available or are becoming available.

I am going to start with something very basic: digitizing our paper records. The advantages of having digital copies of our paper records may not seem evident to those who are not "connected" in the current sense of the word.

Smartphone cameras are quickly becoming ubiquitous. But what may not be obvious is that the same smartphone or cell phone camera you use to take snapshots of family members and family gatherings, can be used to gather highly readable copies of documents you find as you do research or already have in paper files. Here is an example of a photo of a page from a parish register I took from a microfilm reader:

This was taken with my 8 Megapixel iPhone camera. There is a "hot spot" where the reader's light was reflected from the surface of the old style reader, but the image is highly readable and useful. Here is a magnified section of the image:

Although the image would not be considered to be "archive quality," it is readable and very useful. I could get better images with a better camera, but the iPhone camera was the one I had with me when I was doing research in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. We may find ourselves in a situation where we find genealogically interesting documents or records, such as a chance visit to a cemetery or archive, and we can use this new technology to take photos on the spur of the moment.

Now, let's extend this technology a lot further. Once I have an image in my smartphone, I can immediately share it with relatives or upload it online. For example, has its Shoebox app. Here is a description of the app from Ancestry:
Shoebox turns your iPhone or Android into a high-quality photo scanner. With Shoebox, you can quickly scan paper photos, add important historical information like dates and places, and upload directly to your family tree.
You can also edit the photo and its description:
Editing dates, places, tags, and captions is easy. After you’ve cropped a photo, you will be taken to a “Edit details” page. Use the icons at the bottom to tag family members, date your photo, add a location, and write your own description.
You can also do many of the same things with the Memories App. Here is a description of the features of the Memories app:

  • Store memories for free forever, deep within the FamilySearch vaults.
  • Pick up where you left off on any device since the app automatically syncs to
  • Take family memories wherever you go—the app works even without Internet access.
  • Snap photos of any family moment, such as recitals, dates, graduations, reunions, and memorials, and add them to your family tree.
  • Use the app to take photos of old photos and documents too!
  • Use the app to interview family members and record audio details of their life stories and favorite memories.
  • Write family stories, jokes, and sayings with the keyboard, or use the mic key to record what you say.
  • Enrich written stories by adding descriptive photos.
  • Identify relatives in photos, stories, and recordings to add those memories automatically to their collection in Family Tree.
There are several other such convenient programs that can add this functionality to your smartphone.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Homage to the Agricultural Laboror

One of the realities of history and genealogy is that there are a lot more common people than there are rich, famous or royalty. The American fascination with royalty has hardly diminished. I can trace back almost every one of my family lines on the Family Tree and eventually someone has connected that family line to a royal line in Europe. However, careful review of the English census records usually reveals that my ancestors were tradesmen or "Agricultural Laborers" and had no claims to royal descent.

This topic came up recently when I traced one family line to a widow in the English Census who was identified as a pauper and the widow of an agricultural laborer or "AL." For some reason, it touched my heart that my own ancestors had suffered so much deprivation and poverty. But it did explain why they ultimately immigrated to Australia.

OK, so it is possible that one or two of your ancestral lines can be traced back to royalty. After all, kings and rich guys had children so why couldn't there be one or two in your own family lines? Well, for those of us who can trace some of your lines back a ways in America, it is entirely possible to find one or two who connect to a Gateway Ancestors with documented royal connections. If you have aspirations of royal descent, then you need to be very familiar with the term "gateway ancestors." I suggest you start with a FamilySearch post by my friend, Nathan Murphy, entitled "Documenting Royal Ancestry, written back in October of 2015. Here is a key quote from that article:
If the immigrant in your family is a valid gateway, you are on track to documenting royal ancestry. If your immigrant is not on the list, the royal lineage presented to you is probably underproven or false.
I might mention that this whole concept goes to claims of descent from an "Indian Princess" also. But in that case, I would suggest a comprehensive DNA test before you start trying to prove you have access to living on an Indian Reservation.

Personally, I am becoming more and more impressed with the tenacity of my poor and very common ancestors who apparently survived the difficulties of being agricultural laborers and became my own ancestors.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Do I need a "genealogy program" to do my genealogy?

This is not another post about paper vs. computerized genealogy. My question addresses a serious issue that goes to the heart of what most people consider "doing their genealogy." At one end of the spectrum we have "professional" genealogists who, after doing intensive research, write "proof statements" based on the "Genealogical Proof Standard." The process is usually described something like this:
The Genealogical Proof Standard is the standard set by the genealogical field to build a solid case, especially when there is no direct evidence providing an answer, or when there are conflicts in the evidence. 
See Amazon ad for the following book,

Rose, Christine. Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case. San Jose, Calif: CR Publications, 2014.

The fact of the matter is that a "professional genealogist" could do everything they do for clients using a word processor and a copy machine or other scanning device. In fact, they could do without a word processing program and still use a typewriter. There is nothing about doing genealogical research that would have to rely on a computer or any particular computer program. Professional genealogists would not accept a "computer generated" genealogy as an acceptable professional document. 

But what about online research and digitized sources? Of course, almost all genealogists now recognized the need to do some research online, but in the end, there is still a major issue with the completeness of research if you rely only on online sources. 

I acknowledge that this level of genealogical research is still necessary in some instances and because this is the case, there is a real issue about the need for the spectrum of "genealogy" programs now available. Some have taken umbrage with my use of the term "program." I use the term in its most general sense, i.e. a set of instructions given to a computer. From my standpoint, any time I turn on any electronic device, it is using a program. You can call it what you want, app, routine, subroutine, to me they are all "programs."

Many of the computer programs stylized as "genealogy specific" are in effect specialized database programs written in a particular computer language. Each of these programs reflect the understanding of the programmers about what a potential genealogical user would like to store about his or her family. But none of these programs actually do genealogy. They are simply elaborate methods of storing information. A professional genealogist would immediately reject almost all of the programs because the source and citation style does not conform to a recognizable standard. For example, none of the currently available genealogical database programs will automatically produce a source citation that conforms to the Chicago Manual of Style. Why would I use such a program if I have to rewrite every one of the citations the programs produces?

If a computer program developer develops a program either for individual use on one computer or for general use online and calls it a "genealogy" program, does that mean that the program is necessary to do genealogy? If my primary activity as a "genealogist" is writing Case Studies and Proof Arguments, isn't my primary genealogy program a word processor? 

What if I don't really care about proof statements or client reports? What if all I want to do is see my family in a pedigree chart? Do I really need a program to do that? 

I think the answer to all this is simple. What we do as genealogists depends on our expectations and the end product of our research. The various electronically designed devices and programs may be tools, but our main activity involves our individual research and writing. I use the tools to save time and to organize my research. But it is always a good idea to question whether or not using a particular program is helping me to achieve my goals.