My name is Kathleen, and I have been researching my family history since I was a child. I love to go into county courthouses and smell the old books and paper... or is it dust? This blog will focus on the stories I've heard over the years and the research methods I follow. I am particularly interested in data management and cloud genealogy.

Some of my personal areas of interest include Southern Maryland and DC (Robie, Rhodes, Grimes, Lindsey), NY state (Hill, Cookingham, Flynn, Rhodes, Skinner, Wheeler, Mead, Havens, Trotter), NJ (Parcell), North Carolina and Eastern TN (Lynch, Seabolt, Spears), MO (Wilcox, Kiddell), and CA (Simi, Grady)

I am always happy to compare notes or share my experiences, so please leave a comment!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Following the shiny ball....

I was reading Kerry Scott's blog the other day, and this post really resonated.  When I do my research --especially online -- I am constantly having to remind myself about my search objectives.  I am so easily distracted by the "shiny ball" and turn on a dime to go cavorting down a completely tangential path.  Kerry absolutely nailed it:  dead people, dead people, squirrel!

Recently I joined a few of the online subscription data sites.  I have resisted this in the past because several local libraries have subscriptions I can access, so I didn't see the point.  Rootstech and the emphasis on collaborative cloud-based genealogy changed my perspective.  Capturing and citing sources is simply easier with online material (as opposed to my old method: downloading data into a flash drive and then into my computer, where it would be added to Bento and just sit there).

Fold3 is one of my new subscriptions.  Over the years I have done military research at the National Archives and, more recently, using Heritage Quest, so I thought I had pretty much all the data there was on my ancestors' military history (now...what is it they say about hubris?)  I've been on the site 24/7 lately -- what a wealth of material!  Dangerous, too, because I've been swept into the world of tangential research.... following all the shiny new distractions that I find.

What I love the most about Fold3 is that all names appearing in a record have been indexed, not just the name on the record itself.  So, I was looking at the Revolutionary War pensions for my elusive New York patriot, Richard Rhodes, when I noticed that his widow also made statements that were included in other people's pension files.  What luck!  But then (shiny ball moment) I thought I should check out all the pension records I've viewed in the past using Heritage Quest to see if I could find other cross references.

Too much fun!  I started examining them and quickly realized why Fold3 is such a valuable resource:  they have the full set of papers in a pension file.  For one of my ancestors, Heritage Quest shows me a 10-page file.  The same file on Fold3 contains 147 pages of letters, affidavits, and bible records!  With the added value of having an index of all names appearing in a file, I have been on a feeding frenzy, darting from one name to the next, gathering new data.  I definitely have the squirrel syndrome these days.

But here comes the big question.  How do I manage all this data?  While I still love Bento as a database tool, I find that I'm changing the way I use it.  I am a believer in open research:  once someone is dead, they belong to history and the information we discover about them should be available to anyone who is interested.  So whenever I discover a piece of data that I know belongs unequivocally to an ancestor, I will use either TreeConnect or Evernote and attach it to that person using FamilySearch.  The source citation travels with the link, so others can find the original material.  I'm not worried about losing the information because I feel confident that FamilySearch will be around for a long time.  I reserve Bento for those cases where I am still gathering clues and have not yet evaluated the evidence.

Essentially, I am only recording my data in the public tree.  I'm curious, though.  Does anyone else trust FamilySearch enough to do it this way?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

They're not my ancestors, they're OURS.... or why collaboration just makes sense!

I joined when I got back from Rootstech.  I admit it, I gave into the promise of technology.... now I'm waiting for the rewards. What I mean is that although it is great having so many sources available that I can attach -- fully cited -- to my tree, it is by no means a perfect world.

One of Ancestry's selling points is the ability to match the indexed historical data offered on their website to individuals on your family tree. The "shaky leaf"may tell you about documents that they think pertain to the person you are working on, but it doesn't absolve you from actually reading and digesting the documents they suggest. It is too easy to assume Ancestry is right, and click "attach," but remember, these matches come from a computer algorithm after all!  I can see the temptation to just grab and run, but it's important to slow down and put everything in context.

Another thing I noticed right away was that some of my own work was already up on Ancestry..... on someone else's public tree! What happened was that several months ago, I made contact with a third cousin. He suggested we exchange GEDCOM files so we could more easily compare notes. I sent him a section of my GEDCOM that was limited to that family line, but which also included research on ancestors we did not have in common. So the first "shaky leaf" I saw when I logged onto Ancestry was a suggestion I look at his family tree -- and there was all my work on ancestors that weren't even his!

I don't think he did it out of malice or any negative motive whatsoever. In fact, we had a very nice exchange, and he sent me copies of some wonderful old photos that I had never seen before. I just think that Ancestry makes it so easy for people to add information to their family tree, that they don't think about the implications of what they do. It used to be that you wouldn't think twice about sending a relative your entire GEDCOM file, because it was only going to live on their computer. Now, it gets published to the web as the property of the person who uploaded it, even though he or she did not actually put in all the work. Let me tell you, you feel one way about your data when the sources are delivered to you by Ancestry's shaky leaf, and another when you put in days or even years tracking down documents from remote repositories, slogging through irrelevant data to find that one little nugget of gold.  

Maybe it's just a problem with my ego, but I want to take responsibility for the conclusions I draw, especially if they are at odds with "common wisdom" on an ancestor. Ancestry has a big problem with data transparency. They make it easy for users to add source citations for documents they own, but not for information that is "free," i.e., members' family trees or data from outside sites such as

What makes it even more frustrating is the fact that there are so many overlapping trees on Ancestry. Everyone has their own little proprietary angle on the past -- I don't know if you've noticed, but some people can be very possessive about their ancestors! However my sense is that the interconnectivity of Web 2.0 is moving us in the direction of true collaboration in genealogy.

FamilySearch's new single family tree of mankind is a real game changer here. Every time someone adds a new piece of data or makes an editing change, it is tagged with the contributor's name. If someone comes along later and adds information, every change is noted in the database and should there be a disagreement, there are moderators who will arbitrate disputes.

So why is this important?  If the emphasis in Ancestry is data acquisition without transparency, and FamilySearch is all about open attribution and collaboration, it would seem to me that anyone who is serious about family history would lean towards the latter.

We have to stop treating our ancestors as belonging exclusively to us and start thinking of them as historical figures with whom we have a close and personal relationship. Once someone is dead, they belong to history, and as family historians we want as much detail about their lives as we can find. But we all have different pieces of the puzzle. One person may have all the family stories, while someone else inherited the silver, the Bible, the photos (or maybe just the good looks!) The only way we can achieve a better understanding of the past is for each of us to contribute our own particular piece of that puzzle! By collaboratively working on our ancestors in an environment that recognizes individual contributions, we can all share without any one of us losing our individual connection to our ancestors.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

RootsTech 2013

It has taken me awhile to absorb the implications of everything I learned at RootsTech.  It was an amazing three days of new ideas about how to pursue genealogy, and certainly has changed how I approach my own research.  Of course, I also took advantage of all the wonderful resources at the Family History Library... and even made a rather significant breakthrough on one of my problem ancestors!

The overwhelming theme was Web 2.0 and all that it makes possible:  think Facebook, Wikipedia, Youtube, Pinterest, Instagram, Yelp, TripAdvisor...... The web is no longer a place where we passively retrieve information.  We are now part of a virtual community, where we interact and collaborate with each other as both creators and consumers of information.

So it is inevitable that interaction and collaboration, this sharing of bits and pieces of our lives, would extend to genealogy.  At Rootstech, I saw four major trends that will change how we pursue family history.

The first is incorporating family stories into our genealogies.  Family history is really about families, and you draw new people into genealogy when you can hook into their emotions through family stories.  The most effective stories are the ones about those everyday moments that seem so ordinary, but which are precisely what evoke the most memories.  We were challenged to think about what our descendants will wish we had saved for them about our lives, and start capturing those memories.

Another major trend is the use of crowd sourcing to index the massive amount of data that is being digitized and brought online.  Crowd sourcing is when a task or problem is sent out to an undefined public to work on, rather than to a specific group.  The 1940 census indexing project last year was a major success because of how quickly it was completed, and at virtually no cost.  Indexing newspapers was identified as a high priority for the future because of how poorly OCR software reads newsprint.  Searches on uncorrected text will miss 4 out of 6 occurrences of a search term.

Online collaboration was the third major theme.  While users have contributed family trees online for many years, they have always been independent trees that exist side by side.  What's new today is the concept of a single human family tree, that anyone can add to or edit.  To my mind, FamilySearch is making the most efforts to ensure that this is done responsibly -- they identify every user who makes a change, provide tools for citing sources and initiating discussions and they have moderators to arbitrate disputes.

Autosomal DNA testing was the final trend that everyone was talking about at the conference -- especially after Ancestry CEO Tim Sullivan announced that they were dropping the price for the test to $99. proposes to extend their "shaky leaf" technology for data matching to DNA tests, thereby allowing customers to find relatives even in situations where the paper trails don't exist.  When you think about it, this is really an amazing feat of computing.  The autosomal tests look at roughly 700,000 SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms...that's as much as I can tell you!) compared with about 47 for the mitochondrial and Y chromosome tests that most people currently use.  So in theory, Ancestry is proposing to compare your 700,000 SNPs with roughly a million family trees in their system, AND continue to measure your data against any new data that is entered into the system.  Apparently, this kind of number crunching just wasn't possible until very recently.

So, I'm left with the question:  how do I use this information?

I've definitely been inspired to capture family stories from older generations while they are still around, and create multi-media presentations to share with family members.  I'm working on scanning photos and have even filmed a skype conversation with my father-in-law about his experiences in WWII
(note to self:  next time, use a tripod! I got a little seasick watching the video....)

This isn't exactly Web 2.0, but I bought a logitech keyboard for my iPad just before the trip, and was astounded at the difference it made when I was in the Family History Library:
I am now able to transcribe directly from the microfilm!  In the past, I've tried using a laptop, but found there was no place to put it, and it was awkward to stow away in my bag if I had to get up to get another film.  The iPad just snapped into the keyboard and slipped into my bag if I had to walk away, and opened up just where I left it.  Now that makes a computer useful!

Stay tuned, because next time I will tell you how I've integrated Evernote into my routine, and what it all means for my Research templates in Bento.  It's an exciting time for genealogy!