Mobile Accessibility for the Modern Genealogical Researcher

Recent library literature ( Smith, Aaron.  “Cell Internet Use 2012.” Pew Internet and American Life Project.)  explained that Internet use for minority young adults often occurs on cell phones. A recent class meeting indicated that this study was right.

Genealogical research is a hot topic, but there is a disconnect with the young adult age group. Most of them do not relate genealogical research with family stories and for those that do relate the two, they have no idea how to start researching. My app should help to change that. Based on a game-learning system, the point of the game is learning real research techniques and using the app to find the closest places for what there is for documentation at home and in other locations.

Instead of the surname-based system, use geographic searching strategies to make progress in family history. The app isn’t done yet, and all of these ideas are under immediate copyright of the owner/author. I should have at least mock-up’s attempted within the next year or two. I am learning as fast as I can how to code and how to bring other’s coded materials together for collaborative use. Crunching the data may not be the hard part, though I am uncertain. Seeing whether the server can handle more than two searches, move fast, and effortlessly as the app changes how people search could be the bigger thing. I am starting now to wonder how much server space is necessary for making all of this happen.

The intent for the app is the democratization of genealogy. This may be an arrogant assumption, as I have little to no idea what genealogical efforts are under-sway world-wide, though I know that they must be out there. Looking for world conferences on genealogy that actually are world-wide. RootsTech, FHISO, and GEDCOM X are only the beginning tools.

I need something that people can use on their phones or IPads in live-time. Making it social might blow all server possibilities, but may get a grant. We’ll see what happens.

Ask the Missionaries: They Can Help You

During General Conference in October, Elder Nelson mentioned repeatedly in his talk: Ask the missionaries. They can help you. I was watching conference at my Church building and the missionaries for my general area sat a few rows ahead of me. While watching them, they were okay with the things that Elder Nelson was asking them to help with, excepting family history.

Although it is a commandment that people in my Church work on knowing who their ancestors are, the vast majority of Church members that I have come across know almost nothing about the topic. There is not a lot of training  on the topic beyond essentials, at least in the U.S. Outside of the Church, genealogy is a hot topic, and receives much attention. It was not a surprise to watch the sisters look at each other in a mild amount of fear when Elder Nelson asked the missionaries to help with people finding their ancestors. Sister missionaries can range in age but until recently, they were typically in their early twenties. Few people in their twenties are very concerned about their ancestors unless there is a direct need to be so interested such as the death of a loved one.

I became interested in family history (genealogy) when I was a child, and work with the field both inside and outside of the Church with friends and colleagues. It was my Bachelors degree major.

So, I gave the sisters my number to train them in basics. For our first meeting, the computers at the family history center were down. While a little frustrating, that did not stop things very long. We re-scheduled for today, and we ended up meeting at a McDonald’s with wifi near my neighborhood although in their area, and started looking up their family information.

Neither of the sisters knew what to expect. The first sister was pretty shocked when she saw that her ancestors enmeshed with our Church’s historical movements. Some family members were active members, while others went back and forth. However, by the end she knew that the stories she heard were real. She saw what information the Church had on her ancestors in live-time, and saw where the history and her family worked with each other. I gave her explanations as we went to help her see the context of what was happening around the dates in her family’s life.  The dates and places were enough to see that there were multiple stories happening that tied her directly into historical events with which she was familiar but were not real until she saw them on the page.

She took a lot of notes and her eyes bugged out regularly.

For the second sister, she had more questions about modern issues and had other effects where it was unclear what was happening and how things came together but there were still complicated twists and turns in her family’s history. She knew more about her family’s background to start, and in her case it was less of a dramatic unfolding.

Going back to the first sister, I wanted to make sure that she knew that her background was epic. While the first place where we left off was not exactly the happiest, by the end of it she was able to see people who made it through, people who were obviously determined, down to children who made it through when both parents were dead by the age of six. They found their way to being great people. She knew very little about her family’s background coming into our meeting but left with an intense amount of knowledge about herself and her family’s efforts going step by step through Church history starting (in her case) in 1839. Watching the knowledge and paradigms shift was fun.

For me, it was just fun to work with these sisters. I could see that the information whelmed the first sister, but when they were all done, they knew that they could be asked by Church members or others and either help them themselves or knew where the resources were. They also learned that there was a lot more to family history than that they previously understood, including seeing their roles in it. It was a grand afternoon.

I appreciated being able to help, and felt that this was important. One of the sisters will soon be transferred, but they both know more about themselves and their history now. I hope that it made a positive impact and didn’t rock their worldviews out of creation. After a bad week, this was a great thing to be able to help. Now I hope that they can pass it along.

Something New

Because I can, I started another blog in addition to this one. This one deals now more with my musings on politics, religion, and then professional family history, personal family history, and whatever else comes to mind. The other blog is strictly about food, cooking, etc. I can’t get away with writing without something to do with family history in the process, so there are some family stories in there, also. If it goes with the food or explains the results or why we did what we did when we did it, there you have it. Call it a memorial to my Mom. There were some passions that she was more-able to develop in life and instilling a love of food and cooking into her posterity was one of them. So, feel free to look at it, if so inclined. There are maybe five recipes up so far and a lot more to follow.

This semester I start my new program, Digital Humanities, and continue my other program, Library Information Science, with emphasis on the digital aspects. Meta-data, programming, etc. By the time I get through both Master’s programs, I will be a programmer with a solid emphasis in Instructional Design. Was not planning on going into Instructional Design, but if it gets me to making the family history repository app, then I will do what is necessary that way.

The main element I can see coming out of the ID courses is the ability to teach family history better, and to create better online learning portals for doing that. While education is not my primary focus, I am always looking for better ways of teaching the topic, so this major is unusually applicable to where I can find a job. My bedrock skills are always useful. Adding to the research skills knowledge of best practices in teaching, and creating one of the tools that teachers and lay people may use to make teaching much more effective and efficient is kind of sheer genius. I do not give myself credit for the thought process. That’s all Deity. Good things come from Deity, and saying that it is my idea feels strangely like a cop-out.

Not sure what will happen. I am part of a class of a maximum of seven people for a total of tops of twelve people in the program. We are only the second class in this program, and no matter how hard it will be (which I am SURE that it will test me to limits I have never seen before), this will be GOOD!

Document Yourself: Genealogy for Beginners

Associates keep asking me how to start their family history. This reply may be so basic that I do not wish to sound obvious, but start with yourself and move backwards. A lot of people understand the conceptual “going backwards” part, but the starting with yourself leaves them with non-connecting looks.

Think of your living space, and/or that of your parents or children. Think of where you work, where you shop, go to Church (if applicable), pay taxes, and everything else. What are the basic records found at each location? What are the major events in your life? Has anything in your life ever cost more than $1,000 (US)? Then there should be some sort of documentation for it, and it probably was a big deal when the purchase happened such as for a house, a car, school, a birth, etc.

Although papers are important, there are many stories that pass down through generations without papers. Sometimes, unless there is a specific need for a paper’s creation, major events do not receive record. But, start with what you have. A) Anything that is paper that has your name on it, which is from an official source of some sort is worth looking at. Driver’s licenses are not paper, exactly, anymore, but they also count.

General guidelines (not the professional standard, but things that I look for when gathering basic documents):

  • Name or variant of name
  • Location or institution of some sort (State of Illinois, Carnegie Mellon University, Holy Cross Hospital*, Department of Defense, Our Father Lutheran Church*- *some of these locations may or may not exist. These are given simply for hypothetical purposes only)
  • Numbers (date, or identifying number of any sort)
  • Anything that looks official or pertinent.

Some items may look official and be complete fluff. Other items could be small or odd shapes, and those are the ones to keep track of carefully as there is usually only one of them in the world. The archivist in me does not want to make copies of items due to light damage, but sometimes only surviving copies ARE the only thing that survives. Not everything is on 100-year microfilm or gold archival-quality DVDs. Scanning helps, but it takes effort to up-date formats. Possibly the hardest thing about family history is that there is no way ever to say that it is done (save Deity says it) and finished due to updating formats for documents alone.  

However, start smaller.  Look around the house. Notice what is on the walls. Pictures are documents in their own right in many cases. Although photoshop works wonders, most people are not about to try to break into your house to steal a 100-year-old picture of Great Aunt Susie to digitally craft something or someone else in there. Despite Hollywood, most people’s families really are not that interesting to anyone outside of their family, if even to them. So work on it in bits and pieces.

Organize the items first by surname, and then by generation. When you deal with much larger quantities of family members, then separation into geographic locations is a better idea. If all of your family documents fit into either a single 2″ binder or a single-drawer file box, then organization by surname is not a bad effort or method entirely.

Make the record of yourself. You think that you are not interesting? Try writing your story and then read it back to yourself out loud. If you need to, read it to a friend or family member. You will be surprised what happens when importance and weight come into play from another’s opinion.

Link

More on GIS Genealogical Apps and Reviewing and Using the FamilySearch 21 Jun 2012 Webinar

21 June FamilySearch Webinar

I am one of many devotees of the Ancestry Insider, the guru who writes unvarnished industry semi-insider information and who makes my life easier as I am the only person who I know that does genealogical tech research in the Windy City. Reading an update, I got the link upon which this blog has basis. I was at one of the first meetings where a major developer or director told us all about how FamilySearch was changing. It is where New FamilySearch came from, and it was part of the BYU Tech Conference back in 2006. Wow, it blew my mind back then. And new.familysearch.org changed how I do family history and upped my participation. I majored in the topic, but I liked the research. I did not especially find use for it afterwards due to cumbersome processes necessary to use said information in manners consistent with my beliefs and practices.

New.familysearch.org was genealogical crack. It was addictive beyond measure, and I noticed that the first two months that I was on it, I had a hard time getting homework done. I ate, slept, did enough to get through assignments, and otherwise was up until 2 every night working on what was there. The live-time aspect floored me and instantly changed my perspective from “this will never happen and this is taking forever and no one knows how to do this” to WOW. This is LIVE-TIME? The change in my view was that of realizing instantly the applicability that the software had to what the Church had and did.

After six years, the toddler (NFS/FamilySearch) took its first steps and now it is time to go to school, so to speak. The webinar describes something called SourceBox. Any genealogist with even minimal training learns quickly that without a source (ANY source, but the more credible, the more accurate, the better), everything is only leads. Leads are good, but they’re only air or legends and those are fairy tales. That will likely insult people who think that absolutely everything has to be taken only on faith, but the thing is that unless the faith has basis on or placed in something or someone TRUE, then it’s meaningless. Devoid of consistency as in devoid of material or spiritual matter. So, there has to be SOMETHING (tangible in this case) that gives the information needed to put a name, date, place, time… something to do with a material object to say that an ancestor lived, breathed, died, whatever the event was. The things that are tangible or intangible evidence (if talking in spiritual terms) are sources. The closer to the event, usually the better.

FamilySearch the Internet site, has not had this capacity in any meaningful format since its inception. As new.familysearch.org grew from the first 700 beta testers (me included) to a world-wide effort, this is an imperative to establish within its framework. I keep seeing familysearch like DNA. There are bits of the human family here and there, sources documenting things, and if there was a visual to it, perhaps all of that information eventually could look like a human body. So many documents, so many pieces of knowledge trained and traced together, and establishing the history of the world according to the people who lived it. THAT is where history comes from. The rest of us are all annotators.

In addition, I see the next steps when watching said webinar. Why only use tools that other people give you? Make your own. The original DIY was the wheel. Making something to fix a problem. Now, it’s using what is there, and (in my head) turning the useful reference books into programs or into a conglomerate site. That is what reference always was and people never truly connected it together. These massive tomes of information: reference books in the genealogical sphere, such as the Handybook for Genealogists, Ancestry’s Redbook (which is kind of almost the same thing, but not quite), the Genealogist’s Address Book– all of these need to be GIS-mapped places that give the basic information for any particular place in live time. Again, in the Zee-maps tradition, mark repositories by places by then make them historically useful.

That means, your ancestor lived in Scotland or Wales, or New Brunswick in 1837. Okay. Most of those places were well-established by 1837. There may have been a few boundary changes, but in general it’s a case of getting to the right land place and then finding out who has those records. I don’t have to know what is actually IN your ancestor’s records, but I do want you to be able to find them without having a direct knowledge of what the place was back in the day. This makes a little more sense for the United States or for parts of Europe that were conquered or re-district-ed, or parts of Russia with name changes or Asia or basically anywhere but the conquering territories and governments.

The United States developed as it went along, similar to a programming project before there were software architects. Dealing with the development of all of those counties, townships, villages, cities, and where their records went as places split, divided, etc. is why the Handybook is my go-to source for anything in the US. But, if I could just stick in a place and a time, and be given all of the libraries, archives, and whatever other repositories were there at that time in addition to what existed to the present and where things ended up! That would be sheer genius. And that is what the historical app ultimately tries to do once I get it to any version of a development stage. It has a lot of layers, and that is the whiz-bang dynamo version of it. It looks so simple in my mind, and this is the first time that I have ever been able to express that level of the app with clarity.

Sure, professional genealogists are still necessary. Being able to read, interpret documents, and everything else necessary for this? It’s kind of feels like breaking the sound barrier, but it’s in genealogical terms, United States research-based. I can mentally hear something akin to a sonic boom-gong going off in my head when speaking about this. I care about the old countries. But if you can’t get back there, that research does me little to no good.

The layers and levels of research necessary to get this app done are a little staggering, but it needs to be done. There have been 30+ years to get to this stage, and the levels and stages ratchet up. It only took six years to get to where FamilySearch is now, and while I wish they installed it six years ago. Now, we get to go back and tell everyone where we got everything. It may be a mish-mash for a few years, but then we get to SOAR as there are documents backing up the information and apps that give clarity to where in the world to find these documents in a quick and efficient method. Boy, we’re going to be tired by the end of this, but wow, what a ride!

I’m not sure what I need to learn to help accomplish this, but it is going to be incredible. That, and I think that I need some help… a LOT of help to make this work properly. Any takers?

Ancestors: The Things You Don’t Expect to Learn

There are some things about ancestors where I did not expect to have a “Who Do You Think You Are?” moment. I am a professional and have researched family history (genealogy) for years. I have expertise in the Mid-Atlantic states areas, although I also have familiarity with Slovak, Canadian, and Californian records and I know enough of the basics for being “dangerous.” I love the topic, seemingly never stop talking about it, and I eat, breathe, and generally do things with it more likely than not.

It’s been a long time since I last researched my family. There’s been a break of a few years, full-disclosure. It’s been a rough time, actually. That aside, tonight I needed to get back to my touch-stone. I came to one of my schools in a rain storm because of their Ancestry Library subscription. Usually this means that I start asking “who wants to be found?” and follow whatever guidance there is. Not exactly the professional manner of doing things, but I always find things that way. Going by one’s gut, instincts, or other methods, it produces the same results. And training helps with knowing search patterns, but it was looking and then I came across “nothing” for a while. Searched a few people…whomever looked interesting, but nothing methodical. I was actually distracted by the people next to me.

After looking up my g^x power great-grandma, I was playing on the site and noticed ships manifests… more records were there than were on the site a few years ago. Before, it was always my great-grandfather and his sister. Been there, memorized those. This time, though, it was different.

I saw my great-aunt Regina Opacity’s record. She was a good, nice woman from all accounts. She had some sort of eye problem and came to America and lived with my great-grandfather’s family. Tonight I saw her manifest and then saw her detention record. I looked over her detention report, and although on the manifest it gave the record of who she was going to live with, she was still detained for the following reasons: “LPC Aliens likely to become public charges, P.D. Aliens with mental, physical, economic or educational disqualifications”. That ticked me off. She had someone who she was going to, legitimately. It was the same family member that my great-grandfather went to, and it was not a “fake” family member. So what if she had a problem with her eye? This was prior to EEO, but … I felt defensive for her. I tried to investigate the inspector, but came up with nothing from minimal Google searching.

All that I know is that when I was Ellis Island years ago, I felt drawn to the inspection room for reasons unknown to me. I was honestly scared of the inspection room although I had no legitimate reason for this emotion for my own purposes. I saw the stairs leading up to the room, and the thought of “The stairs! The stairs!” came to mind. Felt like a scared adrenaline rush. It was not my personal thought process. I tried to look into the room but I was too short. Still, I felt compelled to see the inside of that room. Went down the stairs and then up a side stairway to the outer balcony area to try to see into the room as it was set a little lower than the outside for sight lines. I could not see much, but I felt like something that was not positive happened there and I was the first family member back to that place since they all came through originally in the 1920’s. It had been 85 years but something was as fresh as if it was two weeks ago and traumatic. I was witness of some sort, and Regina was NOT happy with whatever happened there. She was dead years before my birth. However, there was a feeling of fiery indignation, and I could assume that whatever happened there was basically humiliating. Unknown character Inspector Marsh was on her detention sheet. I think that she was the only one detained from her ship, and she was at the most 26 years old in 1921. Come to your own conclusions.

Great Hall, Ellis Island

Great Hall, Ellis Island, 2006, Pictures shot by author.

The design of Ellis Island made the Great Hall into two wings. One was where they had the computers for the tourists. Back then, it was crowd control. Took a while to get to the other section where there was a massive glass window made up of miniature windows where there was the most beautiful New York skyline possible. Stuck between the ocean and across a very short bay to a beautiful New York skyline, waiting for a fate that could be anything, better or worse than home.

Ellis Island parapet from archives

Ellis Island Parapet through archives skylight, July 2006.

I made an appointment before arriving there to see what was in their archives on the roof of the building (I could not take pictures in the archive, so I snapped the parapet.) There was a collection of photographs taken by one of the inspectors. Striking, but every photograph had a person dressed up as if they were one step below meeting the queen yet they all had the most hateful, distrustful expressions on their faces. These were not happy people. Dressed to make the best impression that they could, fearful for their lives. Despite the nostalgic view that people on this side of Atlantic have a few generations later about civil liberties and the like, no one came here only because of opportunity. It was either America or in many cases death. Not exactly the best thing ever, but better than starving. I have no idea what kinds of features were available to the travelers, but I know that I have been extremely lucky and blessed in how people treat me thinking about Regina and her treatment upon coming to “the land of opportunity.”

Regina had a happy life with her family, but she never married and never had children. All that I know is that years ago when I was at Ellis Island, I did not expect to see or feel any of that. In going there, I was so happily expectant to make this connection of being somewhere where family members had been and figured that “Yeah. I’m part of America. My family came through Ellis Island,” and I bought two of the same shirt and still wear them. Then I learned more about the struggles of Americans that had nothing to do with military, but had everything to do with freedom. Now, seeing her detention record, I have documentation to back up those impressions. Although my experience was personal, the documentation was there and I found it. I doubt that anyone of my family has seen this since it was first typed over 90 years later. Digitized years after my trip, the document and experience did not come together until tonight and I remembered what happened.

Leaving Ellis Island

Leaving Ellis Island, afternoon July 2006.

Somehow I think that I am not the only person who something like this has happened to, but I wanted to write it down. There’s a lot more out there than natural senses explain and sometimes documents help. Had that not happened, this would be just another document. Her basics vital stats were recent enough that the family knew parts about her life that she came to America, lived with the family and was “everyone’s favorite aunt.” I did not know what else she had been through, and both experiences make her life more fleshed out. I do not know other aspects of her life, but I feel like she is determined to matter to her great-grandniece. I am listening and learning.

The Blog Starts Here: Family History and Genealogy for Beginners

I am starting this blog as an effort at keeping up with my professional pursuits and personal obsession with family history and genealogy. For me, the two are used simultaneously, but also mean different things. Genealogy is just bare-bones surname lineage research with a name, date, place, and that’s about it. You can figure things out from it if you analyze, but most people don’t have the patience for it. Family history is “putting meat on the bones.” I’m not the first to use this, but I can’t remember who it was. If you find out, let me know and I can update this.

What the family history analogy means is adding the family stories and provable documentation to the genealogical bone skeletal structure. I think of metal I-beams in place for concrete pouring when building a structure. You make sure that the walls are steady, and then build your house. Most people start out with the blue prints for a house, (family stories) and they never check the engineering (Was it possible for great Great Grandma to have her picture taken on top of the first building built in Chicago?) Potentially, yes. Where was she born? Did she travel? What was her/her husband’s/father’s/any other relative’s job? Things like this help start piecing such puzzles together.

We go from questions to sources to find out information. The way to do personal family history properly is to look into family sources first and then branch out to established histories, and then directing efforts into primary sources. You find out what Great Aunt Martha knows or whomever has the family stories. Unless you’re the last member of your family alive or the only one that you know about, then you know exactly who to ask for family information. There is always that one person [or two people] who are doing it.

If it’s just you, you don’t have the benefit of the blue prints, but you do have sources. Go directly for the primary information in that case. That means, get your own vital records. Birth record, marriage record if applicable, baptismal record, military, or anything that could be an official source of identification. Make a copy of your driver’s license for your own file. If needed, passports or similar documents. Anything that the government or an ecclesiastical or military body or taxing body (or some other governing jurisdiction of which I am not aware) would use, make sure that you have a copy for yourself and your family members. If it’s just you, get a fire-proof (and hopefully that means water-proof?) safe. Consider it your personal black box. My family used to call this the “Important Papers Box” and it locked with a key. Because we lived in a safer neighborhood when I grew up, the key typically stayed with the box. This is not the best for security reasons, but we wanted to get inside the box. Our box held copies of school transcripts, one copy of the school year photos for the children of the family, birth certificates, and documents with SSNs on them just in case. Granted, this would be a very important papers box, and hence the name.

This is more of a one-family project for present day items, but start building files (portable “important papers boxes”) for your ancestors. Start from the present day and work backwards dependent upon the documentation that you already have. death certificates, funeral programs, obituaries attached to the newspaper header information (or I keep complete newspapers from dates of death as more relatives pass) , and take pictures of tombstones. As you back up in time, add other documents as described above. Make sure that you have the pivotal vital records for family members. If you’re not sure where to find such records, ask me. A later blog may include sources and similar materials to get you where you want to go. In the meantime, this should be enough to get you working. You are a part of your family’s history, too.