Genealogy Blog

New Beginning or Jargon Central?

22 Apr 2014

The Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society was founded in 1885. In 1954 the Society dropped “State Archaeological and” from its name. Sixty years later, the organization is going for an even more radical change.

Yesterday the Ohio Historical Society announced that it is going to change its name to Ohio History Connection.  The name change is part of an effort to update and re-brand the organization.  Executive Director Burt Logan has been working over the last five years to turn around the agency, which was in financial troubles and losing members. He conducted a two-year study that showed Ohioans perceived the group as “exclusive and not having an image across the state that people find welcoming. . .”

Historical and genealogical organizations across the country are in similar situation. We live in a new era, and many people perceive our groups as stodgy and stuffy, as well as very closed and not open to new people and new ideas. In fighting these perceptions, groups are trying many new ideas.

In a report in the Columbus Dispatch yesterday, Logan sayd that “We want to move the organization out from behind the glass. We’re not dumbing down history; we’re making it more accessible.” He goes on to say that “The name change is not a panacea, but it sends a signal to a broad audience that we have entered a new day.”

I hate to contradict the gentleman, but to me the new name sounds exactly the opposite. It comes across as if the organization hired consultants to research the problem and they came up with a jargon solution.

Yes, names like XYZ Historical Society can elicit images of old-school paneled libraries with cigar-smoking gentlemen in suits. But there are plenty of groups that have rebranded without resorting to current trends in marketing verbiage.

What is more fascinating to me is that the name change comes during a period when in-person visits to historic sites are up 95%, and society membership is up 22%. While I applaud the desire to be more attractive, why the need for something quite so drastic at this point? And investing in a total name change is not inexpensive. Signage, brochures, stationery, etc. all need to be recreated.


Ohio HIstory Connection


The organization already has a website branded Ohio History ( Why not take the same route that groups like the Colorado Historical Society, which became History Colorado? This is a modern, fresh name that doesn’t run the risk of being trendy.

It has been 60 years since the last time the organization last changed its name. Somehow, the name Ohio History Connection just does not sound like a name that will stand the test of time.

The Death of Expertise? Part 2

19 Apr 2014

In the last newsletter, I wrote about an article I saw in the Federalist entitled “The Death of Expertise.” The article dealt with the problems in greater society that have come with the great equalization of the internet. In my post, I discussed how these same stresses are appearing in the genealogical community. Over the last couple of weeks, this post has created a tremendous amount of discussion in the blogosphere as well as social media.

Within two hours of the newsletter coming out, the first response piece was posted. Over the next days, numerous other pieces were posted, not only in response to what I said, but in response to what others had posted in response to my original post. It was amazing how far afield some of the posts went from the original topic. It is always heartening to see a post precipitate conversation. In this case it was interesting to see how the conversation turned down some curious paths.

It was interesting to see how some immediately jumped onto the “elitist” bandwagon. Expertise is not elitist. It is experience and knowledge, both of which are freely available to anyone. As Michael John Neil put it so well “I don’t believe in the existence of the genealogical elite and I don’t believe in the existence of the genealogy police.” I have the same experience as Michael. I’ve never met anyone considered themselves to be an “elite.” I have however, met a number of individuals who consider themselves genealogy police, putting themselves in charge of protecting the defenseless newbies.

Some of these folks have been very upset about experienced genealogists calling them selfish, and only interested in making money, and doing nothing to contribute and help others. First, I must say, anyone who thinks that professional genealogists make a fortune at their craft is extremely mistaken. Professionals work very hard to make a living.




That said, they also give a tremendous amount back to the community in general. They publish their work in peer-reviewed journals and other periodicals (for which they are paid nothing) that will help people in the future. The combined information published in the entire runs of these journals is an incredibly valuable, and irreplaceable, resource. Reconstituting family connections is sometimes very difficult, with no single document to prove a connection, and with extensive discussion needed to understand why something is so. This is the kind of information that is not easily included in online family trees at the moment.

They also make presentations and conduct workshops, often for little or no compensation. Quite frankly, the amount of pay speakers receive for a speaking engagement does not even begin to adequately compensate for the amount of time it takes to research and put these presentations together. They are not making a fortune doing it.

Why do we do these things? To help researchers of all levels. We want to help people learn how to research and find their family. Seeing the glint in peoples’ eyes as they learn a new concept, or have a new door opened in their mind, is a most wonderful experience. To say that experienced people do not care and do not share is patently untrue and insulting.

Another complaint I’ve heard is that the “elite” should stop “harassing” those people who don’t believe in things like source citations and stop forcing people to write a Harvard Ph.D.-worthy citation for every fact. Is there anything more self-destructive than not writing down where you found a piece of information so you can find it again? Those who discuss how to create proper citations are trying to help more experienced researchers do it in the best way possible.

But those tools are not for everyone, beginners especially. I, like most other professionals I know, do not tell beginners to go out and buy Evidence Explained and the Chicago Manual of Style and get cracking! I tell beginners to simple record exactly where they found the information so that they can find it again, because inevitably they will find another source that disagrees with their information and they will have to go back and look again. Even the doyenne of genealogical citations, Elizabeth Shown Mills, says the same thing. Recently she posted Sunday’s Sermon: Ten Citation Commandments for Intimidated Souls. Number 3 is “Thou shalt not be paranoid. Any citation is better than none at all.”

So, I say that expertise is still critical to our success as genealogists. From rank beginner to incredibly experienced, we ignore it at our own peril. Why? Because learning how to find your family from those who have gone before helps to keep you from making mistakes, and more importantly, ensures that the people you put into your online family tree actually ARE related to you.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, April 18, 2014

18 Apr 2014

This week brings an eclectic group of stories for you. From lost records to DNA to fashion tips and more, I hope you find them as interesting and informative as I do.

First up is a post from Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist. Today Judy writes about record loss. Even when a courthouse burned, there are quite possibly materials that survived. To illustrate her point, she discusses early records of San Francisco that survived the devastating earthquake that hit the city 108 years ago today. Read more in All Not Lost.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently raided the home of a 91-year old man in rural Rush County, Indiana. Don Miller has been acquiring artifacts for eight decades. In addition to Native American cultural objects, materials from Australia, China, Haiti, New Guinea, Peru, and Russia were also identified. The FBI is working to catalog thousands of these artifacts to determine their origin, how Miller came into their possession, and whether it is legal for such an item to be privately owned. Read more in Thousands of Artifacts Removed from Rural Indiana Home.

My friend Drew Smith recently posted an update to a horrific story coming out of Florida. The former Dozier School for Boys in Florida has been the subject of an ongoing scandal since bodies were discovered in unmarked graves on school grounds. An anthropology professor from the University of Southern Florida is leading a team building a DNA database to help in identifying the remains.  Read more in USF Builds DNA List to Help ID Dozier School Bodies.

Last month I posted about writing your own obituary. Apparently USA Today liked it, because they picked up on the topic as well: “Put it down to the ‘selfie’ lifestyle of social media, and to the aging baby-boomer generation’s enduring need to exert control over every facet of their lives, including the end. Or maybe it’s the triumph of the DIY movement.” Read the full story in The ‘Selfie’ Impulse Now Extends to Obituaries.


Men High Heels


File this one under “everything old is new again.” We all know that fashion trends are a never-ending circle. Ideas that were once new, go out of style, only to return to favor at some point in the future. Back in the 17th century, men wore shoes with heels, while women wore flats. Heeled shoes were considered masculine. They were used for riding, to lock one’s feet in the stirrups, making combat more efficient. Eventually the style changed over to women. Now the fashion trend is for men to wear high heels. Read more about the history in Why Did Men Stop Wearing High Heels?, and more about the recent trend in A Tall Order for Even the Most Fashionable Gentlemen: High Heels for Men are on the Rise.

Three Reasons Why Everyone Needs to Cite Their Sources

17 Apr 2014


We often hear people say that they don’t have to cite their sources because they are “only doing it for the family” or they “aren’t going to publish” their research. But there are very good reasons why you should want to cite your sources.

3. So Other People Can Follow You
Whenever I hear people say that they don’t intend to publish their work, I have to laugh. Because almost every one of them that has said that has also told me that they use a genealogy database program to keep track of their research. Not only that, but they create GEDCOM files, which they send to family and friends, or post them online. They don’t realize that this is also publishing. And when you publish in any way, shape, or form, you want people to be able to understand your research, and how you reached your conclusions.

2. So You Can Evaluate The Reliability of Your Evidence
Genealogists today have access to mountains of information for researching their family history. This information will provide you generous amounts of information, which you then have to evaluate. You may, for example, have a general year of birth from a census record. You then find a birth certificate that gives you an exact date of birth. By citing your sources you will be able to review where you to the information to determine what is the most accurate.

1. Because You Will Need to Find it Again
Above all else, your ability to find your source again is the biggest reason why you should record where you found the information. You may find two documents that provide conflicting information, so you will have to go back and look at your sources again. You need to be certain you didn’t make a typographical error of some sort when recording the information. I have a friend who has been a professional genealogist for more almost thirty years, and has been researching for almost forty years. One of her biggest regrets is that when she was a beginning researcher, she found the date and place of birth for her great-grandfather. Unfortunately, she didn’t record the source of the information. She has never been able to find it again. And people are publishing all sorts of conflicting information online, but she has no way to evaluate it all and come to the truth.

Is the Book You’re Reading Bound By Human Skin?

16 Apr 2014

As genealogists we often spend time in libraries, looking through manuscripts and old books for clues to our family and the places where they lived. These materials can include very old books, bound by hand. In addition to leather-bound books, some are bound in sheepskin or pigskin. But occasionally some were covered in something very different. Anthropodermic bibliopegy refers to the practice of binding books with human skin.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the practice became known among physicians, who used human skin to bind anatomy books.  The skin was usually taken from cadavers, but was sometimes taken from criminals. One common form was to take the skin of criminals who were sentenced to death and use it to bind the records of the criminal’s trial. This was seen as a punishment that would last even after death.

The Boston Athenaeum has a text in its collection titled Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est. Published in 1837, it contains the memoirs of James Allen, a notorious highwayman and bank robber.  He once declared himself to be the “master of his own skin,” and the book was actually bound in his skin.

The Harvard University Libraries  hold at least two books bound in human skin.  A third book, oringinally thought to be bound in human skin, has since been proven to be bound in sheepskin. One of these books is Des Destinées de L’Âme by Arsène Houssaye, published in the 1880s.  He gave the book to a physician friend, Ludovic Bouland. Bouland loved books, and had Houssaye’s treatise on the soul and life after death and had it rebound. He used skin from the body of a deceased mental patient whose family never claimed her body. Bouland added the following note:

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering. . .”

The tanning process used on the skin to preserve it and make it fit for binding damages the skin to the point that DNA is not recoverable, so it is not possible to trace the origins of the “donors.” By the end of the Victorian era the practice fell out of use because it was so morbid.


Human Skin


You can read more stories online in Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, or The Truth About Books Bound in Human Skin, A Morbid Secret Lies Hidden Within the Beautiful Walls of the Boston Athenaeum, and Flesh-Crawling Page-Turners: The Books Bound in Human Skin.

And remember, the next time you are in a library and using a very old book, the binding may not be what you think it is.

We Are Still Boston Strong

15 Apr 2014

Imagine what your ancestors though when they gathered to hear the Declaration of Independence read in public for the first time. Or when they heard the news of Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War. Or the start of World War I “The War to End All Wars.” Or the start of World War II, the war after that. Or when they heard of the sinking of the Titanic. Some of you remember where you were when you heard the news that President Kennedy was shot (For others it may be your parents or grandparents). For my generation, each of us remembers that bitter cold day in January 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded less than two minutes into flight.

The entire world knows the date of 9/11 and how our lives changed after it. For some, they lived it, while for others it is history. But in Boston, the date of April 15, 2013, will always be remembered. It was a typical April day, cool and perfect weather for running the Boston Marathon. Several friends of mine were running, and another friend from out of town asked me to join her at the finish line to wait. Unfortunately I had too much work to do that afternoon.

I had the television on while I was working, showing the runners come in and hoping I might catch a glimpse of a friend, when the explosions occurred. The first one at the finish line itself; the second only a block away. At first there was the thought that it was a gas explosion from inside a building. Then, slowly, the truth became evident. Boston had been attacked.

In the initial hours, there was confusion as the search for answers began. Trying to locate friends to be certain they were okay. This task was made more difficult as the BPD asked people not to use mobile phones in that section of the city, for fear of setting off additional bombs.

As the hours turned to days, the questions remained. Who had set off the bombs? Where were they? The biggest question: Were there any other devices planted in the city ready to explode? Would major tourist attractions like Quincy Market be next? Would a packed subway car be destroyed underground?

Personally, I had to make a decision. I was to speak at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference up in New Hampshire. Like all Bostonians, I was quite shaken. And we still had no answers. I decided to go, and  was in Manchester when the Shelter in Place order was given, and worried for the safety of my friends back home. My genealogy family, however, was there as always with love and support.

In the end, four people were dead, including eight-year-old Martin Richard. More than 260 people suffered injuries ranging from the minor to the 16 people who lost limbs. Nobody who lives in Boston was unaffected personally. While I was fortunate not to have any close family or friends injured, a chorus friend was the next-door neighbor and close friend of Martin Richard. For weeks, there was a physical scar running through the heart of the city as investigators closed down several city blocks, looking for clues. Then there was the grisly task of cleaning up the area. For months, people from all over the world dropped flowers, shoes, t-shirts, signs, and other items in a makeshift memorial that has now been preserved at the City of Boston Archives.


Boston Marathon Survivors


As our ancestors did before us, we stand up and move on in the face of violence. Today is a day of mourning and tribute in Boston. On Monday we will see the Boston Marathon running again, with more runners than ever before in history. There will also likely be more spectators than ever before. There will definitely be more police and security officials than ever before. But we will be there. And we will run. And we will watch. And we will not be cowed by hate. We are Boston Strong.

Copyright Free Maps from the New York Public Library

14 Apr 2014

The New York Public Library is filled with so many treasures for researchers. Every visit I find new materials to work with. But not everyone is lucky enough to be able to get to Manhattan to research on a regular basis. The NYPL has been working to digitize some of their collections to make it easier for people to access materials.

A couple of weeks ago, the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division made a huge announcement. The division announced the release of “more than 20,000 cartographic works as high-resolution downloads.” But the best part of the announcement was what came next: “We believe thiese maps to have no known US copyright restrictions.” That’s right, these maps are copyright-free.

The division has been scanning maps for 15 years. Much of this digitizing was done through grants from organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities. Among these maps are:

  • 10,300 property, topographic, zoning, and insurance maps for New York City from 1852 to 1922
  • 2,800 maps from state, county, and city atlases (mostly New York and New Jersey)
  • 1,100 maps of the Mid-Atlantic cities and states form the16th to the 19th centuries
  • more than 1,000 maps of New York City boroughs and neighborhoods from 1660 to 1922
  • more than 700 topographic maps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created between 18777 and 1914

While many of the images are black and white or grayscale, a very large number of them are full-color. Even some of the oldest maps are in color. You can browse through or search for maps on keywords. You can send a url to share with friends, or you can purchase a high-resolution digital image. You can also purchase high-resolution prints of the maps. You can also print out a copy difrectly from your browser.

When you look at an image, not only will you see the map, but you will see other information as well:

  • Names (of cartographers, etc.)
  • Name of the collection it comes from
  • Date of publication and publisher
  • Library Location where you will find the original
  • Subject classifications (called Topics)
  • Notes about the map/image
  • Identifiers, including the NYPL Catalog number and the RLIN/OCLC number


One of the map pages from the New York Public Library's Digital Collections.

One of the map pages from the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections, showing a seventeenth-century map of New York, New England, and Canada.


You can check out the maps by visiting the NYPL’s Digital Collections area. You can use these maps under a Creative Commons license from the NYPL, but as they warn you, you must be careful about any maps that are restricted because of a right of privacy or other restrictions.

News Stories and Blog Posts for Genealogists, April 11, 2014

11 Apr 2014

This week’s roundup of stories ranges from the serious to the very fun. From the institutional to the personal, they represent a wide range of sources, and a geographic area that spreads from the United States to the United Kingdom to Sweden.

We start with an admonition from Harold Henderson. In a conversation originally started on Facebook by Dave McDonald (former president of the Board for Certification of Genealogists), Harold discusses the importance of sorting through your genealogical materials (a dilemma faced by all too many of us). Read the full story in Cleanup in Aisles 1–1,000.

Six months ago, The National Archives of the United Kingdom released the first redesigned website pages. Last week, new pages for the Education and Information Management sections released beta versions of those new pages. The Education area is of special interest to genealogists. You can read more about what the team has been up to, what they’ve learned, and future plans in Beta Release of New Web Pages.

Terry Koch is a music teacher in Washington. For Christmas his children presented he and his wife with albums to fill out for their granddaughters, telling the tales of their lives. As he is about to enter the world of retirement, he is starting to think of genealogy, a tale that many of us are very familiar with. He wrote a wonderful piece about his story in the Walla-Walla Union Bulletin, Retirement Gives Chance to Reflect on Family History.

In a Toronto neighborhood sits a house that was built in the 1940s. The 96-year-old owner has resided in it since 1942. After 72 years, she has decided to sell her home. What makes the story even more interesting is that the house has not been redecorated since the 1950s. It is a perfect time capsule of that period. See the pictures on in 96 Year Old is Selling Amazing 1950s Time Capsule.


Swedish Gravestone


We wrap up this week with another decorating story. The Nilsson family of the town of Fuglie in southern Sweden was renovating their living room when they made an amazing discovery. Under the floor of the room was embedded a very large 200-year-old gravestone. And this is the second time in less than a year that a gravestone has been found in the area. Read more in Swedes Find 200-Year-Old Gravestone in Living Room.

The Death of Expertise

05 Apr 2014

Death of Expertise


Social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols published an interesting piece in the Federalist  a couple of months  ago called “The Death of Expertise.” Although talking generally about society, I think that much of what he said is applicable to what we’ve been experiencing in genealogy over the last few years.  Nichols writes:

“Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing mor than fallacious ‘appeals to authority,’ sure signs of dreadful ‘elitism,’ and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a ‘real’ democracy.”

He goes on to say that:

“I fear we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise:’ a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death ofactual expertise. . . Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live. This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes . . . But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen. . .”

The Internet age has brought us many benefits. Our access to images of original records has never been greater. And we have many more ways to share information than we ever have before.  But in many ways, we have taken steps backwards.

Throughout the twentieth century, genealogists worked to move away from the unstructured and undocumented compiled genealogies that had been published with little to no documentation, and many made up out of whole cloth. They worked to educate people to understand how easy it is to make mistakes and link individuals into families incorrectly. We developed peer-reviewed journals like the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The American Genealogist, and many others, to provide high-quality documented genealogies. This was not only to make such work available, but to show others how to properly research.

For all they have done to help us, computers have also worked against us. In some ways, the ability of computers to process large amounts of information quickly has become a problem. Instead of trying to find out ancestors, many people are in a competition to build the largest database of names. Little attention is paid to things like proof and documentation.

We’re also losing the ability to understand the basics of research and how to really find our ancestors. One of my colleagues recently had a conversation in an online forum with individuals who didn’t understand the difference between an index and an original record.  One individual was quite adamant that my colleague was simply being too difficult and elitist because the colleague tried to explain the importance of examining original records.

The major issue, though, is that folks like that now have a public forum for their views. They can create a website or a blog and get followers who are even less experienced than they are, and mislead these beginners. And anyone who dares to speak against them is simply elitist.

This is not to say that all bloggers are inexperienced or uninformed. To the contrary, many are quite knowledgeable and experienced. And having these folks share their experience and knowledge is quite helpful. But newer and less experienced genealogists would have no basis to be able to determine the difference between those with true expertise and those promoting inferior “knowledge.”

Worse still is that many of these individuals are actively working against the promotion of quality research. They attack anyone would dare to question inferior research techniques as “elitist.” By the same token, many experts are too quick to denigrate anyone who questions anything new and different. We must find a balance, and do our best to promote quality research techniques so that even beginners can understand how to be confident in their research findings.

New Help Finding Images You Can Use Online

03 Apr 2014

Copyright protection has been an issue forever, but the coming of the internet age has exacerbated the issues surrounding copyright. Among others, Judy G. Russell, The Legal Genealogist, regularly discusses copyright issues. Nowhere do these appear more frequently than with images.

We often find images online that help us with our research. They may be pictures of our ancestors, or photographs of places where our family lived. You might find maps of their hometowns. Or there might locate images of records involving your ancestors.

Unfortunately these images are often protected by copyright. You may be able to use them for your personal research, but nothing else. That means no posting on your blog or website to share with your family. No including them in a book your publishing about your research. This is true even if it is “just for the family.”

Locating images that are pertinent to your research can be challenging enough. But once you find them, you have the added task of discovering what you can and cannot do with the image.

Google now has a new tool to help you with this task. Using the Advanced Image Search on Google gives you extra tools to help you with your search. In addition to the usual Boolean options for searching, you can also look by any combination of

  • Image Size
  • Aspect Ratio
  • Colors in the Image (including black and white)
  • Type of Image (face, line drawing, clip art, etc.)
  • Region of the World
  • File Type

You can also search a single site by entering the URL into a separate field.


Usage Rights Google Search


But the newest addition to the search functionality is Usage Rights. You can look for images based on the usage rights. You can filter your search results by the following options:

  • not filtered by license
  • free to use or share
  • free to use or share, even commercially
  • free to share or modify
  • free to sue, share or modify, even commercially

Your first thought might be that as an individual, you might not need to worry about the commercial use options. But remember, there are many things that could have your blog or website viewed as a commercial venture. For example, if you have ads or participate in affiliate programs on your website, you might be considered commercial, even if you don’t charge for access to your site. Try these options to help you get the images you want and need for your research. Just be certain to verify the terms of reuse for images that you use.