Archive for May, 2011

Do you have a genealogy project?

The most immediate reason that brings all of us into genealogy is, of course, a desire to learn more about our own families. Even professional genealogists like myself started by researching our own families. I had been researching my own family history off and on for almost twenty years, and intensively for almost ten years, before I even considered becoming a professional.

Before I come back to this, I would like to recommend a website I recently discovered: “1698 Southold LI Census: A Study of Identities, Town of Southold, Suffolk County, Long Island, New York,” by Norris M. Taylor, Jr.

On this website, Mr. Taylor has started with a single record set at the core, the 1698 census of Southold, New York, and explored the community represented within these records by comparing the information with that held by other contemporary records. In conducting this intensive research, and compiling this information, Mr. Taylor has succeeded in two accomplishments. First, he has created a resource that anyone with roots in 1698 Southold (including this author) can use with their own research. Second, and more importantly, Mr. Taylor has combined the methods of genealogical research with the methods of historical research, and produced a deep exploration of an entire community.

I conducted a similar project several years ago, using a community of Palatine Germans who settled in Schoharie County, New York in the early 18th century–a community of which quite a few of my direct ancestors (and of course their families) were a part. My project has unfortunately had to sit on the shelf for a few years as other opportunities have come up, and limitations in my access to certain records have crept in.

However, I am currently about four years into a separate project, one where the access to records is much better, exploring a community of slaves and slave owners in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The fruits of this project will hopefully begin to see the light of day over the next several months.

I would like to ask other researchers: do you have a genealogy project?

Even as we explore our own direct ancestors, we must remember that these individuals did not live on islands by themselves. They were parts of communities. By fully exploring the family and other relationships within a single community, we are able to gain insight into that community, and our ancestor’s relative place within it. But more importantly, it is through broad community projects of this nature that we are able to break down even the toughest brick walls.

It is not at all uncommon to find exactly this type of community work in historical literature. Academic history, however, is interested more in generalities than in specific individuals, so the relationships are not often the focus. Just a few of hundreds of articles that I have collected over the years:

  • Thomas, William G., III, and Edward L. Ayers. “An Overview: The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities.”  The American Historical Review, Vol. 108 (2003), pp. 1299-1307.
  • Kenzer, Robert C. “The Black Businessman in the Postwar South: North Carolina, 1865-1880.”  The Business History Review, Vol. 63 (1989), pp. 61-87.
  • Cody, Cheryll Ann. “Kin and Community among the Good Hope People after Emancipation.” Ethnohistory, Vol. 41 (1993), pp. 25-72.
  • Steffen, Charles G. “The Rise of the Independent Merchant in the Chesapeake: Baltimore County, 1660-1769.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 76 (1989), pp. 9-33.
  • Baptist, Edward E. “The Migration of Planters to Antebellum Florida: Kinship and Power.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 62 (1996), pp. 527-554

Each of these journal articles is extremely useful contextual information for those who have ancestry within these geographic or demographic areas.

The difference between these projects and those that I would recommend genealogists conduct are several. Many of these historical works will focus only on a single record set or a limited number of additional records, but fail to explore other record groups. In other words, they fail to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard, in many cases. The historians have not completed a “reasonably exhaustive search” for all relevant records, not evaluated and correlated the evidence, and not reconciled contradictory evidence. This certainly limits the reliability of their conclusions with regard to individual family relationships. They can be excused because these individual relationships are not usually the focus of their research. For genealogists, these relationships would be the focus.

Here are some links to other broad genealogical projects I have come across over the years:


Shouldn’t we all be “Primary Care Genealogists”?

Last week, DearMYRTLE wrote about a concept that was brought up in the chat for her ProGen Study Group: “Primary Care Genealogists.”  This is how she described it in her blog:

Professional genealogists are quite capable in specific areas of expertise. Certification from BCG and/or accreditation from ICapGen reflect one’s focus. But if you take that genealogy professional and put him in a new locality, he becomes a newbie all over again.

The same is true in other fields, and Cheryl was spot-on when considering highly competent, educated and well-trained medical professionals. I wouldn’t think of going to a gynecologist if my heart needed a triple bypass.

So, in the world of genealogy shouldn’t we recognize “primary care genealogists” who can oversee the general health of your compiled family history and point to weaknesses in supporting documents, providing suggestions for further research? Just as my “primary care physician” refers me to a specialist for my heart, so too, can “primary care genealogists” refer us to specialists in the field.

This is an interesting concept, but I would take this quite a bit further. Professional genealogists, like all genealogists, of course have their own geographic (or other) areas of greatest experience. But this should not be a limitation. In my opinion, all genealogists should study at least two subjects: their specialty, and genealogy research.

Let me explain in a little more depth.

Suppose you specialize in New York German genealogy. You have been researching the area for 20+ years. You know about all of the available records. You are familiar with the families, the laws, the local history, etc. You become an “expert” in this area.

But you have a project that takes you out of that comfort zone, let’s say to a Norwegian immigrant family in South Dakota, or an enslaved African-American family in Mississippi. Do you throw your hands in the air and stomp off frustrated? Not if you have been studying genealogy research as well. You will understand the importance of how to conduct research.

Whether you are researching New York Germans, South Dakota Norwegians, or Mississippi slaves, the research methodology is the same. The applicable records, laws, history, culture, etc., may be entirely different, but that is all that has changed. Researching the area enough to discover the differences is relatively easy compared to the process of really learning to research.

Consider, for example, the following:

  • Land records. Whether you are dealing with “state land” or “federal land,” colonial patents, military bounty land, or late 19th century homesteads, or even non-landowners, how you use land records (and other property records) to discover genealogical evidence remains a general principle applicable to all. Only the specifics change.
  • Tax records. Depending on what state and what era you are researching, tax laws may be quite different. What items were taxed, who was taxed, and how the tax lists appear may vary greatly. But again, the general principles are the same, and it is only the specifics that change.
  • Probate records. The probate process, and how each step was recorded, can be radically different from state to state and time period to time period. Whenever you are researching a new area, you will have to familiarize yourself with this information. But if you truly understand the general principles surrounding these records, and how to use them, you will not have to completely “start from scratch.”
  • Associates. Checking the close associates and neighbors of our ancestors is another general principle that carries over, across geographic and chronological boundaries. Precisely who these associates and neighbors were will change, but the idea that you will have to research in this direction stays the same.

Learning how to research is therefore as important, if not more important, than learning about your specialty. This includes learning how to search for information, how to find records, how to identify the information held within individual records, how to evaluate the reliability of information, how to reconcile contradictory information, and how to create a proof argument from the sum total of the evidence. Learning these principles is so much more useful than learning everything there is to know about just one area of research. These principles will carry over from one state or country to another.

So in this sense, shouldn’t all genealogists be “primary care genealogists,” first and foremost? And specialists only afterwards?

More tweets from #ngs2011

Earlier today, I posted about what I have been doing while everyone else was in Charleston, S. C., for the 2011 National Genealogical Society Conference. I included several of my favorite “tweets” from those in attendance.

Of course, this did not include the others that have come in today. So here are more of my favorite tweets from the National Genealogical Society Conference. Please note, this is not all of them. Just my favorites from today.

  • Mark Lowe – for a brief guide to researching your Methodist ancestors.  #ngs2011 (via @genealogypa)
  • BVL [Barbara Vines Little -ed.]:  the sum of the evidence must bring you to your conclusions #ngs2011 (via @genealogypa)
  • Organizing pieces of evidence and writing a proof statement helps us spot our missing pieces.  – BV Little #ngs2011 (via @genealogypa)
  • (Live #NGS2011) American Religious Data Archive – Great history and statistics (via @JLowe615)
  • (Live #NGS2011) Documenting the American South – Religion (via @JLowe615)

Once again, to read all of the tweets from the NGS conference that were properly tagged, run a search for “#NGS2011” (without the quotes) on the Twitter homepage.

What I have been doing while the rest of the world is at NGS 2011

One of the drawbacks of being a self-employed, full-time progessional genealogist, is that “discretionary” money is often short. There is simply not enough to travel around the country and attend every conference and institute that I would like. This year, I have chosen to attend the Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research (IGHR) at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. So I am forced to miss out on the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference, being held this week in Charleston, South Carolina.

So, while everyone else has been out there, what have I been doing?

1. Client research: This is the bread and butter of my income, so it might go unstated that I have been doing research for clients and writing research reports. This has been most of my week, like most weeks.

2. Preparing new lectures: I will be delivering a lecture at the Prince George’s County Genealogical Society’s Spring Seminar tomorrow, so I have been putting the touches on this new lecture. Called “Branching Out Your Family Tree,” the lecture will discuss how you can connect with other people through genealogy, and how this can help your research. I have also been working on a more advanced lecture about the development of neighborhoods and communities through association.

3. Blogging: I decided last week to repurpose this blog (let me know how you like it!), and have been actively posting all week. This is a new kind of genealogy blog, discussing most often issues related to professional genealogy and the transition into it, though I will also discuss methodology and available resources as well.

4. Following the conference on Twitter: Just because I’m not there, doesn’t mean that I can’t follow along. Attendees at the conference have been tweeting news throughout the sessions, using the hashtag #ngs2011 . You can follow along by typing this hashtag into the Search box on the homepage, or by clicking here. Here are some of my favorite tweets:

  • Genealogical proof is not a vote. The most censuses in agreement do not win…workshop w Thomas W. Jones. So true! #ngs2011 #genealogy (via @marygenealogy79)
  • Barbara Vines Little suggests mining church records not just for vital statistics, but colorful background details.   #ngs2011 (via @genealogypa)
  • She reminds us to always read your local, county and church histories.  #ngs2011 (via @genealogypa)
  • Curt Witcher says check back issues of genie society periodicals for unique and forgotten research sources.   #ngs2011 (via @genealogypa)
  • CW suggests searching the public library catalogs in the counties you’re researching to find unique local publications.   #ngs2011 (via @genealogypa)
  • CW suggests checking end notes in hist society pubs to see if they reference articles covering the time/place you’re researching.#ngs2011 (via @genealogypa)
  • (Live from NGS Lecture) Use STATE NAME and SESSION LAWS to find legislative acts on #NGS2011 (via @JLowe615)
  • Pamela Boyer Sayre says investigate your unknown ancestors as perpetrators.  Take good notes, collect evidence, interview.   #ngs2011  (via @genealogypa)
  • Helen Leary  has inspired (& continues to inspire)  a generation of genealogists. She has more knowledge in her little finger… #NGS2011 (via @JLowe615)
  • The genealogical proof standard does not require direct evidence. A case can be built with indirect evidence using the GPS. #ngs2011 (via @ngsgenealogy)
  • Conflicting evidence is incompatible with a conclusion — Tom Jones quoting Helen Leary. #ngs2011 (via @ngsgenealogy)
  • To understand our ancestors we have to linger in the time & place in which they lived, per Alice Hare..rock on, historical context! #ngs2011 (via @marygenealogy79)

Source Citations: Why Form Matters, part one

Earlier this year, several bloggers discussed the importance of citing your sources. While I have not taken the time to compile a full list of these blog entries (though I may still do so), I wanted to respond to some of the comments.

But first I would like to discuss where the conversation started and where it went. Especially since I believe that the blog posts were a response to comments that I made on a genealogy mailing list. On 6 Feb 2011, a researcher posted a question asking for help with a tricky citation. A handful of people, including myself, offered assistance. Two of us then had a brief debate about whether a comma or a semicolon was appropriate in a given position in this citation.

You can read this entire exchange in the archives of the Transitional Genealogists Forum on But if you are going to read it, please read the entire exchange. It may bore the pants off of you, but it is important for the context. It is also important to note that this debate occurred on the “Transitional Genealogists Forum” mailing list. This is by no means a beginners’ mailing list. The list is described on the Rootsweb site as, “a mailing list for anyone who is on the road to becoming a professional Genealogist. It is a place to share experiences, problems, obstacles, downfalls and triumphs… [emphasis added].” In other words, if there is going to be a place for discussion of punctuation in a source citation, this would be the place to have it.

What Came Next?

On 11 February 2011, the post “I Don’t Care Where You Put the Comma” appeared on Amy’s Genealogy, etc. Blog. Is it a mere coincidence that this post appeared mere days after a debate over the placement of a comma? Not too likely. But I don’t mind. It is important to have open discourse over issues within genealogy, just as in any other field. Without open discourse, progress is not made.

The post read, in part,

During one of the [Rootstech] sessions, a person on Twitter commented that there were people who thought traditional (read “scholarly”) source citations were too hard and cumbersome. They wanted to enter one line and be done. A short discussion followed on Twitter about why this is and don’t people want to have good research.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider the two purposes of a source citation:

  1. To allow the researcher and others to find the source of the information being reported.
  2. To aid the researcher and others in evaluating that source.

To those ends, I say: I don’t care where you put the comma. Just tell me where you got the information. …

I believe that we as genealogical professionals are being counterproductive when we push so hard for what we call a “good” citation. Let’s not forget that for most people, genealogy is a hobby — a serious hobby, but it’s still supposed to be enjoyable. Scholarly source citations probably brings back nightmares of late-night term paper writing in high school and college.

Wouldn’t the field be better off if instead of harping on “good” citations — what you italicize, what you put in quotation marks, where you put the comma — we focus our efforts on getting researchers simply to have source citations? Wouldn’t we be better off if someone had “Graham’s History of Fairfield and Perry Counties, Ohio, (pub. 1883), page 452″ instead of nothing? That citation is far from perfect — it’s missing some key publishing information and doesn’t follow any established style — but I maintain that it is much better than nothing.

 This post was followed by a long list of “Amen” and “Halleluia” comments. Until you get to the comment I left:

What you are dealing with here are three levels of researcher, I think.

First are those who don’t cite sources at all. We can preach CITE, CITE, CITE to them all day until they get it. From what I can tell, this is the main audience who will benefit from your article.

Second are those who understand the need to cite, but aren’t quite sure how to do it. This group will also benefit from your article as it may get them over the hump–the fear of “not getting it right”–that at times stifles their whole-hearted desire to properly cite their sources.

The last group are those who understand the need to cite, but also understand the purpose of using a specific, consistent format. Those in this last group will disagree to some extent with your article.

When I first started writing years ago, one of the most consistent pieces of advice I heard from other writers, read in writers magazines and books on writing, was “Just write. You can edit it later.” This is a good attitude to have toward source citation. However, merely having all of the elements is not the finished product of a source citation. You have to format them in a clear, consistent manner. Where you put a comma or a semi-colon is as important in a citation as it is in any other sentence. You may simply pour your thoughts out onto paper in the text of your family history, but you will be sure to hit the spell-check and fix grammar mistakes before too long. Why do source citations not deserve the same treatment?

Furthermore, by using a consistent format, any readers–either intentional, such as writing for a journal or magazine, or unintentional, such as your own children or grandchildren who may come across your notes years from now–will be able to follow the citation. As a professional genealogist who has worked on hundreds of client projects, I have seen many “research reports” that the clients prepare to summarize their research. Many of these reports cite sources for all of their information. Unfortunately, they do not follow a consistent format, and in many cases, these citations take quite a bit of time to decipher in order to discover what source was actually used. In quite a few cases, the “citation” was so undecipherable as to almost defeat the purpose of including a citation: “To allow the researcher and others to find the source of the information being reported” and “To aid the researcher and others in evaluating that source.”

If the elements of a citation do not follow a consistent format, how can anyone know for sure, for example, which element is which. For books and other published material, such as the examples you gave, it is fairly easy to decipher, but what about a specific item in a file that is part of a specific record group as part of a larger collection? Even if all of these elements are present, what order are they in? What punctuation separates the various elements, some of which may be rather complex and contain punctuation of their own?

The other consideration, aside from later reading of the citation by yourself or others, is the process of writing the citation itself. If you consistently follow a specific format, then creating citations in this format becomes second nature. Then, you won’t have to run to your favorite citation guide to look up every new record group or record format to come up with exactly how to write this citation. It will become habit.

This comment sums up how I feel about the whole “comma” issue, but I want to take the time to respond more fully (even though it has been a few months). Read the next few posts over the next few days for more on this subject.

The Master Genealogist v8 Public Beta now available

I spent quite a bit of time over the past few years trying to select the perfect genealogy program. I used the free FamilySearch PAF software, Legacy Family Tree Maker, Family Tree Maker (2005 version, and later 2009 version), GenBox, GenoPro, RootsMagic (4), TNG: The Next Generation, and The Master Genealogist. For the past few years, I have exclusively used The Master Genealogist. In my opinion, it is the only software with the flexibility that I need.

I am excited to learn that — after waiting at least two or three years since The Master Genealogist version 7 was released — the public beta for version 8 has now been announced. According to the Wholly Genes website,

TMG v8 is now available in the form of a free public beta that will expire in 30 days.

TMG v8 is in the final stages of testing and we believe it to be stable and functional in all of its major features.

Some minor issues remain, however, and by releasing this public beta we hope to accomplish two things:

  1. Make reporting functions available to all those for whom v7 reports have become non-functional because of an upgrade to a 64-bit operating system.
  2. Enlist your help in identifying and fixing any remaining issues before the full public release.

For full information on the updated features, and to participate in this 30-day public beta, visit the TMGv8 page on Wholly Genes’ website.

Recent Family History survey results, part two

I started reviewing the recent family history survey conducted by Myles Proudfoot in an earlier post. This post continues the comparison of results among respondents identifying themselves as amateur genealogists vs. those identifying themselves as professional genealogists.

Question 9 in the survey asked, “How often do you do family history research?” The difference in results is not surprising for this question. Amateur genealogists most frequently responded daily (27.1%), but only by a slim margin over two of the other responses: 4-6 times a week (22.1%), and 2-3 times a week (21.2%). Even for amateur genealogists, genealogy research is apprently extremely addictive, with 70% of all respondents conducting research more than once a week!

Professional genealogists conduct research even more often than amateurs, which should be expected of professionals in any field. An overwhelming 73.5% of all professional genealogists reported that they research daily, followed by 15.9% that responded 4-6 times a week. This amounts to just under 90% of all professional respondents.

Questions 10 and 11 are related, and show the responses show similarities between the amateur respondents and professional genealogists. However, the results are enlightening for anyone interested in genealogy research:

Question 10 asked, “Where do you PRIMARILY keep your family tree information?” This question allowed multiple answers, so it will not total exactly 100%. The choices were:

  • In an online tree: 16.1% of Amateurs, 6.2% of Professionals
  • On my computer: 73.5% of Amateurs, 84.1% of Professionals
  • On paper: 10.1% of Amateurs, 9.7% of Professionals
  • In my head: 0.2% of Amateurs, 0.0% of Professionals
  • Nowhere/I don’t have a tree: 0.2% of Amateurs. 0.0% of Professionals

It cannot be determined, given the disparity between the size of the samples, whether the roughly 10% differences in the first two options are significant. However, these responses indicate that a larger proportion of amateur genealogists keep their data in an online family tree, while a larger proportion of professional genealogists keep their data primarily on their computer.

Question 11 continues along the same theme: “Thinking further about record keeping, how do you keep notes to track your research and findings?” Again, this question allowed more than one response from each respondent:

  • “I enter them into my smart phone/tablet”: 3.6% of Amateurs, 8.0% of Professionals
  • “I use a digital camera to capture the images”: 19.8% of Amateurs, 34.5% of Professionals
  • “I keep them online”: 24.4% of Amateurs, 25.7% of Professionals
  • “I type them into my computer”: 68.4% of Amateurs, 82.3% of Professionals
  • “I type them onto paper”: 4.8% of Amateurs, 6.2% of Professionals
  • “I use pre-formatted paper templates”: 10.7% of Amateurs, 15.0% of Professionals
  • “I write them freehand in a notebook”: 36.0% of Amateurs, 37.2% of Professionals
  • “I don’t keep a record of findings or clues”: 2.6% of Amateurs, 0.0% of Professionals

There are no significant differences in the responses for most of these options. The highest difference is among those respondents who selected “I use a digital camera to capture the images.” While slightly less than 20% of amateur genealogists use a digital camera to photograph records of interest, over 35% of professional genealogists practice this method. This probably comes as a result of the strong emphasis that professional genealogists place on reviewing original records (as opposed to derivative sources).

The smaller difference between the amateurs and the professionals who reported that they “type them into [their] computer[s],” probably reflects the larger percentage of professionals who reported in Question 10 that they primarily keep their genealogy information in their computers.

More of the results from Mr. Proudfoot’s survey will be analyzed in future posts.

%d bloggers like this: