Why You Should Download Your Files From Ancestry and Every Other Website

for-saleNews has been circulating about the possible sale of Ancestry.com. Reaction in the blogosphere and social media has ranged from “Run! The sky is falling!” to “Yawn…” A common theme among many of the posts has been to go download your GEDCOM file — now.

You know what? They’re right. You SHOULD go download your GEDCOM and other files from Ancestry… and any other website where you have them.

Note that I said “download,” not “delete.” It isn’t that I think that Ancestry or any other website is going anywhere. It’s a matter of sensible data management.

Eggs and Baskets

The great thing about electronic files — GEDCOMs, digitized photos, audio files, etc. — is that you can easily have multiple copies of the same data. (It’s also a challenge, but that’s a topic for another post.) When you have multiple copies, you don’t need to have all of your eggs in one virtual basket.

LOCKSS – Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe

Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe (LOCKSS) is an archival principle that does just what it says. There’s safety in numbers.

One of anything is vulnerable. If that one thing is destroyed or lost, that’s it. It’s gone. With lots of copies, you increase the odds of that item surviving. Losing one doesn’t mean you lose everything.

While I don’t think that a sale of Ancestry would mean the shuttering of the site (I mean, do you pay $2.5B – $3B for something and then shut it down?!), you shouldn’t have the only copy of your files there. You shouldn’t have the only copy of your file anywhere. You shouldn’t have only one copy. Period.

Let’s say that the site where you have your data has trouble with a server; the site is down while they fix it. Your data is inaccessible during that time. Same if you lose your Internet connection. If you can’t reach the web, you can’t reach your data.

And there’s the possibility that the site where you have your data goes out of business.

On the flip side, don’t let your computer store the only copy you have. When that computer dies — and it’s when, not if — you could lose it all. Utilize the Internet as off-site storage.

We Can Play It Safe

Genealogists use many types of data. We have GEDCOMs, photos saved as JPGs and TIFFs, PDFs of family histories. It takes us a long time to compile it all and we don’t want to have to recreate it.

We owe it to ourselves to not have only one copy — not on Ancestry, not on our laptop, not anywhere. When we use the LOCKSS principle, we help ensure that our data lives on.

Locks keep our things secure... and Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe

Locks keep our things secure… and Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe

Why, yes, I am a librarian, thank you

For someone who has been trained in organization and classification, I am sometimes frustrated by labels. I see it in the genealogical world and in the library world. We are sometimes quick to label people or — what really frustrates me — reserve labels because a person doesn’t quite fit the mold we have constructed in our minds.

When I was first hired at Archives.com as Genealogical Content Manager, a few of my friends and acquaintances said, “Huh? I thought you were going to be a librarian.” Apparently, to them “librarian” is a title reserved for those who work behind a desk at a library.

They apparently haven’t been to a library or a library website lately.

In any given day, I might be evaluating a new potential collection, working with the engineers to prepare a new collection for publication, writing collection descriptions, or writing educational content for the site. Hmm, that sounds remarkably like selection and acquisition, organization, metadata creation, and instruction.

I have to have an understanding of the users, what they are looking for, and how they expect to interact with the materials.

In short, I’m doing things that I was trained to do in grad school.

The Mummy (1999). I knew someday I'd be able to work this movie into a blog post.

I do not work in a traditional library setting, but for those who say, “Huh? I thought you were going to be a librarian,” I relay one of my favorite scenes from The Mummy. Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) is talking with Rick (Brendan Fraser) and trying to tell him a little bit about herself, which is not an explorer, a treasure-seeker, or a gun-fighter:

Evelyn: …but I am proud of what I am.

Rick: And what is that?

Evelyn: I <pause> am a librarian.

Notes from a 1940 Census Arbitrator

My name is Amy and I’m an arbitrator for the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project.1940 U.S. Census Community Project

Ok, you can stop throwing things at your monitor now. (And really, would your mother be happy to hear some of the words that just came out of your mouth?!)

If you’re not familiar with the project, arbitrators are those who referee between the sets of values from the two independent indexers. If Indexer A said the first name was David and Indexer B said the first name was Daniel, the arbitrator has to decide which one was right. (If neither was right, the arbitrator enters what he or she believe is the correct value.)

Since the 1940 census indexing project started, and particularly in the past three weeks, arbitrators have become, at best, persona non grata or, at worst, pariahs of the project.

Indexers can review their batches and see where the arbitrator chose a value other than theirs. This was intended to help indexers see where they’ve made mistakes and to help them be better indexers.

Since nobody knows who the indexers or arbitrators were of any given batch, the indexers don’t know who specifically to complain about. Consequently, indexers complain about arbitrators as a whole.

I gotta tell ya, the past few weeks have not been easy for some of us who are arbitrating the 1940 census.

Let me continue by saying this: There are some bad arbitrators out there. There are some who have not read the updated rules on the FamilySearch wiki, nor the update that appears every time they open the indexing program. There are some who don’t choose “<Blank>” for a 1935 if the person was under 5 years old. (Hello — if they were less than 5, they weren’t even living in 1935!) There are some who expand “R” to “Rural.”

Of course, what bothers people the most is when an arbitrator changes a name (either a person or a place) that the indexer knows is right. Hey, I feel your pain! Been there, done that! I had an arbitrator change my “Broyle” to “Boyle” (there was definitely an R in there) and change “Uhrichsville”, Ohio to “Yrichsville”, Ohio.

But before you go to string up the closest arbitrator by his or her toenails, I’d like for you to think of a few things:

  • Arbitrators are human. As such, they will occasionally make mistakes.
  • You don’t see how many times the arbitrator chose your value instead of the other indexers. Think about all records with strange names and bad handwriting where the arbitrator said you were right.
  • Ask yourself if the different value will really make a difference in someone finding the record. I just explored Broyle/Boyle by doing a search on FamilySearch in the 1930 census. Turns out that searches for John Broyle also gives me results for John Boyle and John Boyles. So even though the arbitrator changed Broyle to Boyle, it should still be discoverable. Similarly, changing that “R” to “Rural” isn’t going to keep anyone from finding that entry.
  • If the arbitrator changed the name to something with a wildcard, it is still discoverable. For example, if they changed your “Burns” to “B*ns”, it can still be found by anyone doing a search for Burns, Byrns, Benns, Borns, Bynns, etc.
  • FamilySearch keeps all of the indexed values: Index A, Index B, and, if applicable, what the arbitrator entered. They’ve said that they will eventually add a search option to go across all values; however, they have not announced a time table for this.
Yes, there are some doozies of names being changed and it is never fun to see your entries changed when you believe they’re correct. But remember that the change often does not affect the ability of someone to find the record….  and arbitrators are human, too.

The Laws of Genealogy

Photo by s_falkow. Used under Creative Commons license.

You’ve heard the rules of genealogy. Cite your sources. Start with the known and move to the unknown. Run for office and have it done for you. What you may not have heard are the Laws of Genealogy.

The Laws of Genealogy guide our research. They explain why things behave the way they do. You would think that they’d be widely known, yet this isn’t the case. My friend Stephanie (of the amazing Corn and Cotton blog) said that she was “Jabba the Researcher,” because she had spread out her things so much at the Genealogy Center in the Allen County Public Library. I was surprised that she had never heard one of the Laws.

So here are some of the Laws of Genealogy, as I have come to know them:

The Law of Horizontal Space: Genealogists shall take up all available horizontal space. Those books, papers, laptops, scanners, notebooks, more paper, office supplies, peanut M&Ms, more paper, file folders, computer bags, and yet more paper will spread out as far as possible. Corollary to this law: There is not enough horizontal space in the world.

Photo by Earls37a. Used under Creative Commons license.

The Law of Last Call: Genealogists will make their biggest discovery after the library or archives announces it will be closing in 15 minutes. This Law is more stringently enforced the further the genealogist had to travel to get to said library or archives. Similar to this is the Law of Departure Time, which states that a genealogist will make his or her biggest discovery within 15 of the agreed-upon departure time from the library (ie, if the group is going to leave at 4:00, the biggest discovery will be made after 3:45). Do not attempt to trick the Law of Departure Time by stating a time earlier that what is really planned. The Laws of Genealogy know this and will punish you by not allowing you to find anything.

The Law of Copies: The likelihood of a library or archives using a copy card system is  inversely proportional to the number of coins you brought with you. Bring lots of coins and you won’t need them. Bring none, and all the copiers will be coin operated.

The Law of Vital Records: At least one member of the family tree will have been born or died 1-2 years before the start of civil vital records. This is to expose the researcher to alternate sources. (Yeah, that’s it… )

The Law of Thumbs: When a record is microfilmed, the camera operator’s thumb must obscure the researcher’s ancestor’s name. You just thought Princess Diana held the record for “most photographed person in the world.” No, it’s the man who ran the microfilm camera. You never see his face, but his thumb is known around the world.

There are other Laws, but these are ones that seem to be the most strictly enforced. What other Laws of Genealogy have you discovered?

Webinar for Illinois State Genealogical Society

I’m pleased to announce that I will be doing a webinar for the Illinois State Genealogical Society on Tuesday, 13 March 2012 at 9:00pm Eastern (8:00 Central). My topic will be “Desperately Seeking Susan: Finding Female Ancestors.” It’s a topic that I thoroughly enjoy giving and I look forward to presenting it!

The price is right — it’s FREE! You can register online here. I look forward to “seeing” everyone there! (Ok, it’ll be more like hearing and/or reading you, but you know what I mean <g>)

Why Closing the SSDI is a Bad Idea

Recently, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) introduced the “Keeping IDs Safe Act of 2011″ (aka KIDS Act). Rep. Johnson claims that thieves have been using the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) “to access Social Security numbers, file bogus tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service and collect refunds.”1 By closing the SSDI to the public, Johnson claims, thieves will no longer be able to steal the identity of deceased children and claim them as dependents on tax returns (as what happened to the Watters family of Illinois).1

However, the SSDI is an excellent tool for preventing identity theft. The SSDI can be used to verify that the Social Security number in question was assigned to someone who is now deceased. Some of the publicly-available SSDI websites offer the ability to search by Social Security number. A quick search for that number would show if it was assigned to a now-deceased person.

If more agencies and employers used the SSDI, they would instantly spot that a number being passed off by a living person is actually invalid — thus preventing the identity theft.

It is true that there are instances of living people appearing in the SSDI. (According to Johnson, there are approximately 14,000 such people.1 The entire SSDI contains more than 90.8 million records.2)

It is certainly understandable to want to protect against identity theft. However, shutting off a valuable tool such as the SSDI is not the way to do it.


  1. Wolf, Isaac. “Senators try to block ID theft of the deceased.” Chicago Sun-Times, 25 November 2011. (Accessed 25 November 2011).
  2. RootsWeb’s Social Security Death Index search page (accessed 25 November 2011).

Why I’m Excited About the 1940 Census

Yesterday, Archives.com announced that it has entered into a partnership with the National Archives to host the 1940 census. These images will be free to the public beginning 2 April 2012. (You can read the full announcement here.)

Top section of the 1940 census

Image courtesy of the National Archives

When it comes to the 1940 census, I’ve seen every reaction from “Oh my gosh! I can’t wait!” to “Wake me when it’s over.” Yes, there are people who aren’t excited about the release of the most current census to be made available. (There is a 72-year waiting period before a Federal census becomes public; hence, the 1940 census will become the most current census to be available starting next April.) How can you not be excited about a set of records that likely contains your family if they lived in the United States in 1940?

Perhaps those who aren’t excited are suffering from Jaded Genealogist Syndrome. They’ve researched their recent family and “know all about it.” They think that the 1940 census won’t tell them anything they don’t already know.

Really? How about these wonderful tidbits of information:

  • Residence in 1935 (yes, the 1940 census asked where the person lived 1 April 1935)
  • Salary for 1939
  • Employment status — including if he or she worked in “emergency work,” such as the WPA
  • For married women: married more than once (yes or no), age at first marriage, and number of children ever born (not including stillbirths)

This is in addition to the regular questions we expect in a census: name, age, marital status, relationship to the head-of-household, and birthplace.

About 5% of the population was asked a series of supplemental questions. (Today, we’d call this the “long form.”) This included birthplace of mother and father, mother tongue, veteran status, and if the person had a Social Security Number.

Those questions are wonderful! They might not give “genealogical” information, but they do help to place the person and the family in context. It helps to flesh them out.

It’s true that if you’ve been researching your tree for awhile, you might not have any Big Genealogical Discoveries in the 1940 census. (Then again, you might! You never know who’s going to show up in a census!) But even if there aren’t any earth-shattering facts that takes the family back to Charlemagne, there are still plenty of reasons to be excited about the 1940 census.


Notice: I am the Genealogical Content Manager and Contract Specialist for Archives.com. (However, I’m excited about the 1940 census regardless.)

Civil War in Cincy on Saturday

Thomas Andrew Young, 189th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Thomas Andrew Young, 189th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

I’m looking forward to presenting “After Mustering Out: Researching Civil War Veterans” at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County this Saturday at 2:00pm. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and say “Hi!”

Societies and the Non-Genealogist Genealogist

Over the weekend 1000memories.com shared the results of a recent survey on family history. The survey found that more people than ever are interested in learning about their family history but they (on average) know even less about their genealogy. This week, five of the genealogy community’s top thinkers will share their reactions. Today 1000memories features Amy Crow.

The recent 1000memories survey showed that there is an increasing disconnect between the percentage of people who are interested in their family history and the percentage who can name more than one great-grandparent. There are likely a number of causes for this. Perhaps a greater percentage of people are interested but have not yet actually started any research. Perhaps a greater percentage of people have hit brick walls very early in the process. But could there be another, more basic, reason?

Could it be that more people do not equate family history with genealogy?

There has been debate for some time as to whether “genealogy” and “family history” are synonymous. In one camp are those who contend they are different: genealogy is the “begats,” while family history is the “stuff” wrapped around it. The other camp says that they are two sides of the same coin and can be used interchangeably.

Regardless of the semantics, not everyone who is interested in their family story identifies themselves as genealogists. A colleague of mine recently showed me some old family photos that she was very excited to have found. I told her she needed to record the stories behind the photo – why the family was gathered, whose house they were in. She said that, yes, she should and would, and then quickly added, “But I’m not a genealogist.”

My colleague is what I call a “non-genealogist genealogist.” She is a woman with a clear interest in her family’s history and wanting to preserve it, but who did not consider herself a genealogist. She recognized the importance of the family photos and looked for ways to preserve them. Isn’t that something a genealogist would do? Does the fact that she doesn’t self-identify as a genealogist change the contribution that she makes to her family’s heritage?

If fewer people who are interested in their family’s history and heritage identify themselves as genealogists, it could have a tremendous impact on genealogical societies. If a society is focused only on those who are actively researching, it is missing out on a sizable audience.

A lot has been written and said in recent years about genealogical societies needing to change if they are to survive. Meetings on Tuesdays at 2:30pm generally work only for the retired. Websites that were last updated two years ago make the society look dead to anyone who finds them via a Google search. Focusing on local members often comes at the expense of distance members. Updating these aspects are fairly straightforward. But just as all of these can turn off potential members, so can a society’s attitude.

Are genealogical societies too focused on the begats? Is everything they offer geared toward the professional or serious hobbyist? Does everything revolve around records, sources, and methodology? How inviting and meaningful are societies to people like my colleague who are interested in their heritage, but don’t consider themselves genealogists?

Beginning genealogy classes are not the answer by themselves. Those reach people who either identify themselves as genealogists or, at least, soon-to-be genealogists. Attendees are already interested in learning how to identify the members of previous generations. It is crucial to reach these people, but there are others who would benefit from what a genealogical society has to offer.

Leaders in the community have urged genealogical societies to embrace technology in order to reach new members and keep current ones. Some societies have done a great job with databases, interactive websites, and electronic newsletters. Where many societies are missing an opportunity to leverage technology is in their public programs.

Public programs can be a great way to expose people to the society. Many programs are well-suited to be beneficial to the “non-genealogist genealogist.” Technology programs, for example, can be marketed to a wide audience. Instead of offering “Using Your Scanner for Genealogical Research,” why not offer “Using Your Scanner to Preserve Family Photos and Documents”? Same program, different title (and one that would appeal to anyone who wants to preserve family photos). Similarly, programs on topics such as digital scrapbooking, photo restoration, and journalling can all be marketed to more than just genealogists.

This is not to say that genealogical societies should abandon the begats. After all, the ultimate question in genealogy is “Who were the parents?” But if they are to survive, genealogical societies need to recognize that not everyone is ready to ask that question and begin looking for the answer. Further, they need to recognize that just because someone isn’t asking that particular question doesn’t mean that they are not interested in family history. Welcoming the “non-genealogist genealogist” is another way that genealogical societies can survive, and even thrive, well into the future.

Do you want to participate in the conversation? 1000memories invites and encourages you to blog and/or tweet about it. Please send the link to mike@1000memories.com or tweet what you think and use the hash tag #familyhistorymonth. Next Saturday, 1000memories will publish a summary of all the perspectives and ideas shared.


When she’s not busy trying to convince people that they really are genealogists, Amy Johnson Crow is a busy website and database developer, researcher, and writer. She has held numerous volunteer positions in genealogical societies and firmly believes that societies can adapt and thrive. Amy recently earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science, concentrating on digital libraries and digital preservation. Her blog at AmyJohnsonCrow.com combines her enthusiasm for genealogy and technology. She can be reached at amy@amyjohnsoncrow.com or on Twitter at @amycrow.

New Blog Home

Livingston HouseOh give me a home, where my blog can roam…  (Ok, I’ll stop singing and stick to writing.)

After much deliberation, I have decided to merge my blog (Amy’s Genealogy, etc. Blog) with my “regular” website. In the very near future, my old blog will automatically redirect here. Don’t worry — all your favorite olds posts will still be accessible. You’ll still be able to read about my seriously cool Route 66 bag as well as why I don’t care where you put the comma.

If you haven’t already, please update your RSS feed. (The link is on the right.) And feel free to tell a friend!