On the Radio This Saturday

Federation of Genealogical Societies logoThis Saturday, 27 August, I will be the “FGS 2011 Conference Speaker of the Week” on the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ My Society radio show. The show begins at 2:00 ET/1:00 CT. My portion will begin at approximately 2:30 (1:30 central). I’ll be talking about my sessions at the upcoming FGS conference as well as some of my other genealogical activities.

FGS My Society is an Internet radio show. If you have an Internet connection, you can listen! There is a chat room that runs simultaneously with the radio show. If you want to participate in that, you need to register. It’s free to register; you can also register through your Facebook account.

So tune in this Saturday for fun, excitement, genealogy, and my dulcet tones!

WeRelate sees increase in new users

WeRelate.org, the world’s largest genealogy wiki, saw a doubling of new users from Saturday, August 13 to Monday, August 15 over the same period the week before (August 6-8). Since people don’t have to give a reason for joining, it’s impossible to tell why the sudden bump in new users, but I strongly suspect it has to do with the user policy changes at Geni.com.

NOTE: Geni.com announced last Thursday a major change in how users with free accounts can access data. This has not gone over very well. Several geneabloggers have shared their opinions, including Randy Seaver, Thomas MacEntee, and Elizabeth O’Neal at Little Bytes of Life. I have never used Geni.com, so I’m not going to offer my opinion of whether or not their change in the terms of service are good or bad.

I will say that I love WeRelate. The atmosphere is friendly. Everyone truly wants to get the best data out there.

You can follow WeRelate on Twitter and on Facebook.

I plan to post more about WeRelate in the near future.

(Disclaimer: I am a volunteer administrator for WeRelate. I am not compensated for any of my work.)

 

Managing Circles on Google+

Google PlusCircles are Google+’s way of helping users organize people in their network. You can have a circle for friends (the kind you know in “real life”), co-workers, family, etc. You can create circles however you want to. Circles make it easy to share information with the people who would be most interested in it. You can post your vacation plans to Family and information about a new conference to Co-workers.

What trips people up is that people can add you to one of their circles without you authorizing it. You get a notice that they’ve added you, so it’s not like it’s totally anonymous. People who are more accustomed to Facebook than Twitter tend to get confused by this. “Who is this person and why did they add me?” Well, they might have seen a post you made to Public or that was shared by someone in your Circles. They might have seen you in the list of “Suggestions” (people who Google thinks you might have something in common with).

You do NOT need to reciprocate if you don’t want to. If Bob adds you to one of his Circles and you don’t add him to one of yours, the only posts of yours he will see are things you post to Public (or Extended Circles, if he’s in a circle of someone in your circle). You will not see his posts in your regular Stream. You can see his posts if you click “Incoming.”

Here’s the conundrum people find themselves in: They want to have a large network, but they don’t want the posts of a gajillion people cluttering up their Stream. Let’s say you have a topic that you tend to post about, perhaps the Civil War. You want to reach as many people with an interest in the Civil War, but you don’t necessarily want all their posts coming in. (Let’s face it — there are some people who post everything to Public, even though “Public” really doesn’t care about the lunch they just ate.)

So how do you build a large network of people in a specific topic that you want to send to, but you don’t necessarily want to follow them? My solution:

Two separate Circles.

Create one Circle for topic and another Circle for topic – not following.

Going back to the Civil War example, you’d have a Circle for Civil War. This would be all the people you want to send Civil War-related posts and you want to read their posts, too. Your other Circle would be Civil War – not following. Here would be the people you want to send Civil War-related posts, but you do NOT want to read their posts on a regular basis.

When you post something related to the Civil War, send to both of those Circles.

How does this help? You can narrow your Stream by circle. To read the good stuff about the Civil War (or, at least, those people you think typically post good Civil War stuff), click on Civil War.

You should occasionally look at your topic – not following Circle to see if there’s any good stuff there. Maybe someone there has figured out that “Public” doesn’t want to see pictures of their kid’s hamsters :-)

Review of BillionGraves.com – Part 2

When I posted the first part of my review of BillionGraves.com, I had not yet created an account. This is what happened when I registered and used the site.

Creating an account is free. It was a bit odd, however. I filled in the form (username, email address, and entered the password twice) and got a pop-up message that my registration was complete. I was then directed to the login screen. If I just created an account successfully, why do I have to go through a separate login process?

I logged in and chose the Transcribe tab. I was taken to a random image that needed to be transcribed.

Transcribing an image

Right away, I could see a problem. There is no link to a help screen. You might ask, “How hard can it be to transcribe a tombstone?” It’s harder than you might think. For example, if a stone has a woman’s maiden name and her married name, where do you put the maiden name? Does it go in the first name field or in the “family names” field? If a tombstone lists the age at death rather than stating the birthday, do you calculate the birthday and enter that or do you leave it blank?

Illegible tombstone

There is no way to mark an image as illegible. I would love to transcribe this little tombstone on the left, but there is no way it can be read.

Many of the tombstones that needed to be transcribed were obviously the reverse side of a tombstone. Which brings up another unfortunate shortcoming of Billion Graves: records can only have one image attached to them. They can have multiple people, but only one image.

I came across this image listed in Evergreen Cemetery in Springville, Utah:

Reverse of tombstone

Each name is listed in Billion Graves — but whose children are they? Not only do we miss out on who their mother is, but if we had found her record, we’d miss out on a wonderful list of her children.

Another drawback to having only one image per record is inability to have multiple views. Often on tombstones, the inscription is only legible when read close-up. However, it is good to have a photo of the entire tombstone for context. Yes, you can upload both photos and transcribe both of them, but are the two records connected? Unless someone notices that there are two identical records, it would be easy to look at one and not see the other.

One concern that I had in my first review was that the full record doesn’t show the name of the cemetery. I wondered if that was something that was available only when you logged in. No. Even after logging in, the full record still does not show the name of the cemetery.

Ok, so I’ve explored transcribing and I’ve looked at full records after logging in. What is the upload process like? I’d love to tell you, but I can’t. MAJOR FLAW with Billion Graves: You can only upload photos from your iPhone. What?!?! I spend hours in cemeteries. I go to cemeteries even when I know I don’t have relatives buried there. I go to cemeteries when I’m on vacation. I have more than one thousand tombstone photos sitting on my computer and I cannot upload any of them to Billion Graves.

I understand that the BillionGraves app is designed to allow people to upload their photos and automatically geotag them in the process. That’s cool. I like that concept. However, to completely disregard the contributions that non-iPhone users could make is extraordinarily short-sighted. Right now, not even Android users can upload via a BillionGraves app. Currently, unless you have an iPhone, you’re not going to add any images. BillionGraves reports that they are working on an Android version. But that still leaves out those who don’t take tombstone photos with smartphones.

I should be able to choose a cemetery, select “Upload image” and upload it from my computer or non-iPhone smartphone. It might not be geotagged, but it would be in the right cemetery and people would be able to access the image and the record.

I’m a long-time FindAGrave user and contributor, but there are things about the site that drive me batty. I had hoped that Billion Graves would give FindAGrave a run for its money. I think healthy competition is a good thing. Innovation tends to flow in a healthy competitive environment. I had hoped that Billion Graves would either force FindAGrave to make some improvements or would become the “go to” site for tombstone images. As it stands right now, Billion Graves is not the competition I had hoped it would be. Maybe they will be willing to listen to some constructive criticism.

Review of BillionGraves.com

Midge Frazel over at Granite in My Blood has been blogging about the new Billion Graves app for the iPhone. I’ve downloaded it to my iPad and thought I’d take a look at the BillionGraves.com website. I took a test drive at Billion Graves. I think the site has potential. I’m hoping that some what I’ve seen so far is just glitches of a new system getting hit hard in its first weekend.

The stated goal of Billion Graves is “to provide an expansive family history database for records and images from the world’s cemeteries—but it’s not something we can do alone. We need you to help us by collecting images from your local cemeteries and transcribing the information those headstone images provide.” That’s a lofty goal, considering the reach of FindAGrave.com and its 62 million cemetery records. Will researchers and cemetery enthusiasts be willing to consider contributing to another site?

The search screen has four fields: first name, last name (required), birth year, and death year. I used the search term I use whenever I’m testing a new system: last name = smith. I got 44 results.

Person search and results


Above the results list is a dropdown menu to sort the results, with the options of Last Name A-Z, Last Name Z-A, First Name A-Z, First Name Z-A, Birth Date, or Death Date. However, none of the sort options would work. I tried on Firefox, Chrome, and Safari on my laptop and on Safari on my iPad. I tried selecting a sort option and then clicking “Search” again, I tried refreshing the page — the sort never changed.

I can understand the developers of Billion Graves wanting to keep their search form simple. However, if they get any sort of mass of records, there must be more search options. I can’t imagine trying to find my John Johnson only being able to search by name, birth year and death year. What if I didn’t know when he died? Having “place of burial” (even if it is just a state) is essential.

I clicked on the first result to see what the full entry looked like.

Full record

A couple of things puzzle me. First, why isn’t the name of the cemetery listed? If I share the URL to the page with this image, someone else visiting it has no idea where it is unless they click “View on Map.” When you do that, you are told that it is necessary to login to view that page. I hope that Billion Graves isn’t intentionally withholding the name and/or location of the cemetery unless the viewer is logged in. That’s not the way to make an inviting, welcoming site that people want to contribute to.

The second thing that puzzles me is the format of the date. Why show it in the record as “10/12/1946″? Those of us in the United States would probably interpret it as October 12, but it could be interpreted by Europeans as December 10. If the goal is to have a worldwide cemetery resource, the data need to be presented in a global-friendly format.

Billion Graves will allow you to search for a cemetery, using dropdowns for country, state, and county. You can also enter the cemetery name. I entered United States, Ohio, Fairfield and got 144 hits. There was the message “Showing only the first 100 results. Please narrow your search.” Why not list the first hundred and then give me the option to page through all of the cemeteries in that location? Also, the results came back in seemingly random order. They were alphabetical until the entry for Zwingly [sic] Cemetery, followed by County Infirmary and then the alphabet started over again.

Cemetery search and results

There appears to be a glitch in the system. When I clicked on a cemetery name, there was no option to search for another cemetery, so I used my browser’s back button. It took me back to the cemetery search, but the only options for states were Utah, Texas, and Tennessee (in that order). Out of curiosity, I clicked on Utah, and Beaver County was automatically selected. Thinking that maybe it was just showing cemeteries with records, I clicked on the first one. However, there were no records for it. When I used my back button to go back to the cemetery search page, United States and Utah were filled in — but the counties choices were Utah, Texas, and Tennessee. (I’m pretty sure those aren’t counties in Utah.)

Overall, I like the interface. It is easy to use (except where it isn’t) and it is easy to read. As I mentioned, I hope that some of what I’m seeing — sort options not working, cemetery name not displaying, glitch in the cemetery search — is the result of a young system getting hit hard.

Later this evening, I am going to create a BillionGraves.com account and see what, if anything, changes.

UPDATE: I’ve posted Part 2 of my review.

Treasures in a Random War of 1812 Pension File

Footnote.com recently released the first 1,400 images of the War of 1812 pension files, as part of its partnership with the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the National Archives. (You can read the full announcement here.) As promised, these images are free — no subscription required!

What’s so great about War of 1812 pension files? They can contain details not only of the veteran’s service, but his marriages, children, residences, and more. I decided to pick a random War of 1812 pension file and see what all I could glean from it.

Veteran: James Abbott of Ohio. You’ll notice on this page that many of the details contained in the file have been summarized. (No, I didn’t read this page and then choose him for my subject!) Even if the pension file you’re interested in has a summary page like this, read the entire file. You never know what else is in there (or what mistakes might have been made when that summary sheet was created).

Service: Captain Patrick Shaw’s Company, Ohio Militia. Enlisted 6 February 1813; discharged 6 August 1813. (page 6 and page 47). Drafted at Lebanon, Ohio (page 14)

Pension: Granted a pension of $8/month, 18 November 1871 (page 6), certificate number 8404 (page 2)

Bounty Land Warrant: 10713-160-55 (page 8 )

Residences:

  • Warren County, Ohio (page 21)
  • Miami County, Ohio (page 21)
  • Niles Township, Delaware County, Indiana “for 24 years” (stated 21 March 1871) (page 14); Moved to Delaware County, Indiana in 1846 (page 21)
  • Delaware County, Indiana (Granville post office), 25 March 1871 (page 6)

Born: circa 1794 (was 77 in 1781) (page 14) in Clermont County, Ohio (page 21)

Died: 14 October 1874 (page 8) at Delaware County, Indiana (page 21). See also page 52.

Physical Description (age 18): 5′ 9″, dark hair, blue eyes, light complexion (page 21)

Occupation: “Carpenter, and farming until within the last fifteen years he could not farm on account of age,” 21 March 1871 (page 14)

Widow: Rosa, received $8/month pension, certificate 13344 dated 19 December 1878 (page 5)

Marriages:

  • Rosa Keenan, near Lebanon, Warren County, Ohio, 19 June 1824, by Mahlon Roach, JP (page 21 and page 33)
  • According to Rosa, neither she nor James had been married previously (page 21)

Children:

  • Son William, age 44 (stated 27 March 1878) residing in Muncie, Indiana; his wife is F. Martha Abbott (page 22)

Witnesses:

  • John C. Matthews and William H. Stewart, both of Delaware County, who had known James for 20 years, 21 March 1871 (page 14 and page 15)
  • William and F. Martha Abbott (page 17)
  • Thomas J. Sample and William Abbott (page 21)
  • William H. Stewart and Amos L. Wilson, stating that James Abbott never aided in the rebellion (Civil War) (page 23)
  • Jacob F. Peterson and Henry Shaw, testified to death of James Abbott and that Rosa Abbott had not remarried (page 52)

Preserve the PensionsSee what a great resource War of 1812 pension files are?! These pension files, which had never even been microfilmed before, are being digitized thanks to the Preserve the Pensions project. This project seeks to raise $3.7 million to digitize and post online the 7.2 million pages of War of 1812 pension files.

You can help! Each dollar donated will digitize two images. Please visit the Preserve the Pensions page for more information. Preserve the Pensions is also on Facebook and on Twitter.

Bringing Genealogy Societies into the 21st Century: Recap

Federation of Genealogical Societies logoI just finished listening to the very first episode of “My Society,” a free weekly Internet radio show sponsored by the Federation of Genealogical Societies. This week’s episode featured Curt Witcher, speaking on the topic of “Bringing Genealogical Societies into the 21st Century.” This fits very well with his keynote presentation at RootsTech: “The Changing Face of Genealogy.”

You can listen to the archived version for free at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/mysociety/2011/04/23/bringing-genealogy-societies-into-the-21st-century

The recurring theme through the episode was “high tech, high touch.” If societies want to be successful, they need to find ways to touch more people with their mission-centric activities. Technology for technology’s sake isn’t the answer, according to Curt. Taking what you’re good at and what is tied to your mission — whether it’s queries or publications, etc. — and using technology to touch more people with it is what will drive success.

Societies need to remember two things, according to Curt. When people engage in an activity, they want two things:

  1. They want to be successful.
  2. They want to enjoy themselves. (Yes, people want to have fun with genealogy!)

The Indiana Genealogical Society was given as an example. They publish news items and queries on their blog. They started a digitization program with a probate court; this project brought in over $2,400 in donations and grants. (What society wouldn’t like to have a project that brings in money?!) Their “biggest” success, in terms of bringing in new members, has been their “2 for 92″ program — where they set a goal of having on the IGS website at least 2 databases for each of Indiana’s 92 counties. They’ve met this goal and have 565 databases on their website! As Curt said, your society has to have a meaningful presence 24/7. It allows members to be successful and to enjoy themselves. With that much data, the Indiana Genealogical Society certainly does that!

One of the phrases used by both Curt and by Thomas MacEntee, the host of My Society, was “If you’ve always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” (Which Curt added the follow-up: “And how is that working for you?”) “Always” and “never” should be red flags for things that need to be explored. Clearly, societies cannot keep doing things the same way they always have. This isn’t to say that everything needs to be dumped. (“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, certainly, but the bathwater does need to be changed” was how Curt put it.)

So how do we get our societies to change? First, you need new talent. Relying on the same core volunteers for everything only burns them out. Curt recommended looking beyond your society. Tap into other networks, whether it is your church, local convention and visitors bureau, local schools, etc.

One point that struck a chord with me was his observation, “We can’t allow perfection to be the obstacle of progress.” It will never be perfect. As soon as we embrace that fact, we can move on and have progress. Yes, things will need to be changed, but that’s ok. Along with that thought was one of my favorite quotes: “It will be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end.”

I think Curt and Thomas did an excellent job getting “My Society” off to a strong start.

My Society airs on Saturdays at 2:00 Eastern/1:00 Central.

(Disclosure: I am the webmaster for the Federation of Genealogical Societies. This post was written on my own time; I will receive no compensation for this post, nor was I asked to write it.)

Digitizing War of 1812 Pension Files

From the 12 April 2011 press release by the Federation of Genealogical Societies and iArchives:

iArchives today announced a collaboration with the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) to digitize 180,000 pension applications, or an estimated 7.2 million pages of War of 1812 Pension Applications and Bounty Land Warrants. The collection will be available on iArchives’ military records website, Footnote.com, home of more than 72 million historical records.

The multi-year project will consist of scanning the pension files at the National Archives in Washington D.C. and creating a searchable index to the digital images. FGS has targeted the War of 1812 Pension Applications as a high priority project based on the value of the content for genealogists as well as the importance of preserving the fragile records.

“Our goal with any collaboration is to honor our nation’s heritage by preserving the records of our past,” said Patricia Oxley, President of FGS. “In the specific case of the War of 1812 pension records, there is an added priority due to their frail state where not acting may mean sacrificing these for future generations.”

With the burden of proof on the applicant to qualify for a pension, those applying proved participation in the war by including dozens of vividly descriptive pages.  Details recorded include military battle stories, service dates, mentions of fellow soldiers, family relations, marriages, widows’ maiden names and many other clues significant to researchers. The breadth of information allows the pension files to tell the richest story of that time period.

“The most popular database on Footnote.com today is the Revolutionary War Pensions which is very similar content,” said Brian Hansen, General Manager at Footnote.com. “Our users have been asking for the War of 1812 pension records for some time, and I expect this collection to be very popular based on the rich war time detail it contains.  We are pleased to make these records available for free on Footnote.com as a result of FGS fundraising efforts to subsidize the production cost.” [emphasis added — ajc]

FGS is proud to be leading the national fundraising to support this project and is actively seeking donations from genealogical and historical societies, patriotic and military heritage societies, as well as interested corporations and individuals.  iArchives is providing a dollar-for-dollar match of each donation through a provision of services. To learn more and contribute to the project, visitwww.fgs.org/1812.


Page from War of 1812 Pension of Henry Lightner, Pennsylvania. Image at ACPL Genealogy Center.

That’s pretty exciting stuff! I’ve used War of 1812 pension files and they can be fabulous resources. There are two things I’d like to point out:

  1. Did you catch that part about the images will be free on Footnote? Free. As in you won’t need to pay to see them.
  2. FGS is raising funds to pay for the production.

According to the “Preserve the Pensions” page on the FGS website, each dollar raised will digitize two images.

That’s already a good deal, but you can make each dollar of your donation digitize four images! How? Donate through the Indiana Genealogical Society. IGS will match donations between now and June 30, 2011 (up to a total of $10,000). So if you donate $10 through IGS, they’ll match it — making the total donation to Preserve the Pensions $20. Donate $100 and IGS will match it, for a total donation of $200.

Working together — it’s a wonderful thing!

Not All Ohioans Fought for the Union: Gen. Roswell Ripley, CSA

Roswell Ripley

Brig. Gen. Roswell Sabin Ripley, CSA. Photo taken from Ohio Historical Society marker, Nov. 2009.

When you think of Civil War generals from Ohio, the names Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan often come to mind. Roswell S. Ripley also was a general, yet he is rarely (if ever) mentioned in Ohio classrooms. Why? It’s probably because he was a general in the Confederate Army.

Ripley was born in Worthington, just north of Columbus, in 1823. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1843 and served in the Mexican-American War. He resigned his commission in 1853 while stationed in South Carolina.

In April 1861, his forces at Fort Moultrie fired artillery onto Fort Sumter, the first volleys of the Civil War.

He was appointed a brigadier general in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and was wounded in the throat at the battle of Antietam. He directed the improvement of defenses around Charleston as was later dubbed ‘Charleston’s Gallant Defender.’

He died 29 March 1887 in New York and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston.

References:

We Don’t Need to Make It Last Forever

Last night, I had the opportunity to participate in the first #libchat, a Twitter chat for people in the library field. There were several intriguing questions, including this one:

How can libraries store and preserve digital works over the long term?

Blefurgy summed it up best: “No simple way for this yet; best option is to keep multiple copies and actively mange content to make sure it remains accessible”

Digital preservation is not a simple, one-shot deal. The “benign neglect” strategy that tends to work well for paper-based materials is simply not an option for digital resources. Digital preservation is a continuing process of refreshing media, converting formats, migrating files — all while trying to keep the file and its metadata intact.

Digital resources present a host of preservation challenges. You need to be concerned about the media. Is it stable? Is the media itself still accessible? (Do you still have an 8-track player for those tapes you still have in the back of the closet?) On top of that, you need to be concerned about the accessibility of the data. Is it in a format that can still be read? This includes not only the file format itself, but also the version. (How many versions back can the current software read?)

This continual process of preservation isn’t something we’re accustomed to. We’re used to stabilizing the paper, putting it someplace safe, and calling it a day (or century). So it is very tempting to look at higher-maintenance digital resources with a bit of distain. “We have scrolls that are over 2,000 years old. No digital file is going to do that.” Take that line of thought a step further and you can end up wanting to convert digital materials to paper.

A digital-to-analog conversion is a far-from-perfect solution. First, not all digital materials are suitable or even usable in hard-copy. Obviously, sound files can’t be converted to paper, but even something that is strictly data isn’t always suitable for analog. Relational databases, for example, would be difficult or impossible to make usable in paper form. Second, a conversion to paper results in the loss of embedded metadata. Even if you extract it, the effort to somehow connect it to the data would be incredibly labor intensive. Third is the issue of space. Do you really want to print out and store several thousand photos or a dataset with a few million records?

With paper not being a viable solution, we’re back to the lamentation that no digital file lasts as long as paper. “There’s no file that will last forever.” That’s true (at least to the extent of our development of digital resources.) But that doesn’t matter.

The files we have now don’t need to last forever. We just need to preserve them for the next generation, so they, in turn can preserve them for the generation after that.

It’s akin to the solution of how to eat an elephant. (Answer: One bite at a time). If we keep fretting about a lack of a forever-lasting file format, we can end up dismissing or discounting the things we can do.

We don’t need to have the magic file format that will keep that file complete and accessible from now until the end of time. We need to take responsibility for our files for our lifetime and keep them in good condition so that the next generation can continue their preservation for the generation that follows. By seeing the longevity of digital resources as being a process, we can concentrate our efforts on being responsible stewards.