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, 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 (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 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 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 combines her enthusiasm for genealogy and technology. She can be reached at 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!


Preserving Stories on 1000memories

In the past couple of years, there has been an shifting emphasis in genealogy/family history. Momentum has been building around capturing not only the names, dates, and places — the cold, hard facts — about our ancestors, but also capturing their story. As Lisa Alzo put it in her presentation on writing your family history at the recent Federation of Genealogical Societies conference, “You may have a family tree as long as this hall, but what do you know about any of those ancestors?” Curt Witcher talked about the importance of story in his keynote at RootsTech 2011. It’s the story that engages people.

In this day and age of Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Skype, and texting, it’s easier than ever before to share our stories. But how do we preserve them?

That’s where a new website called 1000memories comes in.

At 1000memories, the emphasis in on sharing and preserving stories of ourselves and our ancestors. It’s a place “to remember everyone,” as co-founder Jonathan Good describes it. It’s free to register and free to use. If you can type, you can post photos, stories, documents, sound clips, movies — anything that will tell a bit about who that person was.

You might be thinking, “Hey, I can do that on my blog or on Facebook. Why do I need 1000memories?” Unlike your blog or Facebook, 1000memories is working to preserve the material forever. (And as Prince sang, that’s a mighty long time.) They’re serious about this. 1000memories takes extraordinary measures to keep these materials safe. (One thing that isn’t mentioned on that page is their partnership with Internet Archives, the group that gives us the awesome Wayback Machine among all sort of other preserved digital material. I told you — these folks are serious!)

So how easy is it to share photos and stories? At the FGS conference, I stopped by the booth for a brief demo. I had not tried to post anything prior to talking with Michael Katchen, so I was starting from square one. Michael showed me how to login via Facebook, which took all of about 10 seconds. I could see all of my Facebook albums. All I had to do was choose which album and then click the photos I wanted to import into 1000memories. I chose this photo of my grandparents:

Grandma and Grandpa Johnson, Easter 1965

Within a couple minutes, I had imported that photo, created a page for Grandma, a page for Grandpa, and started the frame of a family tree. It really is that easy. I was hooked. That afternoon, I skipped sessions at the conference, and went back to my room so I could upload more photos from my laptop. I added more photos, and typed up a quick story about my great-uncle Harold.

Since then, I’ve gone back through some older family photos that had just vague identifications on them. “Great-Grandma Young and her children.” Considering that she had 10 children, I needed some help on the specifics. I emailed the photo to my Dad and he identified everyone. I cannot wait to get more photos and more stories uploaded.

The top part of the page I created for my grandma.

Pages can have different privacy levels. For example, you can make pages for deceased family members open to everyone (only registered users can add to or edit the page) , but set pages for living people so that only invited people can share content or even set it so only invited people can view the page.

1000memories makes it so easy. All of my cousins can go on any of the pages I’ve created and add their own photos and stories. I’m the youngest of the grandchildren, and I know that my stories of Grandma and Grandpa aren’t the same as those of my older cousins. Now we have a way for all of our stories to be shared and preserved.

I plan on writing more about 1000memories in the near future. But the site is so easy to use, you really don’t need a lot of tutorials to get started!

Learn more:
Michael Katchen of 1000memories will be a guest on GeneaBloggers Radio this evening at 10:00 Eastern.

You can also watch co-founder Jonathan Good’s presentation at the 2011 TEDxSF.

Disclaimer: I attended the “Engaging Your Family in Genealogy” breakfast panel at the FGS conference. However, I can honestly say that the free (small) glass of orange juice and the rather dry cheese danish did not influence this review.