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?

Are You Part of the Solution?

The Internet is both a boon and a bane to genealogical research. While it is easier to communicate and discover than ever before, it is also easier for lousy research to spread. It seems like bad genealogy goes around further and faster than Charlie Sheen’s tweets.

Keyboard Macro

Keyboard Macro by Chris Kempson, on Flickr.

Do genealogy long enough and you will find some, shall we say, “less than stellar” family trees online. Some are blatantly and obviously wrong. It’s easy to ignore a tree that has a woman born in 1700 giving birth in 1810. What is harder to ignore is something that looks plausible — especially if it’s something we’ve been looking for some length of time. Get desperate enough and one can completely overlook the lack of sources on the tree that was just found. Or, what sometimes happens, someone will add a “theory” to a tree, then someone else reads it and — voilà — it morphs into “fact.”


There are those, such as one of Dick Eastman’s readers, who believe that information on the Internet should “never be trusted.” I have had associates tell me that they won’t post any of their research online “because there is so much junk out there.”

Yes, there is a lot of junk out there. But as the axiom goes, if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.

More and more people are coming to genealogy via the Internet and do virtually (no pun intended) all of their research online. Of course they’re going to find a lot of junk if nobody bothers to post the “good stuff.”

In the days of the Internet before blogs and social media, there were two choices for correcting bad information: contacting the person who posted it (with the hope that they would change it) or have your own online tree or website and post your research. That second option used to be kind of difficult, especially if you were technologically challenged.

Now with blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and the like, there is no technological reason why you can’t post your own data. If you can type, you post something online in some form or another. Consider these possibilities:

  • Have a blog
  • Contribute to a wiki family tree, such as WeRelate
  • Contribute to a research wiki, such as the FamilySearch wiki
  • Post old family photos on Flickr
  • Donate your family tree (either in hard copy or GEDCOM — or both!) to a library and/or genealogical society
  • Contribute an article for a genealogical society’s blog or newsletter

Lorine McGinnis Schulze has a great blog post about some erroneous POST family information that’s been floating around cyberspace. She goes point by point what is wrong with what has been taken as “fact.” She then posted her own research — with sources — so that people can see what really is known about the family. What a great example of getting the “good stuff” out there.

It’s easy to discount everything online as junk. But before you throw in the towel, ask yourself this: “Am I part of the solution?”

Digital Youth and Digital Preservation

The Library of Congress recently posted this video of a workshop with teenagers discussing digital preservation. Today’s teenagers really have been “born digital.” Everything they deal with is digital or has some digital aspect to it. So what do teenagers think of all this “stuff”?

In some ways, they’re like their parents: they don’t agree on what should be saved, who is responsible for saving it, or even what the challenges are.

I was struck by the wide-ranging views. One young woman wanted to save all of Facebook. (“It’s our generations yearbook, our scrapbook.”) One young man said you can’t save everything, but maybe the “stuff” that people will learn from later for history — parts of presidential speeches, for example. She wanted to save the everyday; he wanted to save the exceptional.

It also occurred to me while watching this video that we have done a pretty poor job of explaining exactly how the Internet works and how digital files work. How often have we tried to admonish young people, “Once it’s on the Internet, it’s there forever,” usually as a warning not to post pictures from last night’s kegger or last weekend’s jello-shot competition. But what has gotten lost in that message is that it isn’t truly forever by itself.

Unlike paper, which usually does quite well in a “benign neglect” environment, digital files must actively be maintained. Think of how many websites would be lost forever if they had not been captured by Brewster Kahle’s Wayback Machine. Consider, too, what it takes for those files to remain viable and available.

I can’t sit here and blame the teenagers for their state of confusion. They’re actually more aware than some adults I know. However, we’re all going to be in a big world o’ hurt if we — collectively and individually — don’t step up and actually do what we need to do to preserve our digital heritage.

That’s What I’m Talkin’ About!

In an earlier post, I mused about why NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are showing genealogy as “easy” was a good thing. WDYTYA showed it being exciting and fun to do, which could lead people to follow this passion we call genealogy and family history.

With completely unscientific and anecdotal evidence, I found that my hypothesis was right. In less than 24 hours, I found 2 Tweets from people who were inspired by WDYTYA to start their searches. ShyGenealogist‘s husband asked her to help him with his genealogy “after 3 weeks of watching WDYTYA.” Lisaindayton announced to the world “Watched WDYTYA? last night and decided to start doing some genealogy research.”

That’s what I’m talkin’ about! Something exciting, something engaging — that’s what will entice people to start exploring their genealogy. Welcome, Mr. ShyGenealogist and Lisaindayton! We’re glad to have you in the community!

Who Do You Think You Are? – Rosie O’Donnell

I have to admit that I didn’t have high hopes for tonight’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are featuring Rosie O’Donnell. All the “wow”s in the trailer made me cringe. “Oh no — it’s going to be nothing but fluff.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.

(Spoiler alert! If you haven’t watched it and want to be surprised, do NOT read the rest of this! You have been warned :) )

As a human interest story, it was incredibly moving. As most of Rosie’s fans know, her mother died when she was only 10. Naturally, that was the side of the family that Rosie wanted to concentrate on. Nearly immediately, she found a family tragedy — the death of her great-grandfather’s first wife. She died 20 days after she was burned by an exploding kerosene lamp. Her reunion with her 2nd-cousins was heartwarming. (And they identified a family photo for her!)

Census records lead her to Quebec, where she discovered the clue that she’d been looking for: the family’s origin in Ireland.

Ireland was a place with tragedy that Rosie was unprepared for. She discovered a child who had died during the Famine and that the family, with four small children, were sent to the workhouse. To say that the workhouse she visited was oppressive is a gross understatement. As Rosie said, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but you can definitely feel something here.” As the historian was explaining how the men went to one area, women to another, and children beginning at age 2 were separated from their parents, you couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could survive with their spirit intact. Then to see the “dormitories” where they lived — 40 beds in a room with perhaps 4 people in a bed — and consider the speed at which disease would have spread, you had to wonder how anyone could survive.

Watching the episode, it was easy to see how it affected Rosie. (And, in all honesty, I was a bit teary-eyed myself.) Rosie mused that the story of her ancestors was one of horror and redemption. “The gift is to focus on the redemption.”

As a genealogist, I was thrilled by some things in this episode:

  • She concentrated on a collateral line! How awesome that nearly 1/4 of the episode was devoted to someone who wasn’t even Rosie’s ancestor!
  • The episode was research-oriented. When she would get one document, either she or the expert would point out a clue, what it meant, and how it could lead her to the next thing.
  • Rosie appeared to be much more of an active participant than some other celebrities. What’s more, it looks like she enjoyed it! Yes!

I know there are going to be someone who says, “But she handled some records without wearing gloves!” There are two distinct camps in the archives world: gloves and no gloves. I’m in the “no gloves” camp. I think that gloves remove too much tactile feedback. You lose that sense of fine touch. Without it, you can easily end up doing more damage to the paper than if you hadn’t worn gloves. One exception to the “no gloves” camp: you must wear gloves when handling photographs — no ifs, ands, or buts about that one.

At one point, Rosie commented on her search: “It’s much more moving than I expected it to be.” Yes, Rosie, that’s what family history is all about.

What I Learned at RootsTech from Home

I planned to attend RootsTech. I even had my hotel reservation. But things got in the way and I didn’t go. I’m black and blue from kicking myself for not going. :-(

Even though I didn’t attend in person, I did watch some of the presentations that were streamed over the Internet and followed Twitter posts using the #rootstech hashtag. In the process, I learned some things even though I wasn’t there in person.

1. The Internet weighs approximately 26,000 pounds and fits nicely in a standard storage unit. ( source: Brewster Kahle’s Saturday keynote) In fact, here is a picture of the storage unit that houses Internet Archives’ Wayback Machine.

The storage unit that houses the Wayback Machine. (Photo taken from Brewster Kahle’s keynote at RootsTech, 12 February 2012.

2. The average lifespan of a webpage before it is changed or deleted is 100 days. (source: Brewster Kahle’s keynote) No wonder the Wayback Machine weighs 26,000 pounds!

3. Go with your first instinct. I had planned on going to RootsTech, but I changed my mind. Live and learn. (I do have the 2012 dates already on my calendar :-) )

4. I enjoy Twitter. Although I’ve had an account for a couple years, I’d never really used it. Following the #rootstech hashtag was a lot of fun!

5. This isn’t so much something I learned, but rather something that was validated. “Genealogy. It’s all about the experience.” (source: Curt Witcher’s keynote on Friday) I had written and published my post I Don’t Care Where You Put the Comma before his keynote. (For those who haven’t read it: don’t fuss about the format of your citations; just get the elements you need.)

Overall, I came away from my (virtual) RootsTech experience energized. There are so many things I want to do. First up: A renewed effort to finish adding metadata to my photos. Despite what Brewster Kahle said, I actually enjoy adding metadata. I’m just kinda weird that way :-)

RootsTech 2012 will be 2-4 February. Hey, that’s less than a year from now!

I Don’t Care Where You Put the Comma

What you are about to read might be considered by some to be heretical. Read at your own risk :-)

Yesterday, I was following the stream of Tweets from the RootsTech conference. (Not able to be there in person, following on Twitter and watching some of the live-streamed presentations was the next best thing.) During one of the 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.

Source citations are a matter of style. Some people confuse the Chicago Manual of Style as being a guide to grammer. It is not. It is an elaborate style sheet for consistency of source citations and other publishing matters. It served me very well in my undergraduate career as a history major. Now that I am in grad school studying library science, CMS does me no good, as the library field prefers the style of the American Psychological Association (APA style). Let’s compare a bibliography entry for a journal article in CMS and APA. (Note: in both instances, all lines after the first line should be intended; I’m not seeing a way to format it that way here.)

Chicago Manual of Style:
Karl, Katherine A., Joy V. Peluchette, and Leda M. Hall. “Give Them Something to Smile About: A Marketing Strategy for Recruiting and Retaining Volunteers.” Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing 20 (2008): 71-96.

Karl, K. A., Peluchette, J. V., & Hall, L. M. (2008). Give them something to smile about: a marketing strategy for recruiting and retaining volunteers. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 20, 71-96.

Both give the same basic information; the only real difference is format. The APA citation doesn’t give the authors’ first names, but I still have enough information that I can find the article.

Keeping the two main purposes of a source citation in mind, what do we need for a useful, meaningful citation? It needs to have the information necessary for the researcher or anyone else to find and evaluate that source. These items include:

  • Author(s)
  • Title
  • Publication info, if applicable (publisher, year of publication, journal title, etc.)
  • Page number
  • Repository (if it is a manuscript or original record)

Does having the author’s surname come first help me find the article? No. Does having the article title come before the journal title help me find the article? No. Does having a comma after the second author and before the “and” or ampersand help me find the article? No. Does using the word “and” instead of an ampersand help me find the article? No.

What does help me find the article is having the names of the authors, the article title, the journal title, and the issue. (The page numbers are nice, but once I found that particular issue, I could probably find the article.)

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.

Obviously, if someone is submitting an article to a journal, he or she will need to follow the style sheet used by that journal. If someone is wanting to publish a family history, using an established style sheet helps to give the publication a sense of authority. (Plus it’s easier to read when things are consistent.)

I am not saying that genealogists shouldn’t cite their sources if they are not going to publish. Quite the contrary. I believe that source citations are imperative to good research. Source citations allow the researcher to review what he or she has and to identify holes in the research. What I am saying is that we sometimes put too much emphasis on the format and not on the content.

Let’s take the pressure off. Let’s encourage people to have the elements of a meaningful, useful source citation. Let’s stop harping on the format. If the elements are there, we can put the commas in later.

Why “Who Do You Think You Are” Being Easy is a Good Thing

Season 2 of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are premiered last Friday night. Facebook statuses and Twitter feeds were ablaze with updates (much to the chagrin of some on the west coast). Episode 1 featured Vanessa Williams and her search for her father’s side of her family.

The feedback that I saw from genealogists, librarians, and archivists was positive. The format was an improvement over Season 1’s constant recaps after every commercial break. (Did they think the audience would forget *everything* in those 2 minutes?) Williams also took notes throughout the episode, making her at least appear to be a more active participant than some in Season 1.

The episode had good drama. Williams discovered an ancestor who fought in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War and another who was a state legislator in Tennessee during Reconstruction. It was moving without being melodramatic. It showed good resources without being pedantic.

Yet, there are complaints that WDYTYA makes genealogy look “too easy.” “People are going to expect that they can just walk into a library or courthouse and get everything handed to them.” “What about the hours of research that went into what we saw?” “What about the female lines? We didn’t hear anything about them.” The list goes on.

There’s a saying in writing: “Know your audience.” WDYTYA’s audience isn’t the die-hard genealogist who can code a surname’s Soundex code by hand. Its audience is the person who enjoys learning about celebrities and who might also be interested in some form of family heritage activity.

Let’s be honest — sitting and watching someone search for names in a database isn’t very exciting. (It can be exciting for the person doing the searching, but not for a passive viewer.) It’s also isn’t very riveting to watch someone at the courthouse dig out the Grantee’s Index, find all the entries for Mr. Such-And-So, and then dig out all the books with those references. (Again, it can be exciting for the person doing the searching, but not for the person watching.)

That’s where WDYTYA knows its audience. They want to see the results. And WDYTYA does genealogy a HUGE favor, in my opinion: It shows enough of the research to make it look exciting to do. Would people get excited about climbing their own families trees if WDYTYA showed all of the frustration that can come with research?

WDYTYA isn’t supposed to be about the best research methodologies. It isn’t supposed to be about proper documentation. It isn’t supposed to be about how to tackle those brick wall problems. It is supposed to be about the excitement of the chase and the thrill of connecting with generations past.

The challenge — the opportunity — for those of us in the profession is to keep that excitement alive for people, while at the same time introducing them to some of the less-thrilling aspects of research. I’m thankful that WDYTYA keeps the emphasis on excitement. It’s that spark that might ignite in some people a desire to start their own quest. We can teach them about methodology after they get here.

What are your thoughts?

Elton John and Bernie Taupin, genealogists?

Elton John has long been regarded as a gifted songwriter. Besides his numerous top 40 hits, he has written for stage (Aida, The Lion King, Billy Elliot) and screen (The Lion King). Along the way, he has won five Grammy Awards and a Tony (for Aida). He and longtime musical collaborator Bernie Taupin have been creating music since 1967.

I’ve been an Elton John fan for a long time. Growing up, I even had a poster of the cover of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” on my bedroom wall. I have a rare copy of “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” on yellow vinyl. What I didn’t realize until today is that either Elton John or lyricist Bernie Taupin (or perhaps both) is a genealogist.

What made me realize this is the name of Elton’s new son Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John. “Levon” is a song off his album “Madman Across the Water.” That by itself isn’t proof, but think of the song. “Levon” is a great genealogical song. In it, we learn:

  • Levon was born “a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas Day, when the New York Times said ‘God is dead and the war’s begun. Alvin Tostig has a son today and he shall be Levon.’ ” (So we have a date of birth and father’s name.)
  • Levon has a child Jesus, so named ” ’cause he likes the name.”
  • “Levon” might be a family name (“And he shall be Levon, in tradition with the family plan.”)
  • Levon has a war wound (though we don’t know if he was in the military or was a civilian casualty).
  • Levon has a family business selling cartoon balloons in town. Jesus works there, too, blowing up balloons all day. Levon appears to be successful, as he spends his days counting in a garage by the motorway.
  • Jesus goes to the finest school in town. (Also, if we lose track of Jesus, we might want to look in Venus, since Jesus wants to go there.)

How many other popular songs contain that many genealogical references?! We have three generations, a date of birth, and information about occupations, schools, and possible military service.

Consider, too, the name of Elton John’s album from the late 1980s “Reg Strikes Back.” “Reg” is a reference to his real name (Reginald Kenneth Dwight).

Put the three together (the name of Elton’s son, all of the genealogical references in “Levon,” and the album “Reg Strikes Back”) and I believe that you have a case that Elton John and/or Bernie Taupin is a genealogist. (I wonder how long before one of them will be on the British version of Who Do You Think You Are.)

Why would he do that?

I’m a bit of a stickler about grammar. I cringe when I see things like “Its snowing now” or “Their going to the movies.” Similarly, it bothers me when I read especially bad sentences.

In yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch, there was a short article about a man who was charged with negligence in the death of his daughter in a car accident last year. The sentence read:
“He was charged with failure to restrain his unbelted 12-year-old daughter, Jessica, after she died in a Feb. 22 crash in which another vehicle slid across the center line and struck his van on an icy Rt. 22.”

I know that is not what the reporter intended to say. (At least, I hope that’s not what the reporter intended to say!) Why would the man restrain his daughter after she died?

The incident was a tragedy and I don’t mean to sound flippant. But that sentence is so poorly constructed that it has bothered me ever since I read it yesterday. I think I need to turn “editor mode” off every now and then.