Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, August 17, 2017

CAGR or Computer Aided Genealogical Research

I was overhearing a discussion the other day about slide rules. I still have mine on a shelf where I can get to it easily. I also have an abacus. There is something comforting and physical about these devices that is lacking in computers. But the reality of the day is that I am fully integrated into the computer world.

From time to time, I have written about the digital divide between computer literacy and computer illiteracy. Genealogical research and all the activities associated with it can be done on paper, just as day-to-day calculations could be done on a mechanical adding machine, slide rule or abacus. The advantage of doing those calculations on a computer seem overwhelming obvious, but we have yet to begin realizing the potential of the computer over older systems.

I have titled this post "Computer Aided Genealogical Research" or CAGR. It turns out that there are several genealogy societies with similar names, but otherwise the name and the acronym are both made-up. What I see is that, so far, the computer is acting primarily as a substitute for paper and the devices listed above. It is also becoming a primary communication device. But as far as genealogical research, it is still a paper substitute.

Of course, there are a few glimmerings of progress towards CAGR with a variety of record hints from large online genealogical database companies, but otherwise, we are still doing research in the same way with the same objectives as did our predecessors. Let me start explaining this concept with a hypothetical situation.

Let's suppose that I am doing research on my English ancestors. Let's further suppose that I use a desktop based computer program to store my genealogical data. Going back a few years, I do all my research in libraries and archives and record what I find in my desktop computer program. Hmm. Let's suppose I move forward a few years and now I have this wonderful internet connection. I can now spend fewer hours in libraries and archives, but I am still storing all my information on my desktop computer.

Time passes, as hypothetically, I become connected with an online family tree program. Despite the changes in venue,  I am still doing what I have always done, I have just moved some of my data from my local, desktop program to an online program. Eventually, because of the development of the internet and the establishment of the huge online database programs, I move more and more of my activities to the internet. But because of fear of losing my data and other considerations, I still have desktop genealogy program.

Because of the development of research hints, where the online genealogy companies suggest connections between my ancestors and the documents and records in their databases, I see the need to put my family tree information on several such programs (i.e. websites). What is missing? What have I gained?

First of all, the computer is still acting as automated paper. I am still doing all of the research, the analysis, the data entry, the recording of sources etc. I see that some of these activities are now aided by the computer systems but only those that were formerly done on paper. Searching for documents has become easier, I make even fewer trips to archives and libraries, but the essence of genealogical research has not changed. Again, what is missing?

The answer is integration. I have data scattered across the internet. I have my family tree in several different online and even several desktop programs. These online programs are very much like warring nations. I can talk to each one of them, but they do not talk to each other. In this case, the computer and its connection to the internet actually interfere with my research. Remember, we are in the middle of a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose I search for information about my hypothetical English ancestors. Let's suppose that the information I am seeking does exist but I do not know where it is located. I am forced to search each separate repository where that information may be located. If the information is sitting in one website, search a hundred others is waste of time, but there is no mechanism to tell me which of the repositories has the information. The internet has essentially become an almost infinite shell game. Despite Google searches, the information I need is really locked up tight in some database on some computer and I have to guess where it is. Presently, I have many separate programs all telling me that they have data for me when what I need is not really there at all.

CAGR should help me find my ancestors' data but it does not yet exist. There is a measure of discussion about "smart assistants" and robo products. We have offensively stupid programs such as SIRI and other such programs that do things like look at the clock or tell me where to buy pizza, but sophistication at the level of active assistance in doing research is almost entirely missing.

I am not here to decry the advances that have been made. I am merely pointing out that we have a long way to go before a computer attached to the internet can do what I do when I am doing research. Perhaps we should start talking about how such a system might work. Perhaps we need to find a way to allow universal access and data exchange of genealogical information between all the presently closed systems. Perhaps I will not live long enough to ever see such systems.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Using the Brigham Young University Libraries for Family History Research

We Family History Expos have a three-hour webinar series on Thursday, August 17, 2017, on using the Brigham Young University Libraries for Family History Research. You can still register for this series. Here is the description of the classes:
After you view these classes you will know how to access the BYU collections online and in person. You will know about LDS resources available and how they apply to your research. You will know about some other incredible collections that deal subject from Illinois County histories to the American Revolution. 
Don't miss out on this unique opportunity to learn about collections that reach across the world.
Click Here for more information.  

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Acquiring History Skills Can Improve Your Genealogical Research

Performing adequate genealogical research is a skill that requires time and effort to acquire. Simply opening up a genealogy program and adding names to a pedigree does not magically confer the ability to do research. I read an interesting article quoting Keith A. Erekson,  the Director of the Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is quoted as saying:
“One of the things you want to do is expect citations,” he said. “There are publishers who will publish things without citations. That’s the first the sign: If they don’t even care enough to tell you where they found their historical information, don’t worry about spending the time to figure out if they’ve made it up or if they haven’t.” See Church News, 8 August 2017.
By changing one or two words, this quote would apply to all those who are posting their genealogical information online. I would change the word publishers to researchers. The quote precisely expresses my own attitude towards those who post unsupported information about their ancestors in online family tree programs. Essentially, a name, a date, or place provided about an individual is completely useless without a supporting citation as to where the information was obtained. That may seem like a harsh statement but it is the reality of doing genealogical research. An unsupported entry in a family tree is actually worse than no entry at all.

From time to time, I hear people trying to defend sloppy research by saying that the entries give us suggested topics for further research. I simply do not agree with that position. Those who argue this position apparently believe that we should give unsupported entries the benefit of the doubt. The biggest problem with this position is that the information present in a pedigree (a family tree) is often accepted as correct even when it is unsupported. The key here is the last statement above: "don't worry about spending the time to figure out if they've made it up or if they haven't."

I suspect that if we took out all of the fluff in the form of unsupported entries in the online family trees the number of trees and the number of entries with practically collapse.

The Catalog and the Microfilm Issue

Summary of this post:
On June 26, 2017, FamilySearch announced the next phase of its digital fulfillment strategy which included discontinuing its microfilm rental service (See Digital Records Access Replacing Microfilm) for digital access. It said that over half of its vast 2.4 million rolls of microfilm were now digitally available for free online. The question is, where? The answer is first in the FamilySearch Catalog, and then in the Historic Collections. FamilySearch is digitizing 1,500 microfilms per day and another 150,000 images from digital cameras in the field. Those images are being published right into the Catalog.

Watch this quick video "Where are the digital records on" to find how to locate and use this rich resource.

Where are the Digitized Records on

The Catalog is more than a reference tool, it is actually the primary window into the vast, ongoing FamilySearch digitization project to digitize the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm in the fabled Granite Vault. The short video that the Brigham Young University Family History Library uploaded describes where the links to all these records are located.

I frequently mention the value of the FamilySearch Catalog in classes and other presentations and I am frequently surprised at the lack of awareness of the value of the Catalog even among experienced genealogical researchers. I have done two additional videos about catalogs.

Catalogs: The Key to Using and - James Tanner I

Catalog Searches by James Tanner

It looks like it is time to write about catalogs more than I have in the past.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Hidden Emotional Side of Genealogical DNA Testing
This rather long newspaper article from the Deseret News highlights a "hidden" concern that is the byproduct of the current push for general DNA testing for genealogical research. The article points out that the results from a series of DNA tests may not always be positive and may involve some serious family issues and cause unintended disruption.

Ever since genealogically oriented DNA tests became generally available, I have been hearing stories of the sometimes unpleasantly surprising results of the tests. DNA tests work best in determining close relatives: siblings, parents and so forth. The generally vague ethnicity reports are interesting but rarely disturbing or surprising. But as the "Baby Switch" story above illustrates, not all the results can be easily assimilated into our traditional world view.

My own DNA test results have been mildly interesting but not yet helpful in my genealogical research. So far, I have 432 matches from and 159 DNA matches from Two of DNA matches are close relatives that I recognize. Some of the other matches have recognizable surnames, although I have yet to see anyone I have met or know personally. This compares to over 100,000 Smart Matches on and thousands of family tree matches. In addition, on the Family Tree, I can already see thousands of my deceased close relatives. I am not quite sure what to do with the living ones.

So far, I do have one result from a sibling and that probably puts to rest any fears I may have had of being switched at birth or adopted, but there are possibly still some surprises out there.

The real question is what am I supposed to do with the results from my DNA tests? I am not inclined to start contacting all the thousands of relatives listed by just these two programs. To the extent that I can determine, none of these "DNA relatives" have extensively documented family trees. In fact, the family trees I have available to view, do not show that any of these people so far have added sources or tried to documents their online family trees. In fact, some of the genealogical information I have seen from the family trees of the matches is totally inaccurate. At best, the information I have received is an incentive to me to correct the information in my portion of the Family Tree.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

MyHeritage Major Census Collection

In celebration of MyHeritage's recent milestone — surpassing 8 billion historical records on SuperSearch — they are happy to announce that they are making all of their major census collections from the U.S., U.K. and Ireland, Canada, and Nordic countries free for all users for one week beginning August 14, 2017. Quoting from the blog post:
Starting on Monday, August 14, and for a period of one week, no Data subscription will be required, and you can search through this treasure trove of census records for free. That’s 94 collections, containing over 1 billion census records! 
With our earliest census records dating as far back as 1657, and the latest ones extending until 1940, these records are an excellent way to learn more about the lives of your ancestors and to add details to your family tree.
Visit the blog post for a detailed list and links to the free records.

Three Years at the BYU Family History Library: A Retrospective

The Brigham Young University Campus from the Y Mount. The BYU Harold B. Lee Library is the building in the middle with the blue glass structure as an entrance. Most of the Library in underground.
Just over three years ago, my wife and I were getting settled into our new-to-us home in Provo, Utah. We had moved to Utah after spending over 40 years living in Arizona. Even before leaving Mesa, Arizona, my wife and I had volunteered to serve at the Brigham Young University Family History Library, a part of the Harold B. Lee Library (Lee Library) on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Over the past three years, I have often pondered about the change from Arizona to Utah and from the Mesa FamilySearch Library to the much larger BYU Family History Library. I decided to put down some of my thoughts.

During our time here in Provo, I have become more and more aware of the tremendous resources of the BYU Lee Library. Having spent many years working in university libraries, I have always appreciated the access to books and records these large libraries provided to their patrons. One of my early observations was reinforced after moving to Provo. While working at the University of Utah Library or the Arizona State University Law Library, I was always amazed that so few of the students used the libraries' resources, especially during semester breaks and other vacation times. I had this impression reinforced this week when I entered the BYU Family History Library and found only one student employee in the entire Family History Library.

While on a recent camping trip in Idaho and adjoining states, we stopped to wash clothes at a laundromat in Sandpoint, Idaho. While some washed clothes, the rest of us, including five of my grandchildren went to the local public library to wait. The children immediately began finding books to read and I set up my computer to do some catch-up writing. This was a really impressive library for a smaller town. It was also extremely busy even though there was no apparent special activity going on. We passed a very pleasant waiting time.

Back to the BYU Family History Library. From my perspective, this is easily the second largest specialized Family History Library in the world. But by adding the huge collections of the entire Lee Library, I am privileged to be at a world-class library. Every time I start to do some serious research on another family for myself or others, I am impressed by the Library's resources.

What I do see is the most of the patrons of the library, including the other missionaries serving in the Library, fail to use the Library's resources. Books go untouched. Microfilm and microfiche are only rarely accessed. I almost never see patrons or those serving in the Library using the fabulous collection of reference books prominently displayed in the Library. In fact, it is just exactly like my year's ago experience at the University of Utah Library during the times the students were on breaks between classes. From the full-time students' perspective, the Library is a place to study for their classes and socialize. From the perspective of the non-student patrons, the Library is a place to come and use electronic devices. It is very much like going to a world class restaurant to eat your peanut butter and jelly sandwich from a brown bag.

Why is this the case?

After thinking about this phenomena for about 60 years, I have come to the following conclusions.

  • Very few people know how to use a library's collections.
  • The internet is giving everyone the idea that it is the only source of information available to the world.
  • Even those are comfortable in libraries lack the research skills to fully utilize their contents.
  • Most people do not see study and research as positive leisure activities. 
  • Libraries, in general, do a poor job of promoting their research collections and university libraries are among those who do the least to promote their facilities.
  • Public libraries are facing serious challenges in funding and support.
There are a lot of other reasons also, but that is enough to give some idea of the issues involved. Basically, the BYU Family History Library is part of an academic institution that does not view itself as "serving the general public." Whereas the famous Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah does everything it can to promote family history and included public use. Universities, in general, do not view themselves and their facilities as "public" at all. Visitors to most universities are tolerated at best unless the university sees a way to promote its own financial support. Universities love to have people come to sports events and other entertainment but discourage any other outside involvement. Prospective students and supporters of the university are given a "tour" of the university, but these tours seldom emphasize the academic resources of the library. 

In living close to the university, I have an opportunity to talk with a lot of people who also live close to the university. I am constantly surprised at how few of those living within five minutes or so of BYU even know that there is a Family History Library on campus and many who do, usually comment that it is too inaccessible and they don't know where to park. However, those same people go to football or basketball games at the university and park blocks away from the stadium or Marriott Center. 

For example, there is nothing at all on the BYU campus that would indicate either the existence or location of the Family History Library. If you manage to find the Lee Library, even if go inside, there is nothing indicating that the Family History Library is down the stairs in Level Two except a general map of the Library's sections. To find anything on campus, there are only a few cryptic signs that only help you if you know what you are looking for in the first place. In walking on the campus, even I am asked for directions. 

If the BYU Family History Library is supposed to have, as its primary goal, the support of the students and faculty, then why don't the students and faculty use the facility? The answer to my own question is probably because they do not know what it is or where it is. 

I love working at the BYU Family History Library. I can't think of anything I would rather do in my dotage and old age. I am grateful for the fabulous collections of information in the Library. But I am also sad that it is so underused by its own patrons and others who could benefit from its great resources.