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

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Footnotes, Endnotes, Sources, Citations, and Attachments: What Works, What Doesn't

Genealogy is a rather egalitarian persuasion and the vast majority of the people who are interested in either family history or genealogy have had little or no training in compiling footnotes or endnotes for a formal treatise on a genealogical subject. Many of us associate footnotes and/or endnotes with the task of writing a "research paper" in high school or in a class at the college or university level. If you didn't have that opportunity, then it is likely that you have never used a footnote or endnote in your entire life. There are, however, a small number of people who are professional-level genealogists, some of whom are involved in publishing articles in formal genealogical journals such as The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. In addition, for those of us who want to join a genealogical professional organization and become accredited or certified as a "genealogist," learning to cite sources is one major prerequisite and "proper" citation format is almost a profession in itself.

Here is an example of a partial list of the footnotes to an article published on the American Ancestors website from The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 172, Whole Number 685, Winter 2018. The article was authored by Eugene Cole Zubrinsky and is entitled, "The English Origin of John Sutton of Hingham and Rehoboth, Massachusetts."

In our modern, online world of genealogy, there is a major ongoing emphasis on providing information about where contributors obtain the information they incorporate into their online family trees. In this regard, all users of the major online genealogy programs are being encouraged to "cite their sources." The absence of a source requires subsequent users of the family tree to redo all the research to verify the validity of the information provided. 

Unfortunately, the need to provide an adequate explanation about the origin of any incorporated information is either largely ignored or misunderstood. Part of the common failure to provide information about the origin of incorporated information comes from the academic and professional publication world. If you have an advanced degree from a university, you probably became aware of publications such as The Chicago manual of style. 2017. This type of publication sets out to standardize the way books, articles, and other publications are formatted. For academics and professional writers, they are a "rite of passage" into the world of doctoral dissertations and commercial writing. It would be fairly simple if The Chicago Manual of Style was the only such publication. There are, regrettably, dozens of such "standards." 

In the genealogical community, there are also standards for publications. Many of the publications have formal publication guidelines. For example, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register mentioned above relies, in part, on the following:
Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997). The introductory sections of this book are especially valuable.The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
Outside of the realm of those aspiring to publication, there are few guidelines for the average contributor to a family tree website. In fact, there is a significant confusion about what is meant when genealogists talk about adding sources to the information in a family tree. The common terms used are:
  • footnotes
  • endnotes
  • sources
  • citations
  • attachments
There are probably a few others also. However, from a practical, non-academic, and non-professional standpoint, the whole subject can be summarized as follows:

Tell us where you obtained the information you enter into your online family tree.

That's it. Now, I do have something to write about academic citations. First of all, they are almost entirely useless for subsequent researchers. It is all well and good that the footnotes or whatever follow some acceptable citation standard. But citations, as propounded by the authorities, do not tell us where we can obtain the information. Yes, they say something about "parish registers" or whatever but where is the parish register found?

Our online family tree programs give us the ability to attach both a link and an actual copy of any information we incorporate. That valuable function is entirely missing from scholarly journal articles. If I want to verify what the journal writer cites in his or her footnote, I have to go find the "source" myself. Whereas, if I want to look at the source linked and/or attached to an online family tree, all I have to do is click and look at the attachment. Scholarly articles with dozens (hundreds) of footnotes give the illusion of citation but are in fact a throwback to pre-internet, pre-electronic, prehistoric times. 

Another clarification is in order. The "source" is where the information can be found. The "citation" is the description of where the information can be found. These two terms are often used interchangeably. If you add a date or a place or a name to an online family tree, tell us where you found that information and give us enough of a description or link to actually see the document or record. If no document of record was used and you made up the information. Tell us. If you heard the information from a relative. Tell us. Otherwise, we have to go find the source ourselves. 

What about all this complicated citation mumbo-jumbo? If you have aspirations of writing for professional publications, be my guest. Learn all about commas, indentions, style, and everything else that goes along with publication. But don't expect that level of citation to exist in online family trees and don't tell me that your footnotes help me to believe what you write unless I can clearly see where to go to find the information. 

I hesitate to give a specific example because I do not want to denigrate any contributor to a major publication, but telling me that you got the information from such and such a book or record does not help unless you also tell me where you found it. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Why do we need the Family Tree?

The Family Tree, by its very nature, engenders a measure of controversy. Part of the controversy arises from the original data. For the past 100 years or so, individuals and families, primarily members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have been working at gathering information about their ancestors. Nearly all of this work has been done in isolation from other family members with the same ancestors. Much of this information was submitted to the Church and compiled in huge databases, first on paper and later in computer files such as the Ancestral File (AF) and the International Genealogical Index (IGI). As I have pointed out many times in previous posts, this massive amount of genealogical data was compiled into what we now have as the Family Tree.

Because of its origin, the Family Tree inherited two obvious, massive problems: an immense number of duplicate entries and a significant number of unsupported and likely erroneous entries and conclusions about relationships. Fortunately, the Family Tree as it was developed, allowed users to merge duplicate entries, correct those entries that were inaccurate, standardize entries, and realign relationships that were unsupported and also inaccurate. Since it took over a hundred years to amass all this data, it is going to take a significant amount of time to correct and substantiate all that has been accumulated.

The nature of the Family Tree includes the fact that there is no "central" authority governing what is and what is not included in the entries. Those tasks are left entirely up to the users. Some of us can clearly see the advantages of having an open, collaborative, and user-directed Family Tree. Others are bothered because their autonomy is threatened by no longer working in private isolated from the opinions and actions of others. No one likes to be told they are wrong, but the Family Tree does this every day on a massive scale. Primarily, for this reason, working on the Family Tree can be overwhelming, frustrating, and even threatening.

Since every entry in the Family Tree eventually has to be supported by historical documents, if they can be found, the main task of working with the Family Tree is finding those historical documents and using the information to correct and extend the entries. Unsupported entries will eventually be "pruned" from the program. This process can become highly emotional for some who have pet theories and conclusions about ancestral connections that are not adequately supported by historical documents. Much of this unsupported information has come from "traditional" family stories or compiled genealogies that were poorly done. Presently, almost every extended family line in the Family Tree ultimately ends in speculation and fantasy. As these wrong conclusions are challenged and changed, the response from those who want to maintain the status quo is sometimes confrontational.

There is a relatively small number of genealogical researchers who view themselves as authorities in all matters dealing with genealogy. Many of these people look down on "online family trees" as being more a nuisance than a help in doing "real" genealogy. Some will refuse to put "their" genealogy online because they don't want the commoners or whatever to mess with their work. These people want to maintain the isolationist, traditional way of doing genealogy and they become some of the most vocal critics of the Family Tree. They would also like to see genealogy become a regulated profession requiring admittance to a professional organization or requiring a college or university degree. This is particularly true of those wanting to make a living from being a genealogical authority.

Not all of this desire for professionalism is bad, but in many cases, these same people are being left behind by the changes in technology. The Family Tree exists because technology now allows it to exist. All forms of authoritarianism are threatened by the advances in instantaneous communication. The Family Tree is just the genealogical manifestation of this explosion in online information. Ignoring the Family Tree is like ignoring the internet altogether, it can be done, but puts anyone taking that isolationist position into a corner where they cannot function adequately.

How does this affect genealogy? Suppose I am a very experienced and capable genealogist. I write books, I attend conferences and present classes, I am honored by genealogical organizations as a "leading" authority on genealogy etc. etc. I do work for others professionally and get paid for my efforts. Now, let's further suppose that I ignore online family trees and particularly the Family Tree. How can I ever be sure that any of the research I do has not been done by someone else? The answer is I can't. No one has enough time in one life to search all the sources and read all the books and make all the trips necessary to do a complete search. If I think my work is exhaustive, I am deluding myself. How can we be certain what we are doing is accurate? In the academic arena, the process that has developed is called "peer review." However, peer review is an illusion because the peers are self-selected and have no more experience in most cases than the publication being reviewed.

What we have today is the ultimate genealogical peer review: the Family Tree.

Here is a comment I received recently that expresses what I am writing about.
I began to use the Find feature of the Family Search Tree recently and was extremely disappointed in the quality of the data for the hundreds of people in my own family. I know it is only as good as the data entered but apparently those who entered info for my own ancestors don't understand the necessity of source citations and genealogical proof. In short, the information entered was garbage. No different than the trees one finds in the Ancestry trees. Furthermore many people didn't enter their email address so that I could correct them. I don't have the time to straighten out the data nor do I wish to.
This comment is based on the concept of ownership. See the use of "my own." It also exhibits a lack of understanding of the whole process of doing family history or genealogical research in light of the ability to collaborate. Also, the Family Tree program provides a way to contact every user by using the Message function of the program without knowing a user's email address. What this person fails to realize is that what he or she has in "my file" may not be accurate. By keeping his or her "accurate" data private, it is guaranteed to be inaccurate in some respect, sourced or not. By not sharing the information, it is also guaranteed to be lost.

Working through the entries in the Family Tree is a way to validate or correct your own research. By the way, I can sit through a whole genealogy conference and not have one presenter even mention the Family Tree or any other online resource unless the class is specifically about online resources. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Free Webinar from The Family History Guide Association

Here are the link and the text of the announcement:
The Family History Guide Association is presenting a FREE live webinar "What's New in The Family History Guide" on Wednesday, March 21, at 5:00 pm MST (7:00 pm EST) and YOU are invited. The webinar will be hosted by the BYU Family History Library and will feature Bob Taylor, Co-founder and Development Director of The Family History Guide website. 
There have been literally dozens of changes and additions to the website just since January 2018, including many announced at the recent RootsTech 2018 show. Many new The Family History Guide Association produced videos have also been added just within the last few weeks.
So we invite you take advantage of this unique opportunity to get caught up on the premier website for learning and loving family history The Family History Guide! 
And, yes, we are a 501(c)3 charitable non profit and would be delighted to receive your DONATION should you be so inclined.
See you Wednesday!

You can see the list of all the upcoming free webinars on the BYU Family History Library Website. Here is the Link. 

To Pay or Not to Pay? That is the Question.

Genealogy programs and online databases are tools. Tools generally cost money. I am reminded of a time when I was much younger and working on a car that I happened to own at the time. I was having trouble with the steering and began the process of trying to fix the car myself with the help of a friend. After spending a few fruitless hours trying to replace the front steering ball joints, we finally asked a more knowledgeable friend for some help. He went to his tools and handed us a ball joint fork.

Using that tool, we got the job done is about ten minutes. Now, the moral of this story is to use the right tool. Genealogy is no different than any other similar pursuit when it comes to using the right tools. But guess what? Tools cost money. In my story, we borrowed the tool from a friend, but online today, I could buy the same ball joint fork for around $11. For some reason, genealogists seem to think that everything they do to find their ancestors should be free. Afterall, why should we have to pay to obtain information about our own ancestors? Right? Wrong?

I have written about the cost of being a genealogist many times in the past. Compared to some common activities in Utah, for example, power boating, snowmobiles, skiing, four-wheeling, ATVs and so forth, genealogy is positively cheap. For example, we are getting close to the end of ski season in Utah, but if you had purchased a season ticket to Snowbird Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon, it would have set you back about $1000 per adult. The other activities are even more expensive.

You can do a lot of genealogical research online for free on websites such as and, but yes, there will be a charge for using many of the commercial websites. If you decide to travel to a remote location to do research as many of us have done, then there is an expense for travel.

The issue of charging for information is much broader than just that part dealing with genealogical information. My own experience is that the demographics of the genealogical community make the cost of genealogy an issue. Many of those who are dedicated to genealogical research are older, retired or on fixed incomes and have limited discretionary income. What may seem like a minor cost to some can be a budget breaker for others not so fortunate.

One good option for limited budgets is to use the services of one of the over 5000 local Family History Centers around the world. The Family History Center will have some of the commercial programs, such as,, and for free. You will not be able to have your own family tree on these programs for free, but you can use their databases to search for your relatives. To find a Family History Center near you go to and click on the Help link in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

RootsTech 2018 in Review
I guess I can look forward to attending RootsTech 2019, but I will have to wait and see what the future brings. I do note that the attendance for RootsTech 2018 was up from 2017 but still down from 2016 when there were more than 26,000 attendees. Looking at the figures for the Family Discovery Day, maybe FamilySearch is really trying to run two different conferences at the same time? Maybe Family Discovery Day needs to be a multi-day conference separate from the RootsTech oriented conference?

I have been catching up slowly with the online presentations. This is a great benefit for those of us unable to travel to the live conference in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Computer Storage in the Future: A Concern for Genealogists
I ran across this excellent summary of the status of hard disk storage vs. Solid State Drives (HDD) or Devices (SSD) from the blog entitled, "HDD vs SSD: What Does the Future for Storage Hold? — Part 2." I really can't do justice by summarizing the article, but I think anyone dealing with computers and storage needs to see that the future will hold almost unlimited storage at a very low cost. Good for genealogists.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Observations on the Large Online Genealogy Database Websites

While the various online genealogy companies are not actually blind, they do have individual disparate views of genealogy and genealogical research. Although the differences may not be readily apparent, they exist none-the-less. As I was thinking about these differing philosophies, which seem to me to be fairly obvious, I was wondering whether to identify the websites in question or leave that task up to the readers to determine from my descriptional analysis. Since the whole idea is totally mine, I decided I would have to identify which website was which so there would be no misunderstandings. I am not going to indulge in value judgments. There will not be a series of "star" ratings or anything like that. I am merely writing about my perceptions concerning how each of the large websites works. I am also writing this without the benefit of using any explicit references to the websites' own corporate missions or objectives.

Disclaimer: My observations are not intended to be critical of anything done or not done by the various websites but I cannot guarantee that you may think that some of my observations are intended to be critical.

I will start with Nearly every promotional statement made by refers to the claim to be the largest online genealogy company. A quick look at the basis for that claim indicates that in at least some categories it is the "largest." But since detailed information about collections, records, users, members and other factors are not readily available in a format that can be compared to the other websites, the claim cannot be accurately substantiated. certainly has the lion's share of the online market measured by internet traffic.

The first question that is raised by a claim to being the "largest" in any field is to determine whether large equates with useful, good, helpful, etc. In short, what good does it do to be large if large isn't the main issue? Which immediately brings up the question of what is the main issue. Simply put, the best website is the one that has what you are looking for. Like many other online commercial websites, is fee-based. There is a significant level of "blow-back" from genealogists about the whole idea of charging a fee for what is essentially information about their own families, but the reality is that all of the large online databases incur substantial costs and those costs have to be paid from either donations or revenue. I think it is time to write about this subject again, so look for a post in the near future.

Back to I have been watching the website (and all of the others) for years now. In the past, Ancestry would participate actively in large and small genealogy conferences and support local genealogical societies. That involvement has been dramatically curtailed. In addition, because of the dramatic increase in DNA testing, Ancestry has begun emphasizing DNA testing at the expense of any mention or promotion of their genealogical records. According to, "In the past 30 days, Ancestry has had 5,041 airings and earned an airing rank of #123 with a spend ranking of #76 as compared to all other advertisers." See Ancestry TV Commercials. My perception of those commercials is that almost all of them are promoting Ancestry's DNA testing kits. What happened to the rest of genealogy? Well, DNA is the part making a lot of money right now.

It is also my perception that this emphasis on DNA testing has been at the expense of any significant growth in their online database records. I used to get notifications about new records but that has almost completely stopped. The current records on are extremely valuable for genealogical research in some areas of the world and there have been some notable acquisitions such as in Mexico. But by and large, even though record collections are continuing to be added, there is little promotion of that aspect of the website.

In addition, there has been little or no changes or improvements to the family tree program on the website for some time now. will likely continue to promote DNA testing. It is too early to tell if the testing itself without a major involvement with a family tree supported by genealogical research will keep the company growing.

Next, FamilySearch is the only one of the very large online database companies that is completely free. Its main limit is the reduced number of indexed records compared to the huge number of unindexed records. FamilySearch is growing very rapidly due to the digitization of its vast microfilm collection and its ongoing digitization projects around the world. The number of records online and available increases every week. Currently, many of the digitized records are only available through searching in the website's Catalog. Over time, however, there is no doubt that the website will continue to grow at an increasing rate.

From a genealogical standpoint, the increased availability of the records, especially those from many parts of the world not covered by other easily available, free websites, will keep FamilySearch at or near the front in the area of providing genealogical records. There is no indication whatsoever that FamilySearch intends to "get into the DNA business." But there are some indications that they might begin to support DNA testing results in the huge cooperative Family Tree program. It is interesting to me that many "serious" genealogists will travel across the country and around the world to visit the famous Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah but those same researchers are sometimes less than knowledgeable about the huge offerings on the website. It is an interesting experience to sit in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and show people how to find records on the website when I could do that from anyplace with internet access.

The Family Tree is somewhat controversial because of its collaborative nature, but as it develops it will become the "go to" place for genealogists to determine the status of research in any particular family line. Currently, there are over 910 million source listings in the Family Tree and over 1.2 billion individual records. There is still a lot of work to do in "cleaning up" the existing records, but that work is being done at an extraordinary rate of progress. The main limitation of the website is its growing pains. Use of the website and the number of records being added constantly taxes the ability of the developers to keep the website working well online. This is a good problem to have and will be solved as time goes on. is the British offering of a huge online genealogical database. It is a relative newcomer to the family tree business but it has an extensive and very valuable collection of records of the British Islands, Ireland and the former British Empire countries. Its record collections in the United States are also growing rapidly. The website's search engines lack some detail, for example, the limited number of options when searching for an individual. When you search for an individual, you cannot add a spouse to assist in finding a match. In other respects, however, their search engine is wonderfully efficient in focusing research on a particular county or parish.

One limitation of the website is not at all the fault of the developers. The limitation lies with the unavailability to see original British records online without paying for copies. The website has some transcriptions of these original records, but it is always a good idea to look at the original if you can. This problem is caused by the fact that most of the records from the British General Register Office (GRO) are only available by paying a rather substantial fee. Sometimes you cannot determine if a person is a relative without looking at the original record and since digital copies of the records cost money, you may expend quite a bit of money without finding the right person. is an excellent online example of an aggressive and rapidly growing genealogical collection. New records are added almost weekly and the website constantly increases in value.

I am constantly amazed that so many people in the United States who have British ancestors are unaware of the resources of this vast website. I helped a man recently who had done extensive research on his Virginia ancestors and was trying to connect his immigrant ancestor back to England in the 1600s. But he had never really looked at to do any research. His loss. is in a class by itself both because of its size and membership but also because it is the obvious leader in genealogical technology in the world. Genealogists in the United States who would be greatly assisted by using the website are, for the most part, totally unaware of its existence and benefits. The website is aggressive pursuing records and recently added 325 million new records in one week to its collection of over 8.9 billion records. Based in Israel, the website has over 93 million registered members in every country of the world. is also aggressively promoting DNA testing and is also implementing and developing the infrastructure of the website to take advantage of the relationships discovered through  DNA testing. During the week of the recent conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, dominated the news with the innovative announcements it made. I have recently written several blog posts about the new developments from MyHeritage and you can be sure there will be more coming.

One example of the breadth of this website is its large online newspaper collections. My family came from a small town in Eastern Arizona. MyHeritage has a connection to the Library of Congress's Chronicling America, Digital Newspaper Project. Because of this connection, MyHeritage provides automatic Record Matches to individual newspaper articles from the local newspaper with references to my ancestors.

If you consider the number of records available from using all four of these websites, you can begin to appreciate the huge impact these website are having and will continue to have in the future of genealogy.