Friday, November 21, 2008

Sources, Citations and Repositories...Oh, My!

We, the genealogists, hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all information is created equal, that it should be endowed by its creator with specific source citations, that among these are clarity, reproducibility, and the pursuit of accuracy.

How many of us are as diligent as we should be in making sure we find and cite credible sources before publishing information on the internet, or anywhere else for that matter? Worse yet, there are many beginning researchers that don't even keep track of sources for their own personal research and use.

If you've done any significant internet research, yet, you are already aware of the fact that family or personal genealogy websites often repeat stories or anecdotes about ancestors with no credible source information. I just finished a family history book for a family friend. In looking up stories about particular 17th century American ancestors, I found a quite-repeated detail that a certain female ancestor had been burned at the stake in Salem, Massachusetts, during the infamous witch trials in the late 1600s. I found this fact on at least three different websites, and my assumption is that one of them made an assumption and the other two took it at face value with no due diligence. It's amazing how fast falsities can fly through cyberspace. There were no sources for this information on any of the three sites. However, it took less than 10 minutes to find some sources that proved otherwise. In Salem, there were 15 individuals sent to the gallows, and she wasn't one of them. None were burned at the stake. In addition, several sites with credible source citations indicated that this woman was convicted of witchcraft, sent to prison, and then released a year later when the hysteria started to die down.

Let me explain in very basic terms why we should care so much about meticulous source citations in the first place:

1-) To avoid duplicate work for ourselves or others. Seriously, do you really want to be searching through the same records several times because you can't remember what you've already searched or where you found a particular piece of information? This is where keeping a working source list, such as a research log, is crucial. If you keep track of what sources you've found, what information (if any) you were able to glean from it, etc., you'll avoid unnecessary work for yourself. And for someone else, too, for that matter, as any good genealogist will not just take someone else's "word for it" that certain information came from a certain place.

2-) To ensure that we are making accurate and reliable conclusions about the information we find, and that our work is considered credible. As genealogists, we are really history researchers. Shouldn't we make sure that the information we use and share is sound? Otherwise, we relegate ourselves to being just fiction writers or rumor mill workers.

It's not enough to rely on someone else's pedigree charts, assuming they did the work of finding sources for each piece of information and that their work contains no mistakes. Genealogy is part science and part art, and as such, there are certain basics that we need to familiarize ourselves with in order to produce anything of value.

Having said that, I don't have enough room on this blog to try and detail all of the ins and outs of citing sources, explaining repositories, or any of the other minutiae so critical to our work. What I can do is suggest a really great reference book I found that has become my best tool for accurate source citations. I picked it up at a genealogy conference here in Kansas City several months ago. It is entitled Evidence Explained, and it is written by Elizabeth Shown Mills. The first two chapters give a great overview and basics about citations and evidence in family history work. The remainder of the book is basically a style guide for citing sources for almost everything: from artifacts and old manuscripts to websites and podcasts. There are examples of citations for almost any source you might encounter.

Whether you decide to check out this particular book, glean information from credible genealogy websites, check out a book from a library, or buy a different style guide, please take the time to learn the whys and hows of citing sources. Trust me, if you aren't already handling your sources and source citations correctly, doing so will turn your genealogy research from a hobby into a "real boy."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Getting Started...with Interviews?

I have to apologize for the long break between posts. I have been overwhelmed with trying to complete a third genealogy book for a family member for Christmas this year, and I'm up to my neck in stories and formatting guidelines.

Anyway, on to my ramblings for the day. There are so many "beginner's guides" to family history out there, and they offer very helpful information to get yourself going. Inevitably, any good how-to document will include the suggestion that early on in your genealogy research, you take the time to interview family members, especially those of the older generation. That way, those memories get preserved and passed on.

However, I'll be honest here...conducting an "interview" with a grandparent isn't my idea of fun. Don't get me wrong. I love talking to my grandparents, but what questions can we ask that will really get them sharing? How does a conversation like that not become completely boring and, well, awkward? "And when were you born?" "What memories do you have of your childhood?" The talk is either completely about dates and names or filled with open-ended questions that they aren't quite sure how to answer. I mean, we can get the usual stuff from genealogical records and family heirlooms. How can we get the really meaningful information, like their memories of learning to ride a bike or how big the hill was that they had to walk up both ways to get to and from school?

Here is my solution, and many of you might have already discovered this. There are countless genealogy and family history resources out there that retailers would love to sell you. Most of these are useful, although a few are obviously just to get you to part with your hard-earned money. One tool that I have totally fallen in love with is the memory books. These are usually little books that come with titles like "Grandma's Memories" or "Grandpa, Tell Me Your Memories." They range in price from $5 to $20 depending on how big they are and how many detailed questions they contain. Believe me, these are worth forking over some cash for. These books come up with unusual questions that most of us wouldn't think to ask, so you'll get a lot more information this way. In fact, thumb through the book, if you can, before you purchase it so you know what kinds of questions it asks and what kind of information you'll get. You can find these books online at places like Deseret Book or Ancestry Publishing. Most retailers that carry genealogy products will have these books available.

There are a few ways to make use of these affordable tools in gleaning information from family members. One way is to send them the book for a gift, have them answer the questions, and send it back. Most of the time, the family members we want to get information from first are those of the older generation. Perhaps they don't read as well or write as neatly as they used to, and this kind of request might be too overwhelming for them. Your next option is to either call them or sit with them over several time periods and write down the answers as you ask the questions and they share memories.

In my particular case, I wanted information from my maternal grandmother. I've lived two states away from most of my mother's family for the last several years, and I wanted a better way of using the "Grandma's Memory Book" that I purchased for the task. So I called up my mother, who lives a mere 5 minutes from my grandmother, and asked her if she would be willing to handle this. It has been wonderful for everyone involved! My mother has spent several visits of an hour or two here or there -- talking with her mother and asking a sampling of the questions each time. My grandmother has remembered things that would never have come up if not for the details in the questions. My mother has learned things about her own mother that she never knew because, again, some of these questions are things she never thought to ask. And when they are all done, I will have in my hands a book filled with memories of my grandmother's life straight from her own mouth.

You can still go the traditional route and just come up with your own questions to ask; however, these books really do take the work out of the "interview." In fact, the result is more of a memory book than a dry, bare-bones life history. After all, as genealogists, we like getting the dates and putting the pieces of the puzzle together, but the big picture of our ancestors only takes on full color and meaning when we come to really know who they were and what their lives were like -- not just when they were born or where they were married.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Google Books - An Invaluable Tool

Google Books is a complete treasure trove for any genealogist. I found Google Books over a year ago when I was doing a regular Google search on an ancestor from Massachusetts. One of the first results popped up, and I noticed it was a book title from Google Books. In seconds, I was viewing the full text of the Vital Records of Hull, Massachusetts to the Year 1850.

OF HULL MASSACHUSETTS TO THE YEAR 1850 VITAL RECORDS

This book was an alphabetical index to names from the town records and church records of Hull. I was even able to download the full PDF onto my computer. From this one search, I gleaned hundreds of my earliest American ancestors' names and vital record dates.

So, what is Google Books, and how does it work? Well, Google Books is Google's book search tool. It is still in beta mode, but there are thousands of titles available and more being added all of the time. Books that are out of copyright or the publisher has given permission to Google to include will have a book preview or even the full text available. For many older genealogical titles that are out of copyright and out of print, this is a godsend to family history researchers everywhere.

You can search for old published genealogical records, land records, church records, vital records indexes, and anything else that might be included in their collection of titles. Once you've found a book, you can use the handy search box on the right side of the book viewer to find specific surnames or places among the pages. I have been able to download the full PDF to my computer for many of the genealogical books that I've found. For books that are still under copyright or not yet scanned into Google Books, there will be links to find the book at a library or buy the book from an online bookseller.

I really cannot say enough good about this offering from Google. It's a wealth of information right at our fingertips. We don't even have to sit among the dark and dusty stacks of a library to get a whole plethora of valuable research! Check out Google Books here. Thank you, Google!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Reading Handwritten Records

Next to impossible to read handwriting. Using abbreviations that no one else understands. Who knew census takers and doctors would have so much in common? If you've ever had *just a little bit of trouble* deciphering handwritten records, including census sheets and vital records, hopefully this post will offer some helpful tips.

First of all, let's start with the shorthand that census takers often used that follows absolutely no known rules of English (or any other language, for that matter). Unfortunately, many census takers in the United States, especially in the 1800s and early 1900s, would abbreviate first names rather regularly. Men's names were most often butchered in this manner, but women's names were also fair game. The most common male name abbreviations are: Wm, Geo, Jas, Jno, Thos, Jos, Fredk, Alexr, and Ferdd. Women's names that I've seen shortened are Mgt and Kath or Cath, although I'm sure there are more that I haven't come across, yet. In addition, many census takers would make matters worse by writing all of the letters in the abbrevation in normal size handwriting font, while the last letter would typically be written like a square root sign -- smaller and in the upper right corner after the other letters. The name below taken from an 1870 United States census is probably Frederick.


While we can guess at the meaning of the abbreviations, don't ever assume the exact name based on a census record alone. Always look for primary sources to back up your theories. For example, Wm probably means William. Geo probably means George. What about Jno? It could be John or Jonathan. Jos could stand for Joseph or Josiah. Mgt is probably Margaret, but it could also be Margaretha or some other similar spelling. Ed. below is most likely short for Edward or Edmund.


Another important piece of info to keep in mind is that handwriting was not completely standardized until more recently in history. In other words, one census taker's handwriting may look completely different than another's chicken-scratch (I mean, record). For this reason, the most helpful tip I can offer is to look at any letters you are having trouble deciphering in the context of the rest of the word and in context with the other handwriting on the page. For example, if you can't tell whether the first letter of a man's name is J or T, look at the rest of the name first. If the rest of the letters look like homas, the first letter is most likely a T. If the rest of the name itself doesn't give you any clues, look at the handwriting on the rest of the page. Is there another obvious J or T on the page? Compare those to the letter you are having trouble deciphering. Again, I must stress that you cannot rely on census records alone for the exact name spelling. Always try to find a primary source record. If you are looking at a handwritten marriage certificate, unfortunately that is your source record. In this case, try and find another record to verify what you are seeing, such as a birth record, death record, or several census years in a row.

Finally, although handwriting was not always uniform among census takers, certain trends do show up. The most common one that trips people up in reading old records is that a double ss in a word, such as Jessica, could be written in cursive with a double ss as we're used to seeing it or as an fs. In the image below, the last name is Strauss, although it looks like Straufs.


Capital S and L were so similar for most handwritten records that you might need to look at context of the word or rest of the page for subtle differences that will differentiate the two. Capital J's will often look like capital G's or Y's or even T's. Again, context clues will be your best bet in deciphering what the letters actually are.

If you still run into a particularly difficult record, one last suggestion would be to get at least one more pair of eyes looking at it. After long hours of staring at a particular page or image, another person can come in with a fresh perspective and perhaps see what you are missing. Especially in genealogical research, a collaborative effort can be far more effective than any individual could otherwise be.

These tips are in no way meant to be exhaustive. In fact, as you spend more time in your research looking at handwritten records, the quicker and more comfortable you'll be in figuring out the vital information written on them. Happy deciphering!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Old McDonald was an Irish Farmer?

I've been working for the past couple of years as a volunteer indexer and arbitrator for the Family Search Indexing project being done by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (See my previous post about the New Family Search for more details on the project.) As I've gone through thousands and thousands of United States census records, it is extremely clear that names can provide big clues to your ancestor's country of origin.

America is a big melting pot. Most of us who are more than first or second-generation Americans have a mix of ancestral origins from more than one country. If we meet someone for the first time, and we discover their last name is Johnson, most of us don't think "Wow, he must definitely have some Scandinavian blood in him." Of course, then again, too many Americans believe that Barack Hussein Obama's middle name MUST make him Arab. That is an incorrect conclusion to leap to simply on the basis of his name. (Disclaimer: This is not a plug for any political candidate.)

However, having said that, back in the 1800's and early 1900's in America, an individual's name could be a huge clue to where someone's family immigrated from. Of course, most of the US census years asked for each person's birthplace, so if you found an ancestor that was an immigrant, the birthplace field would tell you right away a fact about your heritage. What if you haven't yet traced a line back to the immigrant ancestor, though? What if you are looking at the first or successive generations who were born in America? This is where the names start to give us something to go on.

For example, Irish names can be very easy to spot. Common Irish surnames began with Mc, O', or Fitz, such as McDonald, O'Brien, or Fitzpatrick. Irish first names from these time periods tended to be good, strong Catholic names, such as Patrick, Thomas, and John. Or Bridget, Sarah or Mary for women's names.

German names are hard to spell and say, but are easy to weed out. Gustav, Augustus, Herman, and Frederick were common male names. Girls were often given names like Mathilde, Fredricka, Augusta, etc. Witbeck (a surname in my line) and Hoschouer are examples of Germanic surnames.

Italian monikers included Giuseppe, Luigi, Victoria, Rosina, and Emilia. Of course, we've all seen the Godfather, so we know that Italian last names are just as telling as the first names: Marinelli, Logar and Pensa are just a few Italian surnames in my husband's line.

How about Scandinavian countries? Well, at the risk of repeating information you probably already know, these surnames were based on the child's father's first name and appended with son or datter (daughter). For example, if you had an ancestor named Olaf, and his last name were Oleson, it's likely his father's first name was Ole. And Olaf might have had a sister named Britta Olesdatter. Other examples of Scandinavian names are Jonson, Knuteson, Olafson, Nelson, etc. These names make it harder to trace parentage as the surname changed every generation, but they make it easy to spot Scandinavian ancestry in America during the 19th and 20th centuries. Common first names include Kerstin, Britta and Marit for girls, and Axel, Per or Carl for boys.

Eastern European names also had much in common. Anton, Ladislav, Stanislaus, Frank, Mary, Nettie, and Elsie crop up frequently in census records. Pejsa, Chanda, and Choura are some of the Czechoslovakian surnames in my line.

Oddly enough, the more English sounding the name, the harder it might be to guess the surname's origin. And remember, it is still an assumption until you find other sources to back up your hunches.

In addition, looking at a census record and finding that you had an ancestor born in America whose name was Don Vito Corleone doesn't guarantee that he will be of Italian descent (or a mobster, for that matter), but it is one more clue that can lead you in the right direction to tracing your genealogical lines farther back and eventually finding your ancestral homelands.

Update on Photo Digitizing

I decided to post an update to my previous blog entry about affordable photo and slide digitizing. A blog reader left me a comment with some more information on various companies that handle scanning and digitizing of photos, negatives, and slides.

For the purposes of my first post, I only listed one company, ScanCafe. This was simply because this was a company that I had personally used for digitizing services. I was happy with their service, their prices and their process, so I blogged about it. It wasn't meant to be a blogging advertisement for ScanCafe, nor a negative review of any other digitizing services.

As mentioned, one of my readers (another digitizing company, from what I can tell) posted in his comment a link that lists a comparison sheet of all of the available companies that offer these services on the Internet. The sheet actually does seem very accurate, so it would be a good tool to use if you are trying to compare the various services and pricing offered by several companies.

I want to include that link here so you can check it out yourself. If you use any of the companies for digitizing services besides ScanCafe, you can send me an email or leave a comment on my blog about your experience and your opinion on the company.

Signing off for now,

Jessica

Monday, September 8, 2008

New Family Search and More Free Genealogy Records

This is not really new news in the online genealogy world, but I did want to blog a little about the New Family Search web site
that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is working on right now. In case you haven't already heard, the church is working on digitizing the millions of records they have on microfiche, microfilm and paper to make them available online to anyone in the world for free. What a project!

Here's how it works:
1 - The church has employees and volunteers in Salt Lake City scanning in and digitizing thousands upon thousands of images, including census records, vital records, state indexes, family histories, and pretty much anything else in their collection that they are able to share (because of copyright issues).
2 - Thousands of volunteers throughout the world, speaking many languages and including both members of the church and those not of the church, work every day on creating indexes for these images. This has to be done to make the information in the records searchable and organized.
3 - As the volunteers finish the indexing and other volunteers double-check the work, the images are put online along with the searchable indexes that are linked to them. These records are made available for free to anyone from their personal computer.

The church has even partnered with other genealogical societies, and state and county historical and preservation groups, to create indexes for their own sets of records. (They are even partnering with Ancestry.com to exchange some of the indexes they each have respectively worked on in the past.) Some of these will be available on the New Family Search site, and others will be made available through those individual society or government web sites. Either way, it's a win-win for genealogists all over the world no matter how you look at it.

For now, the New Family Search site is considered a pilot site, meaning it is still not considered "finished" for the general public. However, the church is encouraging everyone to check out the site, search and use it, and offer feedback which will help them in finalizing the site and its features. The new site is here at Pilot Family Search.

This project is slated to take the next several years, but the more volunteers they get who are willing to help index these valuable records, the quicker those new records will be online for everyone's benefit. If you are interested in helping to index
these records, even if all you have to spare is 1/2 hour a week, please check out the indexing website for volunteers at
Family Search Indexing.

I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I have participated as an indexer and arbitrator for the indexing program for the last 2 years. Although there is more than enough help available to you on Family Search Indexing if you decide to volunteer, I am also willing to answer any questions anyone might have about how it works, how much time is involved, difficulty level, etc.

Whether you are a member of our Church, of another faith, or none at all, I hope you will find value in this new, free and expansive resource from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is going to make genealogy and family history
research a little easier and cheaper for all of us.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Vital Records vs. Census Records

Vital records are vital to genealogical research, as all of us are aware. However, since vital records were not uniformly kept among states and counties in the early centuries of American history, they may not always be available for every single person in a family. If that is the case, and we rely solely on vital records to find all members of an immediate family, we may be leaving someone out.

Census records, on the other side of the coin, can be fun and helpful, but we don't usually think much about those being crucial to our family history efforts because they aren't considered primary source records by most professionals. In fact, they are known for being full of errors -- misspellings in names, wrong birth dates, and illegible information due to poor handwriting by the census taker or faded or blurred originals.

In linking children into families, it makes sense to do our due diligence in locating birth, marriage and death records as our primary sources of correct information. However, we can save ourselves a lot of time, money, and fuel in traveling to courthouses, by taking advantage of the information offered us in census records freely available online. Taken together, vital records and census records can help us put together a more complete picture of a family over time than either source by itself.

Let me give a couple of examples from my recent family history work. My last blog post titled "The Lost Boys" chronicled my efforts to finish an immediate family's information from my husband's line. Using census records, I was able to find the parents and six children over a few census years. I verified those eight individuals using vital records where available. However, when I did some further digging for vital records on this particular surname, I found two children who died young. The oldest child died at 6 years old. He never appeared on a census because he was born in 1881 and died in 1888, between census years. Using only the census sheets and without the vital records, this child would have been forever forgotten.

In contrast, I have worked on families in my line who have lots of descendants working on the genealogy. As happens on the internet and in family history research in general, many of these genealogists copy information from someone else's gedcom file without ever taking the time to double check or even ask for sources. There have been several families where, from incomplete family bibles or other family records passed down, not all of the children have been linked in. I will look up all of the census records for a family that I can find, and inevitably, in one of those census years, there will be a child listed in the household that was not listed in any of the information the rest of the family has posted. The census records in these cases made sure that family members were not misplaced permanently.

There are so many resources available on the internet for finding our ancestors, and by being thorough and attempting to use as many types of sources as are available to us, we can make sure that the genealogy work we pass on to our children is not only fun and interesting, but as accurate and complete as possible.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Lost Boys

I know it sounds like it, but this blog entry will not be a dissertation on either Peter Pan's unruly band or Kiefer Sutherland's rise to stardom as a vampire in the 80s. You have to learn to live with disappointment. Really...

I want to share an experience I had in getting some divine help in finishing a family's history in my husband's line. We were planning a trip to see his grandmother in Indiana back in February of this year. That is where a good chunk of his ancestors and their families settled. Knowing this, I decided to see if we could double up on the purpose of the trip and perhaps get in some grave hunting or other similarly morbid-sounding activities in order to add to the research we had.

Just a few days before leaving, I decided I needed to narrow down which family I wanted to focus my efforts on as a year-long sabbatical in Indiana wouldn't be enough to get information on all of his Indiana ancestors, let alone a 3-day weekend. I opened our family file in our genealogy program and made a somewhat random decision to focus on a downline of one of his ancestors. These people were not in his direct line, but were distant cousins of his. (I tend to follow down lines when I can because those can help tie together earlier generations, as well as give me a more complete family picture.) The family I chose lived in Allen County, Indiana, in the mid to late 1800s. The father was William H Tigar and the mother was Gertrude Probasco. I had them listed as having six children.

I decided to get online, where the bulk of my genealogy research happens. I felt prompted to look for burial records first to see if we could get some headstone pictures while we were in Fort Wayne. I knew the Lindenwood Cemetery in Fort Wayne was where the parents were buried. I found myself on the Friends of Allen County website. If you are lucky enough to have any ancestors who lived in Allen County, Indiana, you've got some amazing resources at your fingertips! So I search their online database for the Lindenwood Cemetery burials, and abracadabra! I discover two new Tigar names. One was a boy who died at 6 years old and was buried in 1888. The other was a boy who died in 18 years old in 1919. I do some further digging, and find obituary listings for the 18 year old. I realize these are probably children of this family that I didn't have. Thomas, who died at 6 years old, was their first son. The second, Donald, was their last son. I had just found two lost boys, the oldest and youngest, of this family of 10 that I previously assumed was a family of 8.

We made our trip, and sure enough, next to the parents headstones were markers for both Thomas and Donald. Standing in the cemetery with the snow falling, looking at the family's headstones, I had such a strong impression that this family was pleased with our work in making sure all of their children were included in our records. My soaked socks and shoes, my fingers chilled to the bone from gently scraping snow mounds off the headstones, and my children yelling at us from the heated car to know how much longer we were going to take - none of that could shake the warm feelings we had at that moment for family members we'd never met.

When we stopped by the Allen County library in Fort Wayne, I was able to very quickly find an obituary for Donald, who died as a teenager. (The staff and resources at that library are absolutely amazing!) They didn't even charge me for the printouts I made of the obituaries I found.

Due to time constraints at the library, I didn't find the obituary which I know exists for Thomas, but I did find one for Donald. Here's how it reads:


DONALD TIGAR DROPS
DEAD AT PARTY
_____________

Survived by Mother and Six
Brothers; Funeral An-
nouncements Later
_____________

Donald S. Tigar, youngest son of
Mrs. Gertrude Tigar, 1313 Crescent
avenue, dropped dead at the home of
some friends in this city at 11:00
p.m. last night.
He had been in poor health for
the past eight years but for several
months past had been seemingly
quite well. At a party with a num-
ber of friends he was playing games
when with his face to the wall he
slid to the floor and died within a
few minutes.
Donald was born in Fort Wayne on
April 29, 1901, and has lived here
all his life. He attended the public
schools and was a member of the
class of 1919, Fort Wayne High
school when forced to abandon his
studies due to ill health.
He was a grandson to the late Thos.
Tigar, founder of the Fort Wayne
Sentinel and son of the late William
H. Tigar who was an official of the
Pennsylvania Railroad Co., until his
death seven years ago.
Surviving are his mother, Mrs.
Gertrude Tigar of this city, nad six
brothers--Jay of this city, Roy of
Valparaiso, Ind., Herbert of Flint,
Mich., Harry of Kalamazoo, Mich.,
and Paul, now in the United States
navy.

Here is William Tigar's headstone:



Here is Donald Tigar's headstone:

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Affordable Digitizing and Publishing...No, Really!

I have to admit it! I am hooked on the $$$ values I find all over the Internet, but especially in the areas of family history research. As any genealogist will tell you, hobbyist or professional, genealogy is not necessarily a cheap pursuit, particularly if you want to do it right.

It is pretty clear that the Internet has made genealogy so much more affordable and convenient with records availability. Sites such as Family Search, Ancestry.com, Cyndi's List, RootsWeb, and others seem now to have been around on the Internet for years. However, what about other aspects of family history work, like digitizing old photos and slides or publishing a genealogy book?

I have found two very excellent sites that I just have to share. Many of you may have already heard of these sites, especially the first one, in genealogy conferences or family history periodicals or even message boards. I want to share with you my personal experiences with both sites, so you can also get a firsthand review of their services, affordability, quality of work, etc.

1 - For digitizing, I absolutely love ScanCafe! Digitizing is becoming a must for all genealogists in order to preserve our precious work well into the future. Up until recently, we had only two options. Pay for a high-quality scanner and slide scanner, and then spend hours and hours of our time scanning photograph after photograph -- only to find we don't have the expertise to restore faded color or make tears in photographs disappear. Our second option wasn't much better. We had to find a local photography store that did digitizing and restoration, and then pay quite the hefty sum to have them do it for us. Now, there is a third option!

I recently ended up with a box of old 35mm slides from my grandmother's personal things. There were approximately 265 of them. I don't have a slide scanner, and didn't even want to consider buying one as these would likely be the only slides that ever passed through my hands. The expense would hardly have been justified. So, I decided to give ScanCafe a try. I'd read about their services from a genealogical magazine.

The process works like this: you go online and make an order. You choose whether you want tin plates, photographs, 35mm slides or negatives digitized. It will ask you for the approximate quantities of each type of media. They will calculate the estimated order total based on the numbers you provide. You will pay for half of that amount plus the cost of shipping to them up front. At the end of your order, ScanCafe will create a UPS shipping label. Find the nearest UPS Store, take your originals and label, and they'll help you package it right. When ScanCafe receives your originals, they will scan them in and notify you when they are done so you can view them online. When viewing them, you select the ones you want to keep and have digitized (you can delete up to half of the original number without paying for them). You can also select extra restoration services at this time, which are very affordable. They do some basic restoration on all of the media as part of the deal, but you can select certain images that might need some extra care. You pay any remaining cost of the order, they digitize them, and then mail back your originals along with your digitized copy (a CD or DVD are just a couple of the options).

I was nervous at first about letting the precious originals go out of my hands, but they use UPS to ship, which means you can track your package all the way to their office. Then, they offer a tracking system while the originals are with them so you can see what stage your order is at. They use UPS to ship everything back to you, so once again, you can track your originals until they show up at your door.

I sent approximately 265 slides. I deleted about 80 of them, and my total cost ended up being a little less than $50, shipping and all. I honestly don't know how their customer service is because with their order tracking system, I never found the need to contact them. The only drawback was it took about 8 weeks from start to finish as they have been featured in several prominent news stories and genealogical magazines, and they are being flooded with new orders every day.



2 - On to my next Internet gem. How about publishing a family history? Let's say you're not a professional, and you just want to create a Christmas gift for your family of some of the stories and research you've found. Most publishers have minimum order quantities, which means it will cost you a pretty penny. You could do it yourself on a home printer, but how would you have the book bound or finished so it didn't look so, well, homemade?

I have worked with Lulu.com over the past two years. They are an online publisher catering specifically to those of us who don't want to pay for minimum quantities but still want professional results. I have done two different family books through them. Both were perfect bound, 100-200 pages, black and white on the inside, with full color covers. The paperback books cost approximately $6.00 a piece plus shipping. (Yes, you read that right.) The hardcover versions were approximately $19 plus shipping. Remember, there is no order minimum, so I can order just one book if I choose. However, they do give discounts for larger quantity orders, as well.

They offer several different binding options, color options, book sizes, and covers. They have templates if you aren't as creative for cover choices, or you can custom-create your own and just upload it as a PDF. They even offer the option of purchasing an ISBN for your book, if you'd like to go that far with it. You can set up your book to earn you revenue, as well. In your Lulu account, you can make any of your individual projects available to the public. You can then set a commission you'd like to earn, and if your book sells, you make money.

When I make an order, I usually have the books within 2-3 weeks (a little longer for larger quantity orders or for hardcover books).

The only drawback to using Lulu.com is making sure your formatting falls within their guidelines so you are satisified with the results when you get them. However, there are plenty of Lulu publishers, including myself, who are more than willing to help edit/format books pre-publication specifically to Lulu's requirements.

The Internet has made genealogy as a hobby and as a profession, much more widespread, more affordable, and more convenient. However, I still think we have yet to see the greatest contributions to genealogy from the use of the web. This includes digitizing our media, publishing our research, and coordinating and sharing information with researchers all over the world.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Funeral, A Long-Lost Box, and a Reunion of Sorts

In February of this year, my paternal grandmother passed away.  She lived in a very rural area of south-central Missouri. Her biggest hobby was genealogy, so of course, her house was just packed to the gills with a disorganized array of boxes containing thousands of potential family history gems for our family. I was not prepared, however, to discover such treasures for a family I'd never met.

The story began ten years earlier, when my grandmother's youngest daughter was cleaning out an apartment in San Diego, California.  She found a box that contained a baby book, a ginormous amount of old pictures and photo albums, and all kinds of other valuables. Knowing my grandmother was almost obsessed with genealogy, she sent it on to her in Missouri.

My grandmother was a wonderful hobby genealogist, but had never really learned the full value of the internet.  She tried for a time after receiving the box to get it back to the original owner, a family with the common surname of Livingston.  She sent letters to all Livingstons in the San Diego area, but she never got a response.  I don't think she knew what else to do, so the box was relegated to a dusty corner of her basement while the baby book from the box sat tucked away in a shelf of her not-often used desk.

As the family-proclaimed "genealogy expert," it was decided after my grandmother's funeral that I would go through all of the genealogy papers, books and pictures; organize and copy them; and eventually, put them together into some sort of permanent record for everyone else.  With that said, it was decided that the "Livingston" box would go to me to see if I could find anything.

After arriving home and unpacking all of the very dusty boxes, I decided that my first step would be to get this "lost" treasure box back to its rightful owner.  

I took the baby book from the box and started digging for clues there first.  This book was for a woman born sometime in the early 1970s.  Her father's last name was Miller, and her mother's maiden name was Livingston.  That presented me with my first problem.  Both of those are extremely common surnames, and assuming that both her parents would still be alive, it would be difficult to just "google" them, as it were.  I tried it anyway, and as expected, just spun my wheels for the first day or so.

I decided another tactic was needed, so I scanned the baby book for other relatives.  I happened to find her now-deceased grandparents on Ancestry.com from a "family tree" page in the baby book, but again, that didn't leave me much to go on.  

I read a page in the book that indicated they lived in a small town in Illinois for a time, and while there, this little girl had built a snowman with an older neighbor boy with the last name of Feroli.  Now, that was an uncommon surname.  I finally had something to go on, as minute as those details might have been.  I went onto zabasearch.com. (It's scary what you can find about yourself on this site, but it can be used for good, too, so I had no qualms about using the information here to track some people down.)  I happened to find this neighbor boy all grown up and living only a few miles away from the little town where he and she had grown up.  I called the last number I found on zabasearch and left a message.  A few hours later, I had a very confused and now-paranoid man on the phone trying to find out how I'd found his information, etc.  I explained the situation, and he let me know that the family had only lived there for a few years before the parents divorced, and that he thought the mother and her children (including the subject of the much-mentioned baby book) had moved back to California.  Not a lot of help, really.  If the mother had divorced, had she retaken her maiden name, or perhaps remarried and changed her last name?  And what about the girl?  Chances were, she had married by now and had also changed her name. With both the mother and child having very common first names, as well, I knew I wouldn't get anywhere with that method.

I looked through the baby book again, and this time, took some information on a cousin mentioned in one of the pages.  She must have been an older cousin because it listed her married name.  Turning to zabasearch again, I managed to find her and her husband now living in Washington state.  I called and left another obscure message about what I was trying to do.  She called me back that evening, and was rather startled to discover that her unlisted phone number (as her husband is a police officer) was available on the internet.  But once she realized I had genuine intentions and wasn't a previous "client" of her husband's, she was very helpful. She explained that she had lost touch with her cousins several years earlier and didn't have any information. However, if I found anything, she wanted to know so she could get in touch with them again.

I did take the information she gave me on the baby book girl's uncle and aunt.  Using that information, I found the uncle living in San Diego county.  I called and left a message.  Imagine my surprise, when his sister, the mother of the girl in the baby book, called me back.  She wanted to hear the whole story of how we ended up with this box, but was so grateful.  I told her I would mail her the entire contents of the box within a few days.  She let me know that she would be so grateful to have that back, and more particularly, she would now owe an apology to her ex-husband, who she had blamed for losing the contents of the box for all these years.

I went to the post office the next day after carefully packing the extremely fragile contents of the box into a new, mailing-friendly container.  I believe it cost $35-40 to mail the box back priority shipping, but it was so nice to be sending the treasures home where they belonged. Only a week and a half had elapsed since I had first opened the box to solve the puzzle.  After my post office excursion, I also called back the cousin in Washington state and gave her the contact information for her now-found cousin.  She was so excited to be able to get in touch with them again.

What we can learn from our own family histories can be a source of strength and inspiration to us, but what we can learn when we assist others in reconnecting with their histories can be even more profound.  From this interesting experience, I learned several things.  

1-) Uncommon surnames are much easier to find information and records on, especially so for the living.

2-) Baby books or other family history records can be invaluable for reasons that we might not discover in our lifetimes.

3-) People get very paranoid when some strange woman from Kansas calls them up and starts asking about details from their childhoods and families that they barely remember.

4-) Don't blame your ex-husband for missing items unless you can keep in touch with your cousin, whose husband is a police officer, and can actually dust for prints.

5-) There is a higher power that can and will assist us in our efforts to help our fellow human beings.

6-) Despite our varied backgrounds, there is a common story that connects us all -- family.