Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An Ancestry Subscription - Is It Worth the Money?

I've mentioned several free genealogy websites up to this point in my previous posts, but I get asked this particular question quite often about Ancestry.com and whether it is worth it to pay for a subscription. Many of you probably already use Ancestry.com and know the answer to this question. However, the truth is, whether or not it is worth the cost is entirely dependent upon your situation.

As of today, Ancestry has four different subscription options. You can subscribe to their World Deluxe Membership on an annual basis. You can get the World Deluxe Membership billed monthly. For those users who really only need to focus on United States records, the annual US Deluxe Membership is the best value, but you can also get the US Deluxe Membership on a monthly basis.

Let me be clear in saying that Ancestry.com offers a remarkable amount of value in exchange for their subscription costs. Ancestry does offer some free databases. However, when you have a subscription account with them, you have access to literally billions of names and thousands of databases. You can see original, scanned-in census images; passport applications with photos; emigration and immigration passenger ship rosters; military draft cards; and seemingly endless vital record databases and indexes. In addition to the exhaustive records available at your fingertips, Ancestry offers great ways of sharing and collaborating with other researchers. They also offer a new, customizable home page that allows you to track things such as what databases you last searched and which ancestors are on the top of your research list.

When I first started using Ancestry.com several years ago, I found that the United States records were much more abundant than the world offerings. However, in the past couple of years particularly, they have done a great job of adding much more world content than they previously had.

If you cannot afford a subscription or want to check it out first to see if it can be helpful to you in your particular areas of research, I highly recommend that you check with your local library. Here in Johnson County, Kansas, the regional library system offers access to all areas of Ancestry for free to residents with library cards. A local or regional genealogical society might also have purchased multi-user access to Ancestry for its members. In addition, the Free Trial - Ancestry.com US Deluxe Membership can allow you to test out a subscription for a week or two. During the trial, you have access to everything so it's easy to determine whether you'll get your value out of it.

For me, I find that the yearly cost is more than worth the trade-off of being able to search for my great-great-grandfather's lost twin brother, in my flannel pajamas, and with a pint of Moose Tracks in front of me. Either way, Ancestry.com is definitely a website that should be at the top of your bookmarks list in your research efforts.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Why Genealogy is Important to Mormons

This post is a little bit of a departure from my advice, website reviews, and general research tips. In fact, it is probably a little personally indulgent, but nonetheless, I get a lot of questions from relatives and visitors to my blog and genealogy sites about why Mormons care so much about and do so much in the realm of genealogy. I used to write articles for a popular writing site that allows people to write articles about certain topics, and the other writers on the site rank your articles. Well, I wrote this particular article below for this writing site on the topic of "Why Genealogy is Important to Mormons." The other writers (most not professionals) rated another article #1. (Mine came in #2, if you were wondering.) That was funny to me because the writer of that article was clearly not a Mormon, as evidenced by her frequent use of the spelling Ladder-day Saints instead of Latter-day Saints and because her answer was way off the mark. So, I'm using this blog post to share with you the article I wrote. These thoughts are my own, and I in no way speak for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other members of it. I do hope this helps answer some questions for so many of you who do wonder why our church members are so interested in genealogy work.

Is the God of Christianity just, merciful, or both? Most Christians believe that God loves us and desires us to be with Him after this life is over; however, that requires us to hear and believe in the name of Jesus Christ. Mormons, or members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, believe the same. But what about those who die never having heard of Jesus? Mormons believe that the atonement of Jesus Christ is powerful enough (and merciful enough) to reach even beyond the veil of death. If He is a merciful and a just God, could He not save those who died without ever hearing His name or being baptized (through no fault of their own)? Mormons believe the answer to this question is a resounding yes, which is why they place such emphasis on doing genealogy.

In addition, Mormons believe that the family unit can remain intact in heaven. They believe that families can be sealed together forever through a sealing ordinance done in LDS temples. As with all religions, Mormons believe that certain ordinances, or rites, are necessary to help us find happiness in this life and the next. For Mormons, these ordinances include baptism and sacred ordinances done in LDS temples, the latter including endowments and the sealing of families together forever.

Because of these beliefs, the Mormon church has a rich heritage of putting time and resources into genealogy work. The central ideology that drives this effort is that all mankind will have the opportunity to hear and accept or reject the gospel of Jesus Christ, whether in this life or the next. Of course, if someone has passed on to the next life without the opportunity, how can they be baptized and have the other necessary ordinances performed? Mormons believe this can be done by proxy, meaning a living person can stand in the place of, or be proxy for, one who is dead. The ordinances of baptism, endowment and sealing of families together for those who have died are done in LDS temples.

Contrary to some reports, Mormons do not baptize everyone. Members of the Mormon church are counseled to research their own ancestors and family members who have died without having ordinances done. They then submit these names to an LDS temple to have the work completed. They are instructed not to submit names for individuals who are not family members. They are also instructed to ask permission of the closest living relative for family members that have lived within the last 95 years.

Again, in contrast to some false information out there, Mormons do not believe that these ordinances automatically make someone "Mormon" on the other side. These ordinances are a gift, an offering, to family members that have passed on. Just as each person here in this life has the opportunity to accept or reject Jesus Christ, Mormons believe that each family member whose ordinance work is done will have the opportunity to accept it in their behalf or reject it. Names of people whose ordinances have been done are NOT added to the LDS membership records for this reason. Mormons believe strongly that every individual has been given the power to choose for themselves by God, and that will not be taken away.

Because of the beliefs that Mormons hold in regards to the importance of genealogy, every genealogist can benefit-whether they are members of the Mormon church or not. The LDS church has gone to tremendous lengths to index, catalog, and help preserve genealogical records all over the world. They are advocates for free sharing of this information, and they have a consistent and large-scale volunteer effort always underway in assisting everyone in their genealogical research. Whether you agree with their beliefs or not, the LDS church and their resources at their Family History Library, family history centers worldwide, and websites, can be extremely helpful in anyone's family history research.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Volunteer and Learn

This will be a short post, but an important one. A couple of my last posts focused on advice for beginners and one discussed free genealogy courses from BYU. There is another great way for beginners or even more advanced researchers to hone their skills and broaden their research know-how. Volunteer!

Yes, I know. You want to spend as much time as you can doing your own research. However, it really is worth the trade-off to spend some time volunteering in order to expand your family history research tool belt.

Here are just a few ideas for volunteering and what you can expect to gain for your own research:

  • Volunteer as an indexer at Family Search Indexing. This is my number one recommendation. From the comfort of your home and at your own computer, you can spend as little as 1/2 hour and index a whole page of names for this project. This project is completely indexed by volunteers all over the world. Thousands of documents are constantly scanned into the system, including national and regional census records, birth records, death records, marriage records, and even divorce records. The records are global, too. This means if you speak Spanish, there are several projects ongoing that include records from Mexico or Spain. Same goes for German records and even French. The benefits for you are that you will get lots of experience in learning to read handwritten records, which will be invaluable in your own research. In addition, you'll get familiar with various record types and the information they contain. This might give you some new ideas as to records you can search in your own work. Finally, as these projects are completed, they are available for free to the public at the Family Search website. You'll know from your own volunteer work what records are becoming available as they are completed.

  • Join a local or regional genealogical society. These societies can be very helpful in offering resources for their members. In addition, many of these societies have many volunteer opportunities available. You might even be able to get a discount on your society membership or their education classes by volunteering.

  • Volunteer to help with USGenWeb's Tombstone Transcription Project. You can help record and preserve the tombstone information in your local cemeteries and share it with other family history researchers. You'll benefit not only by learning what kinds of great information you can find on headstones at cemeteries, but it is likely you'll benefit from the information posted by another volunteer in another location. I really like this project as the information is free as volunteers post it.

  • Finally, check out your local courthouse. Chances are, your courthouse has records that genealogists often request. Some counties have certain methods of handling these requests, i.e. charging for them, having a clerk do it, making the researcher wait 3-6 months for a response, etc. You might offer to volunteer to help with the cataloging of the records or even the research requests as they come in. This will help you get familiar with what kinds of records can be found in county courthouses. Who knows? You might even be able to connect with another researcher on RootsWeb and exchange research time at your local courthouses and libraries.

Volunteering a portion of your time in indexing, recording, and preserving records, or assisting others in their research can be a great way for you to quickly learn much more about your own research and the records avenues available to you as you continue your hunt for your ancestors.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Digitizing Your Own Photos

One of my previous posts discussed the use of a photo scanning and restoration service to help you in your efforts to digitize your photos. I wanted to give some tips and information that you'll need if you want to digitize your own photos. If you don't want to do all of this yourself, I recommend ScanCafe. Otherwise, keep reading.

First of all, why digitize? Chances are, if you're reading this blog, you understand enough about the value of new technology and the internet in sharing and preserving important genealogical records. That includes our photos, which can be among our most precious family history heirlooms. By digitizing them, you can restore faded color and remove yellowing, you can preserve a restored copy and share it with other family members very easily, and after digitizing, you'll find you can preserve the original photos better since you'll be less likely to continue to handle them.

What do you need as far as equipment or technology in order to start digitizing? You'll need a scanner and photo editing software. Scanners don't have to cost a lot, but I highly recommend taking a little time to research some models in your price range and dig up customer reviews. Then, you'll need photo editing software. Most often, the software that comes with your scanner will have some photo editing features. If you want a few more editing features that allow you to do a little more cleanup of your photos, you'll want additional software. If you use a Mac, iPhoto should be sufficient for what you'll need. If you are a Windows user, the software I recommend is Adobe Photoshop Elements.

When it comes time to actually scan in your photos, there are some specific settings you'll need to use:

  • Set your dpi for your scanner at no less than 300. You can go up to 600 dpi, but there won't be a noticeable improvement in your photo quality beyond 600 dpi. If you scan in less than 300 dpi, you won't get the quality you need and want.

  • Scan in full color. This makes the individual photos larger, but you can always create grayscale or black and white versions later.

  • Save your scanned photos as tif files, or with .tif extensions. This may be a photo format you aren't as familiar with. However, a tif file will give you flexibility in the future for a professional designer or restoration service to take the photo and make more advanced edits to it in order to preserve it. Again, you can always take a photo saved as a tif and create a jpg or bmp version later.

  • Finally, if space is an issue on your computer, don't sidestep the recommendations above to save space. Simply group your pictures into manageable sets. Scan in each set, and then move to a Flash drive or a CD. That will clear up your hard drive space to scan in the next set of photos.

As far as photo handling while you are scanning, the following may seem obvious, but preserving your original photos is just as important as getting them digitized. Make sure your hands are washed and clean before handling photos. This is particularly important for older photos. The natural oils from our skin will rub off on the pictures, which is why photos that have been handled a lot tend to fade and yellow much faster.

If you have a lot of older photos, you probably have some that are in old photo albums or scrapbooks. Be particularly careful with these. Many of these older photo albums are a lot like our scrapbooks today. They tend to be paper books in a post-type binder. The photos were usually added by using photo corners that were glued to the pages. I do not recommend pulling individual photos out of scrapbooks or albums to scan in unless you simply can't get the page to scan properly because of photo placement. Here's my rule: if you are going to do more damage to the book by trying to prop it open on the scanner to get the full photo scanned in, try and gently pull the photo from the book. If you are going to do more damage to the photo by trying to pull it out, leave it in and scan the whole page. You can always crop and save each photo on a page as individual photo files later. And those photo corners can always be edited out of the photo.

One final tip: before you ever scan a single photo, decide on a file-naming convention that you will use on all of your photos. I recently had a whole box of more than 400 photos that had to be scanned and preserved. Rather than try and come up with descriptive file names for each of those, I just used a numbering system. The first photo I scanned was named 1.tif, and so on. As I scanned, I had a word processing document open where I listed the photo name and a description of what the photo was. For example, my first line in the document was "1.tif - Dolores Binney with her parents, Walter and Elsie." When I moved the photos to a CD to preserve, I made sure my index document was included. This way, my file names are short, and I can put as much text in as I need in order to identify the picture.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cyndi's List

If you have done any significant genealogy research on the internet, you already know about this website, as it is one of the oldest and most well-known genealogy sites on the web. This brief post is for those of you who are new to researching family history online or for those intermediate-level researchers who have yet to discover the power of this particular website.

This website has been online since 1996, meaning it truly was one of the first online genealogy sites out there. Basically, this site is like the Google of the online genealogy world. It is run by a gal named Cyndi Howell, who has written books about online genealogical research and does speaking engagements.

Now, this site currently boasts almost 265,000 genealogy-related links. What this means is that if you don't know how to use the site to find what you are looking for, you can easily become overwhelmed. Don't get me wrong! Cyndi has done a fabulous job of organizing the links into broad categories, which makes for much easier searching. She also has a prominent Google search box at the top of the site that allows you to search her entire page for particular things. However, beginning genealogists especially can get excited about the wealth of links on the site and spend hours of time "browsing" without ever accomplishing anything.

Here is what I recommend to get the full value from Cyndi's List. The home page defaults to her Main Category Index. Take a few minutes at your first visit to the site to quickly scan through the main categories of links available. Some of these will be much more valuable than others to you. There will be some regional or ethnic-specific categories that you will never use. Again, don't spend a ton of time looking at the category list, but do note what kinds of links are available to you. Vital records and region-specific links will be of the highest quality information in your research.

After scanning the Main Category Index, click on a category that you think you might use in the future, such as Births & Baptisms. You'll see that each main category is divided into sub-categories. These are listed at the top of the page in the left column. The right column shows related categories that you might also search if you don't find what you are looking for in the category you are currently in. Each sub-category on the page will be listed in alphabetical order. Underneath the title of each sub-category, which you can get to by scrolling down or by clicking on the sub-category name in the Category Index, you'll see the list of specific links for that sub-category. Many of the links will have short descriptions that will help you quickly see at a glance if that particular link is what you are looking for.

After familiarizing yourself with the main category and sub-category layout of the site this way, you'll know the basics of how to quickly find what you are looking for among the thousands of links on the site. I also highly recommend bookmarking Cyndi's List, as this will quickly become one of your most valuable resources in internet research if you understand what is there and how to access it.