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

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Three: Looking at Sources

Before I go any further with this series on research, I need to discuss the concept of "sources."

The entire idea of researching genealogy is built on an assumption, proven in fact, that various individuals and organizations keep records and have done so for thousands of years. Whatever the motivational interest, records have been kept from individuals writing letters and diaries, to commercial operations, to national governments keeping track of their armies and treasuries. Some of the oldest writing in the world was used to record grain and livestock transactions. See The British Museum, Explore/Writing. It took thousands of years before writing became so pervasive that records existed about the lives of individuals, outside of royalty and other important people. The earliest records of most of our ancestors only go back as far as the 16th Century although tax records go back much further, such as the Domesday Book, compiled in England in 1085 for the purpose of determining what taxes were owed at the time.

With the advances in printing and literacy, eventually, records accumulated at every possible jurisdictional and societal level. To genealogists, these written records (and occasionally oral ones) are the source for the information that goes into compiling a family tree. Discovering these records is the main activity of genealogists. A record becomes your "source" for genealogical information when it contains information about your family. Basic genealogical references are guides to where these records may be found and how to use them to compile family histories. For example, one basic book about genealogy in the United States is called simply, The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy. (See Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006). This book is primarily an explanation of what kinds of genealogically important records are available and where they might be found.

Records have been preserved for a variety of reasons including being preserved specifically for genealogical research. Today we have entire libraries dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of genealogically important records. As computers and the Internet became the central way information is disseminated, large online collections of genealogically important records became the main place where genealogists began their research. Because of the advantages that accrue from access to digitized records available to individual computing devices, the number and variety of these online records has become a virtual explosion of information.

As the number of records online has increased, genealogists have attempted to keep pace with the number of records by creating catalogs, lists and wikis that attempt to organize these huge collections. Notwithstanding the huge amount of information already online and the vast amounts being added daily, there is still an even greater amount of genealogically pertinent information locked up in the world's paper-based, written records.

If the basic genealogical activity is discovering records that pertain to family history, it is important to distinguish between the quality of the information found and the quantity. Quoting from a commonly used genealogical course book, (Harland, Derek. Genealogical Research Standards. Salt Lake City, Utah: Published by the Genealogical Society, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1963, p. 19).
Far too many so-called genealogists judge success in research by the number names they have collected in their searches, rather than by the method and approach to the genealogical problem and the care with which the search ave been made. "Name gathering" is not genealogy.
The information contained in various records may well be inaccurately recorded, contradictory and in many cases, entirely misleading. The process of becoming a competent genealogist or family historian is essentially an evolution from blindingly copying information to incorporating methodologies for interpretation and evaluation.

A genealogical researcher first must identify and find the records. But at this point, the research process has just barely begun. Records do not exist in isolation, they must be interpreted in context. It is all too easy to find a name in a record and immediately assume that the named person is your ancestor. It is only by careful analysis of the record, its context and possible limitations, that you can safely assume the record is pertinent. In addition, as I alluded to previously, any inconsistencies and contradictions in different records must be resolved. When a record is appropriately evaluated and any issues with the record resolved, then the record should be incorporated into an organized structure so that the researcher and any other member of the family can see where the information was obtained. Maintaining a "source-centric" family history means that every fact is supported by a reference to a record (source) where the information was obtained.

Fortunately, for many beginning researchers, this task has become fairly simple. Several of the large online, genealogical database programs have incorporated methods of automatically searching for pertinent records and then attaching them as sources to the appropriate individuals. The part of this newly developed automatic system that cannot be supplied by the online providers is the evaluation and resolution of the inconsistencies and mistakes in the original records. Although the results of these online, automated searches can be amazing, they can also be entirely wrong.

When I say I am doing genealogical research, what am I doing? The answer to this question is, to some extent, highly personal. But there is a general consensus. Genealogical research is primarily an activity involved in identifying and searching records. Any record found to contain genealogically pertinent information can become a source through proper evaluation and interpretation. Any information recorded in the family history derived from that "source" should be attributed to the record through a process of citation. It is important that these "citations" contain enough information that the research and any subsequent researchers can readily identify and locate the original record. One major advantage of the online, automatic or semi-automatic record hinting programs is that the citation to the record, once incorporated by the researcher into a family tree, is preserved with a link to an image of the original record.

As a side note, presently, in many cases, there exists the capability to electronically attach digitized copies of the original source record. This should be a mandatory and consistent research method. Any time it is at all possible copies of all original records should accompany the citation attached to any family or individual.

Well, at this point, I have gotten a start to analyzing and commenting on the research process. Stay tuned for future installments.

Previous installments of this series include:

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Two

I begin this second installment in the series with a quote from Cerny, Johni, and Arlene H. Eakle. Ancestry's Guide to Research: Case Studies in American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Inc, 1985, on page 115:

When students of genealogy first learn that it is impossible to prove a lineage absolutely, they resist that fact. They live in an era when advanced technology demands absolutes, the products of societies driven to achieve perfection. Neither resistance, technology, nor the pursuit of perfection will alter reality; at best, a lineage can be proven only beyond a reasonable doubt, just as guilt or innocence is proven in a court of law.  Lineages, like court cases, are built upon available evidence.
I will reserve further comment on the issue of applying legal jargon to genealogical research issues to another post, but I would comment here that proving genealogical research to a standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" would make that research practically impossible. This statement above, to some extent, summarizes my comments in the first installment of this series. Proving an ancestral relationship with "evidence" implies a degree of certitude that is not achievable. Court cases involve adversarial proceedings presided over by a judge or jury who will ultimately make the decision as to which side prevails. There are no genealogical courts, either are there any genealogical judges or juries. The end product of our genealogical research is nothing more or less that a series of conclusions we make based on the sources we discover. Nothing is added to the research process by alluding to any quasi-legal standard of proof.

In an earlier work, Harland, Derek. Genealogical Research Standards. Salt Lake City, Utah: Published by the Genealogical Society, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1963, the author states, at page 20:
It would be difficult to set a general standard for genealogical research, as the methods of compiling pedigrees vary according to the time and locality of each problem. The aim of every genealogist is to conform to the highest standard, irrespective of the time and locality of the problem – it is to carry out searches that will result in complete and correct and connected records.
In the book, Bennett, Archibald F. A Guide for Genealogical Research. [Salt Lake City]: Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1951 at page 51, it states:
Each one of us who would undertake to compile a genealogy is in duty bound to base this record upon the testimony of persons who actually knew from first-hand experience those facts of names, dates, places and relationships which go to make up such a record. Or, in the event no direct, first-hand testimony of an eye and ear witness can be found, he must obtain the testimony of one who, although not himself an actual witness to these facts, learned of them from those who did know by personal experience.
The key concept I see as crucial to beginning a study of the subject of genealogical research is the concept of moving from the known to the unknown. Before we begin to search for information about our remote ancestors we most certainly need to understand clearly what we already know. This particular stage has been referred to as the "Survey Stage" of genealogical research. In my early years, this process involved years of research in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah gathering all of the records previously compiled by my relatives. Today, that task is made considerably easier by the availability of much of that information online.

All too often after accumulating the efforts of other family members, researchers began by accepting on blind faith the work done. Obviously, such work may have been accurate but in many cases, there are discrepancies that can seriously affect the accuracy of subsequent research efforts. Many of these earlier compiled genealogies lack any reference to the source where the information was obtained and are therefore inherently unreliable. It may seem unnecessary bother to document information that we "know" to be correct but had our ancestors done this, we would not be in the position of having to redo the research.

Despite our belief in the accuracy of the previously done work, as we examine whatever has been previously compiled about our family, it is important to integrate both analysis and interpretation without implying a final conclusion. I see the basic outline of the process as follows:

1st Stage:
We begin the process by understanding the need for source documentation as a basis for extending and verifying family lines. Before initiating a search for individuals and families, it is imperative to understand the relationship between locations and sources. Any valid genealogical or historical investigation is source-centric. But at the same time, any consideration of sources need to be focused on specifically identified geographic locations. It is essential that we verify information we already possess. In the process of verifying my own family's efforts, I found much of the information to be inaccurate. Place names were improperly recorded or totally inaccurate. Dates were often missing or obviously wrong. Names were expelled in a variety of formats and variations in the names were not reflected in any actual records. I found incorrect places and dates, thereby rendering whole ancestral lines questionable.

2nd Stage:
All of the previously recorded sources must be analyzed and evaluated for consistency and accuracy. At this point, it is important to proceed systematically, making no assumptions and refraining from the impulse to jump back to research missing information. For example, if a particular ancestor has no source documentation, approximate dates and unspecified places where events occurred, it should be assumed that any recorded ancestral lines beyond the unverified individual are questionable and should be ignored until adequate documentation is discovered.

Research, therefore, is the process of evaluating what is presently known, identifying questions that need to be resolved and missing information that needs to be found and then beginning the process of analysis and interpretation extending the lines by considering sources that may be available as connected to the places where our ancestors lived. Too many people, when beginning genealogical research, assume that all they need to is look for records and copy out the names.

I will expand on this idea in future installments.

Previous installments of this series include:

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part One


For some time now, I have been thinking about the concept of genealogical research. In order to further my thought process and organize my thinking, I have decided to begin a series analyzing and explaining the basic research processes as it pertains to genealogy's particular area of historic research. Obviously, as usual, this analysis and the accompanying explanations will be highly personal. In order to begin to organize my thoughts on the subject, I used the following book written, in part, by my friend Arlene Eakle.

Cerny, Johni, and Arlene H. Eakle. Ancestry's Guide to Research: Case Studies in American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Inc, 1985.

I do not intend to review the book, but I do intend to use the concepts contained in the book as a structure for addressing the current concepts of genealogical research. As I go along, I will add additional, more recently, published books. I may also refer to other even older books along the way. 

Since my very first attempts at historical research, in high school, over fifty years ago, I have been actively involved in research in some form or another. But simply doing research does not necessarily give someone the insight to analyze and understand the process. For quite some time now, I have been reading and studying the methodology and processes involved in discovering family relationships. Of course, my years of active participation as a trial attorney have also influenced by thinking.

I have written several blog posts about my impressions of the current state of genealogical research. The thrust of my concerns involve the fact that current genealogical methodology and analysis has become almost hopelessly tangled with concepts and jargon borrowed from both law and science. I am almost in despair at the task of separating the intermeshed and inappropriate legal and scientific concepts from from the core concepts of genealogical research. The current common adoption of the terms "facts," "evidence" and "proof" in talking about historical research is the most obvious indication of this integration. Historically, these terms were used in a general sense, but during the very recent past, the terms have definitely adopted a quasi-legal connotation.

When did genealogists begin incorporating legal and scientific jargon into their writings? If you read the following book, you will not find any reference to "proof" as such or to the more current concept of a "proof statement."

Harland, Derek. Genealogical Research Standards. Salt Lake City, Utah: Published by the Genealogical Society, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1963.

Harland does discuss the concept of evidence, but uses the term in a general way and does not try to relate the term to legal terms. By 1985, the Ancestry book, cited above, makes reference to a "preponderance of the evidence," a term directly borrowed from legal jargon. 

In an even earlier work,

Bennett, Archibald F. A Guide for Genealogical Research. [Salt Lake City]: Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1951.

the concepts of proof and evidence pre-date any attempted relationship to the use of these terms in the legal sense. It is not use of the terms, per se, that I find objectionable, but the implication that they are validated by their incorporation as quasi-legal terms. This culminates in the present assumed ability "advanced genealogists" supposedly acquire to write acceptable "proof statements," which are nothing more or less than their personal conclusions couched in quasi-legal jargon. From my standpoint, this is exactly the same as relying on the briefs submitted by one side in a legal controversy with weight being given to the formality of the statement, more than the content and research supporting the arguments made. After writing legal briefs for years, perhaps I resent the implication that my genealogical research is only acceptable if I follow quasi-legal guidelines and prove my genealogical case. If I believed that a "proof statement" was necessary, I would become fundamentally exclusionary and adversarial.

In writing about the subject of research, I will try to avoid the currently popular terminology and rely on the more traditional methods of describing genealogical research. I will also try to go well beyond the present issues of terminology and address a more thorough methodology for conducting research.

I will begin demonstrating my line of thought with this example. I recently became involved in researching one family line of immigrants from England and Wales. Nearly all of my other family lines have been exhaustively researched for over 100 years, but this line has had little attention from researchers. This particular line begins with my Great-great-grandfather, David Thomas (b. 1820, in Wales, d. 1888) and illustrates some of the issues involved. David Thomas was married three times, first in 1842 to Mary Howells (b. 1821, in Wales, d. 1860), next in 1862 to Adeline Springthorpe (b. 1826, in England, d. 1891) and then in 1871 to her sister Frances Ann Springthorpe (b. 1833, in England, d. 1879). I spent some time researching early church records which contained records of all three marriages. In the records of the marriages in America to the Springthorpe sisters, Adeline and Frances both reported their birth dates exactly ten years later than the English birth records. The remaining information supplied by the sisters is consistent with the English birth records; the parents and places are accurately reported. When were the two sisters born? When do I consider that I have completed a "reasonably exhaustive search" of the existing records? Who else is going to spend the time on this particular line and disagree with any of my conclusions? However, in this case, I have at least three other very able researchers to question my findings and collaborate on the conclusions.

I could resort to the currently popular legal jargon and analyze the "evidence" from the records and conclude that the birth records in England "prove" that the sisters were lying about their ages. Or, I could simply report that the discrepancy exists and that my conclusion, based on the available sources, is that the birth records are more reliable than the dates reported by the sisters. As an attorney, it would be very easy for me to make a convincing argument, now commonly called a "proof statement" that the sisters lied about their ages, speculating about any number of reasons this could be the case. What happens when we discover more records figure out that both records are wrong because we have the sisters in the wrong family? My issue is with the implied finality of using legal terminology. Why does it matter whether or not I use legal terminology to express my opinion as to the actual birth dates? I would submit that the main reason for avoiding the quasi-legal evidence and proof concepts is that the research here is open-ended. We are not deciding and closing the case. There is much, much more to the story of this family than a simple issue of the dates of the two wive's births. As I have learned by experience, legal arguments are designed with the intent to conclude the controversy. As attorneys we want to "win" the case, i.e. have the case decided in our clients' favor. This is not what genealogy is all about. We are not researching our families in order to win our case. We are merely investigating historical documents for information and drawing conclusions. There is a need to be careful, accurate and systematic in our research, but in all this I eschew any reliance on a specific type of formality. What is happening today in genealogy is too much like the Supreme Court of Arizona refusing to accept my brief for filing because I have not provided the correct number of copies.

Genealogical research begins when we stop copying others and start looking at the records and drawing our own conclusions. To try to impose on this process an adversarial need to prove our case does not add any validity either to our conclusions or our opinions. It boils down to this, why should I care what you think about your family? Why should I have to feel obligated to prove to you (or anyone else) what I think about the history of my own family?

So much for my highly opinionated introduction. Stay tuned, if you can stand it, for the next installments. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Is the cost of computer memory coming down?

As my collection of digitized genealogical documents and photographs continues to grow, I am periodically in need of more storage space. My current backup files consist of 3.33 Terabytes of data stored on 4 TB drives. Looking ahead, I am always interested in the availability of larger hard drives and check for prices every time I think about the need for a larger drive. Unfortunately, flash hard drives are not yet large enough or cheap enough to be a consideration.

I am particularly sensitive the "best price" per Megabyte of storage, although this is going to have to be adjusted to the price per Gigabyte. This go around, I was pleased to note that 5 Terabyte drives are now becoming available and that they now have the optimal pricing. There are 6 TB and 10 TB hard drives but the extra storage space is much higher priced than what would be expected. For example, a 10 TB hard drive is much more expensive than two 5 TB drives.

All such considerations are relative. I did some research into the historic cost of computer memory and in 1995, the standard RAM memory in a desktop computer was 8 Megabytes, hardly enough to operate a computer today. The 1995 large capacity hard drive was 9 Gigabytes and cost $2,399.00. (See and Today, a Seagate Expansion 5 TB Desktop External Hard Drive USB 3.0 (STEB5000100) is $149.63 on You can compare this to a Seagate Backup Plus 8TB Desktop External Hard Drive with Mobile Device Backup USB 3.0 for $299.99. The largest hard drive I have seen at Costco is a 4 TB hard drive for about $119. But I haven't seen a 4 TB hard drive on sale at Costco recently in our local store, but the 4 TB drives are still available online.

The simple answer to the question in the title of this post is that prices are always coming down as new technology is developed. In case you need a reference, here is a chart from Wikipedia: Terabyte, that shows the differences between the different terms used for memory capacity.

Most genealogists would never use all of the capacity of a 4 TB hard drive in their entire life, but even though the drives may have that capacity, this does not mean they will last a very long time. Here is a link to an explanation from Seagate about the real failure rate of hard drives: "Hard disk drive reliability and MTBF / AFR." What this means in practical reality is that your drive may fail at any time. For this reason, I maintain two and sometimes three backup drives. I presently have my main internal 2 TB hard drive and three external backup drives. I also copy my primary backup drive periodically and give a copy of the backup hard drive to one or more of my children. 

Using BillionGraves to find the graves for Memorial Day

My wife's family has always had the tradition of putting flowers on the grave markers of their nearer relatives on Memorial Day. In fact, it was locally called Decoration Day. They also take the time to tidy up the gravesite and clean away grass and such around the marker. Since we have now moved to Provo, Utah, we had the opportunity to participate with others in the family at the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

The Salt Lake City Cemetery is on the side of the mountain, just north of the downtown area of the city. It commands a dramatic view of the Salt Lake Valley and on this May day, there were clouds threatening rain and some wind. The Cemetery is rather large and has just over 121,000 burials. Even though Monday is the official day, many of the local people pay their respects on the days before to avoid the crowds. Yes, there are crowds and minor traffic jams at the Cemetery.

I probably have dozens, if not hundreds, of relatives buried in the Cemetery of my own and we did take the time to visit my grandparents graves as well as that of one of my Great-grandmothers while visiting the graves of my wife's parents and other close relatives.

There is one major challenge in the Cemetery. The streets are set up just like a town with names and addresses for the blocks, but we always have a tendency to get lost since everything looks pretty much the same. This time, we we able to drive or walk directly to the graves using the GPS on my iPhone and's App.

All I had to do was search for the name of the relative and then tap on the link to the map showing the location of the grave marker. The program was exceptionally accurate and once I got used to moving the right direction, I walked directly to the grave. It was that simple. This happened despite the fact that the rest of those in our group were spread out all over the area claiming to be near the graves. They all finally realized that the program actually worked and subsequent searches were much shorter.

In the past, we have relied on waiting in line to get a paper map from the sexton's office, which we always seem to forget or lose by the next trip to the Cemetery. Using the BillionGraves App was a great improvement over tramping around in the mud and wet grass from the recent rains.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Flood of Online Genealogy Classes

Between the formal online classes, YouTube videos, and webinars, there is a virtual flood of genealogical information online. I thought it would be a good idea to review the status of some of the offerings. There are obvious networking and social reason for traveling around the country to genealogy conferences, but many of the same people who are presenting at these conferences have either free or paid websites with valuable classes. Here is a sampling of some of the classes and other instructional materials online. In addition, there are organizations that offer university level online courses. Depending on the type of offering, these can be free or fee-based.

Formal Classes

Friday, May 22, 2015

Update and Comments on the Popularity of Genealogy

In my most recent post, I considered the statements made by a Judge in a lawsuit decision concerning In the course of writing the Memorandum Opinion, the Judge made some observations about the fact that may have "saturated the demand" for genealogical products. This started me thinking about some similar information available from Google Trends. Here is a screenshot of a current graph showing the number of searches done on the term "genealogy" relative to the total number searches done on Google, for the same term, over time. Quoting from the Google Trends website, "They don't represent absolute search volume numbers, because the data is normalized and presented on a scale from 0-100. Each point on the graph is divided by the highest point and multiplied by 100. When we don't have enough data, 0 is shown." What the numbers do show is relative popularity over time. To further quote Google, "A downward trending line means that a search term's popularity is decreasing. It doesn't mean that the absolute, or total, number of searches for that term is decreasing."

Here is the graph:

The search term was at 100 in January of 2004 and is presently at 7. I have shown this graph before in different contexts. But in light of the comments in the Court case, how do the companies stack up? Here is's graph:

Well, actually, this graph sort of supports the Court's conclusion in the lawsuit. The high point of interest in was in March of 2010 for 100. The current popularity stands at about 22. FamilySearch is mentioned in the Memorandum and here is what its graph looks like:

The high point for FamilySearch was also in March of 2004. The program is currently running at about 83 and has been at 98 recently. It is also interesting to compare the two companies: has traditionally been much more popular than FamilySearch. But now, they are running almost equal and both are trending down. From this graph, it doesn't look like to me that FamilySearch was posing any kind of threat to Ancestry. com until very recently. It certainly does not look like anything FamilySearch has done with reference to has played a part in the future.

If we add MyHeritage to the mix, then we get a substantially modified graph: peaked in February of 2010 and it is currently running at about 18. It looks like to me that the testimony and the facts in the case cited above, did not delve into the relative popularity of the large online programs. Just in case you are wondering, here is the graph with added

If I add back in the term "genealogy" we get another even more interesting picture:

You would have to do quite a bit of talking to convince me the topic of genealogy and any one of the big websites were becoming more popular.