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

Friday, March 24, 2017

New York State Archives for Genealogists -- Part Two

Libraries and archives are realizing that digitization fulfills severals of their main objectives including preservation and making their collections available for research and study. The New York State Archives, like many other repositories, creates an income stream from selling copies of the digitized documents. Here is a description of the New York Archives collections from the website:
The New York State Archives' Digital Collections provides access to photographs, textual records, artifacts, government documents, manuscripts, and other materials. Most items come from the holdings of the New York State Archives, but this collection also includes material from the New York State Museum, State Library, and project partners across New York State. 
If you have questions about our holdings, or if you would like to request copies of State Archives materials, please contact our reference desk at or 518-474-8955.
When any collection of documents is digitized, there is always a background issue of copyright protection for some or all of the items. A genealogical researcher needs to have a general knowledge of the categories of copyright restrictions that apply in the countries where the researcher intends to copy documents. In the United States, the copyright laws are unclear and very complex. A good summary of the laws is available online from Cornell University's website, "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States." This summary is updated each year and it a good idea to review the summary from time to time to refresh your memory of the overall restrictions and to become aware of any new changes to the law. Here is the statement made by the New York Archives concerning the copyright status of their online collections:
Copyright and Use Statement

The Office of Cultural Education, NYS Department of Education, is providing access to these materials for educational and research purposes. Please read the following terms of use, as they will guide the appropriate use of the materials found in this resource. 
While every effort has been made to select and present material in the public domain, some materials, particularly State Agency records, may be protected by the copyright laws. The nature of these materials may make copyright difficult or impossible to determine. When known, information on permissions is noted. The written permission of the copyright owners and/or other rights holders is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use of protected items beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemptions. Responsibility for securing any necessary permission ultimately rests with the user. 
Please note: This website contains high quality images from the New York State Archives, New York State Library, and New York State Museum. If you wish to receive high quality copies of images from the other repositories represented, you must request reproduction from the institution listed for each record. 
Credit Line: Material on this website is drawn from the resources of the New York State Archives, New York State Library, New York State Museum, and a variety of project partners. Please carefully check each image, text, or other material for the appropriate credit line. 
The Office of Cultural Education is eager to hear from any copyright owners who are not properly identified so that appropriate information may be provided in the future. Please contact us at
This is a very fair and reasonable statement of the possible issues arising from copying items online. One import statement is the need to provide attribution for anything copied that is not specifically noted to be in the public domain. However, for research purposes, genealogists should not only be aware of the need for attribution but should also be providing detailed and complete citations for each record used for making historical conclusions. We should all be providing a clear explanation of our conclusions and providing complete and very adequate references or citations to the place where the records or documents can be viewed or obtained. 

In short, failure to give attribution is not simply a matter of courtesy, it can be part of the copyright law of the country. Items in the public domain are exempt from this requirement, but all other materials copied should be carefully cited according to the particular requirements of the originator of the work. 

Going back to the digital collections online from the New York State Archives, they have several ways to search their collections: Browsing by Collections, by Places, by Repositories or by State Agencies. 

Stay tuned for a more detailed analysis of the contents in the next post in this series.

You can find the first post in this series here:

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What is a genealogically significant document?

By focusing on a narrow topic, such as the lineage of a single family, genealogists tend to be rather parochial in their consideration of where and how to find information. In fact, in my experience, genealogist are not only parochial, but also provincial in doing their genealogical research. I have written in the past about the extreme manifestations of both of these attitudes but since this subject comes up frequently, I seem to always return to say more.

The two most common manifestations of these attitudes are the tendency of genealogical research to focus on an extremely narrow and confined definition of "genealogically significant documents" and their tendency to avoid any records or documents that take effort either to decipher or to find. For example, I find very few researchers who use books or microfilm. Because of the vast number of records that have been digitized and are available in some form online, they seem to feel that unless a document is readily available on one of the huge, online, genealogy database websites, then it is too much trouble to go any further. They then complain about their genealogical "brick wall."

OK, there are exceptions. I know a few really talented and dedicated researchers who have traveled all over the United States and the world looking in libraries and record repositories for records about their families. But even in the relatively very small community of persistently active researchers, there are only a few that make any effort to break out of the confines of the online digital records.

Part of the reason for this insular view of genealogy comes from an inability to visualize their ancestral families in their historical context. Genealogical research becomes a simple task of adding a name, a date and sometimes a place. We are rewarded for the number of slots we can fill up on our pedigree. Now, I have to point out that I live in many different genealogical sub-communities and depending on your own background and experience, you will either consider me to beneath your notice because I do not have the "credentials" of a "real" genealogist or at the other end of spectrum, I become an elitist who refuses to see the perspective of "common genealogist" and their concerns and limitations.

But reality is that this dichotomy actually does exist within the genealogical community and it is primarily caused by a lack of awareness of the breadth of the historical context and the realization that there are no insignificant historical facts. I can quickly determine the level of historical interest and knowledge of a researcher by posing the following questions:

  • Have you searched the tax records?
  • Have you search livestock brand records?
  • Have you considered mortuary records?
  • What was the religious affiliation of your ancestors?
The list could go on and on. The last question I listed, about religious affiliation, is one that indicates best the attitude of the researcher. I am not talking about people who are just beginning to do genealogical research. I am talking about people who are not open to suggestions that they will have more success if they take the time and make the effort to search beyond the obvious census and civil registration records. Of course, I am also pretty much aware that these same people will probably never read a genealogy blog. 

So what is the definition of a genealogically significant document? My answer is that a genealogically significant document can be any document that was created during the lifetime of the ancestor and has any possible connection to the place where the ancestor lived without consideration as to the category of document. Until you understand the social, political and cultural context of your ancestors' lives, you will not be able to identify genealogically significant documents. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What do Siri, Google Home, Amazon Echo and Alexa have to with Genealogy?

The answer to the question posed in the title of this post is simply this: almost nothing! I have recently written about my long involvement with voice recognition or VR software and since my latest return to using this software, I continue to be impressed with the improvements in the software's accuracy and utility. However, VR software, such as Dragon Dictate on my Apple devices, is not the same as the voice command devices listed in the title to this post.

Genealogy is a highly involved and complex pursuit involving intense research into historical documents. Part of the research process involves documenting and recording our discoveries. Some genealogists also spend a great deal of time teaching, writing and presenting online and in person. These activities could be done with a piece of paper and pencil, but over the years most writers have moved first to typewriters and then to computers. When I first started practicing law, my father, who was also an attorney, wrote everything out by hand on sheets of yellow paper. When my father retired from the practice of law after nearly fifty years of active practice, he was still writing almost everything he did on yellow sheets of paper with a pencil. When I started, I used voice dictation equipment. I would speak into the dictation machine, actually a specialized voice recording device, and then an assistant (used to be called a secretary) would transcribe the tapes by typing out the words. Then I would review the transcription and make changes and then it would be retyped, sometimes several times. If copies were needed we used carbon paper.

When I had been practicing law for a few years, technology began to develop in the form of expensive and rather massive "word processing" devices, such as the Wang Word Processor. Lawyers were not in the forefront of those adopting new technology. But I was fascinated by the possibility that I could speed up the process of producing written documents. This could turn into a long story. To summarize, I tried every level of word processing program that developed. I tried to get the other attorneys around me to change and finally, after nearly thirty years of practicing law, many attorneys had started to use computers in their document processing activities, but most relied on their legal assistants and were still dictating documents.

Now, fast forwarding to today, I write even more than I did during my law practice and I am still looking for ways to be faster and more productive. Voice recognition software has the promise of achieving more productivity and greater speed, but it is still, even with the advances, more like a cranky and willful child than an experienced assistant. Right now, for example, I am using my keyboard to type this post. Why aren't I using voice recognition? Because I have a cold and cannot talk. Hmm. There seems to be something missing here with the whole technology advancing aspect of our modern world.

Now, what about voice controlled devices? Obviously, they are a boon to those with limited mobility. But don't mistake these devices for advances in productivity. They are billed as convenience devices. My experience with Apple's Siri is an example of why these devices do not assist me as a genealogical researcher. The Siri program simply cannot do anything I need done. I do know a lot of people who use voice command devices regularly. I just don't happen to see the need. I can turn on lights with a switch and not have to think about the process. I do not want my devices talking to me and distracting me from my work. I have enough interruptions as it is.

In analyzing the whole development of voice controlled devices, I am reminded of the time when the more affluent members of our society had human servants. As genealogists, we are reminded of this every time we discover a family on a census record with one or more seemingly unrelated family members who are sometimes identified as servants or farm laborers. I come from a more independent background. I would rather do for myself. The main reason I like computers and the internet is that they actually do something productive, not just something convenient. They are tools that extend my own capabilities.

To illustrate what I mean, I would refer you to the complete list of Amazon's Alexa commands. See "The complete list of Alexa command so far." If you look at what this "amazing" device can do, the commands fall into several categories: turning off and on music or media, telling you the time and date, recording lists, turning on news and weather, finding restaurants or simple questions about music, doing simple math, asking about sports, ordering from Amazon.

Now, if you want to spend thousands of dollars, you can also have these devices connected to even more "smart" devices and run the lights, heating and cooling and other parts of your home.

Guess what? None of those things help me to do anything I need done. Not one of those things help me with my genealogical research, in fact, they are mostly a distraction. So, when I am writing and talking about voice recognition software, I do not include voice controlled devices. As an experiment to illustrate my point, ask Siri or Alexa to open your genealogy program and search for your great-grandfather.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

New York State Archives for Genealogists: Access to the Archives

Considering the amount of digital material that is appearing online, if you are contemplating visiting any archive, including the New York State Archives, it is a very good idea to do all your homework online in advance of your visit. It can be very disappointing to arrive at the archive and find out that the records you need have been digitized and made available online and the originals copies are no longer available for examination. This can happen because of the fragile condition of the original documents. Fortunately, many of the archives around the world are making their collections available online. But there are still very substantial numbers of documents that are unique and only available for inspection by an onsite visit.

If you finally decide that a physical visit to the archive is necessary, make sure you fully understand whatever rules pertain to your visit and which records you would be allowed to copy and which records would not be available except through obtaining special permission. New York State Archives has its own Research Room Rules as do all of the other record repositories in the world. It is heartbreaking to arrive at the entrance to the archive and find that it is closed for some local event or holiday.

In many cases with archives and university and college special collections libraries, the shelves holding the material are "closed" meaning you have to request access to each item you wish to examine and wait while an archive employee retrieves the items. Many times, you will be required to examine the items in an enclosed area called a "reading room" or similar title such as a research room. Access to the reading room or research room and the items you can take with you into these facilities are regulated.  Just for an example, here are the items which are permitted and not permitted in the New York Archives Research Room.
B. Items Permitted and Not Permitted in Research Room 
Researchers may have the following items in the Research Room: 
pencils (provided)
loose blank paper (available on request)
notecards and notes
spiral notebooks (without pockets) [microforms area only]
folders (without pockets)
laptop computer (without case)
hand-held cameras (without case)
magnifying glass (available on request) 
The following items are not permitted in the Research Room: 
three-ring binders
folders and spiral notebooks with pockets
mechanical pencils
computer and camera cases
briefcases and suitcases
handbags and pocketbooks
backpacks and fanny packs
food and drink 
Reasonable accommodation. A researcher may ask staff about arranging for a reasonable accommodation for a medical need.
With these types of rules, some of the archives provide lockers to store personal items while accessing the reading rooms or research rooms.

More importantly, access to some or all of the collections in an archive may be limited to accredited researchers. In some cases, access is limited to those who have pre-registered and allowed access. From this fact alone, you can see that planning your visit is absolutely necessary.

All of these rules are a good incentive to make sure the items you need are not already available somewhere online.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Guide to New York State Genealogy Resources Online -- Part Three

Based on population, New York is the fourth largest state in the United States. However, it still has a population greater than many of the world's countries. Its population would make it the 59th most populous country in the world if it were ranked as a country. Just for interest sake, the other three states with larger populations, in order, are California, Texas, and Florida.

If you also consider its historically strategic location on the North American continent, you can understand why it is a topic of interest to many genealogists, especially those in the United States. I have selected three general categories of records out of the thousands that exist to illustrate the types of records you can find online. For example, alone has over 10,000 different collections
of records that pertain to New York State. Here is a sample of some of the online records.

I list cemeteries as first in importance because so many people have lived and therefore died in the state over the years. Of course, you should always check the huge cemetery database programs, but here is a list of those plus a few more dedicated to New York State.
Census Records
Previously mentioned the New York State Census records that are available from 1825, every ten years to 1875 and then again in 1892, 1905, 1915 and 1925. Both and have the state censuses from 1855 onward. The earlier state census records are available from the website of the New York State Library on a web page entitled, "Census - New York State."

There are also some county censuses available as follows:
Genealogists generally use the term "vital records" to mean birth, marriage and death records. However, many other types of records are often included in that broad category. For this reason, some of the online websites with genealogically important records have started creating a category for only "birth, marriage and death" records. The remaining records that have been included in the broad category of vital records are now usually found categorized as court records. In some cases you will also see the following:
  • Birth Records include both baptism and christening records that are usually church records
  • Marriage Records also include divorce records
  • Death Records include burial, cemetery, and obituary records
These types of records can be found scattered online in websites from digital newspaper websites to local genealogy society websites. This is an area of genealogy that defies generalizations. In every case, you are looking for a specific record. For some assistance, you can see the Research Wiki article entitled, "How to Find United States Birth Records." There are similar articles on the other components of the vital records category. For a more general starting point, you can also begin with United States Genealogy in the Research Wiki. Here are a few of the websites with lists of New York State online websites excluding the large websites such as and

The first post in this series can be found here:

Sunday, March 19, 2017

New York Public Library Online -- Part Three: Genealogy Resources

There are a significant number of digital, online records available for genealogical research at the New York public library. Here is a description of the collections:
The Milstein Division of United States History, Local History & Genealogy is one of the largest genealogical collections free and open to the public. Following is a selective list of resources, with an emphasis on New York City. Unless noted, all sources are located in the Milstein Division (Room 121). Many of the microform titles are self-service in the Milstein Microform Reading Room 119.
As with many of the major libraries in the United States, their online digital resources are available primarily only to patrons who are physically present in the library. In some cases, remote access can be obtained by having a library card or paying an extra fee. It is important to review the list of resources because it may well be that many of them are available either in your local library or in a Family History Center.

Searching the catalog for items of interest may be beneficial in making a decision as to whether to travel to the library for on-site research. As is the case here with the New York Public Library, some of the databases listed are subscription-based and free access is granted for searches made within the library itself. As a comparison, there are only a few items listed on the New York Public Library website that are not also available through the Brigham Young University Family History Library in Provo, Utah. However, from a researcher's standpoint, the items that are not generally available may be worth a trip to the library.

The Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History, and Genealogy collection is described as follows:
The Milstein Division's book and serial collections are supplemented by materials in other formats. Visual resources include photographic and negative collections, primarily of New York City views, and over 100,000 postcards documenting United States local views. A local history ephemera collection of provides primary study materials for the cultural, social, and religious history of the United States. The Milstein Division also collects political campaign ephemera, including broadsides, and pamphlets. Vertical files and genealogical charts further enhance the holdings of The Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy.
When confronted with a description like this, the genealogical researcher may feel like he or she is going on a fishing trip without knowing whether or not the fish are in the lake.

The NPL also has over 300,000 e-books and audiobooks available to library cardholders. Genealogists are not being discriminated against. Every library in the United States has some restriction on access by the general public. Most Access restrictions focus on property ownership within the area served by the library. In addition, many other libraries such as the NPL, require residency in the state of New York but in order to obtain a license or library card, you must live, work, attend school or pay property tax in New York State.

Here are the first parts of this series:

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Guide to New York State Genealogy Resources Online -- Part Two

Have you noticed that the vast majority of the disaster and monster movies focus on New York City? For genealogists who like to watch those kinds of movies, this highlights the importance of the records found in the Empire State. The first European land claim to the area that is now New York State came in 1609 from Dutch explorers. In 1626, the Dutch "bought" the island of Manhattan from some Native Americans. Stories from this time period focus on the low price paid for the land, but there are also speculations that the Natives did not "own" the land in the first place and so the transaction set the stage for the long history of land speculation and commerce in the area. England eventually pushed the Dutch out and renamed the land, New York after the Duke of York who later became King James II and VII. See Wikipedia: History of New York. has 50 collections of free records from New York State going back to land records as early as 1630 and probate records beginning in 1629.

One definite benefit to genealogists is the existence of New York State Census records beginning in 1825 and continuing in 1835, 1845, 1855, 1865, 1875, 1892, 1905, 1915 and 1925. These are particularly significant because of the loss of 1890 U.S. Federal Census records.

The vast New York Public Library has a huge and important collection of genealogical records. See Genealogical Research at The New York Public Library.

A convenient list of New York counties and a summary of their genealogical records in on the New Horizons Genealogy website's "Search Free New York Genealogy Records Online." Repeated Google searches for New York genealogy records will produce listings to hundreds of useful websites. It is highly unlikely that any one researcher could do an exhaustive search of all of the records in New York State even those that are available online.

For many researchers, the immigration records from locations in New York are extremely valuable. From 1820 to the opening of Ellis Island in 1892, approximately 11 million immigrants came through Castle Garden on the tip of Manhattan Island now known as Castle Clinton National Monument. The free website has a searchable database of these 11 million immigrants.

Castle Garden was replaced as the immigration processing center by the opening of Ellis Island in 1892. A searchable database of approximately 52 million passenger records is maintained by The Statute of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation Inc. However, researchers should be aware that many other ports of entry existed in the United States and searching immigration and passenger lists can sometimes require some rather extensive genealogical detective work. For example, one of my own immigrant families entered the United States in Passamaquoddy, Maine.

One unusual and interesting website is the Old Fulton NY Post Cards website with over 37 million pages of historical newspapers from the U.S. and Canada, including New York State. Although this website is rather strange, it is useful.

To be continued

The first post in this series can be found here: