Saturday, January 21, 2017

Week 1 of the FutureLearn Genealogy MOOC & Crowdsourcing Projects

This past Monday, January 16, 2017, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) I am  taking through began. The course is called "Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree" and it is being taught by the University of Stathclyde in Strathclyde, Scotland. 

Week 1 was subtitled "Analyzing Documents" and it covered the very basics of genealogy such as what is genealogy vs. family history, and terms such as abstracting, indexing, and transcribing.

How it works is that the "week" consisted of 21 parts. Each part was there was a page of reading or a short video. When you completed the reading you checked it as complete and it moved to the next part. In total, the 21 parts took me about an hour and 20 minutes. Not a lot of work really. At the end of some parts there were discussion questions that you had to respond to in order to move to the next part. At the end of the whole unit there was a quiz that consisted of 5 multiple choice questions. You weren't really being graded on this quiz. It was more like a self-test to see if you absorbed the information given in the previous parts. If you answered a question wrong you could try again as many times as necessary.

The final reflection question inquired as to if my existing views on the topics covered had been confirmed or contradicted and if anything presented in the course surprised me. Thus far, no, nothing has surprised me really. I commented on the fact that they didn't introduce the term "crowdsourcing" even though they did cover the concept. In part 15 they covered how transcripts, abstracts and indexes are created by discussing how the company Scottish Indexes works. One of the ways they accomplish large indexing and transcription projects are through the use of volunteers.

Merriam-Webster defines crowdsourcing as the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees.

This is how the 1940 U.S. Federal Census was indexed; through the use of volunteers online. In about 4 months approximately 200,000 volunteers transcribe the over 132 million names included on the 1940 census. Powerful stuff. People wanted to be part of the project. And there are lots of crowdsourcing projects you could be involved in too. For example, New York Public Library (NYPL) has several on-going projects you can get involved with online such as Emigrant City, Building Inspector, Community Oral History Project, Direct Me: NYC 1940, Ensemble, and my personal favorite, What's on the Menu. They are all crowdsourcing projects being managed by the NYPL Labs.

  • Emigrant City: Created by the Milstein Division of  US History, Local History, & Genealogy this project invited the public to help transcribe 19th and early 20th century real estate records from the Emigrant Savings Bank.
  • Building Inspector: Created with the Map Division is improving data presented in New York City Insurance maps. The public can help to do some quality control or data created by computers reading these maps. You can go in and inspect to make sure building shaped and other key information on the original maps has been property recorded. It is way more addictive then my description suggest.
  • Community Oral History Project: The NYPL Labs presents audio from interviews recorded in areas such as Greenwich Village and Harlem and you can help to transcribe the local stories.
  • Direct Me NYC: 1940: This was a project done to support the 2012 release of the 1940 census. The Milstein Division digitized five New York City phone directories which helped to convert New York City street addresses into census Enumeration Districts (ED) which are the smallest units of organization in the census.
  • Ensemble: Is another transcription project. This time focused on a massive collection of theatrical playbills held by the Billy Rose Theatre Division on NYPL. This project aims to produce a linked data set of historical performances, characters, actors, and writers. 
  • What's on the Menu?: In this project you can help to transcribe part of the world's largest collection of restaurant menus. It has been difficult to extract this data using just computers due to handwriting, fancy typography, and idiosyncratic layouts. Here you transcribe the names and prices of all sort of fancy dishes served up at a huge variety of restaurants that no longer exist. You can see how the tastes and appetites of your ancestors differs from your own by seeing what they might have ordered off the menu of their local watering hole.

You can get involved in anyone of these projects and more just check out the NYPL's Labs at to find out more.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

If You Are Going to Have Your AncestryDNA Done, Put Up A Tree!

Yesterday I read an article on Yahoo News,, about how AncestryDNA now has more than 3 million users. Yes, 3 million. During the 2016 Thanksgiving weekend alone they sold more than 560,000 test kits. That's a lot of spit, people!

I thought it was time for me to revisit my AncestryDNA matches. They are the people who, like myself, took the DNA test and we match; meaning we have some common ancestor. At present I have about 7,950 people who I match with to varying degrees. Yes, close to 8,000. And yes, we really are related. Yes, that is what a DNA match means. 

115 of my matches are 4th cousins or closer. 50 of them I have shared hints with. That means I have someone in the family tree I built that is also in the family tree they built. Likely, that person is our common ancestor. That feature only works, though, if you build a family tree and link it to your DNA results. It is overwhelming how few people both to put up a tree. Of those 115 close cousins, 45 do not have their DNA linked to a family tree. I suppose they just are curious about their ethnic profile but it doesn't help researchers if you don't put up at least a partial family tree. And quite honestly, you don't have to put up an extensive tree if you want to figure out how you match to a 4th cousin. Fourth cousins have great-great-great grandparents in common. To give you an idea of how far back that is, my 3rd great grandparents were mostly all born in the first half of the 1800s.

AncestryDNA kindly marks new matches. Thus when I went into my bank of matches I was able to see who among my 4th cousins or higher whose trees I had not looked at before. 

One new cousin had a tree up that showed back to her great grandparents. Her most paternal great grandfather had a surname that I recognized as a brother-in-law to my most paternal great grandfather. She didn't have a maiden name listed for her great grandmother, just Elizabeth. I knew right away though that Elizabeth had to be Elizabeth Earle; the sister to my great grandfather Abram Earle. Abram and Elizabeth were two of seven children born to Abraham Earle and Sarah Samms-Earle-Bromley of Twillingate, Newfoundland. 

Two years ago I went to Newfoundland and visited where my great grandfather was born. I visited the grave of his mother Sarah. I also ventured across the province to Norris Point to see where Sarah was raised and lived before she married Abraham in May of 1875 and moved to Twillingate.

I immediately emailed this cousin through Ancestry to let her know that I could share so much about the Earle family history. Cousin Sherrie emailed back to let me know that she had been adopted and this was "super cool" to connect with biological cousins. 

If she had just taken the test and never put up a tree I would not have been able to see how we are connected and I would never have reached out to her. She might have known her ethnic make up but she might not ever have figured out she was an Earle; just like me.

If you have taken an AncestryDNA test and haven't put up a tree, contact me. I'll help you. If you don't put up a tree I'm just going to shake my head in disgrace at you. Link your DNA to a tree!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Review of "The Stranger in My Genes" by Bill Griffeth

For Christmas I received a new book from my Godmother Jody. It was a title I requested; one that made my inner adolescent giggle. "Hee hee hee. A Stranger in my Jeans? Hee hee hee." But really it's a quite serious topic and one that I have sort of encountered in working with others researching their family history.

Bill Griffeth is a news anchor on CNBC's financial news program, Closing Bell. In his personal life, Griffeth is a genealogy enthusiast. He has seriously researched his family history for a long time. As many of you know, DNA testing is a new tool in the genealogist's toolkit. It helps to restore lost connections between other cousins researching family history.

In the past I have blogged about how my DNA test helped me to learn the maiden name of my 3rd great-grandmother, Mary Carillion-Henry. You can read that post called Spelling and Genetic here

In recent months, though, I have been working with a woman who is now in her 70s and just learned through a dying aunt that who she thought was her biological father was not. That is enough of a revelation to deal with but in Bill Griffeth's case he learn through a standard genealogy DNA test that who the man he knew as his biological father could not have been.

Griffeth never saw it coming. He had invested years in researching his Griffeth family history. Was this his family anymore? That question results in an entire exploration of how one defines family and the difference between genealogy and family history but I digress...

When Bill's cousin contacted him with the jarring news, the first reaction of everyone he shared the news with was complete disbelief. The first conclusion was that it had to be an error in the testing. His saintly mother could have never strayed from the man that Bill had never questioned was his father. Had his family been hiding this secret from him his whole life? How was he going to confront his elderly mother about this?

Griffeth explores all these questions and all the associated emotions that come with such a discovery.

I have gifted close to a dozen DNA testing kits to friends and cousins in the last few years and never have I every thought that perhaps I should prepare myself to confront such an issue but obviously it happens. In the 100 or so clients I have worked with through my part-time job as a genealogy librarian, many have come to me without any knowledge of their father, or mother for that matter. Several have been adoptees, orphans, or raised by a single parent. In one instance a client burst into tears when I found her uncle's Social Security Death Index record. I was taken aback by the emotional reaction. Despite that fact the man would have been close to 115 if he were alive, it hurt this 80 year old woman to hear her favorite uncle had died. Could you imagine if she had learned he wasn't her uncle?

If you are interested in the impact DNA testing could have one you or someone you love, read The Stranger in My Genes. I loved! I finished it in one day. And it brought to me an awareness of the emotional trials one might face in exploring their own genealogical truth.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Genealogy Goals for 2017

Happy New Year! 

Yes, beginning a new year brings a sense of renewal and hopefulness with all things possibly laid before us. Doesn't it?

Although, working in academia results in a strange sense of time. Life is lived in semesters. And to me, the year really begins in late August. So it is kind of like I have two new year's days every year; only one of which do I resign myself to pajamas though.

This past semester had me much busier than I had anticipated. Even though it was the first semester in a long time that I wasn't a student myself. I thought I would have more time to write but alas...

I took on more hours at my part-time job. Instead of doing just one 5-hour day doing one-on-one genealogy research with library patrons I tried doing two 4-hour days per month. I think it was quite successful and instead of just reaching 5 researchers I was able to meet with 8 people. I also took on several private clients which exposed me to a much wider variety of resources than I used in researching my own family history.

I would like to continue both my part-time gig and serving new private clients in the coming year. Additionally though, I am looking forward to teaching a genealogy course through my alma mater; that starts in June. 

Before then I have signed up to take a 6-week online course in genealogy through FutureLearn; an online service that offers a diverse selection of courses from universities from around the world. The courses they offer are free and often referred to as MOOCs; Massive Open Online Courses. This form of education has be a hot topic in academia for quite some time. So I am looking forward to giving it a try.

The class I am taking is called Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree. It starts January 16, 2017. It's asynchronous which means you don't have to be online at a specific time. The materials are delivered one step at a time. This particular course is being taught through the University of Strathclyde in Glascow, Scotland.

I'm taking it for two reasons really. One, I want to see how others teach this topic online and, two, I'm hoping it will teach me more about UK resources. 

If you are interested in joining me there is still time to register - - And again, it is FREE.

In any case, it is my hope that this year I can spread my love for genealogy research to even more people whether they are relatives of mine or just other researchers. Whether you are just getting started in genealogy research or have been at it awhile, I hope this is the year you dig up some dirt on your own ancestors.

Happy New Year!!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Call for Genealogy Assignments

I feel like I start every entry with this statement but...

It has been so long since I have posted anything here. 

And here we are in the middle of Family History Month. I've got to write something...

...So I will give you just a little update on what I have been up to.

Often when I am absent from posting it means I am knee deep in family research; if not my own then someone else's.

I really am enjoying working with patrons out at the Mastic-Moriches-Shirley Community Library. I now go out there twice per month to work one-on-one with individuals researching their family history. I am surprised to see such a wide variety of individuals at this pursuit. I had this assumption that most of my patrons would be little old ladies...and some of them are but many of them are much younger than retirement age or have just recently retired. More than a handful have been younger than me. Additionally, I have a lot more male clients than I thought I would. 

In any case, they keep me on my toes and provide me the opportunity to explore resources that my own family history would not have led me to. 

Did you know Pennsylvania's death records on Ancestry? As are Alabama's...and Texas! Yeah, none of that applying to the state's Department of Health or sending in any identification. It's right there.

Anyway, all of this is helping me to prepare for a course I will be teaching this summer. Yup. I am slated to teach an online summer session course on Genealogical Resources through St. John's University. 

Since receiving notice of the opportunity I have been giving a lot of thought to how best to teach this type of research. I know how I learned. I worked on my own family history but it took a lot longer than 4 weeks...a lot longer.

I know I will be expecting my students to research their own family history using an array of online resources. In good conscience I can't grade anyone on their family tree as every family is different and not every individual left enough, quality resources. Nonetheless, they will have to learn how to fill in a family tree form, as well as family group sheets.

I think I am also going to have them watch and critique some of the popular genealogy based television shows as well as discuss the impact Roots had on family history research in this country.

Local history and resources related to specific ethnic groups play an important role in genealogy research as well. So I'd like to incorporate some aspect of that into my syllabus as well. Remember though, we only have 4 weeks.

Ultimately, I think I am going to have each student write a well documented biography on an ancestor. Ideally, I'd love to see each write a 3 or 4 generation family history narrative like those published in periodicals such as The New England Historical and Genealogical Register...but then again...we only have 4 weeks.

So if you have any ideas about resources, readings, discussions, or short activities that you think might help someone to learn how to find and use genealogical resources, I'd like to hear your ideas.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Keeping the Faith: Multi-Religions

This coming weekend my 5 month old niece is going to be baptized in the Catholic church. Now I am Catholic but my sister is not. Our mother is Catholic but my sister's father wasn't. We have different fathers. My dad is Catholic, though. Now my brother-in-law, the baby's father, he is Catholic too. And although my parents are both Catholic, neither of my grandfathers were. My paternal Grandpa eventually converted to Catholicism but maternal Grandpa never did. But then again, his father was a Catholic...but his great grandfather wasn't. 

:) Are you following any of this?

My point is simply to never assume that just because you are baptized in one faith that your ancestors were of the same denomination. The likelihood is that they were NOT all of the same faith. I truly think that in the past a family's particular brand of Christianity depended on the denomination of the church they could walk to. I'm really not kidding.

Just keep in mind while you are researching your family's history that all their baptismal records may not be in the same church...or synagogue. 

My grandma's brother-in-law is a priest. Her grand nephew...a rabbi. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review: Meet the Hitlers

I finally got the opportunity to watch the 2014 documentary, Meet the Hitlers. The film  examines the relationship between name and identity without much commentary. 

The director, Matthew Ogens, introduces the viewer to a variety of real life characters including several individuals with the name 'Hitler.' There is a man named Romano-Lukas Hitler, a European of some ilk who believes himself to be a relative of the Nazi leader. There is also an elderly gentleman, Gene Hitler, an American with no known connection to the infamous Adolph Hitler. One subject is a teenage girl who has the surname Hittler who explains that her peers do not react to the name quite the same way as grown-ups do. There is also the white supremacists from New Jersey who several years ago made the news for naming their son Adolph Hitler. Another subject is a name born in Ecuador named Hitler Gutierrez. Then there are those subjects who do not bear the name Hitler themselves but explore the image, identity, and ancestry of the Adolph Hitler. Their stories allow you to draw your own conclusions about name and identity.

Writer, David Gardner, is in pursuit of last known descendants of Adolph Hitler's half-brother. Gardner wrote the 2001 book, The Last of the Hitlers: The story of Adolf Hitler's British nephew and the amazing pact to make sure his genes die out. That British half-brother's child moved to America and settled in a town on Long Island called Patchogue; the same town some of my relatives settled in. This may not be surprising but the Hitlers changed their surname. The author protects the family's anonymity. My Patchogue relatives also changed their name. They changed it from Desjardins to Gardner; no known relation to the author introduced here though.

It is fascinating to see how each subject reacts to and connects with the name Hitler and how having such an infamous name affects them. It documents a wide variety of human responses; there are those who find it humorous, those who shrug it off as a mere coincidence of no consequence and take great pride in their ancestry, some subjects have a horrific admiration for the Nazi leader, and then others have buried their genetic relationship to infamous Hitler.

Two things struck me. One was when the director asked Gene Hitler why it was important to him to keep his name. why didn't he change it. Gene gave it some thought and said his name was important to him because his parents gave it to him.

The other moving moment for me was the ending. David Gardner, unable to interview the Hitlers of Patchoque, decided to interview a Holocaust survivor residing in Patchogue. At one point the author asks the man how he would feel knowing that descendants of Adolph Hitler live near him. The kindly Jewish man shrugs a bit and says that he does not hold the author responsible for the acts of his ancestors; these Hitlers of Patchogue are not responsible for the horrors their ancestor committed.

That is kind of the message I try to put across in this blog. 

I am the great granddaughter of a schizophrenic, a great-great granddaughter of a man who committed a murder-suicide, one of my 5th great grandfathers was a Colonel at the Battle of Saratoga which was the turning point of the American Revolution, and I'm a descendant of Charlemagne (supposedly, I can't document it just yet but aren't we all descendants of Charlemagne? We each have something like 131,072 15th great-grandparents.). 

Although I believe you should take pride in your existence and owe some reverence to those who came before you, I also do not think the sins of the father are the sins of the son. If you ask me, which I acknowledge you did not, those who wear their surname like a badge of honor ought to do something on their own to be proud of. Those people who came before you, those whose DNA you carry within your own cells, they were just people. Good. Bad. Ugly. And Beautiful.