Sunday, January 29, 2017

Week 2 of the FutureLearn Genealogy MOOC

This week the genealogy course I am taking online through FutureLearn focused issues with the spelling of names and wildcard searching. Both are topics I didn't consider focusing on much in the course I am preparing to teach online this summer. Of course I would have mentioned these aspects of genealogy research but I didn't consider spending much time on them at all. 

When I work with patrons at my part-time job as a genealogy librarian I always say that spelling never counts. There are many reasons why the spelling of a name might appear wrong in a record. I suppose sometimes the individual is lying to the government or hiding who they are but I think that is the least likely reason on them all. I think more often it is a human error in the indexing caused by poor penmanship of the past. For example, I just worked with a woman whose grandfather was indexed as "Mchlose" in the 1920 census. "Ooo, what kind of name is that?," she asked. When you open the image you can clearly see the swirly handwriting of the census taker and that grandpa's name was Nicholas, just as she always thought it was.

The course suggested that one way to combat spelling issues is to use wildcard searching. Wildcard searching is when a character, such as a * or !, replaces a letter or string of letters in a word.  That work sometimes. For example, I help my friend Ken with his family tree from time to time. He has the surname Caponetti in his family tree. I have seen some records show up as Capinetti, Caponelli, Caponeti. So I could do a search, depending on the database, for Cap* and pull back all sorts of records I might not otherwise have seen. That also pulls back every other name that starts with "Cap" though. So, eh, sometimes wildcard searches help, sometimes they are just as overwhelming. I still only plan to mention wildcard searching in my course though. 

This aspect of this week's course did shine light on the fact I was making the assumption that Library Science graduate students know how to do this type of searching and know when it is an appropriate time to do so. Maybe they don't/ I'll definitely mention it but I have no intention of spending that much time on it.

Now complete surname changes, though, can cause real issues for genealogists. In my own family history my great grandfather went from using the surname DesJardins to Gardner. If my grandpa hadn't told me that I might never have seen a record documenting that change. 

This past month I worked with another patron who came in with a nice Irish last name. However, his original family name wasn't even close to what his present surname is. It was very Russian...with a nice strong lankowicz at the end of it. This was revealed through his great grandfather's naturalization papers. 

It was very common for immigrants to Anglicize their last names. Very common. It wasn't the officials at Ellis Island that changed it either but we'll leave that myth for another day.

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!!