Archive for February, 2010

52 Weeks to Better Genealogy Challenge #7: Google Maps

Friday, February 19th, 2010

worcester_ma_google_maps1Amy Coffin of the We Tree blog invites us to explore Google Maps as a genealogy tool this week.

After searching in vain for my grandparents’ old house in Erie, Pennsylvania, and staring for a while at the office building that now stands where I lived as a kindergartner in Menlo Park, California, I ended up focusing on Worcester, Massachusetts, where Walter F. Knapp and his eventual widow Rosamond Guilford lived for decades.

Following the Knapp Family Through the Census

On June 5th of 1900, Walter and Rosamond Knapp were enumerated with their daughter Gladys at 32 1/2 John Street, shown on the map with the red push-pin.

On 23 April 1910, four years after Walter’s death, Rosamond and her two children Gladys and Kenneth were shown in the census living at 2 Ashton Street, tagged with a green thumbtack.

On 3 January 1920, Rosamond, Gladys, Kenneth and two boarders appear in the census living on 88 Florence Street, a ways south of their previous two homes, shown with the yellow thumbtack on the map.

By the 1930 census, Rosamond was living with Gladys and her husband Joseph W. Dennis on 12 Belvidere Avenue near Burncoat Park.

Thirty years in the same city. Amazing. The longest I’ve lived anywhere is ten years.

Lessons Learned

I really enjoyed this exercise. This is the first time I’d paid much serious attention to the street addresses in the first column of the various census records. Seeing Rosamond and her children move back and forth across Worcester added to my understanding of their experiences, but it also opened several new potential avenues of research:

  • Walter’s death certificate says he died at 4 Holt Avenue in Worcester. Was that yet another Knapp family residence, or a hospital?
  • Rosamond died in 1942 in Westfield, New Jersey. What brought her there? Did Gladys and her husband move to New Jersey and take Rosamond with them?

Amy’s challenge has definitely motivated me to make better use of Google Maps, to pay attention to street address info in records I uncover, and to do a better job of tying key events in my ancestors’ lives to the places where they lived. Thanks Amy!

A Non-Genealogy Aside

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Molex lensed MT in MTP cableI’m in Guadalajara Mexico tonight on a business trip for my day job as an optical design engineer. I opened up my e-mail this evening to learn that a good friend from our Church congregation is to undergo surgery tomorrow. I called her on the phone and sensed she was calm and confident about the procedure. It turns out the surgeon will use a robotic telesurgery system named after a justifiably famous artist.

I couldn’t restrain myself from mentioning that I had played an extremely small part in designing the molded polymer lenses used in the optical connector for the video transmission cable that connects the remote console with the robotic surgery unit in the system my friend’s surgeon will use.

Kinda cool. Now I have one more reason to pray for the surgeon’s success.

Tombstone Tuesday: Richard and Jane Owens

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Richard and Jane Owens
In 1841, Richard Owens, a weaver, and his wife Jane, a yarn spinner, lived in Newtown, Montgomery, Wales but sometime between the birth of my 2nd great grandfather, John B. Owens in March 1846 in Wales and the birth of his sister, Susan M. Owens in December 1849 in the United States, the family settled in Oriskany, Oneida, New York.

The 1850 census shows John as a factory watch who could neither read nor write. Three years later he died leaving Jane with four children under the age of 15 and in the 1855 Whitestown, Oneida, New York census Jane has taken in a boarder and is supporting her family as a washwoman.

A letter I found some years ago in a file at the Oneida County Surrogate’s Court led me to believe Richard was killed in a railroad-related accident and that Jane may have received money from a railroad company related to Richard’s death but I haven’t investigated it further.

The Owens stone is large, clearly not something the family could have purchased at the time of Richard’s death. Perhaps their children placed it in the cemetery after their mother died.

Genealogy Lookups 101 — New Genlighten Presentation at

Monday, February 15th, 2010

genealogy_lookups_101_presentation_on_slideshareI’ll be giving two presentations at the upcoming South Davis Family History Fair on March 6th in Bountiful, Utah. One will be an updated version of a talk I gave at last year’s SDFHF: “Twitter: Can It Really Help Me With My Genealogy?” The other will be a newly-developed introduction to Genlighten for potential lookup providers: “Genealogy Lookups 101“.

I just uploaded a draft of the “Genealogy Lookups 101″ slides to our account on I’d be grateful if you’d take a look and offer any feedback you might have so I can improve it prior to the Fair.

Lots of Slides, But Very Little Text

Please don’t be put off by the number of slides — 137 in all. There’s almost no text on the pages… they’re basically just simple images with brief captions, for the most part — so you can page through it quite quickly.

I’m particularly interested in your impressions of how the talk flows, and if the images I chose seem like a good match to the headline text. But I also hope the presentation piques your interest in becoming one of our lookup providers, and any feedback along those lines would be very welcome too. Thanks for your help!

52 Weeks to Better Genealogy — Challenge #6: Online Databases at the WPL

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Amy’s sending us back to our local public library this week for 52WtBG Challenge #6, but we get to visit it virtually this time. That’s good, since I’m already two days late with this.

Online Genealogy Databases

The WPL has Ancestry Library Edition, but you can’t use it remotely — only at the library itself.

Here are the online databases I can access at home with my library card number via the Wilmette Public Library’s website:

With no need to enter my library card number, I can also access some hand-built newspaper indexes of local interest, including:

A vanity search of our son’s name in the Wilmette Life index yielded 23 entries, including an article for each musical performance he participated in at New Trier High School.

There’s still plenty more for me to explore here… though these resources might not be of great help in my own research yet, it’ll be nice to be able to share them with patrons at the Wilmette Family History Center when they come in asking. We’re hoping that the current run of genealogy-focused television shows bring us some new first-timers over the next few months.

Surname Saturday: Kissel/Kissell

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

peter_kissell_obitHere’s what I’ve been able to learn so far about my KISSEL/KISSELL ancestors.

1. Dean Richardson

2. David Richardson, born 17 Nov 1935 in Erie, Erie County, PA; died 16 Oct 1998 in Stanford, Santa Clara County, CA.

3. Margaret Jourdan / Jordan, born 01 June 1903 in Erie, Erie County, PA; died 25 January 1982 in Erie, Erie County, PA.

4. Amelia Kissel / Kissell, born 28 Aug 1867 in Theresa, Jefferson County, NY; died 09 Sep 1929 in Erie, Erie, PA.

5. Johann Peter Kissel, born 24 Mar 1832 in Gross Umstadt, Hessen, Germany; died 02 Apr 1911 in Theresa, Jefferson County, NY.

6. Johann Peter Kissel

The obituary shown to the right is from the Watertown Daily Times and was retrieved from the marvelous site. Unfortunately, no publication date was legible on the image.

It’s a little troubling that Amelia Kissel is mentioned in the obituary as having “married a Kissel.” Our best information points to Amelia having only married once, and to Friedrich Jourdan, not to a Mr. Kissel.

Note that the surname shows up in both the KISSEL and KISSELL forms in the same obituary.

If you have any Kissel or Kissell relatives and you think you may be connected to mine in some fashion, please let me know. Thank you!

Footnote, FamilySearch and the Power of APIs

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

fs_api_diagramI had the chance to visit with leaders of two of the most influential players in the online genealogy market today, and I was struck by the completely different attitudes they each take toward APIs. FamilySearch has at least four distinct APIs that I know about, including ones for:

  • Family tree data
  • “Authorities” (standardized dates, places, and names)
  • “Record Search” bibligraphic metadata
  • “Research Wiki” page content

Footnote, by comparison, doesn’t have any (that they’ve made public, at least.)

API => Startup; No API => Old-media dinosaur

At first glance, this seems backward and counter-intuitive. APIs tend to be the preferred mode of growth and communication used by successful startups like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. By granting access to their data in a format that can readily be consumed by other services, these companies create platforms on which others can build — entrepreneurial ecosystems that nourish other startups (think Facebook or Twitter application developers) — and generate income by applying ad-based monetization approaches or revenue-sharing arrangements.

So-called old-media “dinosaurs” like the New York Times and News Corporation, on the other hand, have tended to throw up paywalls and to resist calls to make their content available via APIs. For them, the mantra of the free content movement: “information wants to be free” has been an anathema to be fought with all the weapons at their disposal.

Before today, I would have tended to tag FamilySearch with the “old media dinosaur” label while filing Footnote under the “startups that get new media” category. So it should be Footnote touting its APIs to the developer community, while FamilySearch stays closed and protective of its data. But instead it’s the reverse. What’s going on here?

False Dichotomies and “New” Old Media

What’s going on here is that both print and online media are undergoing a period of radical disruption, in which old assumptions are overturned or abandoned and previously valid dichotomies are rendered false, or useless, or both.

Prime example: the New York Times has introduced its own set of APIs, while simultaneously rolling out a new consumption-limiting paywall.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that genealogy “content providers” are grappling with the same issues and evolving their business models in response.

Business Model Differences Shape Policies Towards Content

One obvious explanation for FamilySearch’s API-centric strategy lies in its non-profit status. As a Church-sponsored entity whose mission is to facilitate and accelerate genealogy (and temple) work throughout the world, it would be self-defeating if FamilySearch treated its content as scarce and proprietary. Footnote, on the other hand, relies on a subscription model that can only succeed if the majority of their most desirable content is kept behind a paywall. [As a small, nimble startup, Footnote is also constrained in how much development in can do with its scarce resources -- robust APIs are not easy or cheap to develop and maintain.]

Consider the Possibilities

But what if Footnote (or Ancestry for that matter) tried to become more of a research platform and less of a “walled garden” of content? In a prescient 2008 essay, VC Fred Wilson makes this prediction about the promise of “Content” APIs:

Content is data, but it’s a bit different. Content is unstructured data with the benefits of a lot of context, semantics, relationships. Once the vast databases of content that exist inside the big media companies start becoming available via APIs, we can start to do some amazing things.

What kind of “amazing things” could for-profit “big media” genealogy companies do if they opened the spigots on their content using APIs? And if they did so, could they still make enough money to continue to fund the record digitization efforts that have so greatly benefited genealogists? I believe they can.

A Modest Proposal

I haven’t fully baked this idea yet, but I’m going to toss it out there anyway. I propose that genealogy content providers develop a two-tier model. The first tier would include popular, entry-level content such as the crucial censuses, family tree data and “Google Books”-type content such as published family histories, county histories, and the like. This data would be offered for free, but with an “as is” consumer-beware caveat regarding the accuracy and reliability of the facts and details included.

The second tier would include vital records, church records, land records and other more “primary” source material, including (naturally, since this is the Genlighten blog) offline documents. These records would be accompanied by some sort of “provenance”, perhaps tied to the reputation of the researcher who had uncovered them or the repository that held them. That reputation would be dynamically determined by a combination of authoritative genealogy luminaries and the crowdsourced ratings of clients and users. Those interested in such records would be asked to pay for:

  • Indexed online access
  • Record provenance, detailed source citation information and a community-determined “reliability score”
  • On-demand retrieval, digitization, transcription and/or translation of records not yet available online, particularly “long tail” records
  • The help of skilled and experienced researchers in interpreting the records and acting on their implications

Both sets of records would be made available via APIs, but the second-tier data would have a monetization mechanism attached,  allowing content providers, researchers and digitizers to be compensated for the value they added.

A Starting Point

I hope to develop these ideas further, and I’d appreciate your help in doing so. I know there are plenty of smart people in the genealogy community who are already pondering these issues (Thomas MacEntee, for one) and I’d love to hear from as many of you as possible.

Thanks to Gordon Clarke and his FSDN team members, and to Justin Schroepfer at Footnote, for meeting with me today and stimulating my thought processes.

35 States and Counting…

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Checking our current lookup offerings for a presentation I’ll be giving tomorrow, I find that we have providers offering lookups for 35 states plus the District of Columbia. Here’s a list of states for which we still don’t offer any lookups:no_lookups_found_result_screen

  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Wyoming

I’d love to see a few of these states on the “Yes, we offer lookups there” list soon. How about it? Texas? Pennsylvania? Arkansas? Iowa? I know you’re out there! Let’s banish the “No Results Found” label from Genlighten as soon as possible.

Live Near the Family History Library? Come Have Dessert On Us!

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

I’ll be visiting the Salt Lake area to talk over partnership and collaboration possibilities with several Utah genealogy companies this Thursday and Friday. I’d love to meet readers of this blog while I’m in town, so I’ve scheduled a Genlighten meetup both Thursday and Friday nights. If you’re in the area, please stop in. I’ll answer any questions you have about the site, becoming a provider, whatever you’d like. I’ll even spring for dessert!

Here are the details:

Thursday, February 11thKneaders Bakery in Midvale, Utah

Kneaders Bakery

742 East Ft. Union Blvd.
Midvale, Utah
Time: 7-9 pm
RSVP on Facebook here

Friday February 12thTrio Cafe in SLC

Trio Cafe

680 S 900 E
Salt Lake City, Utah
Time: 7-9 pm
RSVP on Facebook here

Wordless Wednesday: Happy Valentine’s Day!

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

I think my grandmother, Helen Gertrude Bielby Coyne, must have saved this valentine for sentimental reasons, but I’m not sure what they were.

I found it in a box of her family pictures back in 1996 and I think I would have photographed the back, too, if there had been something written there. My grandmother was born 15 March 1909 in Oneida County, New York and she died in 1985.

I wonder when this style of card was in use?