Archive for the ‘Genealogical Research Techniques’ Category

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.

52 Weeks to Better Genealogy Challenge #4: Inter-Library Loan

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

This week Amy Coffin asks us to:

Learn about your local public library’s inter-library loan (ILL) policy. Pick a genealogy-related book that you want to read that is not in your library’s collection. Ask the librarian how to request the book from another library.

I’m feeling a little lazy tonight (and it’s been about 15 degrees out every night this week here in Wilmette) so I decided to just fulfill this assignment online. The Wilmette Public Library website lets me scan both their local catalog and a broader selection of materials available at other Illinois libraries.

As mentioned in my previous 52WtBGC posts, the WPL — my local community library — has a good selection of popular genealogy how-to books and local resources that I haven’t even touched yet. But after a brief scan of the online catalog, I picked a book that looked like a good candidate to borrow via ILL: Elizabeth Powell Crowe’s Genealogy Online, eighth edition.


As you can see, lots of libraries near me have copies of this book on their shelves. I clicked on the “Place Hold” button to submit an ILL request. I then entered my wife’s library card number and password (mine wasn’t handy for some reason) and that was it. She’ll be notified via email when the book arrives.

As Amy mentions, ILL is a great way to expand the reach of the materials you can access from your local library. And it’s a lot cheaper than just ordering the books I want from Amazon, which unfortunately tends to be my default search strategy. Thanks, Amy, for helping me build some more frugal research habits!

Build Something For Yourself

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

I’m not a natural at networking. In fact, I find it pretty painful. But I know I need to do it, so I do. And sometimes it pays off.

Genlighten and “Getting Real”

jason_friedLast night I attended the Chicago Tech Meetup at OfficePort in Chicago. Jason Fried (of 37Signals fame) was the keynote speaker. Jason had plenty of cool stuff to say to the crowd of startup entrepreneurs, both the real ones (like Andrew Mason, founder of Groupon) and the simply aspirational (like me). Most of Jason’s advice was familiar to those in attendance who’d already read Getting Real, 37Signals’ manifesto on building a successful web application, or who follow Signal vs. Noise, their exemplary blog.

As Jason rattled off his key doctrines, I mentally checked off which of them Genlighten was adhering to:

  • Bootstrap… start building your product on the side while keeping your day job (check)
  • Charge for your product right away (check)
  • Don’t be afraid to hire non-local people and let them work remotely (check)
  • Don’t take VC money too early (check… though to be honest, we’ve never been offered any)

And then, in answer to an audience question, he said something like this:

Build something you would use yourself, whether or not anyone else ever does.

That one made me pause and ponder for a while. Does Genlighten fit that criterion? Jason was of course referring to Basecamp, the simple yet powerful project-management application that 37Signals built for itself before eventually selling it to others. But Genlighten isn’t like Basecamp.

The Chicken-Egg Problem

Here’s why. Basecamp was tremendously useful from day one. But Genlighten doesn’t start to be that useful until a certain amount of lookup providers sign up and offer their services. And to attract providers, we need clients, who in turn our unlikely to use the site if they don’t see lots of providers. That’s the Chicken-Egg problem. Or, putting a more optimistic spin on things, Genlighten gets better each time a new provider posts a new lookup offering. That’s an example of a Network Effect. Many startups have to climb this hill before they can really take off (think Facebook or Twitter) and we’re no exception.

Eating Our Own Dogfood

On the other hand, we do meet Jason’s criterion: Genlighten has already made my wife’s lookup business easier to manage, and we’ve both used Genlighten to further our own research. For example, we’ve ordered German translations from one of our providers, and Massachusetts death records from another. And with recently-joined providers now offering Maine and New York City lookups, we’ll be submitting more requests in the near future.

But sometimes, I find myself wishing I could just wave a magic wand and suddenly have providers for every county and country.

An Obituary for John Harper Reed

This brings me to this evening’s experience. I attended yet another startup-oriented meetup tonight, this one a casual get-together of Hacker News fans. As I made my way towards the long table set up for us in the back room at the Hop Haus in Chicago, I immediately recognized Harper Reed, the iconic former CTO of local startup success story Threadless. Harper is that rare web celebrity that lives up to his advance billing. I gratefully took a seat across the table from him.

We’ve talked briefly about Genlighten before, but this time Harper volunteered a query. Growing up, his parents had mentioned that he’d been named after an “uncle” from Colorado who had (so the story went) died in a car crash. Could Genlighten help him find out whether the story was true and how the two were really related?

As soon as I got home from the meetup, my wife and I went to work. A simple Ancestry search returned two Harper Reeds who died in Colorado. A USGenWeb site listed a John Harper Reed buried in an Evergreen cemetery in Colorado Springs, Colorado. To produce a quick happy dance, we’d need an obituary mentioning a car crash. The obvious sources did not immediately produce one online.

Could Genlighten help? Tonight, unfortunately, no. We don’t yet have any providers for Colorado. They’re out there, I’m sure, but we haven’t successfully recruited them yet.

You Can Help Us Leave Our “Chicken-and-Egg Problem” Behind

To fulfill Jason Fried’s mandate more completely, we’re going to have to work long and hard to build out our provider base. We’re trying to do that every single day. And we’d appreciate your help.

Please take a look at the states where we still have yet to recruit at least one provider. If you know someone in one of those states who knows their local records well, has the time and inclination to retrieve them, and is interested in getting paid to do so, please put them in contact with us. Especially if they can retrieve El Paso County Colorado obituaries. Thanks!

52 Weeks to Better Genealogy Challenge #3 — Assess Yourself

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Dean has a long day today and he asked if I’d like to take up Amy Coffin’s current “52 Weeks To Better Genealogy“ challenge and blog about it.

Assess yourself! You’re great at researching everyone else’s history, but how much of your own have you recorded? Do an assessment of your personal records and timeline events to ensure your own life is as well-documented as that of your ancestors.

I visited Geneabloggers, clicked through to a related post on Taylorstales-Genealogy blog  and was inspired by the idea of using timelines to document personal history. A number of years ago I created a date-focused Access database to help me wrap my mind around the complicated comings and goings of a family I was researching. This morning I thought, “Why not do the same thing for us?”

blog1Creating an Access Database

So here’s what I’ve done so far:

First, after a bit of trial and error, I created a database with the fields below. I may tweak them, but it’s a good start.

Month Name
Document Location

Entering Some Basic Timeline Events

I entered our marriage and the births of our two children and then I started to search out records that would have dated information for important family milestones. blog2Google Calendar was my first stop.

The entry for Monday, 21 January 2008 reads “7 pm First Fiddle Lesson.” I saved a screen shot as “tl-001” and entered the information into the database, along with a couple of sentences describing how the lesson went. I’ve been happily learning to fiddle for the past two years and so that anniversary is on my mind. <smile>

A Filing Brainstorm

Then I went to the garage and retrieved a box labeled “Family History.” It’s neatly organized, but who knows what’s there?

A folder labeled “U of A Graduation” caught my eye and so I pulled it out to have a look. I found my diploma, graduation announcements for both Dean and me, and a graduation program. I entered information from each record and then had to decide how to file the papers.

At first, I was going to put them back in the box, thinking that I could organize them later, but then I had a brainstorm driving home from the grocery store. I decided to create a folder for each year entered in the database and any record that isn’t part of our “Very Important Papers” notebook, I will file there.

(Quite a few years ago, we created a notebook titled “Very Important Papers” and we use it to keep track of birth certificates, immunization records, and the like, storing it in a very accessible place in case we needed to get to it in an emergency.)

A Simple System

Once I had a few records entered, I took some time to work on creating an attractive report. I’ll most likely edit it, but for now, it works. As an example, I did a query for our daughter Amelia and took a screen shot of the resulting report.

blog3It’s a simple system, but I think it might work for us. The challenge will be to find time each week to add things to the database.

Putting it Into Practice

Maybe I can work on it on Sundays when Dean is focused on organizing the genealogy-related papers that we’ve collected over the past thirty years.

I’ve always feel a bit of kinship with people whose date of immigration changes from census to census. If you knocked on my door and asked me to tell you what year we came to Illinois or which summer we lived in California, I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head and I’d have a hard time figuring it out.

Maybe it’s time to do something about that. Ask me in a month when we arrived in Wilmette and I’ll bet I’ll be able to tell you.

Follow Friday: ThinkGenealogy

Friday, January 8th, 2010

mark_tucker_web_avatar_cartoonI subscribe to about 30 or so genealogy blogs via RSS. They range from folksy/funny to serious-news-focused to technique/strategy-oriented. One I consistently enjoy is Mark Tucker’s ThinkGenealogy. His posts frequently address some of my favorite genealogy topics:

  • The genealogy research process, and the ways in which beginners can increase the seriousness of their efforts
  • The “Genealogical Proof Standard” and practical ways to follow it
  • “Evidence Explained”-style source citations (in a way that motivates me rather than makes me feel looked-down-upon)
  • Genealogy software innovation (including original ideas of his own and suggestions for the major genealogy software vendors)

And we seem to share a number of interests beyond genealogy:

  • Scouting (Mark has blogged about being a genealogy merit badge counselor; I enjoy doing this too)
  • Web design and user experience
  • Quality presentations (Mark introduced me to Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology, a book that has totally changed the way I prepare talks and Powerpoint decks at work, Church, and elsewhere)

He’ll also be a speaker at the upcoming Family History Expo in Mesa, Arizona. I haven’t yet experienced one of Mark’s talks in person, but I suspect his presentations will be refreshingly clear, entertaining and actionable.

If you haven’t visited Mark’s blog, I encourage you to do so. You’ll learn a lot, and you’ll come away motivated to improve the quality (and quantity!) of your genealogical research.

What’s Your Genealogical Superpower?

Friday, January 1st, 2010

Genealogy Superhero

At some point in our genealogical endeavors, we’ve probably all wished for some sort of superhuman enhancement to our research skills. If not the ability to leap brick walls in a single bound, than perhaps we’ve longed simply for x-ray vision so we can figure out what occupation the census-taker had in mind for our great-great grandfather.

While preparing for a series of posts in which I’ll interview some of our lookup providers, I brainstormed some questions to ask them. One question on my list got me particularly excited:

Do you have a genealogical “superpower”? (i.e., a unique research ability or technique that helps you track down records or assemble conclusions that others can’t?) If so, what is it?

I’ve pondered how I’d answer the question myself. My research skills are hardly superlative, but I think I possess a few qualities that help me succeed (and have fun!) where others struggle and get frustrated:

Seeing My Ancestors as Real People

Though I’ve stared forlornly at my share of empty slots on pedigree charts, I’ve never had a problem thinking of genealogy merely as a process of checking off boxes. I’ve always been blessed to approach it from the perspective of getting to know my ancestors — and their stories — a little better. That way, when a newly-discovered document provides helpful background info, but neglects to mention parents’ names, I’m seldom disappointed.

Ability to Switch Gears Easily

When a seemingly promising line of inquiry on one ancestor repeatedly fails to pan out, I find myself effortlessly transitioning to a new approach on a different ancestor without any lengthy period of soul-searching or annoyance. As a result, when Thomas McEntee asks me to post about an ancestor that drives me mad for Madness Monday, I honestly can’t think of any — I just never get to that point.

Batman and Robin

OK, so maybe my “superpowers” aren’t so super. I’m probably more qualified to be a superhero sidekick than wear the cape myself. My wife Cynthia, by comparison, is the real deal. Her superpower is her divergent thinking skills. When a patron at our Family History Center brings in a Chicago-area research problem, my wife can list five or six possible lines of attack within a few seconds. Once the patron chooses one, she can rapidly iterate and generate new ideas based on the results found. If the death certificate the patron needs doesn’t show up in the online index, she’s off to the appropriate cemetery record film or old newspaper obituary website to track the death info down there. Faster than a speeding bullet. You get the idea.

Your Turn

What about you — what’s your genealogical superpower? Encyclopedic recall of FHL film numbers covering your county? Mad Ancestry/Footnote search box wildcard skillz? Brain-embedded co-processor containing source citation templates from Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained? Consider sharing your superpower with us in a post on your blog. Or just let us know in the comments below. Thanks!