Archive for the ‘Serendipity in Genealogy Research’ Category

Tombstone Tuesday and The Power of Genealogical Crowdsourcing

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010


Once in a while a blog post shows up in my feed reader or my Twitter-stream that is so well-crafted and uplifting that I feel compelled to share it. Michael Cassara’s “Easter, 2010” post is a perfect example.

A Paean to Find A Grave

Michael starts out by exploring the delights of Find A Grave. I’ve praised their site myself in previous posts, but Michael manages to craft a highly-nuanced view of what makes the site so cool. Here’s how he explains what I like to call “The Power of Genealogical Crowdsourcing”:

There’s a wonderful website called “Find A Grave”, which… is one of the most interesting and powerful concepts among digital genealogical repositories. The idea is, quite simply, to record information for all of the world’s cemeteries. It is a constantly-growing, user-driven compilation of information. One of the most useful features of Find A Grave, is that it lets the general public collaborate to build the largest shared database of burial information in the world…With this website, members of the community-at-large can pool their resources and knowledge for the better good – creating a stronger, searchable resource for everyone.

An Aside: How Else Could This Power Be Used?

What would happen if someone built something similar to Find A Grave, only for wills? Or vital records? Could a business be built around it, or would any serious attempt at monetization kill the volunteer / karma / pay-it-forward vibe that Michael describes so well? How would it (whether free, freemium or otherwise) affect existing subscription sites, assuming it grew to have traffic comparable to theirs?

Michael’s Take on Genealogical Serendipity

Even if he’d stopped with the quote above, this post would have been an automatic reblog / retweet. But it gets better! Michael describes his efforts to fulfill two cemetery photo requests from Find A Grave for Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens. One he’s unable to track down, the other he’s successful on. As he turns to head home, he suddenly finds himself face to face with his great-grandfather’s grave:

Of my eight great grandparents, he’s the only one for whom I was never able to find a cemetery location. As a matter of fact, before I left the house today, I even searched through Find A Grave. I took a look for other Cassara listings – and I searched Calvary Cemetery, just to see if there were any occurrences of Cassara burials among the over 7,000 they have listed. None came up. I thought nothing of it, and moved on.

But here I was – shaking and awestruck – face to face with the headstone of my great-grandfather. Without his courage, our family would not be residing on this continent, let alone even be in existence. He led a hard life, with the hope that mine wouldn’t be as hard. And here he was, where he’s been for the last 60 years: 9 blocks from my apartment.

…there he was. There he is. Less than a minute’s walk from the headstone that I volunteered to photograph for a stranger from the internet.

It Could Happen to You

Many of us have had experiences similar to the one Michael so lovingly depicts here. Yet each such encounter represents something unique and important. Call it serendipity, call it “turning the hearts of the fathers”, call it karma, call it mere coincidence… whatever you’re comfortable with. My point is, this is why we do what we do. Why we spend untold (and told!) hours in front of microfilm readers, at county courthouses, and yes, walking amidst rows of tombstones. Because when we do, it somehow seems to matter to someone besides just us.

Disorganization to the Rescue!

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Last night I wanted to post an image of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s death certificate as part of my Surname Saturday post, but I (embarrassed frown) couldn’t find it. I went through my poor excuse for a filing system, and the certificate wasn’t in the folder it was supposed to be in… or anywhere else for that matter. I’m basically a poster child for all those talks given at genealogy conferences (or blog posts from DearMyrtle and others) about getting yourself (and your genealogy records) organized.

On the Bright Side…

Fortunately, in the course of my search, I came across a bunch of records (birth, marriage, and death registers from Massachusetts, mostly) that my son had retrieved for us when he was attending college in Boston a few years back. As it happens (and it happens to me a lot!) they’d ended up in a big pile, then gotten cleaned up into my genealogy catch-call box, and as a result, I’d never gotten around to putting them in sheet protectors, assigning document numbers to them and placing them in binders.


A New Find

For the most part, these documents offered closer-to-primary source info that confirmed secondary sources I already had. But in going through a death register for Andrew Guilford today, I came across something completely new: a possible maiden name for his mother, Sally _________, wife of Ebenezer Morris Guilford. The register listed Sally’s parents as Erastus and Philinda Brown. A few quick google searches unearthed histories and vital records compilations for Conway, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, and just like that, I had info that could (if verified further) push me back another generation.

It’s amazing what you can find when you’re looking (unsuccessfully) for something else!

Genealogical Serendipity: Does the Internet lead to more or less of it?

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

Damon Darlin writes in today’s NY Times: “the digital age is stamping out serendipity.” He laments that web utilities like Twitter, Facebook and iTunes, rather than spurring us to jump from one creative discovery to another, instead act like a form of “group-think. [In which] everything… comes filtered and vetted.”

Though he didn’t refer to it, Darlin’s article seems to echo a similar sentiment expressed by William McKeen several years back in a fun-to-read essay called “The endangered joy of serendipity,” McKeen posits:

“Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find – with an irritating hit or miss here and there – exactly what you’re looking for. It’s efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding… Looking for something and being surprised by what you find – even if it’s not what you set out looking for – is one of life’s great pleasures, and so far no software exists that can duplicate that experience.”

But back in 2006, Steven Johnson convincingly called baloney on McKeen (and in a tweet today, revisited his argument and targeted it to Darlin’s article as well.) His riposte:

Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books.

I’m siding with Mr. Johnson on this one. I think the web offers all sorts of opportunities for serendipity –  that it in fact can amplify and accelerate serendipitous discovery.  Rather than merely offering the spines of books for your browsing pleasure, for example, Google Books makes those spines transparent, and lets books’ content become the jumping-off point for all sorts of adventures.

One of our family’s most surprising recent genealogical discoveries was partly the result of a casual Google Books search for Benjamin Swetland. Yes, we “found what we were looking for” (i.e., basic info on my ancestor) but we also found stuff we weren’t looking for too, such as a photo of a bed warmer, and Benjamin’s composition of a politically-themed song, which led my fiddle-enthusiast wife to go looking for the tune to which that song may have been sung… you get the idea.

What about you? Do you think the web offers genealogists more or less opportunities for serendipitous discovery? Or to recast Darlin’s, McKeen’s and Johnson’s points into genealogically-relevant questions:

  • Do genealogy-related social networks (e.g., Geni, GenealogyWise) offer better or worse chances to find random-but-helpful genealogy sources or connections to fellow researchers than, say, StumbleUpon?
  • Which process have you found more helpful to your genealogy research: browsing randomly through the stacks of your favorite genealogy library, or searching for random ancestors in Google Books?
  • What would an UrbanSpoon for genealogy research look like, would it be at all useful or fun, and would you buy it?