Thursday, August 29, 2013

Is WDYTYA Good Or Bad For Genealogy?

There seems to be quite a bit of discussion about this topic. Like many genealogists I watched the Cindy Crawford episode recently and saw the lengthy scroll showing her connection to Charlemagne. The major complaint is that the show makes novices think that all they have to do is input a few names and voila, they can make their scroll. Obviously, anyone who has spent any time seriously looking into their family history can tell you that it simply isn't that easy.

So, is a show like Who Do You Think You Are (at least the American version) good for genealogy or bad?

Good: The show probably does get more people interested in learning about their ancestors, which I think we can all agree is a good thing. I'm sure it's all good as far as is concerned. They probably have more subscribers now than before the show aired in the US.

Bad: I think we can also agree that WDYTYA makes genealogy look simpler than it actually is. It would be nice if they did a behind-the-scenes show or included some interviews with the researchers on the DVD to discuss how much work goes into a single episode.

Good: The show might make the average person more interested in history if they can find a personal connection to it.

Bad: These same people may have elevated expectations after seeing the program, not realizing that the producers presumably pick the most interesting lines uncovered by the researchers. These newbies may feel gypped when they discover that most of their people were (to use my brother's words) “poor dirt farmers.”

Bad: Possibly lulled into thinking all Ancestry-suggested records must be for their people, newbies may mistakenly add records for the wrong person to their tree.

Yes, having people who add relatives willy-nilly to their trees is a bad thing. That's why you should always use common sense (a woman who is 70 is not still having babies) and verify any information before adding it to your own tree. Trees are great to generate clues, but again, you need to verify. So, what do I do when I find a tree that I can see has faulty information (like a 70-year-old still producing offspring)? I ignore it, of course. That information isn't going to hurt my tree so I don't let it bother me. When contacted by someone who thinks we have an ancestor in common, but a 5 minute comparison of multiple census records shows my Emma Taylor and her Emma Taylor with different husbands and different children in different places do I get upset? No, I tell her what I found, say I don't think it's the same person and continue on my merry way.

So, is WHYTYA good or bad for genealogy? To be fair, I think it is both. It raises awareness, but may encourage people who are not ready for the work involved to expect their scroll to be handed to them. Overall, I think the show is a good thing. If it leads people to become more interested in their ancestors and their history then that's great. There are always going to be people who want their ancestry handed to them on a silver platter. We know they are not going to get that unless they can pay some professionals to do the hard work for them.

Maybe we just need a good weeder. In college, organic chemistry was a good medical school weeder. We laughed that it separated out the pre-med students who were destined to be psychology majors from the pre-meds who actually went on to medical school. Maybe a two-week free trial on Ancestry is a good weeder (or at least it starts the weeding process). Either the newbies will figure out that genealogy requires effort and thought and continue following their family history and try to do things the “right” way or they will decide that they were misled, that genealogy is hard or not worth the effort.

There will always be newbies who don't know what they are doing (I know I didn't when I started) and have high expectations of what they'll find. Some will figure it out and others won't. It reminds me of when I was doing my Ph.D. One of my advisers told me “if it were easy, then everyone would do it.” I think the same applies to genealogy.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Tagwhat App, Your Personal Kazoo Tour

I just noticed on the Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL) website a really exciting feature whether you have a smart phone or not (like me). Using a free app you can access historical information about Kalamazoo county sites, with an emphasis on the downtown Kalamazoo area. With 163 locations tagged in downtown and over one hundred spread over the rest of the county there is a whole lot of history at your fingertips.

Information is provided about buildings, schools, churches, cemeteries, neighborhoods, theaters and more. When you click on an item you will see a brief description of the location and if you “view tag” you can read more. Usually there is a link that will take you directly to the KPL website for that location where you can read the full article and find references.

So, if you've ever driven past a building and wondered about its history, this is the app (available for iPhone and Android devices) for you. And if you don't have a smart phone you can still take advantage of this neat resource via your computer. Just click to view the interactive map or to download the app for your phone.  If you hover over a green pin a box will often appear to indicate what is at that location. The numbered circles indicate several sites in close proximity to each other. 

Have fun, exploring!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Michigan County Research Guides

Seeking Michigan is in the process of preparing county research guides listing the original source records held by the Archives of Michigan. The record types include: Court Records, Land, Military, Naturalization, Occupational, Poor House Records, Prison, Probate, Tax Records, Voter Records and more, depending on the county. Within each category, you will find a list of the specific records as well as the year range and record group number. For some counties you'll find quite a list of resources and for others only a few.

Finding aids in the Archives include more detailed information about each type of record. The finding aids are organized by record group.

The counties for which guides are currently available are: Clinton, Eaton, Ingham, Ionia, Jackson, Livingston, Kent, Ottawa, Shiawassee, Washtenaw and Wayne.  You can find them here

Records for some counties are housed at the WMU Archives (and are noted on the list) so be sure to pay attention so you travel to the correct location to view your records of interest. Note: walk-in research at the WMU Archives has been suspended until they move into their new building in October. 

Seeking Michigan also has guides to help you learn more about some of these records and where they are available.  They have guides for Vital Records, Immigration and Naturalization Records and Military Records.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Where Is My Court Case?

I don't know much about legal cases. Prior to embarking on my genealogical adventure I thought of the courts as just one big entity: one court fits all, as it were. Thanks to my genealogical research I'm learning that is definitely not the case. Until a few years ago, the only court records I had used were chancery records to find divorce cases, see Husband Schmusband. I had also looked in the probate index a few times (most of my people didn't own enough to bother with a will). Then in 2012 I examined court records in two criminal cases (Murderer Gets Off Easy).

Looking through old newspapers I found a few lawsuits that I was unable to locate in the chancery index for Kalamazoo county. The cases were often mentioned in the court section of the paper so there was no doubt that lawsuits had been filed. But where were they? When I asked some of the staff at the WMU Archives everything became clear. I was looking in the wrong place. There was yet another flavor of court case. Of course I had heard of civil suits, but because they weren't on microfilm I didn't even consider that I should be seeking something that wasn't in plain sight (silly me). In my defense I can only say that I can only spend 2-3 hours a year at the Archives so when I can't find something I quickly make a note of it and dash on to the next item on my list while also coordinating my mom's look-up list.

So for those of you who are as legally naïve as I am, here are some of the different types of courts you may encounter (at least in Kalamazoo county) and generally what kinds of records you can find there.

Criminal Court: Speaks for itself.
Probate Court: Estate files, but also cases for admitting people to the asylum.
Chancery Court: This is primarily divorce cases, but also land disputes and business dissolutions.
Law Court: Civil actions in which people sue each other for other reasons.

You are more likely to find chancery records, and often probate records on microfilm because that is where the greatest demand is. Most people are interested to know why their great-grandparents divorced or who and what was mentioned in a will, but not who sued great-uncle Clyde for breach of contract.

The categories I mentioned above might seem to cover the bases pretty well from a layman's point of view, but when consulting a book on the topic of courthouse research I was confronted with a list of no less than twenty-two “common” types of court records that might be found depending on the time period and jurisdiction. [1] Even with the four types of court records I now know of in Kalamazoo county, looking for a particular record is more complicated than it might initially appear. I browsed through the binder at the WMU Archives containing information on the various county court records in their possession and their descriptions. I discovered Justices' court records, miscellaneous court records, miscellaneous circuit court records, court calendars, circuit court journals, special motion books, minute books, special and common orders for chancery, commissioner records and county court records, among other things. And there seemed to be boxes and boxes for kind of record. Based on this, I anticipate that finding my missing court cases will require some real effort.

Now that I finally know where I need to look it will be another long wait (over a year) before I can try to get my hands on the records. But, I've learned a little and that will only help me in the future when I'm sure I'll be looking for yet another obscure court case. These cases may not have juicy details like some of the divorce files I've read, but you never know what little clue will help to solve a minor mystery or flesh out a long-dead relative.

1. Christine Rose, Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide To Genealogical Treasures (San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2004) 112.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Why Don't Beginners Cite Right?

While I have been researching my family history for about a decade I have to confess that the sources in my tree are not what they should be (either incomplete or I haven't actually cited the source that I have). It is embarrassing to admit, but there it is.

I have been thinking about how I ended up in this bind and I have come up with a few reasons.

  1. When I began doing genealogy I was doing it for myself. I wasn't trying to prove anything to anyone.
  2. When I began doing genealogy I didn't have many different sources (primarily obituaries, family lore and copies of census records that I made from microfilm at NARA) so it was usually clear where my information came from.
  3. I didn't realize how important proper citing would be later on.
  4. It was easier to put census and city directory information in the “Notes” section of my genealogy program because there was unlimited space compared to the “Facts” section where only a snippet can be readily seen.
Now, of course, I know better and have decided that this year I will make amends. When I think about the task ahead of me it is completely overwhelming because there are a lot of people in my tree. I am dreading this very time-consuming chore, but it simply has to be done. What I need to do is to focus on my ancestral line (siblings and more distant relatives will have to wait) and pick a family to begin with. Then I can start re-examining sources and citing them correctly. The biggest barrier is trying to figure out exactly how to cite sources in my family tree software.

I have tried on numerous occasions to tackle this problem, but citing sources in Family Tree Maker is, in my opinion, most definitely NOT user-friendly. Each time I've started over the past few years I've invariably thrown my hands up and stormed off in frustration. Case in point: one time I tried to add sources for two divorce decrees I found. I filled out the fields for the source and added the details for the first decree. Then I did the same for the second record (same source, different case/page number). When I went back to the first record it had the details for the second record. I fixed it and went back to the second record. You guessed it, now it had details for the first record. Time to give up. Another time, I was trying to cite obituaries that I had found in online digitized newspapers. I tried to use a template hoping it would guide me in correctly filling out the numerous fields. I finished and immediately realized that I hadn't found a place to put in the website where I found the digitized newspapers. Wrong again! When attempting to cite vital record images accessed online (again using the provided template, though trying to choose the right template is another puzzle) I spent I don't know how long, trying to discover the repository where the original records are held, though I never viewed the originals. Time to throw up my hands or pull out my hair? I was too frustrated to decide.

All I know is that I must dig myself out before I get any deeper in the mire. I know that there will be some benefits, besides the obvious one of feeling a tremendous weight lifted from my shoulders because my sources will be properly cited. First, I'll become so familiar with citing sources in my software that it will no longer be a barrier (and I plan to make a cheat sheet so, lest I forget, I will know exactly what to do). Second, I'm sure that in the process of perusing my records I'll notice things I hadn't before. At least I know that finding most of the records should be simple because I have a good system for organizing both my paper records and those on my computer. The only ones that will take longer are those buried in military pension application files, but those can wait.

This nightmare ends now! I'm taking an online course starting today to help me through this process. I don't know how long it will take to accomplish my task (a long time, I know), but at least I'll be making progress and I'll know how to do it right.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Stop! Don't Toss It Yet

Scenario: You just received the collection of papers from great aunt Gertrude. How do you decide what to keep and what to get rid of?

Your first thought may be “Aaaack! I don't have room for more boxes. Maybe I should do a fast sort and dump.” However, I would advise against this. Here's the most important reason why: some of the things that seem unimportant or mundane now may later provide clues to tracing someone or understanding their life better.

A concrete example might be finding an obituary for someone whose name you don't recognize. Perhaps it was just a friend, but in a few years when you have done more research you might recognize it as someone who married into the family. A closer look may reveal a new married name for one of your people or a city of residence that you were unaware of. Either way, that little clue may be just what you need to track someone down, just like sometimes it only takes one additional letter in a crossword puzzle to allow you to fill in an entire corner.

I'm sure we've all come across notes we took when we were just starting our genealogical adventure. It is always rewarding to see that we've made progress over the years. We now have a history for the sister who had seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. We now have land records and newspaper articles to teach us about people we only had the barest vital records for before.

My mother and I keep encountering this phenomenon. When she comes to visit she brings a bag or envelope with family stuff enclosed. Some of the items I've gone through before, but each time something there has new meaning because I have learned more. In the most recent batch I went through notebooks my grandmother kept when she and my grandfather were building their house during WWII. They built on a lot where the previous house had burned. My mother told me my grandfather salvaged everything he could, nails, bricks, you name it. He measured every board he saved and then used that information to determine how much house he could build. My grandmother's notebooks list how much everything cost, down to the price for a box of nails. On the surface, it may not seem interesting, but when put in the context of the war and knowing this was my mother's childhood home, I'm glad we saved these notebooks.

I now try to put notes with each collection of items as I sort through them. The notes may be brief descriptions of the contents and notations of what I scanned. What I now realize needs to be added is the date I examined them. This way I will know how long it has been since I perused the documents and therefore, how likely it is that I will find something I didn't know was important way back when. As much as I want to decrease the clutter in my life, I don't want to be too hasty in my efforts and discard something I might regret later. My advice would be to keep it (for now) if you are in doubt. You can always change your mind later and toss it, but you will never be able to retrieve something that went to the landfill or the recycling center months or years ago.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Packing Up The WMU Archives

There are only a little over two months before the new home of the Western Michigan University Archives and Local History Collections is scheduled to open.  While work is progressing on the new building, the arduous task of moving all of the materials will begin soon.

I was fortunate enough to squeeze in one final trip to the old WMU gymnasium before it closes for good.  The site on East campus is now closed to walk-in research until the new facility opens.  Though the space appeared essentially the same when I was there, boxes were going in and out.  Some of them likely to replace deteriorating or non-standard size boxes previously in use. [1]  In addition to boxing and moving items to the new stacks, most of the books and boxes of records are being bar coded for the first time. [1]  This will be essential for locating materials in the new compact shelving.  No more will items be found by saying they are on the left side of the swimming pool.  With as many resources as the Archives possesses (about 28,000 cubic feet) the next two months or so will be very busy for the Archives staff as they organize everything under one roof. [1]

So long, East Hall.

1.  Friends of the University Libraries.  Friendly Notes.  Vol. 3, Issue 1 (Jan 2013).