16 December 2011

How to Use Someone Else's Research

As you start to gather information on your family, you'll find many avenues to follow. While records like birth, death and marriage certificates, population censuses and church records will give you some degree of accuracy, there are those other sources:

Other Family Members
Your great aunt has been doing research on the family tree for 40 years; or maybe a cousin is compiling a book listing your family back to Moses. The thing is, they may have loads of time put in and proof, but it may all be wrong. When I told my family I was interested in their information, my aunt claimed to have loads. On a computer. In her garage. Somewhere. The best I was able to get from her was an unsourced family GEDCOM (GEnealogical Data COMmunication file) taking us to A.D. 1430 on one side and A.D. 1670 on another. Which is fantastic, but without sources, I'm forced to ask where she got the information. How does she KNOW those are our relatives? What proof does she have that these people existed? Oh right, it's on her old computer. In her garage. Somewhere. My Great Uncle gave me another GEDCOM from his 30 years of research with some sources, but some leaps of faith it seems too. He had relatives listed twice, sometimes with different parents. How had he not noticed that? My cousin had proof of our Native American line..... as long as our great great grandmother's father was born after she died..... oops.

Not that there isn't information to be had here, but it's not Gospel. I'm pretty sure they know the names of their cousins, neices and nephews. They may know some distant relatives that lived in or around their lifetime. However, without outside sourcing to back it up, linking yourself to these trees should be done with caution. They are excellent places to start, but you will have to do some work to clean them up. I have one tree I have for all my factual (official records) sources that only get a relative added to it if I can prove it. That's my end result tree. But I have these other trees that I'm sure are full of errors. I comb through each generation, person by person. Sometimes I've proven the link, sometimes I've had to remove a person or two (or ten). But often I use these trees just as a way to jump start my research. My father spent years calling various court houses and historical societies in Texas looking for any record of his grandmother's birth. After I found a Census showing her birthplace as Missouri, we were able to track her down to a little town called Texas, Missouri..... I don't think my dad's stopped laughing about that yet.

Online Family Trees
We live in a glorious age when you don't have to travel the world and spend years pawing through dusty file cabinets to find a possible match to your ancestor. Nor spend your life calling government, church and historical societies until you are broke financially and emotionally. When my father was working on the family tree, he'd spend vacations driving to other states to hopefully find one shred of evidence that his grandparents existed. I go online and within a month I have every U.S. Census they were in listing their birth places and children. He was jealous to say the least.

But along with all this plethora of digitised official documentation, there is also the online family trees. Just like the research your relatives have done, these may be well crafted, documented treasure troves. Or they are trash heaps of ineptitude. If anything can be learned from Ancestry.com's commericals, it's that most people want to be related to someone famous for something, a royal, or a unique individual that will be impressive to other people. It's not impossible to trace your family back to the beginning of time, it's just not probable. Prior to the 18th century, churches were your best source for family history. But the problem was that they had a great tendency to burn down. Royals keep great records, but they also tend to marry in close circles that the common man is unlikely to have broken into. So just like with your family's research, you can use what you find, but double check it. When you come to a conflict, keep an open mind and work both angles until you can prove one over the other. And remember, your relatives don't have to be special to the world to be special to you.

Vanity Genealogies
Now you've checked over all the data your family had. You've plucked carefully through online sources compiled by amateurs. Now, you've found the holy Grail.... a professionally documented genealogy. Uh....

Gustave Anjou, Orra E. Monnette, C. A. Hoppin, Horatio Gates Somersby, Charles H. Browning,  John S. Wurts and Frederick A. Virkus are some well-known con-men who created hundreds of false genealogies. And there are more "genealogists" that if not intentionally lying, they were obscenely inefficient in their research. As long as someone was willing to pay a good fee (Anjou would receive $9,000 for his work), they would provide a coat of arms, royal lineage, famous relatives.... anything to please the client. These were even more insidious when they would actually include a real document with facts and then add their own corroborating document they had falsified to make a connection. People were fooled for years! So if you find a book of your family, check the author. Then check their sources. And keep your mind open.

Have you ever received an email from Nigeria saying you are the last relative of a dead businessman who's money amounts to the millions? It's easy to claim this money. All you do is send this lawyer a fee of a couple grand and he will be able to provide the documents to prove your legitimacy and release the money to you. Surprisingly, this isn't new. A hundred years ago, fraudsters used to put these in the paper asking for someone to come forward as the heir to a contested fortune that didn't exist. People would naturally reply hoping to make a quick buck. These con-men would then ask for a fee to provide documents and legal help, sometimes encouraging whole families to chip in to be part of a membership of "heirs" fighting for their estates. Con-artists don't change their game, they just use better tools. If you find mention of a lost family fortune in your searches, be ready to find out your family was bamboozled.

So in the end.....
Spend time on any message board, forum or Facebook page about genealogy and you will see people that have thousands of family names on their tree. They can trace themselves to Charlemagne or Pontius Pilate or Adam himself. Their great great grandmother was an Indian princess (more on that one in another post!). They are distant cousins to dozens of famous people.

These people may be right, but the probabilities aren't on their side. Most people will get stuck in the 1800's when censuses didn't list everyone, just the head of the household. Churches, hospitals, city halls, libraries all burn down and lose centuries of records that were only kept there. False records abound; if you're willing to pay for proof, there's someone willing to make it for you. Even people who've been looking for years may still be stuck on this side of the ocean simply because they can't find any record of their founding ancestor's arrival and thus can't find where they departed. Europe has been a hotbed of wars that span years, decades or centuries destroying entire towns and all that they recorded. I have photos of my grandfather in France during WWII standing next to the rubble that once was a church. I've thought many times about who's history was lost that day. If not properly stored, documents can simply deteriorate. Like Dr. Who. I'm a huge fan of the show. However, because the BBC didn't properly store the film from the first two seasons, most of the episodes are lost to us, never to be seen again. Imagine what we've lost from documentaries and photos made in the early days of film. Lost, lost, lost.

And people lie. A family member looking for a new start or running from something shameful may have changed their name. My maternal grandmother's family has Jewish roots that to this day the older generations won't talk about for fear of persecution. My paternal grandmother used to yell at my father when he was a child if he "acted like an Indian" when he played, because racism against Natives was so strong when she was growing up. It was a point of pride to her to be able to pass for White. It was common to claim the child of your unmarried underaged daughter as your own rather than face familial shame. A man could have two families. Adoption can muddy your waters, especially if the family couldn't afford to make it official. Every now and again I lie awake wondering about all the people in Witness Protection....... what hurdles lay in front of their descendants????

You don't need to find a famous person to have an interesting tree. It may seem exciting to find these bright shining stars in your family history, but genealogy isn't a road to travel while you point out the landmarks. It doesn't matter if you find something interesting to someone else. Your family may toil in the background of world history, but they lived and that is the important part. Your unique family history is a tapestry of interwoven lives; vibrant colour and story all it's own. It's a panoramic landscape full of beauty and character. While you admire the sky and count the stars, I'll admire the land and take care of the roots.


09 December 2011

Preserving History 1- Photographs

Grandfather as a boy with siblings, Kentucky
Most of you have piles of old photographs that the family may or may not have organised (most likely not) sitting in boxes in the attic or basement or some out of the way closet. Almost all of you own a digital camera and have pictures floating in the ether of Internet or on some flash drive somewhere. First off, shame on you. Second, you are not alone.

One of the greatest inventions of man, in my opinion, is the camera. While we could always draw a person, or sculpt them, the accuracy of the camera has never been rivalled. Whether it is a still shot or a moving picture, you are looking at the person. Living. Breathing. Real. There's no beating that. It is no wonder some believe your soul is captured in a photograph. So how do we protect and preserve that soul?

Step 1: Organise!
First thing you need to do is separate your photos. Everyone has a different way on this depending on how they want to find them. I tend to clump by era, family, then individual. So if I'm looking for a childhood photo of my grandfather, I am looking in the Gibson family boxes, 1930-40, then his specific file. Events and group shots are in a group photo box for that time period. My dad is straight individual. In a group shot, it's whoever is oldest. So some photos of Grandpa are in one box, some in another if he's pictured with his parents/grandparents..... I find that weird. But hey, as long as he can find what he's looking for, right? You want to do this with digital photos too. Separate them out in folders by event, person, date, whatever.

Once you have the photos separated, you need to LABEL them. How is anyone supposed to know who's pictured if you don't tell them? If you label a photo directly, use a soft pencil to keep from damaging them. I don't like to label photos directly, I put them in a photo sleeve and label the sleeve. I'm always worried about damaging old photos. On the other hand, Grandma wrote on all her photos in ballpoint pen, so......

Step 2: Display
What's the point in photographs if you never look at them? Who (besides my crazy mother) doesn't like to see the smiling faces of family proudly displayed in the living room? Here are some rules to displaying a photograph:
  1. Display a copy rather than the original whenever possible.
  2. Use ultra-violet filtering glass or acrylic for framed photos.
  3. Use an acid-free mat or spacer to keep photos from touching glass.
  4. Minimize light damage by turning off lights when you leave the room; use low watt bulbs.
  5. Keep out of direct sunlight as much as possible.
  6. Rotate the photographs on display by storing some and then changing them periodically.
Really it comes down to Light is Your Enemy. I'm sure you all can attest to sunlight's color sucking abilities. Don't let it happen to your family history! Don't let the sun shine on photos. Don't put them on a table directly under a lamp. There's a reason art museums don't like flash photography!!!

I actually scanned all my photos and have those handy-dandy digital photo frames around the house. Each frame has a revolving assortment of a person or event or the like. Dad says it's like walking into Harry Potter's house with all the moving pictures. I like that.

Step 3: Backups!!!!
This is the step most people forget. I want you to think for a moment, though. What would happen if you had a house fire, tornado, earthquake? We lose so many possessions in such a circumstance, but you know what most people really talk about missing? The photos. The irretrievable memories lost. So you need a backup. And then a backup of your backup! I have several myself. Like I said, I store the original photographs rather than display. There are old photos as well as printed copies of my best digital shots stored, with copies displayed. That's backup one. I store any negatives of old film in a second location (currently a safe deposit box). That's backup two. I have a hard drive of digital copies of all photos new and old. Back up three. I keep a second hard drive at my father's house. Back up four.

I'm not one for "cloud" services. I don't like the idea of the Internet holding all my music and photos. I'm always worried about too much being online. However, if you don't care, that's also an excellent place to store. Just make sure it isn't your only place. God forbid their servers crash or get hacked.

Step 4: Store
Now that you've organised and picked out the pictures you simply MUST have on display, it's time to store the rest. The rules of storage:
  1. Wash your hands! Photographs can be damaged by your own natural oils. Make sure your hands are clean and dry. Wear gloves if you can.
  2. Store photos in acid-free sleeves or envelopes (or polypropylene pages).
  3. Store photos flat to keep them from damage and curling.
  4. Never put adhesives onto photographs! If you are putting in an album (acid-free pages, please), use photo corners or sleeves.
  5. Handle all photos and negatives by the edges to avoid touching the surface.
  6. Store in a cool, dry place where the temperature and humidity won't fluctuate wildly (basements and attics won't cut it!)
A few notes:
On media choices- Everything has a shelf life. Depending on the paper, and the storage, a photo can last without fading from 5-200 years. Old photos started to fade within a decade, so take the most care with them now. New printers and paper are less acidic, so they can last you quite a bit longer. But they will still fade within 50-200 years..... more than most of us have to be concerned with, but think of the generations to come! CDs and DVDs can seem like eternal things, but does anyone remember the floppy disk? And what about format? What if you have a Mac now, but an IBM system later? What if the software you use isn't around in ten years? Will you be able to convert? You need to dutifully keep up with technology and transfer your files so they aren't trapped on an outdated system. And again, depending on storage, they can be degraded and unusable in a decade! Memory cards run into the same problems (does anyone besides a Canon user have a CF card?). Their life span is only expected to be 2-5 years. That's not a lot of time, people! And I've already voiced my opinion on cloud services and their ephemeral nature.

On scrapbook materials- I don't like run of the mill scrapbook materials. Some aren't as safe for photos as they say. I mean, they're perfectly fine for making a new scrapbook with new photos. I just don't trust them with my heirlooms. I prefer using archival quality acid-free sleeves you can find online at any number of curator outlets. (University Products is just one such store). Just be sure whatever you use has passed the standard photo tests and your best judgement.

On gloves- There is some argument about whether or not gloves are necessary. While most people have no problem, some people's natural oils are too acidic. And one doesn't find out if they should wear gloves until they damage a photograph first. The consensus with archivers seems to be that as long as the photo is properly stored and your hands are clean and dry (wash prior to any handling), then you'll have no problem. Some even go so far as to say gloves ruin the ability to feel the object and can lead to more damage. I personally feel that you should handle all photos and very old materials with gloves if you are not a careful handler. A "better safe than sorry" kind of thing. I would personally hate to be the one to scratch a photo with a nail, or leave a fingerprint on a negative. A powder-free latex glove is what most "amateur" curators use, but white cotton gloves have been standard for a while. There are actually quite a few options depending on what you're handling. For photos:

Nitrile- This is the new standard curator glove. The pros are that it's disposable, has a good grip for slippery objects and any tears are obvious so you don't use bad gloves. The cons are they don't always fit tightly for fine handling, and you have to make sure you get the ACCELERANT FREE ones if you have an allergy (or are handling anything with silver as the accelerant can tarnish). The reason these are popular is because of the great number of things you can handle (from paintings to bone) without damage.

Nylon- These are good if you can't get Nitrile. The pros are they don't leave fingerprints, fit more snugly than cotton gloves, and are reusable. The cons are they don't reliably keep oils and sweat from objects, they can deposit lint and must be washed regularly.

Cotton- As I said, this used to be the standard for all curators. The pros are reusable gloves that won't leave fingerprints. The cons are they aren't really recommended for photographs as they can leave lint, they can transfer contaminants if not washed properly and don't protect against sweat and oils reliably. Plus, if they are loose-fitting, you can't get a proper grip.

Latex or Rubber gloves- Because of the cotton cons, these are often used in conjunction. The pros are disposable gloves with protection from sweat and oils. The cons are (obviously) possible allergic reactions and they can degrade easily, depositing residue on your photos. They aren't actually recommended for any archival use.

*Sources National Parks Conserve O Gram Sept. 2010 on choosing the right glove, IFLA.org December 2005 newsletter "Misperceptions about White Gloves"

Bottom Line
Whatever way you choose to display, organise and store your photos, above all, treat them with respect. The more care you use now, the longer they'll be around. More important than how you handle them is how you remember the people in them. Take the time to look at your photos. Bring them out at family gatherings and remember. Laugh and Live.


05 December 2011

What I Did With My Weekend

So how was your weekend? I just moved to a new area, so I was checking out the downtown. I ended up in a few antique stores trolling for goodies and look what I found:
Several Photos, some with names/dates

This part always makes me sad. To imagine someone just selling their history.... it happens all too much I think. So you don't know who someone is and no one is alive that remembers them? Why throw it out? Terrible.

Then there are the ones with names. I was talking to one shop owner who told me she bought the entire estate of a woman with no living relatives. She had photos, marriage certificate, playbills.... everything this woman had ever been. No living relatives? Are we sure? And even so, did that mean she deserved to be relegated to a second hand shop? To be purchased by a stranger for kicks?

Physician's daily record, postcards, photo of a man/his car

Then there are the postcards. I found packets of postcards that had some blank, some used. I don't collect them, so I'll be selling the blank ones, but I plan to transcribe the used ones on a page here soon. Some are in Swiss or German or something. Very interesting. And again sad; The store had so many from one family spanning years...... imagine all that you were being forgotten by your family (who are probably the ones selling this stuff). I forget the culture, but there is a belief that one dies three times. Once, when you literally die; then when your body is buried; and lastly, when no one speaks your name anymore. That is the most tragic thing I've ever heard.
Unknown men, tintype

And my favorite new find? A 1942 Physician's Daily Record. One year of a doctor's patients. I found an envelope with the name Dr. F. W. Cowgill, in Nevada, Iowa. It's a pretty good guess this is his book. I've set up a page to transcribe the entries. I'll list them by name to make them easier to search. Keep in mind that handwriting is hard even for an expert (which I am not) and I have no medical training. So there will be some parts marked illegible. Once I can get my scanner working (or pay for someone to scan a year's worth of pages), I'll post them. If you think someone may be a relative of yours, I'm willing to send you copies of the pages they are on, just let me know. It's a very interesting read. I've researched a little about Nevada and there was a Sanitarium that was the only hospital for a while. It burned down in '43, so I may have something you can't find elsewhere! As for the photos, I've put up a Flickr page with the individual pictures and any information that was on them. You can access it from the right sidebar. If you recognise someone, let me know. If you have your own unknowns, send me a copy and I'll add it to Flickr.

I've put up four posts that should get you started on your search, so I'll not be posting daily. I'll have a weekly post and anytime I feel like something needs to be said. The transcription of the record and postcards will take some time and I still have to devote my energies to my own lineage, so I'll be occupied for quite a while I think. Not that I mind at all! This is my favorite part, being knee deep in real world history. Not just some dry date with some facts, but a face with a breathing past.