14 December 2012

Time to Talk of Other Things

This winter season is beating the hell out of my friends and family. Disease, disaster and debt have come to a head for so many. If you are in the same boat, or know someone that is, my heart goes out to you. It's probably not more prevelant in the holiday season, just more acutely felt.... at least that's what I try to tell myself as yet another friend's relative dies or they themselves are ravaged by illness. I'd like to think that it's only because of the pressure of buying gifts that we feel the financial pinch at this time. What I really truly hope isn't just the season is your belief in and ability to be a caring and integral part of humanity. Today I'd like to share some short stories of my favorite childhood Christmas moments and a call to be the great memory for someone this year.

No Lips.

I was a small child of maybe 3 or 4. My dad had purchased a mechanical dog with a leash that had a remote to make the dog move, flip and bark. He thought I'd really get a kick out of this little marvel. Instead what he got was a child in tears because the dog had no lips! He had a tongue glued to the end of his muzzle, but the manufacturer had inexplicably decided to not draw or sew lines on his mouth. My grandfather had called to wish me a Merry Christmas and all I could do was cry and tell him how the dog couldn't really bark if he didn't have lips, so why did he bark? My dad took the toy back to the store. When asked for the reason of return, he shrugged and said, "He doesn't have any lips."

Santa IS Real...

Kindergarten is the year of burgeoning independence. It can also make or break the reputation of teachers for years to come. So this is probably the worst time to take it upon yourself to tell children Santa doesn't exist. But that's what my teacher decided was in my best interest. The problem was that my dad dressed as Santa every year for the Children's Hospital (complete with his boss as "Head Elf"). As far as this little 5 year old knew, he WAS Santa. I was angry at my teacher and ran straight home after school to tell my dad that she didn't believe in him. He was naturally upset that she was making a choice on how to handle Santa Claus that's ideally up to the parents. Other parents were also upset to find their kids crying and unwilling to participate in Christmas if there was really no Santa. So dad did what any parent would do. He dressed up as Santa and came to my school to hand out candy canes to all the kids. The teacher was upset that he was "filling the children's heads with lies", but a conversation with the principal after the visit changed her tune. Meanwhile, I was able to strut about the play yard for a week before our winter break with the reputation of being the kid with the direct line to Santa's Naughty and Nice List. As for my teachers, well....... let's just say my critical eye was developed quickly and I never accepted their assertions without proof.

But the Tree Is Not.

I was a sickly child. I was small for my age, ate like a bird and had the pale and hollow-eyed look of a kid with acute anemia. I forget at what age it happened, I was still very young, but I clearly remember finding out I was allergic to pine trees. We had just pulled a beautiful green pine into the house and mom had vacuumed the needles up from the move. Dad set down the skirt and wound out the lights. I was given my box of ornaments to put up on the tree. I went up and stroked the delicate branches in wonder at how big a tree dad was able to get this year..... and pulled back an already red and swelling hand. Soon enough my eyes were swollen and teary and I was wheezing. Mom freaked. Dad had to unwind the lights, take out the tree (I think he ended up giving it to a relative to use), vacuum the house twice and clean the ornaments. He went out and bought us an equally big and green artificial tree, but I was very distraught. It didn't smell like a real tree. It just didn't seem like a real Christmas without a real tree. So mom went out and bought pine smell fragrance and sprayed down the tree. Thankfully, I outgrew that particular allergy and was soon able to have the real smell back again.

Boys Are Disgusting.

My brother was 6 or 7 when there was this cartoon that had army men that fought mutant giants. I think there were good mutants and bad, but what he wanted for Christmas was the toy version of one of the bad guys. It was a Digestor or Destructor or something. What the character did was take the army men and place them in his ribcage and digest them. The toy had a chest with the exposed ribcage that opened when you pressed a button. He came with one army man and you could place the man in the chest, close the ribs and press a second button that released goo (a jar of slime that you poured into the doll and could replace at $10 a jar) to "digest" the army guy. Dad went to Toys R Us without exactly knowing what he was looking for. He asked the nearest clerk who screwed up her face and pointed down an aisle. Down that aisle were several empty shelves where the mutant dolls had been....... and several still filled with this Digestor. Apparently, he wasn't selling to well. Dad says he looked at it and said, "Good Lord...... ugh. No way......." Mom said, "It's all he asked for." With that they knew it had to get in the cart. Dad thought it a win to refuse to buy him extra goo. So he gets up to the register after shopping and is placing this thing on the belt when the woman behind him exclaims in disgust, "What the hell is that?!?" Sighing, he said, "It's a Destructor. It locks army men in it's open chest and pours slime on them to 'eat' them. My son said if I didn't get this for him, he didn't want anything at all..... you know how kids are." She took a long look at the doll and asked, "What aisle is it in?"

Beware the Tree Troll.

Because of a number of out of town relatives who would mail us our gifts early, as soon as the tree was up there was usually a present underneath it. But how to keep children from poking and prodding the boxes? Well, you tell them the Tree Troll will eat their presents if they try to touch them! I know what you're thinking, "The what?" My dad had a gargoyle that sat underneath the tree. He told us that was the Tree Troll and that he was the watchdog of Santa Claus. If we tried to mess with the presents before it was time, or fooled around with the tree, then the Tree Troll would eat our presents (and possibly us). He was also responsible for reporting our actions to Santa for the Naughty List, the little narc. On Christmas eve, we'd set out milk and cookies for Santa (ideally for mom as dad was not a huge milk drinker) and the Troll got a beer (what dad really wanted after a near month's worth of holiday shopping and hooplah). In the morning, the milk and cookies were gone, the beer was drank and the Tree Troll was asleep under the tree. It was now safe to get our presents. Years later, my dad would get a new gargoyle and deck it out with lights in the eyes that would be turned off Christmas morning (to indicate the Troll was asleep). Now dad hopes to sell copies of his Troll next Christmas (after many many many requests) so that children around the world can experience the joy and wonder of the Tree Troll who protects your presents, tells on you, and then snores drunkenly through Christmas dinner. I never said my childhood was normal.

What? This Is a Christmas Movie!

We all have the list of Must See Christmas Movies. Dad watches "It's a Wonderful Life", but mainly because he takes joy knowing it was a hot and miserable shoot and it wasn't a well received movie when it debuted (he has issues). And in our house there is no "Christmas Carol" other than the 1950's version with Alistair Sim. Bill Murray's "Scrooged" is also topping our list of favorites. But the big tradition in our house is the Christmas Eve Action Fest. We watch "Dirty Harry", "Leathal Weapon", "Die Hard" and "Die Hard 2". Honestly, after all the sugary fair we are subjected to around Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmas, don't we all want to watch someone get beat up and die?

White Castles Make the Holiday Glow... Just Don't Light A Match.

The tradition of Christmas Eve dinner being White Castle started when my father was a small boy. His family would go to pick out the Christmas tree at a lot across the street from the White Castle restaurant. His mother would drag the younger kids around the lot looking for just the right tree. Since my dad was the oldest, he had to help load whatever tree they picked. My grandfather would take him, and only him, over to the White Castle where they would have a couple of burgers and talk. This became a yearly bonding moment for a father and son that often felt like the other came from a different planet and certainly couldn't be blood related. Of course, grandpa believed in fairness and, while he relished the quiet moment alone with his eldest boy, he didn't feel right about not getting the other kids a treat. So he'd buy a case of burgers for Christmas Eve dinner. It was a good plan. There's so much baking going into the Christmas Day meals and snacks that the last thing you want to do is halt progress to make something for dinner the night before. Soon the neighborhood had heard of this tradition and was on board. They'd see Grandpa getting ready to go to White Castle and ask if he'd bring them back some if they paid. He had no problem doing so (and sometimes didn't accept payment from a neighbor that didn't really have it to give). The neighbors would come to the house to pick up their cases and usually just bring the family to eat there. They'd trade small gifts, tell stories and admire the decorations before shuffling their brood to their beds and finishing their own Christmas preparations. While it has been a long time since the whole neighborhood was involved, and dad's health no longer allows him to eat those delicious devils, we still get a case of White Castles for Christmas Eve dinner and listen to the story of how it all got started. I may not let my own future children indulge as much as I have in those little belly bombs, and my fiance will probably never love them as I do, but I will carry this tradition on as long as there is a White Castle in existence.

Family Is Who You Say It Is.

One of the truest things about my family is that if we know you, you are family. Especially during the holidays. The door is open, the hearth is warm and the fridge is stocked. No one asks if they can have a drink, they just grab what works for them. Want an ice cream? Freezer downstairs. Hungry? Christmas dinner is finished at 10 a.m. and replenished throughout the day. Laid out buffet style, you just grab a plate and load up. Stay 10 minutes or all day, we don't care. And for God's sake, don't forget your take home package of food. My uncle Bert isn't my uncle by blood or marriage. He was a neighborhood kid that my grandparents unofficially adopted as one of their own. I have always known him as my uncle. I couldn't consider him in any other way. And he doesn't consider himself in any other way, which I think is fantastic. I love when I invite a friend to my house for the first time and they stare in wonder at the nonchalance of the guests who just open the fridge and grab a soda or bottle of water (and maybe a bit of the crab dip kept cool). I laugh out loud as my uncle Bert pokes at them and says, " You're family here! Stop standing on ceremony and grab a plate!" It is such a joy to watch as they relax, kick off their shoes and fight over the "good seat" with my brother as if they'd grown up with us in this house and had all the rights to comfort that we have. And they do.

A year or so ago, a car broke down on the road outside my dad's house. He lives on the highway, so when the man came up to the first house he saw and asked to use the phone, he was pleasantly surprised by my dad's smiling face. Dad let him use the phone, asked my cousin the mechanic if he'd take a look and then asked the man to bring his wife and kids up to the house to stay warm while all was taken care of. The children were small and, as small children do, were quick to make themselves at home. The mother tried to calm them and tell them not to touch that and ask for things and to say "thank you" and "please." Dad was sneaking them cookies and candies for every piece of broccoli they ate. The husband eventually had a beer or two and shot the breeze with dad. Mom and the wife were exchanging baking tips. The kids were playing a board game with the other children. Thankfully the problem with their car was minor and my cousin was able to fix it relatively quickly. While we never saw those folks again, they both thanked us for making them feel so welcome. Dad assured them that the door was always open should they be back our way again. The youngest child looked sternly at my dad, an elderly fat man with a snowy white beard, and beckoned him closer. Dad knelt down and the child said, "Are you Santa?" Dad winked and said, "What do you think?"

Family is who you say it is. And this is the time of year when we are most reminded of the care that our family deserves and often needs. Cherish and love all that you have known this year and show them in any small way that you are thinking of them. But I ask you to go farther than that and make someone your family. Help a veteran too proud to ask for help by insisting they come for dinner. Offer a cup of hot coffee or chocolate to a volunteer ringing a bell outside of your shopping mall. Talk more to the neighbor across the street. Ask after the family of the teller who cashes your paycheck. Invite your kids' best friend to participate in a family tradition. Do it now, but continue it on where ever and when ever you can. Remember these people on more than this one occassion. Make them feel like part of the family. Make them truly part of your family. Weave the bonds of life tighter among those you see most often.

Become their Santa,

22 November 2012

You Have Two Ears And One Mouth

So the post before last was about how to get your family to open up to you about events in their lives. I cautioned you against pushing an issue too far and running rough shod over their feelings. The emotions of others can be overly sensitive and extremely hard to predict. Trying to build the trust that gets you into their innermost confidences doesn't happen overnight. And it is so easy to lose their trust with a misplaced word or action. One of the best ways to guarantee no one will ever want to confide in you is to blab the family gossip at every turn. The most likely time any person is likely to slip up is during a family get together like the holiday season.

Personally, I see no point in many of the secrets people try to keep. Yes, there are good reasons. Everyone can think up a legitimate reason why something needs to be hidden. But as a genealogist, many of those secrets become stumbling blocks to the truth. They aren't walls, really. They are annoyances that may obscure the facts for years, decades..... maybe a lifetime or two if you're lucky. However, genealogy is a persistent science that is ever evolving and becoming more efficient. What would've required months of snail-mail and guesswork can now be figured out in a few hours if not a few days with a greater chance of accuracy on initial attempts. With the help of the internet and my widespread friends worldwide, from the comfort of my home and local repositories, I can now follow my ancestors over hill, over dale, across the waters where genealogical bloodhounds of old would lose the scent. As I mentioned in the other post, that which my family thought was hidden was relatively easy to find in plain sight. Not that the waste of time taking the long route doesn't annoy. Like watching a suspenseful crime drama, I often wonder why innocent witnesses don't just come out with all their information in the first interview. They are belligerent and obstructive to the investigation. But the detectives always get it out of them in the end of the hour. For me, it has become wearisome to sit across from a relative who knows more than they are telling when you both know that that's what they are doing. But their are no escalators to Heaven. One must use the stairs.

Over the last year of my blog (happy first anniversary!), I have tried to instill a sense of procedure in you, my dear Reader. Start with yourself. Start with what you know. Move to the living relatives and what they know. Use maiden names for women. Source your tree and cite your sources. Make this obsession your own and savor it... At every turn on this journey, I have given you license to do this as you please, as long as the basic framework of genealogy is there. You can live your life as you please, as long as you allow for the basic niceties of life. I have reminded you about saying "Please" and "Thank You". I have asked you to meditate on the fact that you aren't the lone descendant and that the opinions of others must be taken into account. I hope that you have taken my advice to heart. You need to walk that mile in your ancestor's shoes to get a better idea of the how's and why's of their life. You need to see through the eyes of another before you can ever get them to see through yours.

If you can't accept the difference of opinion (or at least respect it), then the basic framework of a working relationship is not there. You will not develop the closeness of a familial bond so very necessary for open and honest communication. And as the old saying goes, "you have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you speak." You need to become an active listener. Anyone can hear what is going on around them, but it takes a real effort to listen. To absorb the information presented verbally and nonverbally. To process it and have a real conversation between equals. You're not an attorney grilling a witness. You're their relative and friend. What would you want your friend to do for you? Listen to what you say and respond accordingly perhaps? Maybe not glaze over and formulate their response for when you finish speaking? I'm sure you'd like them to let you finish your own sentences. And you certainly wouldn't want them to go trotting off with that story and tell all and sundry if you just got done telling them you wanted it to be between the two of you.

It's hard for a genealogist to keep mum. We spend so much time digging in the dirt, that sometimes we can't help but crow when we find that precious gem of information. But it isn't about us, is it? Family is a living, breathing, growing organism made up of a multitude. You are one cell in that organism. And while I am a bit of an egoist, even I have to admit that I may not be anything more than an epithelial. I told you about my 100 year box. I have found it a very effective visual tool for those who are reticent to part with vital information. But what truly speaks volumes about my worth as a co-conspirator is the volumes I don't speak. The stories that family know I know that aren't brought up (vs. the hundreds of truly entertaining stories that I share freely) are evidence of my ability to respect the feelings of others. The "truths" I will publicly accept are the price I pay for the private confessions.

So the holiday season is upon us and we find ourselves visiting family a bit more (hopefully). We take the time to remember more than just our parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. We reach out to the 3rd cousin once removed and the great uncle in the nursing home that can't remember if we are the one he liked or if it was our brother. We take this opportunity to meet in person the relations our research has discovered. A genealogist always has a sense of family, but no more so than during this time of the year. My last post was about making the visits fun and informative to spark more sharing. Making games is always a good way to get the less than enthused involved in telling their tales. And finding an exciting way to present your new finds keeps family from considering your research as dry and boring. Sometimes, however, you will have a truly juicy story or notorious relative that you simply musn't talk about. The only way to know if the information will be well received is to have that close personal relationship with each family member. You must put in as much time with each living relative as you put into your research of the dead ones (if not more). And if you have any reason to believe that Auntie will be upset to hear that her great grandfather was the most prolific slave trader in all of Georgia, maybe you should let it be.

If you go around raking the muck, all you get is dirty,

18 November 2012

Is It Thanksgiving Already???

Hello Dear Readers!

My apologies for the hiatus, it was most unexpected. Truth is, while I would love to make genealogy and blogging my full-time endeavor, the rather inconvenient need to eat requires another avenue for steady funds.

Lord, I need to stop watching BBC television for about a month. Truth is, I have another more physical occupation that has a regular paycheck. Sadly, a few weeks ago, I injured my hand on the job. I injured my thumb and forearm. I was unable to type for some time. When I finally started to sit down to my computer work again, I had terrible bouts of tingles and stiffness. I had to face the harsh reality: my hand was sprained and it needed rest.

Well, I'm on the mend now and hope to have some great posts for the holidays to get your genealogy juices flowing! Thanksgiving is this Thursday, so it's a perfect time to pump the living relatives for what they know. But don't be a black hole of information. Prepare a poster or book or something showing your family tree. Take photos to share. Make games! Have photos printed out card style and print or write facts about the relative on the back. Who wouldn't want to trade their Uncle Silas' second wife for a Great Grandma rookie card? Or play family trivial pursuit! Make cards for the game with the categories of, say, "Smith family history" or "Family milestones" or "Regional recognition." Complete your game piece (and crown yourself in gloating glory) by winning with the wedge for "what family member ran for political office twice and failed to win before becoming an optometrist"! Take out the baby photos and play a "Guess who". The ideas are endless as long as you are willing to get creative!

Well, I hope to entertain you with a new post this Friday. Until then, it's traditional Sunday dinner time with the parents. It doesn't have to be a holiday to get you together with your family.

But it helps,

28 October 2012

Family Trees Would Be More Fun If It Weren't For the Family

Are you having fun building your tree? I know I am. I love working on my family history. I enjoy the hunt. I revel in the research. More than that, I love connecting with living people. Reconnecting with the relations I knew in my childhood and meeting cousins newly discovered are really what make this all worth while. They can give me information on other relatives living and dead. They have photos and stories to share. They are the continuation of this long story, connected by common history. On the other hand, those living relatives also have a nasty habit of getting bent out of shape about the who, what, and how of my tree...
Why do they take it so personally?

We 've all had the relative that thinks we 're just trying to dig up the past with no regard to who could be hurt. And if you haven 't run across the relative that doesn 't want their photograph on your tree, you 're a lucky S.O.B. (or a liar). But, have you ever been FORBIDDEN to research a line or person? There 's always the person that has such a large grudge on some other relative that they refuse to talk about them. It makes our lives harder, but we work around them. And then there are those relatives that are so convinced that only the worst things will come out of your research that they 'll demand that you leave that side alone entirely.

Who Are These Crazy People and Why Do They Claim to Be Related to Me?

Seriously, what is wrong with them? I m trying to build the most comprehensive family history I can! To me, anyone who was called family whether related by marriage, adoption or blood is truly family and has a spot on my tree. I don t think it s obsessive to include the in-laws. I have no problem listing birth and adoptive parents for a child. I celebrate the famous folk as much as I do the nearly nameless.  I don t blame people for the mistakes they made in their lives. I also feel no shame for their actions, so I see no reason to keep them from my tree. Hell, if I can find it in a simple newspaper search, what 's the point in trying to hide the facts? And if they share it online on public pages, why am I not permitted to share that same information on my tree?

Here I am, slaving away on a tree that now contains thousands of people. I have given over a decade of my life to painstaking research, sourcing, and composition to deliver a cohesive tree that breathes life into ancestors that would otherwise be just names in a book. I call, write, and travel to visit my far-flung relatives to get their version of stories. I digitize, label and watermark their photos for my tree. I take those self-same photos and make copies for other relatives upon request. If I have any end-game for this work, it 's to make a book that ties together the history of my family with the greater history of the world in which they lived. I want to make this work as accessible as possible to as many of my relations as I can, whether they live now or later.

And what do I get? I get relatives refusing to share photos of themselves. I get in-laws demanding I leave their history alone. I have to beg to get publishing rights from living relatives for their copyrighted material. I can 't get names of birth parents (and am told to leave it alone). In short, I get a lot of hassle from people who don 't seem to understand what I m trying to do. I m no grave-robber! I 'm your relative dag-nabbit! Why even bother asking for their permission? I can find so much publicly available that they can 't stop me from doing my research!

It 's Their Family Too!

Place yourself in their shoes for a minute. Imagine your cousin/ niece/ nephew/ aunt/ uncle/ sibling starts researching the family. Do you trust them? Are they reliable as far as research method or do you pray their mistakes will be minor while you expect glaring ones? Are they just trying to find the juiciest stories to parade about at family gatherings? Do you think that they' ll treat you fairly or do you plan for stories to be slanted to make you the villain? Are you hoping there are things about your past (or a relative' s past) that they don' t find out? What if they come round and tell you that your favorite uncle was a serial rapist? And what if it was your 3rd cousin twice removed whom you 've never met who was the researcher? Now they are calling you up and asking for your children's names and birthdays. They want to know your favorite foods and how many grey hairs you have. Who is this person??? We can often forget that people don 't view life through the same eyes that we do. Despite the fact that they are related to us, they don 't have the same frame of reference. Hell, sometimes siblings seem like they lived in a different house!

Let s break this down by some of the objections I 've seen pop up (feel free to leave any I miss in the comments section):
  • Don 't put my picture on your tree- Some people don 't like how they look. Others have a fear of privacy and don 't want their pictures online. You could argue copyright and who has rights to what photos and what you 're allowed to do without their acknowledgment, blah, blah, blah...or you could respect their feelings. My dad has told me not to add any of his photos to my online tree. He did allow me to share photos with relatives on a Facebook family page, however. My aunt has asked me to keep all photos of her from the Internet altogether. I respect their feelings and keep their photos private. Even if another relative gives me photos with my dad in them, I don 't put those photos online. It doesn 't matter who gave them to me, it matters how I treat my relatives. I have shared only one very old photo of my dad on the family group page, because I don 't trust my cousins to respect his wishes. Many of the photos on that group have ended up on their Ancestry trees. Even if they agreed to not share his pictures, they may forget. Or they may believe that they have every right to share his photo since I shared it on Facebook. I have seen a lot of people arguing the ethics of this in the message boards. The ones that see no problem with sharing the photos always use the "but they put it on this other website" or "I found it publicly available, what' s the big deal?" Hey, just because I can get my great uncle' s mugshot from the courthouse doesn' t mean he would want that as his profile picture on my tree.
  • Don't list the birth parents on your tree- I have several adopted relations. Invariably, the first time I interview them or their parents for the tree, I get the "but they're still family". Well, duh. I see no problem listing anyone that was considered family, even if all they were was a childhood friend of my dad 's that I grew up knowing as "Uncle". Hey, they 've been my family since I was born, why does the building of a family tree negate that? I do want to be as accurate as possible, however, so I do list them as adopted. I do want the information on their birth parents. I don 't want to leave a tangled confusion for future researchers. Sometimes I am told that I can 't research the birth parents. The child doesn't want to be associated with "those people". The adoptive parents feel slighted that you don 't consider them the "real parents"...in short, they bring a lot of emotional baggage to this table. While I want an accurate tree, I also want a happy family. This is where a delicate touch and respect for other people 's feelings are needed. I 've gotten birth information on almost all adopted relations. I tell them why I want the information (future generations, medical issues down the road, accuracy, etc.). I tell them how I set preferred parents on my online tree to adopted parents, but still have the birth parents as an alternate for research purposes. And I respect their wishes if they don 't want me to contact the birth family.
  • Don 't research the in-laws- So you get married and decide to research the spouse 's line. Then they tell you to leave it alone. You figure, "Hey, if we have kids, they ll be missing half their history if I don t research it!" That is true, but to those in-laws, you are some weird near-stranger trying to dig up their dirt. I avoided this pitfall by enlisting my fiance. I told him I was adding his family to "our" tree for our future children. He had played around with Ancestry a few years ago and been in contact with a distant relation in Australia. He didn't get into it beyond that, but understood what the process of building a tree included. This is where a "don 't press" attitude really works. If I contact his relatives, I could get a lot of push back and no sharing. So I have him do it instead. He tells me he 's going to his dad's. I ask him to ask what his grandparents' birthdays were. He goes to his nephew 's 2nd birthday. I have him ask for photos from his sister. I use this same method with all in-laws (at least at first). I put emphasis on researching my blood relations, but often add information about the in-laws. I feel that will help even my cousin 's kids one day should they get the genealogy bug. So my cousin gets married and I ask him/her for their spouse 's info. Then when talking about childhood memories or sharing photos, I ask about the spouse's parents. If I run across a record that may relate to the spouse, I have the cousin ask about it. Sometimes those in-laws will contact me, because they realise that I m working with respect even on their relations. Other times those in-laws are taken far enough back that I find they' re related to me! So then I 've justified my interest in their history (although this usually leads to my cousin asking if they should be worried about their kids being born with gills).
  • Don 't research that person "we" aren t talking to- We all have that one person or side that, for whatever reason, we won't talk to anymore. There are legitimate reasons to sever ties, I'll grant you that. I also know that working on your family history can often soften the old hurts and mend your fences. But when it comes to other relations demanding you not talk to someone, it's usually someone you've not had a personal issue with. They aren't talking to that person , so you shouldn't. There is no rational argument that anyone can give that will make this relative help you in contacting this person. So the only thing you can (and should) do with this relative is to tell them you respect their feelings. You need to decide if the information is more important than your relationship with this relative as you may lose this connection. If you are willing to take the risk, the best way to go about it is to tell the refusing relative your feelings on needing the information and that you are willing to not discuss them with the other person, but that if other relatives will help you, you will be reaching out to that other person. Honestly, I haven 't run into this yet. Due to a rather unique childhood where I didn't get into the bull of one side or the other in any argument, I'm seen as a mediator. Cousin A could hate cousin B with all their marrow and I can still talk to both with no issues. I just don't bring up what's going on with cousin A around cousin B. They both know I talk to the other, but respect my feelings by not dragging me into the problems. And because I'm not in them, I don't judge their actions.
  • Don 't mention that murder/rape/slave holding/robbery/other "shameful" bit of history- When I found a few relatives with slaves, my aunt went nuts. How dare I mention they had slaves! Such a shameful thing should be hidden. She didn't know how to feel or act anymore, because she came from someone able to oppress another person. She could only calm down by assuring herself that the owner might have been a kind master who treated his slaves with respect. Really? Then there's the relative that choked a man to death. But I m sure he loved kids and puppies...why do we feel this need to hide or soften the harsh realities of life? If your family goes back to the Colonies, owned land, and/or was relatively rich, there is a possibility that your family owned slaves. (Many consider it a certainty, but in reality there were colonists who didn't own slaves, weren't rich, and/or didn't own land). Let's be honest with ourselves, here. People live their lives as they see fit. Slavery was accepted in many cultures over MILLENIA. Powerful nations throughout history have oppressed weaker nations and that's just a fact of life. Another fact is that people are screw-ups. You can't honestly research your tree and expect to find only diplomats and royalty. You ll find out about secret births, mysterious deaths, suspicious financials...I mean, seriously, I can think of at least three living relatives that fall in the screw-up category. Am I supposed to edit history and make them saints when they die? Why do I have to do the same for relatives that were dead long before my first breath of air? I didn't do anything wrong, so why should I feel their shame? On the other hand, their crimes may still have living victims...and to flaunt the stories could hurt them. And what if it was in the news? There's public proof of their dastardly deed...but is that enough to make my public display of the story less cruel? If I 'm publishing my stories in a book, does the fact that I found the newspaper article (and paid for publication rights) outweigh my living relations' desire that the story remain buried?
  • Don 't believe everything you see on the Internet- This one is sound advice actually. Just because you find someone saying it online doesn 't make it true. However, when my father said this last weekend, he was trying to convince me that he and my mother weren't related as I showed them to be. He gave the scoff of "I love how everyone believes what they read on the Internet!" To which I had to calmly show him the records attached. I had to go backwards starting with the 1910 census that showed his grandfather living with his father. Then the 1900 census showing that father living with his widowed mother and sister. Then that sister's marriage license to my mother's grandfather. After all that what do I get? "Well who cares anyway! That s still not a close relation!" So why was it such a big deal to be related to her anyway, dad???? Well, besides my dad's craziness when it comes to claiming his ex in-laws as kin, there were other minor things (like the spelling of his grandmother 's maiden name) that had him trying to correct my tree for about an hour. Each objection was shown the proof and method to my tree. While I bore my dad with stories about the family practically every Sunday, this is the first time he took enough interest to look at what I had. He had tried researching back in the days before Internet, so he can at least admit I have gotten much farther for much less expense than he has. I doubt it will lead to a renewed fervor on his part, but I'll jump on any opportunity to share my research. Even when I spend half of that time defending it. And that's just it. If you're going to have facts that other relations object to, make sure you have the proof to back it up.
The 100 Year Box and Split Trees

No matter how convincing your argument, how many promises you make, or how trustworthy you've been in the past, some relatives will stubbornly refuse you access to their information. So how have I finally resolved the conundrum of what I'm not allowed to share on my public tree? Easy. I don't share what they don't want shared. But how do I get it out of them in the first place? Well, that's not so easy.

First, you have to listen to their objection. Having been a salesperson for most of my adult life, I've become fairly good at hearing what the real problem is. Often what a person states is the problem doesn't have anything to do with their real objection. I have a cousin who has children from a previous relationship. Her husband adopted the children. She refused to give me the father's name, because "my husband is their father". I'm not saying he isn't, but there is this other guy that may have other kids with someone else. She doesn't live on the moon and her kids may run into their half-siblings unknowingly. Issues may arise. Her objection was that her husband should be listed as the father. The underlying problem was that she didn't speak to the children's father and wanted nothing to do with him. I agreed to not contact the father in exchange for his name and his parents names. Should her children ask, they may have that information when they are adults. A fair exchange to ensure the truth isn t lost.

So how do you get to that root objection? Step 1: Repeat their objection ( So you don't want anyone to know you were married before?). Step 2: Empathise ( I could see how that would be uncomfortable). Step 3: Suggest a solution ( But if the older relatives already know about it, won't they tell your kids?). If given a new objection, repeat steps. If met with irrationally emotional justification, let it drop for now. Never let a discussion become an argument. No one wins.

After you've discovered what the real problem is, you need to see the problem from their side. You need to show them you understand how they feel. If you don't, you won't win them over. A cousin who feels that her mother was never there for her and doesn't want to be associated with her needs understanding. You could argue the rights of the mother until you are blue in the face. She won't care. But if you can reach her on that emotional level and feel her sadness (and possible anger), you may be able to get her to see reason. What if her children wish to know about her mother? What if they want to know why she never spoke about her? Again, if she doesn't wish to open that wound, let it go. You can always revisit the issue at a later date and get a different response. Or not. We can't always get what we want.

What has really helped me is an old family motto: "Don t run, you'll only die tired". When I make my first interview with a relative, I bring a notebook, a voice recorder and a box with a lock on it. I open the notebook and put the relative 's name and the date on the top of the right hand page. I tell them that if they feel comfortable, I 'd like to record the stories as we go so I don't miss anything. Then I take a key out and open the box. I tell them, "This is my 100 year box. In it you can see several sealed envelopes. Each envelope has a relative's name and the instructions to not open until after that person's death or 100 years from then or whatever time limit they decided upon in their interview." Depending on the relative and how much they know about the family secrets, I take out one of three notes. One is an article about a relative killing a man in a bar fight. The second is an article about a relative being at fault in a car accident that killed the other driver. The third is a copy of the naturalization record of a relative listing his Jewish heritage (something he tried desperately to obscure after WWII). I then say, "You know this story. This is something that this relative tried to hide. You and I have both heard the rumors surrounding this. I found it in public newspapers. I found it after their death when they can t tell me their side. Others can find it just as easily as I have should they have the desire to do so. I show you this to show you that you can spend your life running from the facts and in the end only die tired. If you have something you want to keep hidden, you need to tell me. After I leave you today, I 'll go back online to look for records. I 'll go to libraries to get newspapers. I 'll head to the courthouses for official copies. You tell me what you don't want to be found and it goes on this notebook page. Before I leave today, that paper gets sealed in an envelope with your name and a "do not open until " instruction on it. My brother is my executor right now and will respect these envelopes should I die. If you don't trust me to keep it a secret, that's fine. But if you don 't tell me it's a secret and someone else spills the beans, how am I supposed to help you keep your privacy?"

I also make mention of family grudges and how I wouldn't play the "he said/she said game", but that noting their side of the story will help later generations who aren't emotionally invested in the argument make sense of it all. Like I said, I'm seen by most of the family as outside of the usual feuds, so I have a reputation of hearing both sides out and not getting drawn into the ruckus. If you don't have this reputation, you may have a harder climb. In the end, it all comes down to how much they are willing to trust you with. There will always be things they leave unsaid. However, if you set yourself up as their co-conspirator, they may become more honest about the less than stellar portions of their past. Heck, half of the "horrible" things my relatives have revealed wouldn't raise an eyebrow even 40 years ago. To them it s an unspeakable thing, though, so I keep it that way...at least publicly.

That's where I tell them about my online tree vs. my documents offline. How I can set preferred parents to show one set over another. How I watermark all my photos so the person who holds the original is credited. I tell them about the stories that may not be so secret that they need to be in my 100 year box, but still shouldn't be on my tree. I give them the examples of relatives like my aunt that request their photos stay private. I tell them that I wish to compile a book, but that it could be another decade before I m ready to publish in that format. I tell them I want to record their voices for their great great grandchildren to hear, but I can write their stories down if they prefer. I remind them that I am not their enemy. I endeavor to see their side of the situation so they can better see mine.

If you don't have the reputation for keeping promises or respecting the feelings of others, this will not work for you. And it can be very tempting to say "Screw them! I found it in public records, I don't NEED their permission!" Well, in an upcoming article, I 'll cover what permissions you'd need from living relatives to publish their information. Today, however, I would like to point out that you do need their cooperation. This isn't a one-time thing. This is your relative. Your kin. Your flesh and blood. You have to cross this bridge frequently, don't burn it down over a little thing. I have my private files and an entirely private online tree. If a relative I've invited to my public tree says, "no, I don't want that out there.", I take it down. I move it to my private tree. I take it offline completely. Whatever will keep them happy. And when they're happy, they give me more. They talk more and bring up things they wouldn't tell others. They preface with "now don't go spreadin' this around", and I give the wink and nod to assure them this is between us.

And that's what a family tree really is. It's between us. You may research for years in dusty attics, technologically impaired archives, and poorly maintained graveyards, but this is their family too. It's not "yours" or "mine", it's "ours". Our family. Our grandparents. Our history. Our future. Imagine yourself in their place and they in yours. Wouldn't you want them to respect your wishes? Wouldn't you feel railroaded if they refused to take your objections under consideration? You may not understand why they are making a big deal about hiding the fact that their mom was born 2 months after her parents' marriage, but you can respect their feelings. Then again, some may see this as an opportunity to finally tell someone they know won't judge their actions or spread the story around to relatives that don't need to hear it. The active phrase here is "Be Respectful". They have an emotional investment in the situation and they need your respect. Give it and they'll respect your role as family historian and open up to you. Sometimes just showing you can see their point of view and still disagree with it will help them to come to terms with their own hang-ups. Several relatives I've interviewed have put stories in my 100 years box and then called me a month or so later to say, "ya know what? It's not that big a deal. Just don't put it in your blog." Done.

Names, events, and dates may have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent,


19 October 2012

What Is Going On With the SSDI?

If you’ve been following the news, reading the genealogy blogs or are just really on top of your game, you’ve heard at least a little of the kerfuffle surrounding the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. If not, or you don't get what the big stink is about, lemme break it down for you. This is a very wordy, very link heavy post, but you NEED to know this stuff. Please take the time to read it, follow the links, and if I don't answer all your questions, head to Google right after!

What is the Social Security Administration?
The Social Security Act was passed to create a social program that would provide financial assistance to retirees, unemployed persons, and families with dependent children. The Social Security Administration was conceived in 1936 as a way to track workers’ earnings in order to compute the benefit level and entitlements that would be paid to said worker or their surviving dependents. At it’s inception, the SSA was only worried about non-agricultural employees, though that would change rapidly until almost every person in the United States was issued a Social Security Number. Most citizens now receive their SSN at the time they are born.

What is the Social Security Number?
The Social Security Number is a 9-digit number that is used to identify a specific worker and track their wage earnings. From inception to December 2008, the SSA has issued approximately 450 million Social Security Numbers. The social security number is broken up into three groups in the 000-00-0000 format. What’s with the format and why is it a useful tool for Genealogists? Well, the first three numbers are an area number. The second set is for a group number. The final set is a personally identifying serial number. Basically thousands can have the same area and group number, but that serial number is the one that tells people who you are specifically. No one has a 0000 serial number. Social Security Numbers can be found documented in many places from court documents to property records. While we’ve become more concerned with identity theft, there used to be a time that that number could be found on checks, driver’s licenses, school id’s, etc. As a genealogist, knowing that number can help you confirm that the John Smith you are talking about is your John Smith.

The area number was divided across the country and commonwealths to indicate the state that issued the number. It can’t be considered residence of the worker as many would work and live in different areas (or, as it was a new system, companies mistakenly had all their employees send their applications to a central location on the East Coast despite where the worker actually lived). Still, for the most part, an area number can often hold the clue as to where the person was when they applied for their number. In 1972, the area number was changed to indicate the ZIP code on the application itself. So at least the later applications may be more accurate as to the residence of the individual. As of June 2011, the SSA randomizes social security numbers. So going forward, the geographic information (which was only slightly accurate to begin with) will become a historical note and no longer applicable to actual numbers.

What’s so important about that area number for Genealogists? This is the coolest part of the whole number, folks. You see, the area number was assigned to the states EXCEPT for a handful of numbers that were reserved for specific purposes:
  • 700-720 were reserved for railroad workers until July 1963.
  • 586 was reserved for Samoa, Guam, the Philippines, Americans employed abroad by American employers and (from 1975-1979) Indochinese refugees.
  • 580 was reserved for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
  • 581-584, 596-599 were also reserved for Puerto Rico.
  • 577-579 was reserved for Washington D.C.
  • 587-588 went to Mississippi and 589-595 to Florida when their original area numbers were used up.
  • 729-733 went to the Department of Homeland Security’s EaE (Enumeration at Entry) program.
  • 000, 666, 900-999 are unassigned and finding any claim to these area numbers is a blatant sign of a false number.

So by looking at the area number, you can tell where they applied (and possibly resided). If you see 715 as the start of your great uncle’s number , you can tell he was a railroad worker at least when he filed for his number. Even if you know nothing else about your relative, you now know this. If your relative has a 586, and you know they were born and raised in the mainland, you can now figure that they may have worked overseas for a time (and that means they may have border crossing documents!).

What is the SS-5?
An SS-5 is the application one fills out to receive a social security card. The application includes the first and last name of the applicant, their birthday, residence, gender, race (sometimes), and parents’ names. You can request a copy of the SS-5 of any person under FOIA, though if they are living, you will most likely be declined unless you are their guardian or have special reason why this will not be an invasion of their privacy (you can request your own file, claims and all). The SSA will search for the application for a fee of $29 ($27 if you know the SSN). Now, a word of caution: there is a legislative act that blots out the parents’ names if you cannot submit reasonable proof of death for the applicant who is not at least 100 years in age (or the number holder is not at least 120 years in age when no proof of death is provided). You can get the names if you can prove that the parents are dead. All well and good until you consider that a genealogist is usually ordering this document to get that information. Now, the statute argues that this is acceptable under the FOIA (5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6)). The section states that information can be withheld if it is “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” I get that if it is a recent death and the parents could reasonably be considered to be alive. That’s why they chose to restrict it for any applicant who is under 100 years in age when dead or 120 if still alive (or not proven dead). On the other hand, that number seems awfully high. Or maybe I’m just mad that I can’t get the name my grandfather put down for his father until 2027.

What is the Death Master File?
When your death is reported to the Social Security Administration, they add your name and number to the Death Master File. The death can be voluntarily reported by relatives, funeral homes or states’ health departments. Because not every death is reported to the SSA, not finding someone on the Death Master File doesn’t mean they aren’t dead. With that said, it is still 90% accurate for deaths of persons 65 and over (especially if they receive benefits).The file is updated weekly. The version offered to the public through various companies is usually called the Social Security Death Index (and comes with the warning that it may not be up to date).

Looking at the public file isn’t free. For an individual record, the NTIS (National Technical Information Service) will charge you $10. For a company to provide the most up-to-date version can cost them thousands of dollars. For a U.S., Canada or Mexico based company, the one-time purchase quarterly file costs $1,825. If they want a full year subscription it’s $3,650 (and this doesn’t count weekly update options!). For any other country, the cost is $7,245-$14,490. So if I live in the U.K. and I’m wanting to use the information in the most up-to-date DMF for a statistical survey of mortality rates across the globe based on availability of state provided pension plans (let’s just pretend), I may pay $7,245 (or £4,514) to get the latest file listing all those who have died. Ancestry.com used to provide this information as a free service. Because of the recent scrutiny of genealogy sites and how identity thieves may be using them, Ancestry.com has placed the index behind their pay membership portal and removed any person who died within the last 10 years. Remember that I can still go straight to the source and pay $10 a lookup. Heck, there’s even an unlimited lookup option for $995 (that admittedly makes Ancestry‘s year fee look like peanuts, but still less than a grand to search for anyone listed on the DMF). And there are still some genealogy sites that aren’t taking any action until the laws concerning the DMF are changed.

Who uses it?
Primarily, the SSA uses Social Security Numbers to identify an individual, track their wages, determine their benefits level and eligibility and cut off benefits when that number is added to the DMF (or begin benefits for their survivors). Government entities also use it for tracking parents that owe child support, Medicare and VA benefits, military and federal employee identification, Native American programs, identifying legal aliens, issuing bonds, providing driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, social programs like food stamps and school lunches, federal loans, HUD program, blood donations, jury selection, tracking alimony payments and cash transactions over $10k………. Oh yeah and verifying IRS tax returns so they don’t pay out dead people! The IRS is supposed to use the DMF to confirm that people aren’t claiming children they don’t have as dependents or filing claims for the deceased. I underlined “supposed to”, because at this moment the IRS is trying to say they don’t have the money or the manpower to stay on top of the fraud. That doing so would mean people would have to wait longer for their tax returns. I’ll get more into my opinion on this in the conclusion, but I want to be very clear right here: Banks, employers and the government are supposed to be using the DMF to STOP FRAUD AND IDENTITY THEFT.

Employers use the SSN via the CBSV (Consent Based Social Security Number Verification Service). The purpose of this system is to take the name and social security number you provide upon hiring to verify that they both match the records the SSA has. The system doesn’t provide any information about you, but will list a “Yes” if the name and number match, a “No” if they don’t, and a “Deceased” if you’re supposed to be dead. This is to confirm you actually get credit for the wages you turn over to the SSA as well as ensure that a person’s identity (whether they be dead or alive) isn’t being used fraudulently. Any financial institution that creates accounts and extends credit also uses the SSN to confirm that the person in front of them is who they say they are. Card companies should be checking the DMF to make sure dead people aren’t opening lines of credit.

Researchers studying epidemiological, mortality, retirement, disability, or even death reporting use these files. When using other death indexes like the NDI (National Death Index) that are created by death certificates, the DMF can be a control group. Any genealogist can tell you how misinformed the informant on a death certificate can be. Since the SSA gets the information from the actual person (or the parent at birth), the information is considered more accurate. The DMF also covers deaths prior to the start of the NDI in 1979. As it stands, the DMF is still the best for any researcher wanting a statistical analysis that will cover 1937-present. And hospitals and researchers will use the DMF to track study subjects (which is a good way to ensure a subject that doesn’t report in isn’t just forgetful). The NDI can be over a year behind in records, which can hamper the accuracy and timeliness of research.

And of course, us lowly genealogists…… including forensic genealogists who, as the lovely Legal Genealogist pointed out, are “the folks who need access to help in legal proceedings, in repatriation of the remains of American service members, and so much more.” Even if I’m willing to give up the last 2-10 years (for the sake of privacy of living relatives and whatnot), there are laws being proposed that will shut the whole thing down! Being one of the most comprehensive death files out there, especially for elderly relatives, this is a boon for a genealogist to find people within the last 80 years. We have so many privacy restrictions already that sometimes the only thing that will tell me if I even have a shot of finding a relative alive or not is if they show up on that index. Why take that away from people trying to connect with their relatives? Why stop adoptees from taking a known name and at least finding out if any possibility of a reunion has long passed. Why restrict siblings from finding each other after a family quarrel? Why keep anyone from knowing their grandparents/great grandparents? Why is it that we’ll punish the dead for us ineffectively protecting the living.

What does Congress want to do with it?
Approximately 8-9 million people a year are victims of identity theft. Here are some facts from a February 2012 FTC report: Government documents/benefits fraud makes up 27% of identity theft reports (the largest portion). It has increased 11% since 2009. Of the 27% total government/benefits fraud, tax or wage related fraud made up 24.1%. Government benefits, fraudulent driver’s licenses and other forged government documents are that remaining 2.9%,

Identity theft as a whole made up 15% of the fraud reports to the FTC in the 2011 calendar year. 50% of payments are wire transfers (up from 20% in 2009). 8% are consumers under the age of 19 (that’ll be important later). 15% are 60 years old and up. Since 2009, approximately a quarter of the complaints have been lodged by people in the 20-29 age range (and that number stays steady for each year with little variance). As a consumer ages, the percentage drops. According to the report, the IRS only filed 28 complaints itself in 2011. That’s less than 1% (Zero in 2009 and 2010). Most of the reports are coming straight from the consumer after finding out that their identity has been used fraudulently. After all these scary statistics, I should point out that Identity Theft Products are also on this complaint list (for not working) and that there was a February 2012 Consumer Reports about the fear-mongering going on to create a need for products that aren’t delivering the security they promise. I’d also like to point out that I found no clear statistic that stated how many dead people are having their identity stolen. I found individual cases and anecdotes, but no concrete proof that this is the large problem that I’ve been told in recent news stories it’s supposed to be. Congress loves to parade around the stories of parents of dead children finding out their precious baby was fraudulently claimed on someone else's taxes. But identity thefts for persons under 19 was what again? 8 percent (19,563 out of 248,538). How many of those are deceased children isn't really specified. And even deceased elderly relatives aren't where the largest numbers of fraud come from. It's the just-starting-out 20 year olds. Those who are capable of making mistakes with their own documents. I was able to find an article by the Legal Genealogist (really my go-to gal for Legalese) stating the problem with identity theft involving the dead was 1/10th of 1% of the problem. The living folks that are being conned into giving this information or are unaware of how to protect their information (twenty year olds, I'm looking your way) are what we need to focus on right now.

Because of how the SSA is set up, there would need to be a change in the law concerning the SSA to restrict access to it. And that’s what Congress is up to right now. Several bills have been introduced to reduce or outright ban access to anyone but Federal or State agencies. Congressman Sam Johnson has proposed one such bill (“Keeping IDs Safe Act of 2011”). That bill would remove access from anyone outside of Federal or State agencies needing to access records of deceased individuals. There are others who are proposing that records of the recently deceased (from 2-10 years) be removed from the public files. There are so many voices in this arena (and my post is now a book) that I can only say that ya’ll need to get to reading some of this information. I love the posts the Legal Genealogist has been doing and have linked a couple to this post. Get her in an RSS feed and really pay attention to the news surrounding these proposals. Your identity is at stake!

Now, there have been some changes to that public file already. November 2011, 4.2 million records were removed to comply with protected state death records from the public version of the DMF (the aforementioned SSDI). Basically, since the states were exempted from FOIA in the law asking them to provide death information to the SSA, they cannot be required to publicly share their information simply because they gave it to the SSA. The SSA can independently verify the death and then add the information themselves, but they usually only take the extra step for those individuals who received benefits or have surviving relatives who are benefits eligible. There was also a change to what is displayed in the index. The state/county of residence, ZIP code, last residence and ZIP code, and lump sum payment fields were all removed from the display. Because of the state exemption, the SSA estimates 1 million deaths each year will not be disclosed.

Who is Perholtz and what is FOIA?
FOIA stands for Freedom Of Information Act. Basically, this is the law says that we all have the right to obtain federal records (with a few exemptions). There is no requirement that the person asking for the records be a citizen of the U.S. If you wish to look up records on yourself, you can. You need to provide proof that you are who you say you are to ensure they aren’t giving away any information that is private. You can request records from any agency as long as you do so in writing and make a “reasonable” description of the information you seek.

What exemptions to this law are there?
  1. Material classified as pertaining to national security by an Executive Order.
  2. Internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.
  3. Information prohibited from disclosure by another federal law.
  4. Business trade secrets.
  5. Communications that are protected by legal privileges (Client/Attorney for example)
  6. Anything that would invade the personal privacy of another (you can’t use the federal government to stalk your ex).
  7. Law enforcement information IF it would interfere with enforcement proceedings, hinder fair trial, expose a confidential informant, disclose an individual’s personal information, or endanger someone’s life.
  8. Information about the supervision of financial institutions
  9. Geological information on wells.

  • There are also two law enforcement exclusions that prevent FOIA from hindering an on-going investigation if the subject of the investigation doesn’t know about it or disclosing informant information if the informant’s status hasn’t been officially confirmed.
  • The FBI also has a special exclusion for classified intelligence, counterintelligence, and international terrorism records.

Ronald J. Perholtz filed a lawsuit in 1978 under FOIA (Perholtz v. Stanford G. Ross [SSA], Civ. No. 78-2385 and 78-2386, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, 1980). He wished to have the death information released in order to prove pension fraud (just in case you wondered, he did prove fraud). The court decided that the dead didn’t have reasonable expectations of privacy and therefore the information could be released to Perholtz. Because of the number of requests the SSA received, it decided to make a public death file in order to decrease the FOIA requests (and save time and money in the long run). If Congress is able to restrict the DMF to government agencies, the number of FOIA requests will increase. No one believes that the courts will not require the information to be released upon reasonable request, so the DMF restrictions that Congress is asking for would only increase administrative and legal costs for the SSA. And as stated above, this will only hamper the work of honest individuals and companies without making our identities any safer.

Why should you (and everyone you know) care?
I want to start this last section by pointing out that at NO TIME was the SSN supposed to become a universal identifier. Since the beginning of the SSA, the administration has argued against using it for identification purposes and has flat out said that the system simply isn’t set up to be used as such. And yet, that’s what the government, businesses, financial institutions and everyone else have chosen for the end-all be-all of identification. Even today, those 9 little numbers aren’t secure enough to hold the gates to our identity. Yet, instead of coming up with a better system, we’re going to remove the public file that is designed to protect us and those institutions that provide us benefits from fraud.

In testimonies given before Congress and interviews to the press, the representatives of both the SSA and the IRS say that they have neither the finances nor the manpower to handle checking the DMF to prevent fraud. The IRS says that checking every SSN against the DMF would take so much time that returns would take longer. Is there no computer system that could be made to mirror the one employers can use? A simple, “yes, no, dead” code that would check the number? Considering the push for electronic filing, I don’t see how the name and SSN fields can’t be run for a match before confirming. Heck, couldn’t that be part of the tax software like H&R Block or something? I have to put in my name and address and phone number. I already give them my SSN. Why can’t there be a minute where the computer checks the DMF to make sure I’m not dead? They are supposed to be checking that!

The SSA has even said that it isn’t part of their job description to maintain the DMF. Well, in the strictest sense, no, but remember when I said it was created to reduce costs and manpower from all the FOIA requests? Remember the FOIA section above? Yeah, that’s what they’re predicting! They’ll need more money and people to handle the inevitable FOIA requests! I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but really? It all comes back to each agency saying that they are so bad at their jobs that they need more to do their jobs. If I’m bad at my job, I get fired. But then again, I don’t work in government.

Then there is a NY Times article that has several researchers stating that shutting down the DMF will NOT stop identity theft. Financial institutions are saying it will be HARDER to stop identity theft. So here we are, our house has a leak and our plumber wants to fix every pipe but the ones that are actually leaking. We are on the verge of greater problems in identity theft, higher research and government costs, and punishing all the good people in the world for the sake of pretending to stop the wicked.

But Congress wants us to please think of the children!

11 October 2012

Is Your Grandmother On Facebook? Ancestry.com Wants to Know, But Why?

There is a "new" feature from Ancestry.com that links your tree (or creates a tree) based on your friends list on Facebook. I say "new", because it's actually been out for a few months. They've taken it down, put it back up, taken it down, tweaked it, put it back up, tweaked it again...... And now they are touting this "new" feature. Naturally, people have a few questions: What does it look like? How does it work? What does Ancestry share with Facebook? Why would I want to use it? And of course How long before someone screws it up?

First, let's talk about where to find it on Ancestry and what it looks like. You can find a link on every living person asking "is so-n-so on Facebook?" The image below is from my tree with the personal information blotted out. As you can see, it's just a simple blue link on the page. Some have called it an "eyesore" already. I'm not so sure about that. I find it easily ignorable, but there are others that are saying this link is ugly and obtrusive. Is there a way to get the link to go away? Not at all. Wish there was? Send a feedback to Ancestry so they can get their developers on it.

So it's, like, this out-of-place blue link? Fabulous.

Ancestry's blog has a new post covering some of the complaints/concerns that have come their way. There are some points they put on the plus side. The "why would I use this?" is answered with:
  • The app pulls the profile picture of the linked people and updates it as they update their Facebook profile.
  • If your relative lists their birthday, the app will add it to your tree.
  • With their Facebook profile linked, it's a simple click to go to that profile so you can message relatives.
  • It searches your profile for those you've marked as relatives and then searches the profiles of those relatives for people they've marked relatives so you can connect to people you may not know are on Facebook.
Obviously Ancestry isn't going to bring up the cons in a blog post advertising this amazing new connectivity. That's what I'm here for. The photo below is from my brother's profile. The blue link is now just "Facebook Profile". Still there, still blue. So if you thought the first link was obtrusive, this isn't any less so. Then there's that profile photo. Sure it's nice to see my brother's smiling face when he's using it as his Facebook photo, but as you can see, he likes Lolcats too. Not something I want to see on my tree. Sure it's fun when your god-awful aunt has a crab for her photo. (It's just so fitting, isn't it?) But if they are passing along their political message in that photo (or showing off their favorite Suicide Girl), relatives you've invited to view the living on your tree may be upset. I also tested the photo for my own profile. When I changed the photo on Facebook, the original wasn't saved on Ancestry. So even though I at once had a photo of my grandmother and myself on my profile, it's not there anymore. If I'm linked in another relative's tree and change my photo, they don't get to have a copy of that picture. But that may be a bit of a good thing. At least I can be sure the media tab on my tree isn't being filled up with "Ice cream zombies".

So there are some issues.

While Ancestry makes privacy for the living a big deal, Facebook has had issues with that in the past. They are taking it more seriously now, but the trust once lost isn't easily restored. I recommend reading the Terms of Service for both sites. When you click the "Is so-n-so on Facebook" link, the first thing you get is a box that has links to the Terms of Use. READ THEM. Don't come back to me later saying you didn't know what was going on. It looks like they are tying up the privacy pretty well.... from your end that is. The thing is, I added 93 people to my tree using this application. 50 of them aren't in my friends list. I found them from the friends lists of my relatives. Of those 50, 20 are cousins I don't know personally. 10 are the relatives of my sister-in-law (whom I will admit I've never met in person as my brother is in the military and they've spent most of my life halfway around the globe). The others had to be deleted after finding out my idiot teenage cousins listed their friends as relatives when they aren't. How cute. I caught quite a few when I was loading them in (obviously my 13 year old cousin isn't married), but some I took on face value as one will do. Then I contacted my cousins to learn more about their "other side" relatives. Now, that's a step that not everyone will take. I am glad I did, because I was able to clean out those incorrect relatives and get the skinny on the right relatives (with a few friend invites from them- I do so love being the "family genealogist"). That's problem one with the privacy set up.

The second is that my relatives weren't notified when I connected their profile. Their relatives that I'm not connected to in anyway on Facebook didn't get a notification. I had the option of notifying them and asking if they wanted to view my tree, but I didn't have to. So here are 93 people that I've connected to with their profile photo. A public photo to be sure, but it's being shared on a site that they don't know about. As long as I'm the only person using the tree, it'll probably be no problem....... of course, I share my tree with relatives far and wide on both sides of my family. So now my 3rd cousin on my Whitfield side can see the profile pic of my first cousin on the Householder side. They aren't blood kin, but at least now each knows what the other looks like. Is that a good thing? I know Facebook requires the user to be at least 13 years old, but I also know my 10 year old cousin lied on his birth date to get a profile. So now not only is his birthday wrong on my tree, but his profile picture is visible to anyone invited to my tree. Ideally the people I'm sharing my tree with are family that I know and trust. That's why Ancestry NEVER shows living people even on a public tree. You have to invite someone to your tree AND give them permission to view the living. You can invite people without giving them the living. Keep that in mind if you have any worries.

The Facebook side of the application.
So Ancestry tries to tie up the privacy as good as it might. And I applaud their efforts. On the other hand, Facebook allows my public profile photo to be downloadable even by people who don't know me. (Not that people couldn't find a way to get a copy anyway). Facebook has a nasty habit of making privacy opt-in instead of opt-out. I can see where the worry comes from for this application. It's not Ancestry they don't trust, it's Facebook. Ancestry is trying to create this great social media campaign to increase its usability and increase interest in a younger market. I get that. What I don't like is the inability to opt out of this grand experiment. And I certainly wouldn't consider myself old or out of date. Heck, I know a few octogenarians who are tech savvy and proud of it. I really don't see the objections as an age thing. Young and old are worried about a permeable layer between a trusted and protected research site and a social media site with a spotty record on privacy. And there are those who don't like the link so prominent on the page. They'd prefer it in the right-hand column where one can add weblinks. And if the Facebook app takes off, how long before we have a Google+, Twitter or Pinterest link? How much clutter can the profile page take? What about those non-relations that your relatives mark as siblings, spouses or parents because they find it fun or honorific rather than factual? We already know how badly trees can be mangled with thoughtless clicking and merging and now we're adding another site into the mix. I agree with those who see more problems than blessings in this new venture.

With all that said, it's up to you whether you use it or not. I do recommend taking a moment to message Ancestry and ask for an opt-out option even if you plan to use the application. You may like it now, but hate it later (And you'll show support for those who wish to have the link removed from an aesthetic angle if nothing else). Let your relatives know you've connected their profile so that if they feel uncomfortable they can ask you to disconnect their profile from your tree. Take the same precautions you'd take with any personal information about the living. Know what is protected by default and what you need to take action to protect on both ends of the transaction. In the end, try it out. Know what's going on even if you disconnect it right after trying it. At least then your complaints will be educated and precise. Like mine: The darn application hasn't worked all day. I used it a month ago and wanted to reuse it today to get more screenshots. The stupid thing had so many errors that I ended up closing it out. Many people are experiencing problems. Probably because so many are trying it out now that it's being advertised. So even if you want to try it, you'll need the patience to stumble through the errors, report major problems, and receive a less than spectacular final product when compared to the troubles to use it.

That's my opinion at least,

05 October 2012

Repository in Review- Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com is one of my favorite sites. I often compare the quality of another site against it..... so why wasn't it the first "Repository in Review"? Quite simply, I talk about it so much I didn't want to bore you with it. On the other hand, I do use it daily and you may not be familiar with it, so it is unfair to never review the resource. Besides, even if you use it, you may not know all that is available to you. So for the third installment of my ongoing review series, we're going to get the low-down on Ancestry.com.

The Features and Benefits

Ancestry.com is the largest online family history resource. Starting as a publishing company in 1983, they began to digitise records for online use in 1996. The Card Catalog lists 30, 994 collections that cover 10 billion records. While most are English or German language documents, there are also French, Italian, Swedish and Spanish documents. The U.S. and Europe are the most represented areas, but there are records available for Asia, South America, Mexico, Australia, Canada and Africa. In their Card Catalog you will now find web links to other genealogy sites. Ancestry may own Fold3.com, but it is a separate website with a separate database collection and membership fees. They will also link you to websites they do not own (and may have made an index without specifically partnering with that website). Why are they linking you to other websites? Because no one site has everything, not even Ancestry. I have seen a great number of people complain about this link to other websites. They don't want to use those other websites. If you don't, just ignore those hints. Go ahead and cripple your research right off the bat. Or you can be honest with yourself and admit you'll need more than one repository for your research.

On top of records, they have their Learning Center that includes a Wiki, forums where researchers inquire and connect with each other, Facebook page for updates and socialisation, and YouTube channel full of specific lesson plans and recordings of their interactive Q&A sessions. All of this is provided for free to any registered member. Regardless of whether you pay or not, you can build a tree of your own and upload any photos or information in your possession. If you pay for a while but let your membership lapse, your tree is still available. I often have to let my membership slide for a while and use that off time to add information I've gathered from relatives, other websites, and offline sources.

Some points out of the Terms and Conditions (red indicates direct quote from the T&C):
  • You may access the Website, use the graphics, information, data, editorial and other Content only for personal or professional family history research, and download Content only as search results relevant to that research. The Content may be downloaded onto mobile devices or desktop through the use of authorized Ancestry software. When downloaded, the Content remains subject to the limited use license contained in this Agreement. When I reviewed NewspaperArchive, I pointed out that professional use wasn't allowed. In this paragraph, Ancestry is giving you permission to use the site for professional purposes, as long as you continue to follow the guidelines of the site. That means you still have to follow copyright rules, so no publishing photos to a site or book (or final report to a client) without obtaining license to do so.
  • Except for Web Records, which are governed by the third parties that host the records, all Content is owned, licensed to and/or copyrighted by Ancestry and may be used only in accordance with this limited use license. The Website is protected by copyright as a collective work and/or compilation, pursuant to U.S. copyright laws, international conventions, and other copyright laws. What this means is that the links to other websites (i.e. Find a Grave) are subject to the terms of use and copyrights of their original website. (You can't copy photos from Find a Grave and distribute them on Ancestry.com without permission of and credit to the photographer- hence Ancestry providing a weblink instead of a photo or image of the website itself). Whatever items you upload that you own (a photo of the family you yourself took, an oral history you record in the story section, etc.) are licensed to Ancestry.com without changing ownership or copyright transference.
  • According to the Rules of Conduct, you cannot Reproduce, copy or sell any portion of Ancestry or Ancestry database contents, or systematically download contents and data of the Ancestry database to make or populate another database or for any other purpose. This kind of put me in the mind of a discussion I had with someone recently that had started a family website and wanted to take the images from Ancestry.com's databases and upload them to the new website. Nope, can't do it. You can link to the record. You can cite them as a source. You can download a copy to hold in your computer. But you can't copy a database in whole or in part for the purposes of distributing with other people.
  • For User Provided Content, Ancestry is merely hosting and providing access. We cannot accept any liability with regard to such material (including with respect to its accuracy). In other words, family member trees aren't gospel and shouldn't be used as facts. Ancestry.com doesn't police those trees and won't change anything found there no matter how much you know it's wrong. The only time they get involved is when someone makes an obscene tree or something to intentionally malign a person.
  • The decision to upload information to the Website is your responsibility and you should only submit content that belongs to you or that will not violate the rights of others. Be aware that content belongs to the creator of that content and you should not reproduce or submit anything without permission of the owner. This one trips a lot of people up. A picture of your great grandmother taken by a photographer is owned by the photographer or the studio that employed him, not you. Even if there are 100 copies in 100 people's hands, the photographer owns the copyright on each and every photo. By submitting User Provided Content to Ancestry, you grant Ancestry, its parent company and all of its affiliates, a transferable license to use, host, sublicense and distribute your submission to the extent and in the form or context we deem appropriate on or through any media or medium and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed or discovered. This basically just covers Ancestry's tail and says they have the right to have your photos and stories on a public tree in their search feature and on their servers. It doesn't mean Ancestry owns your items, but it does mean that their sister sites like Rootsweb and Mundia can also distribute your information without paying you to do so. It also covers technology changes (if the next big invention is a straight to brain interface, they don't have to ask for your permission for your items to go from the public website to the public brain wave). With that all said, if you own a copyright on something and someone obtains a copy of it without your permission, you can contact Ancestry's copyright department and they'll have it removed. You have to prove you own the rights to the work (and again, pictures of your grandmother as a baby aren't owned by you in any way).
  • All subscriptions are automatically renewing with the exception of gift subscriptions and pay-per view. This means that once you become a subscribing member, your subscription will be automatically renewed and your billing choice will be charged based on the subscription program (semiannually, quarterly, monthly, etc.) you have chosen unless you opt out or cancel by following the instructions in this Agreement. Except in the case of monthly subscriptions, you will be notified via e-mail before your subscription ends and asked to correct any information which has changed and whether you wish to "opt out" of your renewal. The renewal of the subscription takes place subject to the terms in force on the date of renewal. That's right, another automatic renewal site. And they send you a reminder email for all but the monthly subscriptions (which should renew at the same time every month so I can see why they don't remind you).

Dollars and Sense

There are two levels available: U.S. and World. Now, this is coming at it from the U.S. (which I am) and admittedly if you live in another country it'll be your area and World, so probably the better way to say it would be Local and World....... either way, I'm dealing with it as a U.S. subscriber, and as I'm about to talk price, will just clarify that this is the subs available for U.S. residents. There are three price options to each level: monthly, 6 month and yearly. For the U.S. records only, it's $22.95 per month, $77 for the 6 month option, $155 for the yearly. (The 6 month and yearly make it about $12.95 per month, but are billed all at once, so be ready for that!). The all-access World subscription is $34.95 per month, $149 for 6 months, and $299 for a year. (The 6 month and yearly work out to $24.95 per month, again billed at the total price at one time).

From the T&C: Opting Out of Renewal. You may opt out of renewing your subscription by calling Ancestry at 1-800-262-3787 or by logging into your My Account page on the Website at least two days before the renewal date. If you do not let us know that you want to terminate your subscription at least two days prior to the end of the current subscription period the payment for the renewal period of the subscription will be made. So you have 2 days before your renewal date to cancel your subscription (AND you must cancel before 5p.m. Mountain Time!). That means that if my subscription ends on the 19th, I have until 5 p.m. Mountain Time on the 17th to cancel my subscription. Again, they give an online option, but just call them as it goes easier when you have a real person (and then someone to blame if they mess up your cancellation). Also of note: if you have a subscription longer than the monthly sub, you can get a refund as long as you cancel within the first 30 days. Renewals must be cancelled within 7 days. Month subscriptions receive no refund, but you have access to the website until your month expires. In fact, any subscription that they are unable to refund continues to allow access until the subscription runs out, so don't wait until the last minute to cancel your subscription. Take care of it early enough to ensure it's done and then use it up.

When searching the Card Catalog, you can narrow the field to free databases by searching for the keyword "free". When I searched free, I got a list of 728 free databases that can be searched by anyone at anytime. You will still need to make a user name and password, but you don't need to log a credit card or participate in the 14-day trial to get these records. Now, that includes 2 family tree databases that are about as useful as warm dog turds most of the time, so really you're at about 726 databases. Still an impressive number. Also keep these databases in mind when comparing with other sites. These are usually publicly available databases that no one is (or should) charge for. Others are part of Ancestry's World Archives Project and have been made available by Ancestry using volunteer transcriptionists. Also note that these are usually only an index and that to see other data on the record you usually need to pay for a copy or the more detailed database.

My Two Cents

You can't ignore the numbers:
  • 2 million paying subscribers- 2 million people are so happy with the service that they choose to hand over their hard-earned money to Ancestry. Since that only counts the paying members, imagine how many more are using just the free side of the service. That speaks volumes (at least to me) about the quality and quantity of what's to be found on this site. Others may say it's because they have a near monopoly, but I can't help but think of FamilySearch and their impressive collection both on and offline (which I'll cover soon in another review).
  • 10 billion records and counting- this is where that near monopoly thing comes into play. I don't know if it's a good or bad thing for the community as a whole, but for me I count it as a good thing. One place to start, compile and keep my research? Yes, please. With it being centralised for U.S. and Europe ancestry, however, there are glaring holes to be sure. On the other hand, what they don't have is usually not online or held by websites specific to a database, so it's certainly a place to start for just about everyone.
  • 82¢ a day- Full site access is less than $1 a day for a full year. Heck, even if you do a month subscription for February (the shortest month), it's $1.25 a day for full access. You may not need full access. Maybe a simple U.S. (or local) subscription will do for a while. For what's available vs price to view, this is a rather cheap subscription. (Here's another way to look at it, how many records per dollar of a year's subscription: NewspaperArchives has 1,666,667 records per dollar, Fold3 has 1,175,735, and Ancestry has 33,444,816. While you will never need all of them, that's a hell of a lot of potential or "bang for your buck").
There is a 14 day trial. Use it. Even if you find the records useless, the ability to build an online tree and use their free databases and forums make up for that lack. There is a great potential for connecting to relatives who are also researching your lines. Of course, the records are the meat and potatoes of the site and most people will never get their fill. Don't go happily clicking away on all the hints that pop up though. They are just hints and you need to find out if they are facts. That requires critical thought and time. If you look at the family trees, consider any tree without records as suspect and only add what you already know to be true. If there are sources, review them to ensure the member hasn't made a mistake and led you down the garden path. If you have a recent immigrant or know quite a bit about your ancestors on this side of the ocean, go ahead and pay for full World access. If you are just starting out, don't bother with World, just get U.S. (or local) for the time being.

And remember, it's only one tool in your toolkit. You can let your membership lapse and still have access to your tree. I have a specific budget for websites. If I need a different site and I'm tired of Ancestry (I can't really say done, I'm never done), then I'll switch off one and pick up the other. I cite the other websites on my tree on Ancestry to keep my research together as well as to give hints of other work available for people who are connected to my tree. I'm proud to say that every member in my tree has at least one documented source proving they exist. It bothers me when a tree has 300,000 people and no sources. I wonder how they know they aren't wrong or duplicated. And to be honest, it's usually both. One last note on member trees: I've covered private vs public trees before. What I want you to take away today is that how and why other people research is their own business. If you wish to share your information, do so. If your information is taken by someone with a private tree, message them to welcome them to your family. If they respond kindly, you have a new friend. If they respond rudely or not at all, what have you really lost? Let them be and focus on your own work.

See you next week,