Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Can Genealogists Play by the Rules? Whose Rules?

Don Quixote fighting a windmill on his horse, Rocinante. In the background Sancho Panza next to his donkey.
When I was much younger, we used to play a variety of outside games including capture the flag, kick the can, run sheep run, red rover and many others. We also spent a lot of time playing inside board games. I think our favorite was Monopoly, but I recall many others. As I think back, I realize that none of us really knew the rules of most of these games, assuming there were some official rules. In fact, even though Monopoly had printed rules, we usually played by our own rules. There were always exceptions to the printed rules that we agreed on in advance or even during the game itself.

There was huge contrast between these spontaneous, loosely organized games and what has come to be called "organized sports." When my own children began to play games, such as baseball, they were regimented into a situation where you had to play by the "rules." If there were ever any doubt about what the rules were, there was always someone there with an "official rule book" to resolve any disputes. The main difference was the involvement of the parents (adults) in "supervising" the play.

From my own perspective, it seemed that the organized sports were run primarily for reasons known only to the parents sitting on the sidelines. Especially in the beginning with T-ball for the newest Little Leaguers, most of the children playing on the field only had the vaguest idea of what baseball was all about. I can seriously say that I had a lot more fun and enjoyment from playing capture the flag than I ever did participating in organized sports.

Going up against the bastions of organized sports, especially on the college/university or even at the professional level is like poor Don Quixote tilting at windmills. So who calls the rules for the genealogical community? Who wrote the book and when did I agree to play by the rules of the game?

In this regard, there is an interesting quote from the book of the Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It says at Section 129:39:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
What is meant by "unrighteous dominion?" In my terms, it means that those who perceive themselves to be in "authority' start to play the game by their own rules. They want to be the "king of the hill." 

Don't misunderstand what I am saying. I am not an anarchist. I do not espouse chaos. What I am saying is that genealogy is no different that any other organized activity, there will always be those who believe that they are the ones who are entitled to call the rules. I think to some extent, I am still back there playing capture the flag. I know there are rules out there somewhere, but the game is a lot more fun if the rules aren't too restrictive and you can make up some of them as you go along. 

I am afraid that too many of those who are initially attracted to investigating their family history, get introduced to the rules so quickly that they lose interest. The game just isn't any fun if you don't know how to play by the rules, especially when it seems that everyone you talk to has a different set of those rules. So far, in my thirty plus years of genealogy, I have yet to see the rule book. Maybe there isn't one?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Who Owns the Genealogy Companies -- An Update -- Part One

It has been a couple of years since I went through the process of analyzing who owns the various online genealogy companies. Since my last posts on this issue, there have been several notable acquisitions. The larger companies continue to expand. The notable exception, of course, is FamilySearch, International, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary corporation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FamilySearch International is listed as first registered in 1999 and is doing business as FamilySearch and the Genealogical Society of Utah. In fact, FamilySearch was formerly known as the Genealogical Society of Utah and the name "FamilySearch" was first used by that organization that began in 1894.

The organization and the acquisitions of the other large companies are much more complex and more difficult to reconstruct. Some of the acquisitions over the years have not been well publicized. Current ownership is usually a larger corporation or an investment group. Some of the acquisitions have been substantially modified or even completely absorbed by the new parent corporation.

The current genealogical scene is further complicated by the fact that some of the companies have partnerships or "strategic alliances" with other companies. FamilySearch has been particularly aggressive in seeking these partnerships, some of which have been well publicized. Since my last post on this subject, these partnerships have become a major factor in the expansion of all of the larger companies and many more of the smaller companies. With the larger companies, the partnerships involve a trade of genealogical record accessibility for technological assistance primarily through providing indexing services.

In the past, response to my posts has included a measure of paranoia from certain commentators. It is usually evident from the content of the comments that the individuals involved in making these comments about possible conspiracies are entirely ignorant of genealogy as an activity and are merely making their comments based their impressions of large corporations in general or, in some instances, prejudice against the owners of the companies or some-sort-of imagined agenda.

Another area of concern by commentators has been the issue of the ownership of genealogical records per se. There is a certain segment of the online community that believes that any information, no matter how acquired or designated, should be entirely free and so a certain amount of ire is directed at the large companies simply because they exist. This attitude also shows a marked degree of ignorance of the way records are created and maintained. Record repositories have very substantial overhead expenses and the cost of maintaining, cataloging, indexing and providing access to billions of records is enormous. These costs have to be covered by subscription or donation. These commentators also wrongly discount the cost an individual would have to pay to acquire access to these records before they were made available online.

That said, here is the current list. As usual, if there are any omissions, I would be more than happy for constructive comments.

I may as well start with the most popular and what is claimed to be the largest online supplier of genealogically related records. Quoting from the website, "About Ancestry,"
Our revenues have increased from $225 million in 2009 to $620 million in 2014. The company is majority owned by Permira funds, along with certain minority co-investors. was for a time, a publicly owned stock corporation. The purchase by Permira Funds took the company private.  Permira is described as follows on their website:
Permira is an international private equity firm. Since 1985, the funds have made over 200 private equity investments with a focus on driving transformation to build better businesses.
 Permira has a rather long list of investments and is one of the largest. Most of the companies are unfamiliar to me and are outside of the United States. Permira currently has fourteen offices, all of them outside of the U.S. has a long list of subsidiary websites that it has established or acquired. Here are the ones I have been able to find. The international websites are quoted from the International list.
Ancestry™Ancestry, launched in 1996, hosts the world's largest online collection of family history records - currently more than 14 billion, including the complete US Federal Censuses, US immigration records, military records from as far back as the Revolutionary War, and also many exciting collections from around the world.™, launched in 2002, hosts the UK's largest online collection of family history records with more than 1 billion searchable records including England, Wales and Scotland Censuses, exclusive online access to UK birth, marriage and death records, plus a comprehensive selection of WW1 military, immigration and parish records.™, launched in 2006, is the leading Canadian family history website with 235 million family history records including exclusive online access to the Censuses of Canada, the Inbound Passenger Lists and Ontario and British Columbia vital records. The site is in both English and French language.™, launched in 2006, is Australia's most popular family history website and home to more than 2 billion Australian and UK family history records which includes Australia's largest online index of birth, marriage and death records, the most comprehensive online collection of Convict and Free Settler records, the Australian Electoral Rolls, plus parish records, newspapers and much more.™, launched in 2006, is the first website to host a significant collection of German family history records - currently more than 185 million, including the Hamburg Passenger Lists, both the German Phone and City Directories, plus international censuses, military and parish records with German relevance. The site is in local language.™, launched in 2007, hosts more than 20 million Italian family history records including civil registration records of births, marriage banns, marriages and deaths assembled from provinces across Italy, plus international immigration and census records with Italian relevance. The site is in local language.™, launched in 2007, hosts more than 40 million French family history records including Paris vital records of births, deaths and marriages from as early as 1700s and other civil registration records from a variety of French provinces, plus international immigration and census records with French relevance. The site is in local language.™, launched in 2007, hosts more than 220 million Swedish family history records including immigration records from as far back as the early 19th century, Varmland church records from the 1600s, plus international censuses and vital records with Swedish relevance. The site is in local language.
Here are some of the other websites owned by has made several other purchases in the past of websites that are no longer online. 

In the next post in this series, I will take a look at some of the other websites. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Take Time for a Geographic Timeline -- Part Three What's in a name?

One of the basic rules of genealogical research is that of recording place names as they were at the time an event occurred in an ancestor's life. There are two implications of this policy: first, the use of the place name current at the time of the event, presupposes that the genealogist has done his or her homework and actually knows how the place was designated, and second, the further implication is that upon searching for records, the accurately recorded place name will assist the process of finding pertinent records.

This rule is based upon the principle that records are most likely to be found associated with the various jurisdictions in effect at the time of the event. For example, military records are most likely to be maintained by the country where the ancestor lived during the time such records were recorded. Records pertaining to marriages, deaths and births (christenings) were most like kept by the church with which the ancestor was affiliated. The examples could go on for each type of record.

From the time of the creation of the record, until the present time, the record could have migrated to another location. For example, a military record may have been created in an area of Europe that has changed hands several times since the date of the record's creation, thus causing the record to be moved as international boundaries changed. The same set of circumstances can happen on a much smaller scale in the United States as county boundaries change over time. Records created at the county level could have been moved as new counties were created from the old.

This rule concerning the accurate recording of the place of an event at the time the event occurred also presupposes that the place where the record has ultimately been found will also be recorded as a citation when the record is used to support a genealogical conclusion. The main point here is that the places, as they are named today, bear little or no relationship to the location of the records about the ancestor. For example, a record about a Native American ancestor may have been created on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and is most likely presently maintained by the National Archives. If you were to find the records, you would ultimately learn that they are being maintained in the National Archives branch in Kansas City, Missouri. The purpose of the citation to a record is to provide a way for subsequent researchers to find the same records to verify the basis for the researcher's conclusions.

What about place names that have changed over time? One common mistake is to locate the place of an event in a town, city, county, state or country that did not even exist at the time of the event. This is sometimes done because the researcher is not aware of the changes in the name of the place, but most frequently is done out of simple negligence arising from a lack of awareness of the historical context of the record. I was recently asked a question about how to record a place when an event occurred before the U.S. Revolutionary War. The answer is simple and is best posed as a question: how was the place designated at the time of the event? I would further ask another question: is the name any different than the one used today? Let's suppose that the place was Plymouth, Massachusetts. How would I identify the place for an event that occurred in that place? Here are some suggested dates and places:
  • Plymouth Colony, New England or the Plymouth Council for New England prior to 1685; today the records might be in the U.S. or the U.K.
  • Plymouth, Plymouth County, Dominion of New England between 1686 to 1689
  • Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Commonwealth of Massachusetts after 1691
  • Plymouth, Massachusetts of Massachusetts Bay after 1692
  • Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts 
  • Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States after 1776 (or 1882) depending on how you want to consider the issue
You could also consider the following: from 1643 to 1686 the area was included in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and some sources include the area in the New England Confederation from 1643. Now this is what I have found so far. If you happen to have any corrections you are very welcome to make a comment and I will correct the list. It turns out to be far from simple to figure out which organization had jurisdiction at what time. 

You may well ask why we need to go through all of those iterations? What we are doing is keeping track of the places where documents (records or sources) might be found. Each of those jurisdictions are likely to have records that are stored or maintained or, at least, cataloged differently than the next jurisdiction in time. As you can see from the list above, this can be a difficult task.

For previous posts in this series see:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

New Interface -- First Look

The new Beta was just sent to me. Here is a screenshot of the Family Tree page:

There is a lot more color and a little bit of redesign of the entries on the tree. The green leaf icons are quite a bit larger. Most of the other menu options in the Beta version don't seem operational as yet. So there is not a lot to say.

Here is a screenshot of the Portrait or Family View:

More color and larger icons. There is a reduced size navigation field down in the left-hand corner of the screen that looks like this:

As I get a more detailed look, I will report back on my impressions.

When will I buy my next computer?

Present-day research in genealogy is information intensive. Genealogists in years past had to confront the same amount of information, but comparatively little of it was immediately available. My two great-grandmothers, who spent much of their lives accumulating genealogically pertinent data over 30 and 40 years, would find all that they reviewed almost instantly available today. For example, reviewing the U.S. Census records for just one individual, before online digitized databases, would involve many days of research working through rolls and rolls of microfilm hunched over a microfilm viewer. My great-grandmothers even did much of their research before the advent of microfilm. Now I can go on one of the larger websites and find record hints for all of the census records for an individual almost instantly. I can review and attach all of the pertinent years in less than an hour. If I go on to my family trees on,, and on to the Family Tree right now, I will see many more than 10,000 suggested sources which have been preselected for me from billions of potential records. These records are suggested with a high degree of accuracy from a monumental pile of records that would have taken me years to find before this technology was developed.

My primary tools for writing this blog, doing genealogical research, and helping teach others about genealogy are the computers I use every day, all day long and into the night. On a day when I am accomplishing a lot of genealogically-related work, I might spend as much as 14 hours on or waiting for computers. From my perspective, even a small amount of speed increase, such as my current Google Fiber connection is worth the cost. With Google and their ads, Google Fiber is all about Internet and TV. With me, it is all about working faster and more efficiently.

Over the years, I have progressed from the primitive computer technology to the highly complex and impressively fast technology we have today. When I started using a then-new Apple II computer in 1982 with Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston's newly developed VisiCalc spreadsheet, my life was transformed. That is another and very long and involved story. At the time, I was just in the process of becoming a partner in a new Apple Computer retail store. Over the 11 years I was involved directly with the Apple company and many other manufacturers including Kaypro, Compaq, Osborne, IBM and many others, I was able to try every new computer as it was introduced.

As I tried the new computers, I was always impressed by the increases in the speed of their data processing ability. It seemed that every new computer was a major step in speed and complexity. Each of the upgraded computers would seem to be so much faster than its predecessor and I had the incentive to get rid of my older model and get a newer computer. The new computer would seem fast for a while and then as I got faster in entering and processing what was on the screen, it seemed to slow down to a crawl. This happened over and over again as the developers increased the speed of the processors and the rest of the components. For example, one big increase in speed was the advent of hard disk drives. Gone were the days of waiting for slow floppy disks and swapping out multiple disks.

Let's fast forward to today. A few years ago, I suddenly realized that computers had progressed to the point where they could handle all the data I could throw at them. My benchmark was how long it took me to open and manipulate complex graphic images with Adobe Photoshop. In addition, my concern was how long it took me to maintain a genealogical database containing tens of thousands of names with all of the accompanying documents and images. What I found was that the computers themselves were getting only incrementally faster and that the real limits were now imposed by my own speed of entry, ability to read and review what was on the screen and other factors. In fact, the overall limits were imposed by the speed of transmission of the data between the Internet and between the hard drives and other storage devices. Moving Gigabytes and soon Terabytes of data took more time than any other activity.

At this point, I realized that faster computers would only have a marginal effect on my constant need for more speed.

Now, a side note. I do not really think that even a vanishingly small percentage of my readers or any other genealogists are even partially obsessed with the speed of the whole system as I am. I move to voice recognition and other technologies whenever I am frustrated with the time I have to perform a task and the amount of time the task is taking or I switch from one computer to another and even have two or three devices going at the same time. All of this to do more work in less time. I am sure some consider me to have a serious problem, but I am fighting against nature imposed time limits. I am getting older day by day.

On the horizon, I see Apple and Microsoft both discussing adding new computer operating systems and Intel introducing new processing chips. But I do not see the obvious increases in speed that I saw with the early personal computers. It is taking longer and longer for the computers to "slow down" in my perception. In fact, my present computer, an iMac with a 2.66 GHz Intel Core i5 processor running OS X Yosemite, Version 10.10.2 seems just as fast as iMacs selling today. The newest iMacs are running fourth generation Intel Core i5 processors with Haswell architecture and clock speeds up to 3.4 GHz. But using that additional power is limited by the programs and the Internet's transmission speed.

When will I jump on the bandwagon and move to a newer computer? That now depends on factors completely outside of my need for speed. The main factor is the cost to upgrade all my peripheral equipment and software when I move to a new computer.

The real decision making point depends on how long my present computer continues to function. Because of the massive amounts of data I have and my daily routine, I cannot afford to have my computer go down. When I feel that the system has served its purpose. I will immediately buy the next available, most advanced computer I can afford. My best estimate is that this will occur when the next round of operating system changes come out. I have already seen that an upgrade of the iOS operating system for the iPads will not load on my current iPad, so the handwriting is on the wall. New computers are on the agenda.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Interesting Comment to a Very Old Blog Post

I have a very old blog post that dates back to 2009 that still gets a comment now and again. I have posted a notice on the blog that states that the post is woefully out of date and that the readers need to read more current posts. Here is a comment I received just today from my old friend Anonymous.
*** stole my pension. I am no fool. I joined the free trial then deleted my a/c 2wks before it ended. yet they stole my pension. *** all I had left to buy heating and food for the next 10 days before my next pension day. I have sent them many emails to their various email address yet they ignored me for 4days leaving me in tears and shock. now they replied saying yes I did cancel it but they have no record of taking my I emailed them the proof yet again I am being ignored. my bank has to wait 7days before they can investigate them. in the mean time I am ill and disabled have to feel the cold and go hungry. these people are very very wicked on
 I have done nothing to this comment except delete the name of the website, which I feel is irrelevant to my response and the amount paid by the commentator. I have also deleted the comment from the old post where it was made. Obviously, since this commentator decided to post his or her comment anonymously, there is no way I can either verify or refute the charges made.

In reading this comment carefully, I note that the commentator claims to have "deleted my a/c 2wks before it ended. yet they stole my pension." I am not sure what is meant by this statement, but in almost every case, deleting the account probably did not give notice to the website that the person wished to terminate the free trial and not convert to a paid account. In every case, if you wish to end a free trial, you should follow the instructions on how to do this as set forth online on the website. I have examined the Terms and Conditions of each of the major online websites and they all have procedures for terminating subscriptions. For example, the Terms and Conditions concerning subscriptions are accessed from a link on each page of the website and they are very clear about how to terminate a subscription.

What is most puzzling to me is the reference to terminating the "free trial" "2wks before it ended." I am not familiar with any of the major websites that have time limit free trials that last more than 2 weeks. This person would have had to deleted the account before the "free trial" started, much less ended. I have been unsuccessful in finding a free trial period of more than 14 days.

I am again puzzled by the reference to the attempts to contact the website by email. Almost all the larger websites have telephone support. There is also a reference to "various email addresses" which causes me to think. All of the larger websites have extensive help centers and contact to the companies is done directly through an email link online. I am not aware how anyone gets "many email" addresses for the larger companies.

Some of my readers are probably thinking, why am I cross-examining this poor person who lost their "pension" funds for heating and food to the nasty online program? My question is why is this person so upset when they are one who signed up for a program with no intention or ability to subscribe. Any offer of a "free" anything is nothing more or less than an inducement to sign up for the entire program. Why would this person be in "tears and shock" when he or she was the person who subscribed. In examining the termination procedures for various programs, I find that the way to cancel a subscription is rather easy in almost all cases. Next we are to believe that this person's bank will not investigate the problem for a week. Further, the charge would have been against a credit card, not cash out of an account. The comment fails to explain how the money came directly out of the bank account.

I am reasonably familiar with the procedures for contesting a credit card charge and I know from my own experience that it does not take a week to get an answer from a bank.

Obviously, this comment was made in an attempt to be disturbing, but after reading the comment several times, I am reasonably sure that the whole thing is a hoax and an attempt to slander a company. The main reason why I feel this is the case is the very fact that the comment appears on a blog post that is six or more years old and where the person posting the comment has apparently ignored the notice of that fact.

Why the long analysis and commentary? This is a comment aimed at a genealogy company. I have no idea of the motivation for the comment, but we, as a community, are not immune from this type of appeal. It is difficult to imagine the real agenda here, but this type of complaint has no place in our community.

Finally, if this person had not signed in anonymously, I could possibly have helped them resolve their situation. Making this type of complaint and then acting from behind a screen is just not a good idea.

Who owns genealogy?

I have written a lot about how individuals do not own their own ancestors. The larger issue concerns the ownership of historical information. Who owns all the genealogical information in the world. Let me start with one example. The copyright law in the United Kingdom is especially complicated. The current law is set forth in the current act; the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Quoting from the UK Copyright Service Fact Sheet P-01:
Copyright law originated in the United Kingdom from a concept of common law; the Statute of Anne 1709. It became statutory with the passing of the Copyright Act 1911. The current act is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
 How the law applies to the information maintained by the government that is of interest to genealogical researchers is based on the following, according to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, Section 49:
Material which is comprised in public records within the meaning of the M3 Public Records Act 1958, the M4 Public Records (Scotland) Act 1937 or the M5 Public Records Act (Northern Ireland) 1923 [F111, or in Welsh public records (as defined in the[F112 the Government of Wales Act 2006]),] which are open to public inspection in pursuance of that Act, may be copied, and a copy may be supplied to any person, by or with the authority of any officer appointed under that Act, without infringement of copyright.
 If you then move to examining the Public Records Act 1958, you will find the following provision in the First Schedule, Definition of Public Records:
Subject to the provisions of this paragraph, administrative and departmental records belonging to Her Majesty, whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere, in right of Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and, in particular,—
(a)records of, or held in, any department of Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, or
(b)records of any office, commission or other body or establishment whatsoever under Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom,
shall be public records.
 There is usually a charge for obtaining copies of the records. See "Looking for records of a birth, marriage or death in England and Wales" from The National Archives. Why does the Crown own all these documents?

Is there a difference between the act of maintaining and providing the records and owning the records? What do we mean by "ownership?" I am convinced that there is a fundamental difference between the statutorily created right we call "copyright" and the concept of ownership. Another example comes from my interaction with the various special collections libraries around the country. I recently agreed to look at some public documents from the State of Utah for someone out of state. I approached a special collections library that had the records and was told that I could get access but that I could not copy the records and there was a charge for copying at 25 cents a copy. I needed several hundred pages and so I was not overly happy with the charge. I asked if I could copy the records with my camera and was told that they could not allow me to do that. These were so-called public records from a county in Utah. Did the library own those records? Why did they have any interest in those public records that would allow them to charge for copies and refuse me the opportunity to save the money and make photographic copies myself? How did the library obtain ownership of the records? These documents dated from the mid-1800s.

After pressing the issue, I was finally given permission to make my own photographic copies, but in order to do so, I had to put a notice, supplied by the library on a clear plastic strip, on each of the photos, limiting the republication of the copies. There is no question that these particular documents are old enough that there are no copyright claims. Why then is there any vestige of ownership in these old 19th Century documents? Granted, the library has the cost and overhead of maintaining and archiving the documents and granted they may have some basis for arguing that they need to charge for the copies, but what else? I was told that they were limiting my ability to make the copies out a concern that the documents would become damaged. How does that apply to my taking photos? Why insist that I put their claim notice on every photo? Why would they care whether I used or did not use the copies of these documents? Again, how did they obtain an ownership right in the old documents?

These are only two examples of many I could recount. The issue here is a question of ownership and control. In the case of the library, I was also told that "FamilySearch" had come and digitized the documents. Unfortunately, I do not find that these particular records have ever made their way online. I am not in the camp of those who think all information should be free. I think they are confused with the concept of free speech as defined by the U.S. Constitution and subsequent court cases and the reality of writing, conserving, producing, storing and archiving that same information. Someone has to pay to keep the libraries open but does that mean that the libraries own the material they store?

There needs to be a clear distinction between charging for the cost of maintaining the documents and limiting acquisition to the content of the documents under some guise of ownership or control. As I said above, this has nothing to do with the concept of copyright. There is something else going on here.