Sunday, August 3, 2014

Genealogy Today adds Two Names to Growing Database

Image of assessment for Frank W. Fish and John Breyman
Most genealogists reading this are probably asking, "He meant TWO MILLION names, right?" But, no, this post is about death details for two individuals, thus, highlighting the distinct value provided by the database project at Genealogy Today.

Genealogical success is the result of "beating the odds"... will I find MY ancestor among the billions of records that exist? And the Internet has greatly improved that probability by making it significantly easier to perform a search from the comfort of your own home.

So, while the genealogy juggernauts (i.e. Ancestry, MyHeritage, and FindMyPast) continue to post millions of records every week, Genealogy Today tries to add very unique items to the mix: small documents that you're not likely to find elsewhere. This includes a post card transcribed last week from the North-Western Ohio Masonic Relief Association that recorded the deaths of Frank W. FISH and John BREYMAN.

Mutual Relief (or Aid or Benefit) Associations were the precursors to modern insurance companies we're all familiar with. They differed, however, in that their members were required to "pitch in" whenever another member passed away. Each member was sent one of these postcards, assessing them for a specific amount and providing the details of the deceased members. I suppose it was their way of providing "proof" that the company was actually providing the benefit it had promised.

Insurance records are an overlooked, yet often very fruitful, genealogical resource, and this is one area where Genealogy Today has compiled data from hundreds of original documents -- acquired and painstakingly transcribed. While an affordable subscription is required for full access (and thus to the details of these assessments), the resources can be searched without any commitment (no trials, no credit card given in advance).

Thursday, November 22, 2012

GenealogyToday.com experiences DOS attack on Thanksgiving

Sometime around 2 A.M. on Thanksgiving morning, hundreds of web crawlers from Ahrefs Inc. began bombarding the Genealogy Today web site, making the site unresponsive for genealogists looking to query our unique collection of records. Requests to the company to halt this activity have been unsuccessful. We apologize to our customers and are working to remedy the DOS (denial-of-service) situation as quickly as possible.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Deja Vu: Genealogy Today updates delayed by Hurricane

It's been just a little over a year (since Hurricane Irene), and again the east coast (including New Jersey) was pummeled by a storm -- this time named Hurricane Sandy. Expect delays in the delivery of The Genealogy News and our regular database updates.

Monday, October 8, 2012

What is the Best Family History Software?

That is a question we are often asked, but there is no easy answer because every genealogist has different needs and preferences. It is much easier to determine the "Best" in things like Olympic track and field races, where the best is the person who wins the most gold medals.

So, you can imagine how excited we were when a representative from the FindTheBest project contacted us about working together* on developing an unbiased, data-driven software comparison guide for genealogists.

This new guide will give genealogists the tools they have always wanted to evaluate dozens of family tree software solutions based on the criteria they feel is most important. The software packages are given a smart rating (based on a variety of collected data), and you will be able to sort and screen by different attributes (e.g. price, platform, operating system, languages supported). Existing software owners are encouraged to review the package(s) they are familiar with, which will help other genealogists who are exploring their options. And every product also includes a fact sheet with details about the software and the company that produces it.

FindTheBest, the startup led by DoubleClick founder Kevin O’Connor, gathers ratings from experts in each category, and then assigns a normalized score to each review, presenting users with ONE overall rating that is color-coded so you can instantly compare: green scores for favorable reviews, yellow scores for mixed reviews, and red scores for unfavorable reviews.

One of the most interesting aspects of this new genealogy software comparison is that bloggers can include a customized version in their posts. It's very simple to do... just hit the “embed” button (in the upper right section of the guide), then customize the size of the widget, as well as the specific columns and options that you would like to have displayed. Here's an example:



I'm looking forward to seeing how the ratings compare with actual user input as more reviews are added to the software guide. Are you an evangelist for one of the packages? If so, please take the time to share your insights by contributing a review. And if we somehow missed a package, you are welcome to add a listing for it to the guide.

Genealogy Today has also partnered with FindTheBest to develop a database comparison guide. Are there other genealogy resources that you would like to see compared in this type of unbiased approach?

*Genealogy Today was/is not involved in the collection of the independent data used in the creation of the Smart Ratings, nor the calculations that derived them. Likewise, any personal information collected by FindTheBest during the course of maintaining this guide is NOT shared with Genealogy Today.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Angie's List isn't just for finding Plumbers

Read Unbiased Consumer Reviews Online at AngiesList.com
Angie's List
Check our Genealogy Reviews
on Angie's List
When I saw a TV commercial for Angie's List the other night, it sounded like a useful service; but I really wasn't expecting to find genealogists reviewed. Well, surprise! There are plenty of them.

If you've been considering hiring a professional to assist with your family history research, now there's a web site you can visit first to see if any researchers in your area have been reviewed.

There is a slight down-side to Angie's List (well, sort of). Consumers are required to pay a membership fee to join. It's not a lot of money ($26/year), but might pose a barrier for many genealogists (who have a limited budget). According to their web site, "membership fees help ensure reliable data, provide actual staff support and enable publication of [their] award-winning monthly magazine, among other things." They do offer a 110% money-back guarantee, so you can always give it a try and then cancel if you don't find enough value for researchers (and/or other contractors) in your area.

While you might not be pleased to see that there is a fee, it hopefully reduces the fake (i.e. posted by company employees posing as consumers) and vulgar posts you often find on free sites that encourage customers to review the services they receive. Plus, Angie's List is not a complaint board, as members are encouraged to review any/all services rendered -- good and bad!

I have registered Genealogy Today with Angie's List, and encourage anyone who has subscribed to our database service to post a review. Also, as an added benefit for Angie's List members, I plan to offer a subscription discount (however, this option is not available until Genealogy Today receives some reviews).

Friday, September 28, 2012

Those Accident Prone Jobs of our Ancestors

Was "danger" your ancestor's middle name? There have always been jobs where the employees were prone to having accidents, sometimes fatal ones. And yet, these industries have always had people responsible for monitoring the work conditions and pushing for better safety precautions.

Mining Accidents

Even today, mining remains a very risky career, so its not surprising that many men were injured deep beneath the Earth's surface. In many states across the country, where mining was a prevalent industry, there were inspectors who produced reports documenting the fatal and non-fatal accidents that occurred during the year. Check out the growing group of these mining reports (and the transcribed accident reports) in the Genealogy Today Subscription Data collection.

Railroad Employees

Not only were railroad employees subject to the occasional accident, but railroad tracks all too often attracted people who ended up in the wrong place, at the wrong time. State Railroad commissioners had the task of recording the accidents that occurred along the lines running through their states. Likewise, many railroad fraternal groups offered insurance-like benefits to their members, and recorded events that sidelined members. Browse through this list of railroad reports and see if any of your ancestors suffered mishaps.

Boiler Explosions

When man discovered steam, the world became a warmer place (or at least the workplaces of our ancestors did). But with steam, comes incredible amounts of pressure, which often resulted in extraordinary explosions. When I stumbled upon a copy of The Locomotive, a newsletter published by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, and saw that each issue contained a short report about recent accidents,   it seemed like an excellent (albeit somewhat gruesome) genealogical resource. Check out the insurance records page for a list of issues that have been transcribed.

Mother Nature's Angry Side

When someone mentions farming accidents, your first thought is probably "man plus tractor equals accident," but the weather, particularly lightning, was more of an ongoing problem. Lightning was a constant threat to some farmers, causing fires as well as killing livestock. Among the insurance records we've transcribed, are many instances of farmers making claims for lost horses, cows and even sheep. With all the trees and buildings, how does a little sheep get struck by lightning? As far back as the 1850's, farmers protected their livelihood by opting for property insurance, and many of the reports issued by insurance companies list the claims they paid during the year.

There are plenty of interesting resources that you won't often find in the genealogy section of libraries, but you fill find many of them transcribed at Genealogy Today. Whether its a report documenting factory accidents, or firemen injured in the line of duty, we're always looking for alternative sources of genealogical information.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Did your Ancestor have Cancer?

And were they CURED? Perhaps they visited Dr. Nichols Sanatorium near Savannah, Missouri back in the 1920's.

Dr. Perry Nichols (pictured) specialized in the treatment of Cancer, Lupus, Chronic Ulcers and Tumors, and claimed to be able to cure patients who made the journey to his medical facility.

He proudly listed former patients (over 6,000 of them) as References in his published work, "The Value of Escharotics or Medicines which will Destroy any Living or Fungus Tissue." A 1927 edition of this work has recently been transcribed and indexed as part of the Genealogy Today Subscription Data collection. We also own a 1923 edition and plan to index it in the future.

Also included in this publication are testimonials from several dozen patients (with their photos), and a staff listing. The References list shows patients travelled from different states, and now you can search to see if any of your ancestors are mentioned on the Dr. Nichols Sanitorium 1927 References & Testimonial Index. While a subscription is required to see the full details of the listings, anyone may search the name index for free.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Whoa Nellie! Don't Rush to Judgement, Genealogists

Yesterday, Thomas MacEntee and others, rallied up "the troops" to post comments on an article in PC Magazine written by Jill Duffy in which she reviews the Ancestry.com web site. In Thomas's own words, "The author needs an education as to the reality of genealogy."

We need to take a moment and reflect on a few things... first, this is an article for a TECHNOLOGY magazine, and is about the technological ease that Ancestry offers "want to be" genealogists. In the past few years, Ancestry has made tremendous strides to bring genealogy to the mass market. If you think making little leaves (i.e. the hints) appear on a tree is easy, think again. That seemingly simple feature involves huge amounts of hardware and sophisticated software, and yet, it's probably the most effective feature that bridges the gap between novice and "the science of" genealogy.

Second, give PC Magazine some credit for even allowing one of its editors to review genealogy products and services. This is a GREAT thing for genealogy as it exposes the hobby to a very different audience. And again, remember this is a review of one service, Ancestry.com, and NOT an article about online genealogy. PC Magazine is about technology, it's not a hobby enthusiast publication. And they're also in the business of selling products, so there's always that hint of "did they get a friendly nudge from Ancestry" to write this review.

Third, many of us (i.e. genealogists who've been doing this for years) need to recognize that there is a new breed of "family tree enthusiast." They're a younger crowd, engulfed in technology, used to having information at their fingertips, and (sadly) not so interested in doing the real work (and certainly none of the  DIGGING) that genealogy requires. So, for this growing audience, Ancestry has had the insight to adjust their service to reduce (not eliminate) some of the heavy lifting involved in genealogy. Many of you may remember a time (back say prior to 2006) when the main focus of the Ancestry home page was SEARCH, and then one day the search box disappeared, being replaced by a "build-a-tree" feature. All of the sudden, Ancestry changed their focus and market strategy from serving experienced genealogists to catering to "newbies."

We can certainly hope that Jill is permitted to review other (non-Ancestry owned) technology-driven services, like MyHeritage and FindMyPast, but we should NOT expect PC Magazine to publish an article highlighting the broad selection of genealogical resources available online.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

All in a Day's Work for this Genealogist

Yesterday, I transcribed an 1822 directory for Washington, D. C., and also posted some of the miscellaneous information it contained. It's been sitting on my desk for the longest time, patiently awaiting it's turn.

Like many city directories, reading it takes some effort, and I cannot imagine the work that was involved in putting it together. How did the interview go? Question: "So, where do you live?" Response: "On the south side of G street north between 17th and 18th streets west" Which was then translated into "s side Gn btw 17 and 18w."

Here's an amusing one, works at "corner Penn av and 21w" and resides "nearly opposite." Say what? I'm not sure exactly how that would have helped to find the person if you were living in 1822 -- this is what makes genealogy such a fun (and frustrating) hobby.

In the back of the directory, there were some job descriptions that I've also posted online, including Inspector of Flour, Chimney Sweeps, and my favorite, Scavengers. And there were some brief historical details for organizations like the Orphan Asylum (which at the time was only supporting females), the newly established Columbian College, and the Education Society of the District of Columbia (for pious young men).   All of the added information is linked at the bottom of the 1822 directory page.

This item is part of the Genealogy Today Subscription Data service, and a subscription is required for full access. The name index, however, can be searched for free, so check out the Washington Directory of 1822 and see if any of your ancestors were living there and working as a SCAVENGER!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Was your Ancestor a Sandbagger?

sandbaggers snipit
Check this out... it's the most interesting and informative article I think that I've ever posted. It comes from an old book about surname origins and meanings by Leopold Wagner entitled "Names: And Their Meaning -- A Book for the Curious."

There are so many terms that I've seen in documents, especially occupations listed on old census records, but have never understood. This article explains how they came about, but it also explains many commonplace titles that you may be surprised to learn of their true origins. Words like Teetotaler or Quack and many others!

The oddest item in the article... "The latest terror of the streets which, unhappily, abounds in American cities, are the Sandbaggers, so called because they stun their victims with an ordinary sand-bag, such as is used to keep the draught from penetrating between a pair of window-sashes; after which robbery becomes an easy matter." What? Stunning their victims with sand-bags? That's just crazy!

It's a rather lengthy article, but it's so interesting it reads quickly. Be sure to visit Class Names and Nicknames (1893) in the Archived Materials section of Genealogy Today.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Grandpa Was a Squirrel Hunter


In her new book, "From the Family Kitchen," Gena Philibert-Ortega explores the value of our food heritage and the importance of leaving a legacy for future generations. Among some of the old recipes found in the book is a method for cooking squirrels, although dated 1894 in Los Angeles, this cook's squirrels came from the market. Not so for my ancestors. According to my Uncle Jesse, who spent a great deal of time with his grandparents, Grandpa Durham was a squirrel hunter. I never thought to ask what he did with all those squirrels -- I suppose he could have sold or traded them, but I they probably ate a good few, as well. Grandma and Grandpa Durham migrated from Alabama to Texas soon after they were married in 1872. For many of the pioneers migrating West across America, squirrel was on the menu. Cookbook author Hank Shaw calls squirrels the "chicken of the trees."

Squirrel and rabbit, they say, are interchangeable, and apparently so is chicken, according to some of the recipes I came across in my newspaper search. In fact, newspapers are great place to look for old recipes (and social customs of every variety), especially if you have access to a digitized collection that lets you limit your search in multiple ways such the Newspapers & Publications on Ancestry.com. Giving it the old college try, I thought I'd see what kind of squirrel recipes I could find. On the search page for the newspaper collection, I entered only my location of interest "Texas, USA" and two keywords, "recipes, squirrel." Among the many entries was a 1935 recipe from the Port Arthur News, Port Arthur, Texas, for Brunswick Stew (an original squirrel recipe), and a little farther down in the same article a recipe for Squirrel Pie. In searching for recipes, you could also narrow the search by date, or even by ethnicity using the Collection Priority drop-down menu.

And true to the addage, "waste not want not," every bit of the squirrel was used. In addition to providing a meal, the skins might have been sold or personally used. Squirrel tail was (and is) used as a lure to catch fish (it was also used in the stew); the skins were used to make make banjo strings; squirrel pelts were used for hats, vests and blankets (and later, even fashionable women's coats); and the hide could also be tanned and made into a soft leather for pouches and other uses. And remember, this is history -- today it may seem almost barbaric, but for our ancestors, in many cases it was survival.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Where Is My Free Genealogy Data?

One of the things I like (and respect) about Thomas MacEntee is that he really puts himself out there, and his blog post today is another fine example as he revisited the question that I have heard at both small and large conferences, "Where Is My Free Genealogy?His post talks mostly to the service side of the industry (speaking, researching, etc), and so I wanted to briefly highlight some of the issues around making genealogy data accessible.

The following are the key components behind the "cost" of genealogy data: (1) acquiring the materials, (2) digitizing and transcribing it, (3) hosting it somewhere, and (4) providing search capabilities to mine through it all, and (5) achieving a higher level of quality and source-ability. And the more data you try to make available, the higher the costs in each of these areas.

Acquiring the Materials: For the most part, genealogical information is a plentiful resource, with treasure troves of data tucked away in libraries, churches, and local societies all over the country. Some resources, like cemetery tombstones, are simply sitting out there in the open. It's these smaller, more accessible items that are often posted online for free, typically at the generous effort of someone who volunteered their time to seek it out.

But, genealogists know the real value is in the larger collections, most of which have been microfilmed or remain locked away at state/national archives. Prior to the indexing efforts of FamilySearch, there were few if any large collections online for free. And don't be fooled into thinking that the stuff FamilySearch is posting online is "free"... it costs LOTS of money. We're just fortunate that they are absorbing all of those costs for the mutual benefit of the industry and their church members.

With my own project, for years I've been purchasing actual copies of the original documents that source the information in my database. Some of these items were produced in very low quantities and there are few remaining copies. Others are handwritten, one-of-a-kind, originals. I've spent an enormous amount of money putting together this collection.

Digitizing and Transcribing: While technology continues to improve, these two critical steps are very costly and time-consuming. Most of the larger companies delegate the work to offshore labor farms, where the costs are significantly lower. Even much of the online information you enjoy using was "Made in China," or some other country.

Whether a company is using offshore staff, or handling the process with our own citizens, the people doing the work deserve to be compensated for their time, and the costs add up. Think about this... whenever you visit your doctor or consult an attorney, a portion of the fee you pay them goes towards transcribing billing, insurance and medical information. The people that do that work get paid, so why do genealogists that the people transcribing genealogy data shouldn't?

Hosting the Data: Most genealogists that I've talked with (about this issue) have no clue as to just how expensive it is to host information online. They've simply seen too many examples (e.g. RootsWeb, etc.) where hosting pages of content is free or relatively inexpensive. But, that's not the type of service required to host large volumes of data and images. 

When Ancestry.com Inc. acquired RootsWeb, they immediately felt the cost impact, which led them to place advertisements upon pages of free information. So, while the information remains "free" to use, we're forced to endure advertising and offers to join their service.

Adding Search Capabilities: Genealogy is not a simple process, and as a collection of information grows, the tools needed to search it effectively and efficiently become a costly challenge. You need teams of Programmers to create the tools, Database Administrators  to optimize the searches, and Designers to create productive  user experiences. These staffing requirements are not cheap.

Quality and Source-Ability: Prior to the major indexing efforts of FamilySearch.org, there were few projects that delivered free information with a high level of accuracy AND more importantly source-ability. One of my pet-peeves with a lot of free information posted on the Internet is that lacks clear source information, making it a challenge to utilize in your own research (if you are particular about that kind of thing). But, roll back the clock a few years, and even the industry leader, Ancestry.com Inc., did only a mediocre job on this point.

When I decided back in 2003 to enter the genealogy data fray, data quality and accurate sourcing were two of the top priorities. I didn't always get it right, but I've continued to improve and expand in both of these areas. We get "excited" to see the information, but it's equally (or more) important to be able to identify where it originally came from, otherwise we have no way of verifying it's accuracy!

So, as you can see there are a lot of steps in the process from getting information from a piece of paper or microfilm to a searchable online database you can access from the comfort of your own home (or local library). It's great that FamilySearch is willing to commit millions of dollars to making their collection freely accessible, let's hope they are able to continue to do so for years to come.

But for the rest of the companies, and hard-working people who have chosen "genealogy" as a profession, the customer will most likely always be expected to help pay for these costs. And Thomas points out, genealogy services are very undervalued compared to other industries.

Being a small player in the genealogy industry, I am VERY appreciative of those researchers that support my project financially. But, it gets frustrating week after week trying to explain to those people who feel the need to complain (and some even with vulgar language) about my annual subscription which nets out to $0.09 per day. I keep asking myself, how is that so terribly unaffordable? And why is it necessary to be hostile about it?

Try adding up what you pay annually for your cellular phone or cable television and then calculate how much that costs per day... now that's something to be hostile about!

Thanks, Thomas, for reminding genealogists that the people working to make their research process easier and more fruitful "deserve" to be fairly (not barely) compensated.