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.