RootsTech 2019 Review

Psssst….RootsTech is back, Y’all…in a BIG way – so spread the word! Not that it was ever really gone – but the bad reports from last year had me worried. Despite my inclination to be a wordy blogger – I must admit I am almost speechless where RootsTech 2019 is concerned. This year’s conference surpassed my grandest expectations – and I can safely declare that this was (by far) the best one I’ve experienced yet.

To be clear, there was never a point when I could not get into a class, nor felt overwhelmed by crowds, nor had to stand in line for anything – except at the concession stand for lunch one day – which is to be expected, and even that was only about 10 minutes. The attendance totals have been in for about a week, and the general conference numbers hit over the 15,000 mark (with over 23K for Family Day) – signaling a rousing success, as usual.

For those of you who did not get to attend this year, here are a few changes that I think made a significant impact:

    1. Conference badges by mail: This meant many of us walked into the Salt Palace ready to hit sessions, instead of standing in line to pick up packets. Lanyards, badge cases, and conference bags were in multiple places throughout the Palace, making pick-up a breeze.
    2. Spreading out – By placing check-in over on the far side of the Salt Palace, along with a few of the sessions, there was more breathing room. Heading over in that area brought back memories from the early years when RootsTech was only on the north side of the Palace. Look how far it has grown!
    3. No badge scanning, except for lunches and labs. No session lines, and no one chased you out if your next session was in the same room.
    4. Opening sessions at 11am – Some folks grumbled about this, but not me – I loved this change! This allowed folks to wonder over there to find a seat in their own good time – instead of everyone running over to find a seat first thing in the morning. I am not a morning person, and getting to the 8am sessions is hard enough – but with a half hour to get over there after the earlier morning sessions, I didn’t feel rushed. Besides, once the lights go dark and you’re enjoying the festivities, you have no idea what time it is. Plus, after the program is over, folks are in a festive mood, and enjoy talking with each other – they can go to lunch, hit the exhibit hall, engage with fellow attendees, or plan for the afternoon sessions – instead of rushing off to the next session. This change also means the livestream opening sessions were hitting the central/eastern time zones around lunch time – making contiguous enjoyment (and social media engagement) more possible.
    5. Easy to identify, helpful staff – perfect number ratio of helpers to attendees. If I needed help, they were always just a few steps away – and very attentive.
    6. Great signage! Vertical and horizontal signage everywhere – even under your feet!

Highlights:

One of RootsTech’s greatest strengths has been the electric atmosphere of inspiration that builds each year and leaves you with the impression that you serve a great purpose – and that with the right knowledge, skills, and tools, you can achieve your genealogy goals. Obviously, the inspirational opening sessions always provide highlights, and become some of the best memories of the conference. And the sessions are amazing! But here are a few others:

The Find Relatives at RootsTech Game – If you had ever entered even a small amount of generational information in the Family Search Family Tree, you were connected to the cousin three ring circus. But what a hoot it was! As the conference grew, there were over 9,000 people participating, and I matched as a cousin to over 2,500 of them – including David Rencher and Crista Cowan! One of the funniest moments was when I connected to a local Kentucky genealogist whom I’ve known for years, and live within 10 miles of, and who comes to RootsTech every year – Here we are – our cousin selfie! :

Me and my Kentucky “Cousin”, Tom Beatty!

The SLVGS Board trying to wrangle new members at the Unconferencing Table – It was so much fun to work with these dedicated folks whom I’ve only met previously as virtual avatars. We connected with several potential new members at the Unconferencing area.:

SLVGS Board Members: President, Miles Meyer, Vice President, Sue Taylor, and Secretary, Cheri Daniels.

Giving My Presentation on Consumable Genealogy – Such a great engaged crowd – they seemed to really have fun with the examples of packaging genealogy bites into consumable portions for print or social media. My largest crowd ever, at about 400 – and the tech staff/room monitors were wonderful. This was my second time speaking at RootsTech, and it was a fantastic experience, as usual!:

The Discovery Zone Heritage Toys (Also in the library) – These toys were also active if you participate in the Family Search Family Tree – I felt like a kid again with all of these cool discovery tools. Sometimes, it’s very revealing to step back and look at your family data to see the worldwide connections. My only gripe, was that I spent a couple of hours playing in the library Discovery Center with the same toys, and my fun elements produced that day were never emailed to me – huge bummer! I was only sent the location images.:

The DNA Learning Center – Introductory DNA sessions to help with this topic: Always crowded, with loads of mini-sessions, various speakers, with helpful videos and knowledgeable staff.

The RootsTech Store: I LOVE swag! And even when it’s not free swag – I am very willing to purchase more! It was a nice open store, easy to shop with so many cool options! My suggestion for next year – Please produce a sweatshirt or hoodie! It’s cold in SLC in late February! I would have snapped that up! Hey, RootsTech officials – you might want to create an online store of RootsTech swag – I’d seriously send my family members there to fill up my Christmas wish list!

The Demo Theater: Smaller than previous years, and hidden towards the back – but always crowded. I always learn a lot in this space while I’m taking a breather in a very comfortable environment. They also have door prizes, BTW.

The Ancestry Photo Booth – and their wonderful cookies!: Confession: At first, I kinda rolled my eyes at this – but then thought, hey, I’m kinda dressed up and I had a new find to share, so I gave it a try. The result, in this glamorous backdrop, was pretty awesome! They not only sent me the digital image they took with their beautiful professional camera, but also a lovely print to take with me – topped off with an amazingly tasty cookie! Well played, Ancestry! Well played!

Meeting up with genie friends, as usual: I always love meeting old and new friends!

Added Bonus: Researching in the library!: We flew in a few days early to research for hours and hours – and I regret nothing!! Always a fantastic time – and so much brought back to add to my tree. Some serious brick walls damaged in that library! I’m still processing all that I brought home.

Hiccups – I didn’t encounter too many hiccups this year – and have declared this to be the best RootsTech yet – but if pressed, Id have to identify the following as my least favorite elements:

Unconferencing Sessions: I had not been to RootsTech in a few years, and my memory of the Unconferencing area was drastically different than I encountered this year. Gone were the small curtained off areas where you could talk to a group or even present something on the provided board, or diagram ideas. This concept has now been relegated to 8 tables crammed into the space of about two booth footprints. Really didn’t like this shrinkage, and while I did see groups using it – it was also placed in the very back of the exhibit hall instead of in the front where it used to be. Most people I talked to never found its location, and with very little signage – I would say this looks like the last year for the Unconferencing area – as I’m pretty sure we were witnessing the death knell. Some of the presenters mentioned their disappointment with the size and location in our Facebook group – but also complained about the name – saying it was unfriendly, and not appealing. Perhaps it could be resurrected as something slightly different? Break-out sessions perhaps? Obviously, the large exhibitors enjoy great success with their own areas of demos and discussions – so the concept is not a bad one. But it would be nice to have a more tailored area for folks to discuss genealogy issues – or meet up with speakers after their sessions, or programmers to discuss concepts with users (as was its initial purpose.) Conversely, I also understand usage and statistics – if people weren’t using them in the previous years, I can understand the reduction.

Access and Preservation Track on Wednesday: While this was a nice set of small, targeted sessions, I think many people misunderstood its purpose. As a librarian with special collections/archival training, I was going to attend this, no matter the purpose – but after squeezing in to the last couple of seats at 8am, and then watching the attendance bleed out like a trauma victim – until there was only about a third of them left – was a red flag that most people didn’t understand the intended focus. As a whole – I would say this was RootsTech’s version of “Librarians Day” – or “Digital Archivist’s Day” – etc. Which makes all of this more intriguing. With the huge crowd coming in to learn about “Access and Preservation” – regular folks who were not information professionals – doesn’t that indicate that the general genealogy crowd is very interested in preservation and access – for their own collections? Perhaps? Or were they wanting to learn more about the efforts being made to place more unique material online? Or did they want to learn more about digitization best practices? This is an area RootsTech should investigate. It sure caught my attention when thinking about this after the event.

Demo Stage: Thank heavens it hasn’t changed too much – but again, it’s been shrunk, and placed in the back, instead of being a focal point of festivity for the Exhibit Hall. Gone is the soda fountain bar and popcorn – and gone is the concept of walking around and hearing some of what was being demoed. I’m guessing that was the problem. As the Exhibitors have adopted their own demo areas and engagement clusters with microphone and large screens, their sound would be in competition with the Demo Stage instructors, and that would not be pleasant for the big sponsors. At least the comfy chairs and couches were still there – along with some really nice door prizes for those who sat through the individual demos.

Daily Sheets: They announced that there would be daily handouts with the general session info, as well as a list of the most popular classes that day. Ummm, first of all, I never found any of these sheets, until I stumbled upon a small pile on the very last day for Family Day. To be fair, I didn’t look super hard for them during the regular conference days. However, I’m not sure about plucking out a handful of sessions to highlight as “popular”. That could go one of two ways – either it drives a ton of people to these sessions, resulting in overcrowding, or it drives people away since they want to avoid the large crowds if possible. Plus, as a speaker, the speaker liaisons, kept trying to avoid giving us room capacity and info on popular sessions because they said they didn’t want to make other speakers feel less worthy by identifying popular sessions based on topic, speaker and/or room size. But then each day, they were highlighting popular sessions to hand out to everyone. Since we all have the app and the conference booklet outlining the offerings of each day – I don’t think they need these daily sheets – and I’m sure they could save a little money in printing.

Next Steps:

RootsTech is not really over – you have several options to take in more of this conference over the next several months: Watch the canned livestream videos; Download the Syllabus Material; Explore the Exhibitor List – and prepare to watch more when the international version of RootsTech premiers in London in October!

“A whole lot of healing going on.” Family Search’s Donation to the IAAM – Go Watch this video!

This type of experience is unparalleled, and should be experienced in person at least once. Obviously, for continued inspiration and exposure to the most current genealogy tech tools, it is encouraged to attend as frequently as possible. However, as a tech conference, RootsTech has ensured that there are multiple remote methods for attending virtually. Not only can you sit at home and watch several of the videos for free, but this year they also offered a virtual pass that allowed you to enjoy 18 sessions from the comfort of your own home. Coupled with the exhibit hall list for traversing via websites at your leisure, and syllabus material you can download, #notatrootstech folks have a buffet of learning opportunities available.

BTW, Next year is RootsTech’s 10th anniversary! Theme: The Story of You! Make plans to attend – I’m sure this will be a grand and unforgettable party!

Is Your Brick Wall Whitewashed?

From day one, I declared that Genealogy Literacy would be a truth zone – and after breaking through a recent brick wall, I knew I had to share this journey of discovery. For you see, this research unveiled an ugly truth: My long-standing brick wall had stood firmly in my path until I was able to strip away the whitewashing put in place to divert descendants from the truth.

Let me begin by saying that many researchers have encountered whitewashing in various forms. Most African American researchers with enslaved ancestors encounter systemic whitewashing of their history through heinous laws and customs put in place that stripped families of their identity to perpetuate the evils of slavery. And while I have always been an advocate for healing through a more inclusive research approach, the story below demonstrates how vital it is for ALL of us to strip away the mindsets of the past and dive headlong into a full FAN Club approach.

A hard truth about the FAN Club:

So, we’ve all been taught about the FAN Club research method – Friends, Acquaintances, & Neighbors (or Family, Acquaintances, & Neighbors) – but can I get a show of hands how many of us actively search African American records for our white family surnames? When encountering that title on the shelf about AA cemeteries or marriages – if we don’t think our family is inside, do we just breeze on by? Years ago, I would have said, “yeah, guilty as charged.” But in the past decade or so, the desire to help bring families together through research has shifted my information gathering strategies, and I find myself in AA records on purpose to help connect people and better understand communities.

A Big Crack in the Wall:

A few years ago, I was researching an African American family from Bracken County, Kentucky – and I have to say, some locals there have created a beautiful resource – African American records, Bracken County, Kentucky : 1797-1999 – a two volume set of transcribed AA documents discovered throughout the county. Marriages, Court Cases, School Records, Taxes, etc. You name it, they pulled it and transcribed/indexed it to create one of the most useful local resources I’ve ever used. So, while I was there, I decided to look up all of my Bracken County associated families in the index. This was rather quickly done, because I do not have a large number of branches from this county, and most are mid-19th century German immigrants – but I also descend from a long line of Anglo families from the county next door. As my search was not yielding any fruit, I decided to try a surname from the neighboring county that had remained a brick wall for myself and previous generations. What I found not only cracked the wall, but brought it tumbling down – and unveiled the whitewashing that had built the wall through a false family narrative.

Two Marys and a Barbary:

My brick wall began in neighboring Pendleton County. My 4th Great Grandfather, Samuel Cox, had married 3 women over his lifetime – the first two named Mary and the last named Barbary. With his estate division, Barbary was easy to identify, and even fill in her backstory as the former widow of a neighbor, Ross McCall. The other two Marys were much harder to distinguish. Over the previous generations, some family members had mixed up the women’s surnames. A divorce case for Mary #2 was able to identify her potential surnames (yes, she had more than a couple in the depositions), leaving the first Mary (my ancestor) with the pre-marriage surname of Dean. As my 4th Great Grandparents were not married in this area, we only knew her surname from the Barton Papers – a collection of family interviews taken throughout Pendleton County by Edward Everett Barton, a local attorney of the 1930s & 40s. Since he interviewed various descendant branches, the stories differed on who her parents might have been.

Abel or Michael Dean?

The family group sheets compiled from these interviews identified her probable father as Abel or Michael Dean, but did not include a location for either man. Even the Cox family was a bit of a location enigma. The Barton Papers said Samuel Cox was either “born at the fort above Augusta” or from Pennsylvania. OK, so with the surname of Cox, this was a needle in a haystack. All I knew, is that the Cox family came from farther points east. And I suspected the lack of Dean information indicated the same migration pattern. This turned out to be accurate, but unless I had picked up that book, I may not have discovered the truth for many, many years.

An Emancipation:

In 1830, Bracken County, Kentucky, there was an emancipation filed in court to free an enslaved family: Jenny or “Jinny”, and her three children – Aaron, Emily, and John Caesar. As part of this process, Jenny, Emily and John Caesar were all presented in court to record their description along with a $500 bond to ensure they would not become wards of the county. Jenny is described as “black”, about 30 years old, left eye blind of cataract, standing 4 feet 2 inches. Emily was described as 6 years old and “yellowish” in color. John Caesar was only 4 weeks old with “yellowish” complexion. My biggest question about this document, was: Where was Aaron? Why was he not presented in court with the others? Obviously, with the children described as having “yellowish” skin, I’m thinking Michael was their father. But I had more research to do.

Michael’s Will, 1832:

The next item in this book connected to Michael Dean was his will of 1832. In this document he makes sure, once again, that all of his slaves are free upon his death, but with one addition. He then gives Jenny his 50 acres and residence for her to live in throughout her lifetime. After her life is over, the property was to go to Aaron and his heirs forever. There is no mention of Emily or John Caesar inheriting anything from Michael, only Aaron. As I was also trying to piece together the known white children of Michael Dean, there is a mention of one in his will, Rebecca Morris.

Researching Michael:

These documents gave me the push I needed to investigate further, with this new county of focus. From further research, I discovered that Michael was a Revolutionary War Pensioner, previously of Lewis County Kentucky, and that he had other white children documented: John, Rebecca, Thurisa, and Abel + others yet to be positively identified. His pension application in 1818/1820 described a sorry existence. A man (aged about 80) and wife (aged about 73) who were practically destitute and living in a meager cabin on 50 “rented” acres. He had served on the Virginia Continental Line for 2 years – ending his service in March 1778 at Valley Forge – Ironically, making it through the horrible winter at Valley Forge, but then high tailing it out once his service ended that March. He and his wife were both described as “decrepit” and only owning a horse and cow. More importantly, no mention of enslaved individuals. All of this testimony resulted in him receiving $8 per month until his death.

Bracken County Reveals:

In searching for Michael, there is no indication that he owned slaves around the time of his pension application. However, very soon after, his son Abel appears on the tax lists, and each man takes turns paying taxes on enslaved individuals for the next several years. The number of slaves fluctuates as well. At first there is only 1, then 2, and as these individuals either move from place to place, or are simply covered in taxes by each man in turn, the maximum number of slaves covered in the taxes, up until the emancipation is 4. After the emancipation, Abel is paying taxes on a few extra slaves, but his number is scratched out and reduced by 2 – perhaps indicating the odd nature of the ownership? Clearly Michael is claiming ownership by taking Jenny and her children to court to have them freed. Also, despite Michael claiming he only rented his land and cabin in the pension testimony, he clearly owns his property as he gives instructions on its dispersal in his will. When looking at the Court Orders for Bracken County, Abel would appear to fight some of this – I could not find an actual court challenge – but Abel is instructed to bring his father’s will to court, more than once – and it appears he did not comply as the will is later presented to court by the Executor Robert Elrod.

The Story Gets Lost:

Personally, I was thrilled to find this family. And I would love further still to reconnect with descendants of Jenny and her children. But I found it disappointing that my family had kept silent on this story. You see, I did find a marriage record in Lewis County for Polly Dean and Samuel Cox, with the consent given by Polly’s father “M. Dean” – putting to bed that Michael was her father and Abel was her brother. And I know that Mary died rather young, and with Samuel’s subsequent marriages and sensational divorce, it’s no wonder that my branch of the family lost this story. Or, am I giving them a pass where one doesn’t belong? In the context of society in 1830/32, this action by Michael was completely out of the ordinary. With his will bestowing his property upon a formerly enslaved family – this would have been considered to be scandalous – and I so wanted to know how my branch of the family felt about this action. If my suspicion is correct, one of the men likely fathered Jenny’s children. Meaning that Aaron, Emily, and John Caesar would have been siblings or nieces/nephews to my Samuel and Mary. Did they care? Were they embarrassed by this? It was a very public action to free them, and Michael had done just that.

While my branch kept silent about this action when passing along family lore – they did leave me one clue about their potential feelings. Remember when the list of enslaved individuals presented in court lacked one member? Aaron had been conspicuously absent from the court presentation. I speculated that maybe he was sick and could not make it, or that he had run away. Bracken County Kentucky lies on the Ohio River, just across from Ripley Ohio (Brown County) – a known hotbed for the underground railroad in the upcoming years. As the months passed, I figured that this portion of his story may never be known. And this is when I found a hashmark that changed everything. In the 1830 census – taken the same year that the emancipation was filed in Bracken County Court, my 4th great grandparents, Samuel and Mary, in neighboring Pendleton County, have a young man living in their household that is in the column: Free Colored Persons – Males, 10-24 in age. That little hashmark in this column gave me goosebumps. Is this the missing Aaron? I certainly hope so. If this is Aaron, there is a good likelihood that my grandparents were supportive of this emancipation action. If my speculation is correct, and Aaron is the son of Michael or Abel, then Mary had welcomed her newly freed brother or nephew into their home – and I’m guessing to offer protection. But why did no one ever tell us about this relationship?

The Story Becomes Whitewashed:

Fast forward to another moment of serendipity – Within the same time frame as the above discovery, I was in the process of trying to join the DAR. As I was reviewing my Patriot options, Michael Dean and his record came up. So, I paid for the associated application papers and supplemental documentation packet that belonged to a member descended through another daughter, Thurisa. The supplemental packet contained a letter from another of Michael’s descendants, a great great granddaughter, Julia Herrmann. In her letter she relates the story as thus:

“My Great Great Grandfather had a plantation in Kentucky and owned slaves. The ______? War ruined him financially. His family left him. Two slaves, a man (young) and his wife stayed with G G Grandfather and G G Grandmother and when G G Grandfather died, he willed the plantation to the two slaves who had worked and taken care of my Great Great Grandparents.”

And so the story, while not forgotten or censored out of this branch’s narrative, was whitewashed into the typical benevolent master/faithful servant tripe – transforming Jenny and Aaron to husband and wife, instead of mother and son – and erasing any hint of parental complexity.

There is an ironic post script about this line of narrative. The Barton Papers have a notation about Michael Dean’s financial hardship, and it relates to Abel who was the youngest: One of Michael’s sons, John, living in Washington County Kentucky had to travel to Bracken County in 1827 to care for his elderly parents. The reason? According to the Barton Papers: Michael and his wife had “conveyed their small estate to the youngest son who then turned them out in their extreme old age.”

I think this is another narrative covered in whitewash. There was clearly some family drama going on that the later descendants noted but purposefully made vague to hide what was truly happening. And by 1827, Abel and Michael have been sharing the taxes and/or location of the enslaved family for several years – until Michael suddenly has enough in 1830 and frees the entire lot. Again, the whitewashing was so thick, it’s still preventing us from seeing the full picture of this family crisis.

After Michael’s Death – Tracing Jenny’s Family:

One of the biggest mysteries that came out of the emancipation action was the fate of Jenny and her family. I could not find Jenny nor Aaron paying any taxes on this newly inherited land – nor could I find her in 1840 census records. In 1845, suddenly, the taxes are being paid on 57 acres by “Dean’s Devisees”.

According to the 1891 edition of Black’s Law – this term refers to the persons “to whom lands or other real property are devised or given by will.” I could not find record of taxes being paid on this property prior to this date. However, another obstacle arose in discovering the chosen surname of the newly freed family. Did they take the Dean surname? If so, none of them are paying taxes on this piece of property until 1845 – which is a tad odd. I then looked for any woman with the given name of Jenny or Jinny paying taxes on land during these years from 1832 to 1845. Nothing.

The estate sale of Michael Dean’s remaining personal property is also a whitewashed hot mess. Among the list of personal items being sold that day, Jenny is indeed listed as being the purchaser of several items. Unfortunately, instead of including a surname like everyone else on the list – she was simply listed as “Black Jenny”. Trust me, for a while, I looked for a ‘Jenny Black’ in all of the records I had perused earlier. Nothing. And of course, that’s when it hit me that they were not using the word “black” as a surname.

Aaron to the Research Rescue, Followed by a Cold Trail:

The good news is that after searching court and deed records many years beyond the emancipation, I found a deed transaction detailing Aaron’s act of selling the land. And best of all it gave me a direction for Aaron. First, he had retained the surname “Dean” – and had married a woman named Ellen – and they both lived in Brown County Ohio! This was golden information that even spelled out his connection to the land – the document says that he had inherited this land via the will of Michael Dean. This was a slam dunk – and I had one of those joyous, yet vocal moments in the silent state archives! One thing to note – I am not sure that Aaron and his wife actually came down to Bracken County to sell the land or whether this was handled by an attorney – simply because there is no mention of Aaron’s race. He is not referred to as a ‘free person of color’ nor ‘colored’, etc. Is this proving he never crossed the river to conduct this business, or does this mean he was light enough to be passing? The jury is still out on that one.

After this glorious find, the trail suddenly goes cold. I cannot find Aaron Dean in the 1850 Brown County census at all – and I even resorted to paging through each entry to catch a misspelled surname or similar family unit. I have searched other surrounding counties, and found nothing to match. Needless to say, I am still on the hunt for Aaron, and I need to take a trip north to dig into more physical records – but he has gifted me with marvelous clues to take forward!

An Ancestry Tree Yields More Clues:

So – despite the forest of unsourced trees on Ancestry – I will occasionally search for a branch in the hopes of stumbling across a tree with valid sources attached to follow in my own research. While searching for more information about Michael, I stumbled upon a tree that included Michael and his (what I believe to be) erroneous Scottish birth. I went down the line back towards Mary, his daughter and my 4th great grandmother, when I hit at something unexpected. Whomever created this tree went to Abel and then to a black family in Ohio with the surname of “Freeman”! One of the ancestors, Joseph Riley Freeman, in his marriage record lists his own surname as “Freeman” and his father’s name as A. Dean and his mother as Eliza Robinson. The creator of the Ancestry tree believed that “A. Dean” was Abel T. Dean of Bracken/Pendleton Counties and attached his family as thus. But what I think just happened – is that the family had an inherited narrative stating that they were descended from Abel Dean, but when a record came along listing A. Dean as the father, they jumped to Abel, missing Aaron entirely. I think the generation just got disconnected and lost. Michael’s son, Abel, was only ever married to Nancy Seay, never an Eliza Robinson. But Eliza sure sounds similar to Ellen, who was listed on the deed transfer of 1852.

To make matters more poignant, the family included James Riley Freeman’s nickname “Joe Dean” – and his youngest daughter, as listed on this tree was named “Jennie”. This newly discovered family then includes other surnames in later generations: Ward, Milton, Phoenix, Merritt, Epps, etc. With locations: Greene and Clinton Counties, Ohio + Indianapolis Indiana.

As a result – I would LOVE to connect with the person who runs the Peacock Family Tree on Ancestry – I think we have much to chat about!

Research Takeaways:

Obviously, I have a lot more work to do in order to confirm my surname change suspicions – and the rest of the story will depend on my findings. But the journey so far has been remarkable, and I can’t wait for the next chapter! My goal: Hugging my newly found cousins – if I can find them – and IF they want a hug (respecting their wishes, of course.)

The lesson I learned through all of this, is that so many of our brick walls are held up by centuries of whitewashing. In most cases, on purpose. In a few cases, due to a really twisted and vile version of the telephone game. But do we truly understand the magnitude of expanding our research methodology, and the resulting ripple effect of belonging and healing that can follow?

Genealogy Truth Bomb:

We have got to practice a more robust and inclusive FAN Club approach! Because I’m going to be really frank here – How dare we ever consider our research to be thorough if we profess to practice the FAN approach and ignore a significant portion of our family’s community and familial network simply because of race?! If we alter our research approach to practice a fully inclusive strategy, there is a high likelihood that we will demolish a multitude of mutual brick walls, as well as unite long separated families and begin the process of telling a more accurate history of our communities and our country.

Happy Researching, Y’all!

“No Original Wrong Lay at Their Door”: What About Ours?

I could work in the archives for a lifetime and never tire of the treasures they hold. To be blunt, we do not hold them in high enough esteem where our research is concerned. As I go about my daily routine, I sometimes grab enough time to dig for forgotten treasures. Note that I said “forgotten” not “hidden”. They are not hidden – which is an often repeated fallacy about archives, simply because their volume and original state of handwritten creation prevents instant consumption – and yet, not as easily accessed due to their sheer volume, and lack of people to analyze on a microscopic level. Admittedly, some archival collections are hidden, but usually on a temporary basis as staff make their way through the act of processing for responsible access.

The “forgotten” item I encountered this week was serendipitous, simply because I discovered it while looking for something else entirely – this often happens in the archives, BTW. We begin looking for one thing, and have a really hard time getting there because of all the gems we find littering the path to our goal. The item being sought was a Civil War Diary. While I love a good CW diary as well as the next researcher, I was actually looking at the original to compare to a transcription I discovered in our uncatalogued portion of the library. You know, standard librariany duties. As I was reading the first page of the digitized original, assessing the narrative in relation to the description and scope notes (archivist lingo) – a phrase leapt off the page and stayed with me all weekend: “No original wrong lay at their door”.

The reason this phrase has haunted me was because of the author’s intent. The author was a Kentuckian, a Union soldier named John Tuttle, attempting to describe the mindset of southerners when it came to the issue of slavery. In essence, he explained their belief in terms that echoed our own struggle of today regarding the heritage of slavery. As most of us have discovered, our genealogical research often uncovers enslavement in the family tree. So many of us have been cognizant of this terrible chapter, and offered to help unite ancestors with their descendants by way of sharing names of the enslaved that we encounter in the records. I have cheered on this endeavor as a form of healing for our land – going back to the roots, and acknowledging our familial connections to those chapters of terror and cruelty. As a white person, who has discovered both enslaver and emancipator in the family tree, I am encouraged and grateful when those of African American heritage also join the voice of unity in this effort – in many cases, embracing the concept of family – and graciously reminding the descendants of the enslavers that we are not our ancestors, and nor should we carry their guilt.

Which is why this soldier’s words made me catch my breath. When describing the rationale behind fighting to keep the system of slavery in place, it appears that there was no guilt associated with their belief – which was not a complete surprise, in its essence. But this lack of guilt was based on the actions of their ancestors. In his words:

“They had been reared and educated in the belief that there was no moral wrong in holding slaves as they did. The slaves had descended to them from past generations and no original wrong lay at their door. Many of them had been sold to them by persons in the north more on account of slaves not being profitable in that latitude as they thought, than from any considerations of philanthropy or humanity.”[1]

So let this sink in for just a minute. Apparently, because the system had been put in place by their ancestors, their maintenance of this system (and fight to keep it in place) was not wrong. He also describes their belief in a paternal relationship – caring for the enslaved in a better manner than freedom would afford. In 2018, we can see the horrific evils in that rationalization that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths throughout the days of slavery and during the bloodiest war of our history. But – can we look at ourselves and find any similarities in that rationalization?

It is a true statement that we are not the generation that enslaved people based on their race. Many lived through the first Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s – not fully understanding that it never really ended. We are merely experiencing a resurgence of the fight against the foundational issues that continue to foster inequality in various ways. Have we grown since the 1960s? Yes, of course we have – but we’re not finished!

I am frequently pained by the hostility I see among our neighbors – our fellow Americans – our family. The fabric of our society is being constantly strained and ripped apart because that fabric is woven from threads of time. Threads of slavery, injustice, cruelty, prejudice, racism, hatred – interwoven with threads of emancipation, justice, love, inclusion, equality, freedom, family connections, and most importantly, DNA. I still believe this fabric is strong, and can withstand the strains of divisive social and political forces.

But this is where I get preachy – in the hopes that we can look inward, to examine closely our own fabric.

We know our trees. We’ve been researching them for years – decades even. When examining the fabric of our family, we understand the complexity of the weave. And even though the guilt of slavery may not be on our generation, if we examine the fabric close enough, we can see the threads of our own guilt. We carry the guilt of our own generation. What does that guilt look like? It looks like apathy. It looks like an oblivious existence of comfort. It looks like trees without diversity – and trust me – if you have no diversity in your tree, you are not searching hard enough, or you are choosing to prune away the uncomfortably branches. DNA is lighting up our trees with colorful leaves that we did not know of, or we chose not to see due to that heavy fabric we kept as a blindfold.

Guilt can only be overcome if we make a healthy and conscious effort to change things for the better. We do not have the power to change all of the wrongs in this world, nor in this country, but we have the power of our generation to examine our fabric and think about what makes us tick. What does our tree tell us? Beyond the research, as we are learning from science, even memories of our ancestors can influence the reactions and fears that drive our motivations today. If that is true – then what memories or beliefs influence us in ways that are not healthy for our society? As a prism scatters light, so can these memories and beliefs passed down through teaching or DNA be scattered and projected through our own lives. In many cases, we don’t realize how much we are influenced by the past generations – even those we have never met.

When I think back about my own childhood, and the things I witnessed from my grandparents and parents, I know that they shaped who I became. And as I learned more, educated myself about diverse cultures and groups – about the fabric of our society, I grew to a place of cultivation. I began ripping out the weeds of their teaching. The weeds or poison ivy of thought that they learned, and passed to me. Do not get me wrong, my grandparents and parents taught me wonderful things, and I admire each and every one of them. But humanity is flawed, and not everything we learn from the previous generation should be honored or allowed to flourish for another generation. It’s time to weed some of those things that make us hesitant to reach out and make things better.

So, why am I writing this to a genealogy audience? Because I firmly believe a huge portion of the power to change lies in our hands. The more the records and spit connect us, the more we can start acting like family. If a member of your family is mistreated, how quickly do you come to their defense, to help them achieve justice? Pretty darned quick. As we come to the realization that we are all family, and as we strive to share this concept with those who care nothing for genealogy, we lead them toward empathy, compassion, and reconciliation.

I am also increasingly disheartened by the low numbers of white folks attending programs or sessions presented on African American genealogy/history – and other non-anglo based classes for that matter. It is shameful how few attend these wonderful classes. Go ahead and tell yourself that you don’t attend because it doesn’t apply to your research or ancestry – go ahead – just try. Because that doesn’t wash! If your ancestors were here beyond one generation, let alone before the Civil War, your family was a part of that history. What if you can’t find a slave owner in your tree? Congratulations, but did your family benefit from the slave economy? Of course they did. That network/system was in place for generations, and your ancestors were a part of it, whether they actively traded in human flesh as a commodity or not. They chose a side in the War driven by slavery – do you really think their side of choice was simply due to geography? Of course not – the issues leading up to that war were numerous and important to most. The records used to research enslaved families involved white owner families – so take a positive step and attend more of these sessions! I guarantee you will learn something helpful about your own research, and are sure to learn more about how our families can connect on a deeper level!

As speakers and genealogy teachers, we are quick to promote context as a way of understanding our ancestors’ lives and their motivations for life choices. If we continue to preach context and fail to promote digging into African American historical subjects, we are choosing to foster an atmosphere of division. How arrogant are we that we ignore the historical subjects of diverse American groups because we have arrogantly, and erroneously, determined that they do not fit into our family tree?

What else can we do? Well, I’m a Goonie generation, and I continue to say “This is OUR time!” – I love seeing the weaving of new fabric out there among diverse groups in the genealogy world – but we have to increase this effort a thousand fold! It is NOT enough! The good of those who help share the names of the enslaved in blogs and trees are drowned out by those who choose to erase or ignore the names they encounter – simply because, while they will not accept the guilt, they display actions driven by shame. Which is also driven by a romanticized mythology that perpetuates the heinous lie of the perfect or unblemished family tree!

This is OUR time, folks. We can choose to be forces for good in our generational time here on this planet, or we can choose to spread the weeds of division passed down to us. Of all the traditions and sacred beliefs we share across time, from one generation to the next, please do not sacrifice the future of our country on the traditions born from hate and prejudice. Weed our gardens through love and familial restoration. We were handed this society by our ancestors, but it’s our choice how we shape it for the next generation.

[1] Tuttle, John W. John W. Tuttle Civil War Memoir. 1860-1867. (Kentucky Historical Society Archives, Frankfort KY, SC 406), pg. 1(2).

Prison Genealogy Requests: Warning from a Corrections Officer

**NOTE** The following is a very serious warning to those in libraries and historical/genealogical societies that may have staff or volunteers researching genealogy requests from inmates. I am passing on a message from a corrections officer – a warning that gave me goosebumps.

One of my many duties as a genealogy library manager is coordinating the research necessary to answer the inquiries that fill our mailboxes (both electronic and snail). One constant in the snail mail arena is the plea from the prison inmate. We receive many of these each year – and I have to admit that they’ve always filled me with a sense of compassion – tempting me to assist in some way. My previous inclination to help them, despite a lack of payment, stemmed from the idea that their terrible life choices had placed them in a situation where learning about family origins was forbidden due to a lack of resources. While they may have access to a library, these libraries do not contain genealogical resources, nor do they provide internet access to delve into online genealogical records – leaving any hope for research to the kindness of strangers via snail mail requests. I completely understand and support the decision to restrict internet access, and yet, a willingness to pay a genealogy kindness forward was the only impetus necessary to send along one research tidbit, despite a lack of funds. That is, until one phone call changed my view of these letters.
After a recent genealogy request was mailed back to an inmate, we received a call from one of the corrections officers. (I will not give any details as to her location.) Her purpose in calling was not to receive a word by word account of the correspondence, but to ask about the nature of the genealogy itself. As an introduction, she explained that she was stationed at a facility that housed some of the most violent offenders in the country. And even worse, the person we had been corresponding with was an especially violent inmate.

As a librarian, I almost thought this information irrelevant. I don’t need to know about an individual’s past nor the purpose behind their information seeking behavior. But then she explained further. Apparently, one of the real concerns they have in this type of facility is preventing any further crimes by the inmates. Either through their own hand, or through the hand of someone they know outside the prison walls. According to information she had about previous genealogical inquiries, she said there is a pattern of research via correspondence that can lead to contact with a living person which violates the inmate’s terms of incarceration. For instance, contact with previous victims, future potential victims, trial witnesses, judges, jury members, or even their own children who may be off limits. After all, she said, they have all the time in the world, and if they can research their way to a helpful cousin who can provide contact information, they will readily exercise the necessary patience for such an endeavor.

To elaborate, she outlined some things to watch out for:

  1. Be cautious when they are asking for you to research a descendant trail. Obviously, as genealogists, we usually seek ancestors in a backwards trajectory. For research requests that may have an ulterior motive, they may list a distant ancestor, give you the line they have worked, and are now asking for you to connect to a generation that quickly leads into the 20th century.  
  2. For any request that asks you to connect to recent family or living people, do not respond. We already understand this to be a no-no in sharing our own trees, so this rule should also dictate our response to research requests.
  3. Don’t be lured into sympathy research via an adoption story. They rely heavily on the kindness of strangers, and understand the plea to discover one’s lost origins due to an adoption will likely garner needed information.
  4. Their goal may not be the final piece of information, but rather, for you to just fill in a piece of the puzzle, helping them to write to the next person, seeking the next level of connection.
  5. Just remember that some of them can be extremely charming and artful in their deception. Be very suspicious of eloquent flattery and detailed emotional pleas.
Does her phone call remove my desire to help them? Not really, but it does allow me to analyze their requests with a much more knowledgeable eye. In the new book, Genealogy and the Librarian, there is a wonderful chapter by Katherine Aydelott from the University of New Hampshire, detailing her lengthy correspondence with an inmate, and how she helped him fill in a lot of his family tree – later discovering that they were 8th cousins (pg.203). But even with this rewarding research relationship, she advises that all correspondence should remain professional, and to adhere to your organization’s policies. In my library’s case, our policy clearly states we will not conduct research without pre-payment. Yes, we have bent the rules slightly when someone just needed a small piece of info that was easily provided – which fit well into my previous pattern of helping with one small page of info easily copied or printed out – but her phone call made me realize that even this small tidbit could have serious consequences.

As an information professional I am not interested in the how and why a person seeks information – my duty is merely to facilitate their access to the needed information – without subjecting them to inquisitive interviews, or speculative analysis. But in order to prevent the harm of others, I think the corrections officer’s advice was timely and well intended. It is good information to have – and a good reminder to keep the wall of professionalism up, and adhere to your own policies. In this case, our policies allow us to deny research services without payment, and I will more than likely follow that policy more closely. But as a librarian, I will not discriminate. If they manage to send in an hourly research request with payment, which asks for information found within our library holdings, we will fill their request in as complete a manner as we would for anyone else – regardless of the warnings.

At the end of the day, the situation is very sad – and I personally feel that many requests we receive from behind prison walls are legitimate. With so much time to think, and perhaps when it’s too late do the research, many may want nothing more than to understand where they came from. Just be careful and use the above warning to evaluate your appropriate response.

As a post script: I was filing some older requests and ran across a previous inmate inquiry from a few years ago. One thing I had also done in the past, was given these inmate requests to new staff members as a way to play with the research request – take extra time to research, using it to learn about our collections and the research process. In one of these previous requests, the inmate had started the inquiry with a Civil War soldier – pretty far back, which sounded safe. Then I read all the way through the letter and subsequent letter he sent in the following weeks. He was originally looking for the descendants of said CW soldier, and then quickly asked about someone who was alive in the 1920s. He then added his grandparents to the list of research, and then to his own father, etc. By re-reading these letters after the phone call, I was seeing a potential danger with these letters. His very last letter, which we ignored, was flattering and charming, asking for us to keep writing to him, and that if we had access to Facebook, could we look up certain people on his list, and contact them on his behalf. That was the direction that made all of the corrections officer’s advice resonate with horrific reality. From research about a Civil War soldier to contacting people on Facebook in the very next letter, my stranger danger radar was going off like the wail of the tornado siren.

Until next time, stay safe, y’all!

Reflecting on a Virtual Decade + A New Genealogy Exhibit

This past February marked a milestone of sorts: February 26th was my 10th Rezzday. For those of you unfamiliar with Virtual Worlds, a Rezzday marks the birth or “rezzing” of your avatar. For these past 10 years, my Virtual World of choice has been Second Life (SL). And, for those of you rolling your eyes right now – scroll down to my “Genealogy in Second Life” section – the opportunities for genealogy collaboration and learning are worth the read.
I cannot begin to explain the depth of experiences and wealth of life changing relationships that developed over 10 years, but I feel it’s necessary to explore the impact of this level of technology. The avatar that was born 10 years ago was different, because I was different 10 years ago. She and I are forever linked in a technological dimension that taught my human a great deal. Right around the same time I rezzed an avatar for the first time, I was just finishing up grad school for my M.S. in Library Science. Ironically, my first steps into the virtual realm came on the heels of my cannonball jump into social media. They were a package deal in a sense, as they all developed through a program at work.

In 2007, the University of Kentucky Libraries developed a program designed to help staff become familiar with social media. It was determined – accurately – that our students were fast adopting a new level of communication that was going to become the new norm – and we had to adapt in order to communicate effectively in the fast approaching future. But as a whole, we were woefully behind in our ability to communicate via social media

A few UK librarians exploring the island just after the grand opening in 2008.
tools. Through this program, we learned how to blog (various platforms), use Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Bitly, Linkedin, RSS Feed Readers, Link Aggregators, and for extra credit: Second Life. It was essentially a ‘play as you go’ structure – we were allowed about 2 weeks per tool for testing during work time. This allowed us the flexibility to learn how to use these tools while avoiding negative impact on our work duties. The balance was perfect, and I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun at work – it gave us new energy, fostered collaboration, inspiration, and built new friendships among the staff – several friendships and collaborations emerged across campus. A lot can be said for allowing adults the opportunity to play in creative ways. I know it was the best investment they could have ever made, and it worked like a charm.

Until they mentioned SL, I had never really heard anything about it – but upon their introduction, we learned that the University had already purchased an island and was developing the space for educational purposes. A replica of our library had already been built, complete with a reference desk for information and a meeting place for several groups, including other Kentucky librarians and educators from across the state. There were other departments on the island such as Fine Arts, Drug Endangered Children Network, Political Science, E-Learning, Admissions, Psychology, Medical, etc. It was a very nice sampling of educational projects, operating together on this virtual island.

The 3D virtual representation of the William T. Young Library – at least on the outside – the inside was open for exhibits and meetings.
The activities on this island built my skills in programming, exhibit design and construction, speaking, event planning, in-world design/construction, and collaboration. What an amazing sandbox of creativity and learning – pun intended for those who are familiar with SL terminology!
Our harvest festival with a joint live performance of a Bluegrass band playing at the Fine Arts Library and streaming live into Second Life.
And then I traveled OFF the island to discover: GENEALOGY and HISTORY and ART!

I was not prepared for the amazing things I encountered! The educational, historical, and artistic realms were, and continue to be phenomenal! Not only can you tour historical recreations and unique 3D art installations, you can also learn from top professionals in a variety of fields!
The Future is Now: Libraries and Museums in Virtual Worlds, American Library Association Island, March 2010
Here’s just a sampling of the things I’ve experienced:
  • Toured art gallery openings and original art installations that can only be experienced in 3D worlds.
  • Attended live theater and musical performances.
  • Danced with Abraham Lincoln AND Henry VIII!
  • Given instructional genealogy and library presentations (more on that in a second).
  • Attended live performances of Shakespeare plays (while dressed as Queen Elizabeth I) held in a replica of the Globe Theatre.
  • Participated in a group discussion with reference librarians from around the world.
  • Toured ancient Egyptian and European Renaissance cities.
  • Attended memorial services for both colleagues and celebrities – and fundraising events after national tragedies.
  • Edited a virtual library magazine.
  • Curated and constructed exhibits – about quilts, the horse racing industry, and now genealogy.
  • Attended Church services, political rallies, book talks, poetry readings, writing workshops, and toured interstellar space stations.
  • Formed friendships professional relationships that are on target to last a lifetime.
Once upon a time, there was a SL library magazine for librarians.
Genealogy in Second Life:
Genealogy in SL has been here almost from the very beginning – and BTW, SL is now 15 years old! Probably the earliest genealogy activities came from the parcel created by the LDS Church. They have a replica temple and various centers for activity – including a Family History Center. They were the first group I stumbled upon, and their group meetings continue today.
Family History Center
With the recent move of the Community Virtual Library (yes, a real library for avatars, complete with books to read and loads of social/educational activities!) there is a new genealogy exhibit running there from July to September – put together by yours truly – located in the Secret Garden portion of the CVL parcel: Cookie Island. Libraries have been providing a wealth of information and educational resources since SL was born – and under the wonderful direction of Dr. Valerie Hill, that doesn’t appear to be changing!
Current genealogy exhibit running from July-September 2018 on the CVL parcel, Cookie Island
Several other genealogy groups have come and gone in SL, but genealogy is alive and well in this virtual world! Here are just a few of the opportunities that await:
  1. Just Genealogy: A place developed by genealogy’s own Dear Myrtle (Clarise Beaumont in SL) as a meeting space and social/educational haven for all things genealogy. You will find various groups meeting here for small group discussions, presentations, social gatherings, or just dancing.
  2. Second Life Virtual Genealogical Society: Also meets at Just Genealogy, but is a real organization that requires yearly dues for membership and is a part of the FGS network of organizations. Dues are very small, about $5.00 per year – making you an FGS member! They also host a monthly NGSQ Study Group which provides deeper discussions of a previously assigned NGSQ article. (This year, the focus is on DNA related articles!)
  3. APG SL Chapter: A real APG chapter with officers, projects, and presentations. You have to be an APG member in Real Life (RL) to be an officer in this chapter, but the SL activities are open to everyone. They focus heavily on education through discussions and presentations. This chapter was the recipient of the APG Golden Chapter Award in 2012!
Typical APG meeting at the Just Genealogy firepit.
If you’re a big fan of online genealogy webinars and learning opportunities, you should seriously look into attending events in SL – and join the Genealogists in Second Life Facebook Group. You can create an account for free, which includes a ready-made avatar of your choice. If you’re not interested in the other layers of SL, such as clothes, shopping, and appearance, you are free to just treat this as another educational platform – entering for participation on your schedule. If you are truly new to this platform – do yourself a favor and watch a few tutorials to make getting around easier – or attend a newbie class. There are loads of these new classes out there – sometimes, even the genealogy groups hold “getting started in SL” events to ease the transition into a virtual world.
Giving a presentation about Genealogy Literacy at the CVL earlier this year. Hosted by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL).
Reflections in 2018:
In 2018, some of the land parcels in SL are not as populated as they used to be, but the activities and inspiring places are still around in abundance (and experiencing a resurgence, IMO) – with the graphics and animations getting better with each year. Some things have changed drastically in SL – such as bodies and clothing – although, you’ll see my avatar running around as a more basic model – I’ve had no time to get into some of the more advanced appearance options. And I will not lie to you – there is a significant learning curve to SL – even sitting, walking, flying, and putting clothes on can be complicated processes to navigate in tandem. But once you get the hang of it, I’m convinced you’ll really enjoy the experience.

In late fall 2017, the University of Kentucky Island was deleted/erased from the metaverse, which really was a full 10 years of use – they purchased the island in 2007, building the first structures and developing infrastructure to open fully in early spring 2008. Such a sad day, but, I know for certain that it was not a rejection of the technology that killed the island – but rather, a series of financial events that created a perfect storm. When the island was born, there was a significant educational discount which most universities took advantage of – but just as the recession was hitting, and budgets were cut, SL removed or drastically reduced this educational discount – effectively ensuring that some of the first cuts to go, nationwide, would be virtual classrooms/realms.  Most did not survive this double whammy, and as the collegial network shrank, so did the activity. The only things that appear to continue with gusto, are international educational groups. There are multiple professional conferences that take place in SL each year which draw hundreds of faculty members from around the globe.

New virtual worlds have also been emerging – some with more control or requiring facial devices to make the experience more realistic. A new top runner is Kitely, an open source platform that is being frequented by educators. I predict someday, SL will be replaced by something easier to use, containing an even more realistic virtual reality – Linden Labs has already created a new Beta world called Sansar, and everyone is eager to see how SL residents take to it. But for now, most virtual world enthusiasts have invested a lot of time and money into making SL as expansive and dynamic as it is – It would be very hard to walk away from this world to build a new one from scratch. Time will tell – in 5 more years, SL will be 20 years old – quite amazing!
The difference a decade makes: Celebrating SL’s 5th birthday (top) versus its 15th birthday (bottom) – the graphics have advanced considerably.
For those of you who have heard about the seedier side of SL – that is all true. Just like RL, this world is complex with varied experiences – all created by the users or “residents”. And just like RL, no one will force you to encounter or experience anything you don’t want to – you choose where to go and what to experience. I’ve spent a decade exploring, and rarely have I ran into anything by accident. Even your search interface and marketplace shopping can be limited to “General” rating – thereby excluding anything “Moderate” or “Adult” in nature.
The Ancestor Grotto I created on my own parcel for ancestral storytelling.

One final note: It has truly been a unique, yet odd, experience. Prior to technology, the term “avatar” was related to spiritual activity, namely via Hinduism: “a manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth; an incarnate divine teacher.” Somehow, this fits the modern evolution as well. It is truly surprising how the avatar becomes an

10 year old, Sifriya Devin
extension of your RL persona through emotions and relationships and learning. And yet, while I view her as an extension of me in the professional world, after 10 years, it is odd to see that she does not age as I do. When I first created my avatar, I was in my mid-30s and much thinner, and she now reflects that previous appearance – her waistline did not expand as mine has over the years – nor is she forming wrinkles with time. In 20 years, will she still exist, as she does now, without aging, as I continue to grow older? I suspect she will as long as SL exists – but isn’t it ironic? As we age, we do not think of ourselves as older or old – we still view the world as a young person, despite how adulting may alter our attitude. As I said before, do not underestimate the value of creative play and learning – it keeps the noggin young – and as you get lost in the virtual realm of youth and limitless exploration, you can also advance your genealogy literacy skills!
See you “in-world”! (See below for a video about getting started!)

Spring Pruning Our Family Search Family Tree

My first attempt at a title for this post included a very naughty word: “My.” You see, this is the biggest obstacle when adding info to the Family Search Family Tree. It is one tree, and we are all a part of its branches – transforming “my tree” to “our tree”. I admit that this concept scared me to my core – and honestly, after using it for five years now, it can still send me into a hyperventilating tailspin when fellow gardeners start pruning or reshaping one of the family branches. But I’ve finally come to terms with this concept, and find that I keep going back to it – drawing me like a video game, of sorts – which can sometimes feel more like whack-a-mole.

After half of a decade, here’s what I’ve learned and why I feel those of us with advanced genealogical skills should be embracing this “one world tree” concept.

My initial purpose in joining this tree:

I first started dabbling with this tree because it was new, and I do love playing with new genealogy toys. As the trees were already connected to Family Search records, I thought it might be a nice genealogy sandbox. I will also be honest about the initial draw – knowing that Family Search servers and the granite mountain would be preserving the information added to the tree, I viewed this as a tool of genealogy insurance. If everything went kaboom tomorrow, including my house and my gedcom, perhaps this remnant would remain?

But then again, how would it remain? After 5 more years, after 10 years, 20 years from now – what would my information look like? I know this is the most alarming part of a one world tree concept. My guilty secret is that I still maintain a personal tree at home sourced with my research – But as the FS tree grows, and implements easy to access tools, I find myself grabbing the FS tree app on my phone when I want to show something to a family member, or just refresh my memory as to a particular branch. So, it’s like a research worm….curling its way into my permanent genealogical consciousness.

For all Intents and Purposes:

My initial, self-imposed limitations, allowed the maintenance of only a few generations. I was surprised to find that my great grandparents were not in this tree, with very limited information about the generations immediately past them. So, I figured it was my duty to fill in some of the research I already had on hand, as well as share some of the older photographs I had of the family – only one or two for identification – I wasn’t going to go crazy with this tree, nor add the whole kit and kaboodle of family gems – those are going into a book someday – and sent to libraries to meet my own comfort level of permanence.

First word of caution with a tip: I would never have guessed in a million years that someone would try to remove or move one of the images that I had added – but sure enough, the shocking moment happened when I got the notification that someone had removed and moved a photo that I had uploaded to my ancestor! I went racing to the page, only to discover that everything was fine – when you get a notification that someone has changed something on your tree – DO NOT rush over and act in furry or haste! Be careful, and look closely at the changes, because FS notifies you for ANY changes to the ancestor profiles you choose to put on your watch list – which includes movements forward and backward.

To illustrate – back to the photo image switch – the person who had removed the image, only removed the attachment of the photo – attributing it to someone else. Sounds horrifying, no? But when I looked closely, the photo was repeated in the list of changes, among others that reversed some of the previous actions. Upon inspection, clearly someone was trying to attach a child, and remove a duplicate couple, and since that process has quite a learning curve, the person was trying to correct the slip that had been made when he/she detached or deleted the wrong person!

In the end, things were just fine, but it made me realize that I needed to spend some extra time and watermark the ancestral photos that were held in my personal collection. Once you upload a photo, people can move them around, but from now on, I will add a watermark that identifies the ancestor, as well as the current owner of the original (maybe not my full name, but initials and surname, or some such configuration – and maybe not a label that can be trimmed off.) Also, add a note as you upload to go with the photo – listing you as the owner, or where you got the copy. It’s the least we can do as an attempt to keep the right photo with the right person.

Plus, I cannot emphasize this enough – take time to learn the ins and outs of the merging, deleting, and detaching processes – for all of our sakes – PLEASE!!! There are loads of YouTube videos out there to help (including a whole channel by Family Search!) – just be sure to watch the most current editions as the specific instructions have changed a bit – we all need to make sure we are doing it right, so we don’t contribute to the problem!

Spring Cleaning/Pruning is a MUST:

I admit that the duplicate entries made me shake my head – it was like Ancestry zombie tree clones all over again, but with even worse variations based on crazy transcriptions in the system (I’ll get to that in a minute) or just terrible “research” – and it was driving me crazy because I would run into this issue quite a bit – as would others working on some of the same lines. Then it finally hit me – the “Possible Duplicates” link is your friend! I was running into duplicates as I attached new sources, added new children, parents, or a new spouse, and it was so confusing to detach or attach existing folk. You can REALLY help the tree a lot if you periodically go in to prune off or merge existing duplicates. By doing this proactively, you help to ensure that the tree grows as a tree and not a bush!

You might be thinking: “Hey – that’s no problem as I’ve already hit that wall and fixed it – removing/merging all my duplicates”: Ummmm, not so fast. The reason you need to periodically go through and prune/merge duplicates is because new ones can show up as new records are added to FS. I recently discovered a duplicate that I was not aware of previously. It came up as I was working on a German couple that had no duplicates. This is a really unique surname and I had been the only one working on this branch – until a new record came up as a hint from FS – I eagerly went to attach the record to my couple, and found it was already attached to a couple whose names were similar, yet not identical – resembling something of a phonetic perversion that was very odd – seemingly related to how the record was transcribed. I clicked on them to learn more about this couple and their lineage – but I quickly hit a dead end. When I clicked one of their individual profiles, and then hit “tree” I found that there was no one attached to them at all – they were floaters with no connections. So, I looked at their history, to identify the original creator, and it was FS Admin! I’m assuming this is a function of newly added records – they were putting a family unit in the tree section as a new record was made available in order to find the family connections (this was a baptism identifying a family unit) – not sure if this was made by a bot of sorts (computer generated), or a real person, but it made me confident in my next changes.

I then headed back to my couple to remove these duplicates prior to attaching that newly found record. CAUTION: When I went back to my couple, and clicked on “Possible Duplicates” that phantom floating couple did NOT appear in the list. Sigh – so I had to go all the way back to the record, take note of the individual profile numbers, and search for the duplicates that way – it worked, but what rigmarole! BTW, so what did I type into the box that requires an explanation for a deletion? Verbatim: “This couple appears to be a FS added couple based on one document with no known family connections – I am that family, and I’m welcoming them home as they are already on my tree.”

With the potential for many other floating family units to appear out there over time – you may want to make your life easier and check the individual lines in your branch of the tree for new duplicate possibilities – in other words, keep the shears handy for spot check pruning.

With all of the above – why should I invest my time and resources into this Family Tree?

For a few reasons:

  1. It’s an open tree that people can see, use, and share with no membership needed. I can easily share this with my family, and not worry about what might be locked later if someone doesn’t pay a membership. (I’m talking about down the road – not current viewable Ancestry Trees.)
  2. As much as my family’s involvement might result in us getting mad over the changes – I’m confident the collaboration will be great in the end (because I KNOW they have some family info that I don’t – and their input will help build a more complete ancestor story) – plus, I think we all live far enough apart that murder will not be a viable option for dispute resolution – just a genealogy joke, folks!
  3. With the new tools that FS is implementing for story/memory collection – this could soon evolve into a very dynamic place for preserving and sharing the family story.
  4. One of the major draws for me is that easy integration with the FS documents – those sources get pulled in and attached with a few clicks, and it makes sourcing information like a video game – fun, serves the purpose, and doesn’t strain my eyes as I make sure there is a comma or period in the correct places – but I’m still careful to make sure it belongs to the right people – after all, a hint is not a given match.
  5. And BTW, I have played with WikiTree as an alternative, but the screen layout just never stuck with me – plus, the ease of connecting actual records in FS hooked me like a duck on a junebug.
How Advanced Genealogists can make this a better tree – Our Responsibility:

Lately, I’ve heard genealogists of varying degrees of experience throw their hands up and reject the one world tree concept. Don’t get me wrong – if I had a dime for every time I got mad and said “That’s it! I’m done! I’ve had it with this thing – If everyone can come in and just changes my work, what is the point??!!!” I’d be a wealthy woman.

But fundamentally, I think we’re getting it a bit wrong. If most genealogists of significant caliber abandon this format, you know who builds the one world tree? Potentially, those who lack the necessary skills to create a valid tree – and yet this tree is preserved and lasts for many generations – Is that really what we want? If we don’t get into the sandbox with the other kids, who know what will be built with the genealogy blocks? And just to be clear, while we abandon the format and stick to our private trees only, this community tree is taking shape and continuing to grow without our input and while we look the other way.
I have also come to the realization that more is more where these trees are concerned. The more information you feed into an ancestor profile: life sketch, memories, etc. – the more solid the profile becomes. And when you change something, put in a good reason, don’t skimp on the reasons – use them as teaching tools for those who come along later. Also, don’t be afraid to change something back if you have a very good reason. Recently, my great grandfather, Albert Pace had his name changed in the FS Tree because someone had added the nickname “Prince” to his given name. The person who came along to take away this nickname was unrecognized by me, but while I thought the change was fine, they also went to the “Alternative Name” section and removed “Prince Albert” from this lower area. Since this person then proceeded to fill out a lot of information about the first marriage and the child born to that union (I’m a descendant of the second marriage), I’m assuming that is the side of the family from which they hail. So, instead of playing tit for tat, I went back and added “Prince Albert Pace” in the alternative name block with a note that said: “Reason This Information Is Correct – All of his children from the second marriage referred to Albert as “Prince Albert” – all of their descendants refer to him as such. I’m assuming this was his local nickname, with no information as to its origins. Please DO NOT remove this as it is a significant identifier from his direct descendants and an important part of his identity on a local and familial level.”

Moral of the story – Beef up the profiles, be kind, but be thorough, and don’t be afraid to communicate why you would like an element to stay. Collaboration is a GOOD THING! So far, people have been relatively nice about things if you reasonably explain the source behind a piece of information. Although, I have been tough on some lines, and chopped off a branch that ran wild with completely unsourced info – I detached with a notice that said “Please do not add parents of this person without citing a source – there are many theories out there, but no proof has been yet uncovered.” It’s a wonderful PSA to remind people about citing sources and the GPS – even if it is one little message at a time.

NOTE: We have a lot of work to do! There have been so many weird changes out there that the clean-up could be pretty intense, depending on your branch of the family tree. And yes, I know, some of them have run wild like a bramble bush that stretches all the way back to Adam and Eve – but if we don’t get involved and bring along the pruning shears, it’s like a genealogy villain (misinformation) terrorizing a village with no superheroes to combat their dirty deeds. Just like indexing, I think we have a responsibility to dive headlong into the forest and make it a better place – with a myriad of opportunities to educate about resources as we go along.

OK – Everyone, go get your cape, shears, (and goggles for the mess) – we’re going in!

Thanks for reading and happy pruning!

Lost Legacy: A PSA about Donating Your Research

Today, we’re going to play a game of “Would You Rather – Elimination Round”

The information I am about to share will naturally be a tad controversial. But after years of watching genealogy donations come into a state institution, the severity of this issue has been weighing heavily on my heart for quite awhile. For anyone planning to donate their genealogy research to an organization or even to a capable family member, you NEED to read this post with an open mind and a willingness to take precautions.

Repeated Scenario:
Aunt Matilda, the family genealogist, has passed away. Everyone loved hearing her stories at the family reunion, or seeing the charts she would bring along, but her small pieces of genealogy that she shared with the family were the result of decades of research – with 20+ boxes and 6+ file cabinets to prove it. Aunt Matilda was very organized, and loved displaying her binders of family research – they were an impressive site – she even shared some of these brag images with her favorite genealogy Facebook group!

But Aunt Matilda is gone – and her family has been tasked with finding a new home for this valuable truckload of genealogy. It’s precious. It’s priceless. But who’s going to take care of it as it should be cared for? For all eternity!!!???

Usually one of four things happens in a case like this:
  1. The family passes on the collection to another willing family member who will lovingly continue Matilda’s work, and care for the collection as we all envision.
  2. A willing family member volunteers to take the collection, in the hopes of continuing Matilda’s work, and it goes in a basement or attic until they retire and can devote sufficient time to its care. However, if this next family member dies before taking on the work, the collection will need to find another home.
  3. No one in the family wants this, but realizes its value and donates it to a non-profit organization of their choice: Library, historical society, local museum, genealogical society, etc.
  4. The family members in charge of Matilda’s estate have no clue about the value of her genealogical research and toss the many files of research into a dumpster! Oh, the horror!
Considering scenario #1:
This is the rarest of the scenarios. We all know that we carry a sacred mantle – bestowed upon us by the ancestors. We are chosen by a force we cannot see yet which drives us to research until we become one of them. While you can find another in the family to take the charge, you may have to be creative in finding the right person. It may not be a direct descendant. This isn’t royalty, with a title dictated by an entail, but rather a search for the one with the gift.

Considering scenario #2: 
This is a pretty common scenario…unfortunately, it does not usually have a happy ending. Well meaning family members can have the best of intentions – but lack of follow through usually results in an even more precarious situation when this person passes = a fast track to scenario #4! Do not be swayed by the willing but unavailable – or incapable. Look for the gift as we just covered above.

Considering scenario #3: 
This is the impetus of this post – and the hardest to take.
Donating the collection to a non-profit organization is a smart move for longterm preservation and future accessibility by descendants from multiple branches. I encourage this with every fiber of my being!

But…

A problem is fast arising – at an alarming rate: Collection size in relation to space availability.

I work for one of the lucky ones. We have a very large, modern facility, built to handle incoming donations of all size – for decades to come. Despite our current comfortable space capacity, it will not last forever. For those who are not so lucky, space is at an even greater premium.

Our current collecting practices had to move to a smarter model over a decade ago because at the current rate we were taking things in, we were going to run out of space quickly. So, we adopted a collecting policy – related directly to our mission and mandate from the state. Every item coming into our facility has to be voted upon by a Collections Committee. We base our voting upon historical significance, condition (mold and bugs are pretty quick declines unless there is something stellar inside that warrants conservation.), uniqueness (do we already have 25 of these or is this only 1 of a few?) and subject need. We implemented these policies to not only ensure responsible stewardship, but to encourage collecting in a broader spectrum – we want our collections to cover all subjects and time periods.

For incoming genealogy collections the questions are getting harder and harder because the size of the collections being dropped off are getting larger and larger….and with much greater frequency.

To analyze a genealogy collection for inclusion, we look at the contents to the best of our ability. This is not a full scale archival processing which would come after acceptance. This is a spot review of folders and boxes.

What are we finding in this collection – and should we take it?

Is there original family material inside? If we find original family photos, correspondence, sourced research reports, bible records, diaries, ephemera, etc…..that’s a home run. We LOVE these components because they are unique, tell a story, and in many cases, fragile. Our facility can preserve them, and make the collection accessible to researchers and many future family members.

But more often than not, these collections contain a large photocopy paper collection – with very little to nil original family elements. For instance – print outs from websites such as: Findagrave, Ancestry, RootsWeb, message boards (Genforum), etc. E-mail correspondence can be valuable as cousins collaborate their research, but I’ve seen binders devoted to one family, which includes complete copies of each stage of the e-mail chain – from the first e-mail, followed by each reply, until the final response – repeating the chain as it grew – filling up half of the binder!
 
Many binders, folders, or boxes contain printouts of census images, wills, death certificates, etc. collected by the genealogist along the way. While these are valuable to your research….I’m going to be blunt:

This is why we practice responsible and thorough citation methods!

You will never see an NGSQ article that contains copies of all of the documentation necessary for a proof argument. Why? Because it would take up too much space! Citation guidelines were adopted in the history and genealogy professions as tools to defend our research conclusions. We have to defend them with primary information – but through citations, not actual copies of the supporting documentation.

Many of you are rolling your eyes right now – “Duh – of course we cite our sources! Besides, who has time to complete the research in a professional report with citations?! All of our branches???! We are never finished! This is why we pass on the research, hoping someone else will complete the work!”

Point taken – but I’m here to pour a bucket of cold water over your head: Which would you rather have, a research report with full citations donated to a non-profit collection that your family can access for generations – OR – would you rather see your decades of hard work tossed into the dumpster?

Here’s the bigger problem that accompanies the material I described. Even though we, as archivists, are trying to evaluate an incoming collection as to its research value and historical/genealogical importance, there is always a possibility that we could get the assessment wrong. Not overall, mind you, but the sheer volume of print outs from the genealogy web could obscure the original family elements that might be lurking inside. And remember, we’re not talking about assessing a binder of material….we’re talking about assessing 6-20+ boxes of binders or folders….within a half hour or so, to make a donation recommendation.

Passing the Ball to your Court:

So, what can you do to ensure your collection is handled appropriately to survive in the longterm?

It is MANDATORY that you reduce the genealogy collection footprint. Here are some ways to do this.

  1. Begin to prioritize. Most genealogy organizational how-to articles will help you organize your research into color coded folders, binders, boxes, cabinets, etc. Forget that for now. Your prioritization should begin with the most important pieces of your family collection. If you walked into the office/closet during a natural disaster and had to pick one box to take with you, what would it be? If you can’t lay your hands on one to two boxes of original family material or research, you’ve already lost the estate battle.
  2. One way to reduce, as I mentioned earlier, is through citing your sources without keeping a photocopy of the original. I know that makes you nervous, but it’s the goal we should all be striving for in our research. Caveat: The copies I am referring to include items that can be easily pulled up via Family Search or Ancestry, Internet Archive, or Photocopies from other books that are readily available, etc. If you have a photocopy of a record that has never been digitized, and it took a trip to the courthouse to retrieve, by all means, keep that copy. The same goes with family group sheets and family Bible record copies from relatives – these are not things you can cite and find anywhere else (usually) – so retention is a must.
  3. Photo albums are their own beast: consider decreasing the amount by eliminating images taken of landscapes while on vacation, blurry images, and duplicate images – pick the best – eliminate the rest (of these photo categories).
  4. Ephemera – While I’m a big fan of ephemera, there should be a limit on what you keep. Travel brochures, postcards with little to no family info, restaurant napkins, matchbooks, receipts, canceled checks, should all be reduced or eliminated unless there is a great story or sentimentality to the item. If you do have a large ephemera collection tied to places over the years, consider pulling those out and donating to an appropriate institution on the collection’s own merit.
  5. Always separate publications away from your genealogy collection. Sure, they can be in the same area during your research years, but separate them out during the organizational process. Someday, these can be donated to local libraries, or discarded if there are multitudes of copies already out there – but don’t muddy your genealogy waters with outside, mass produced publications.
Breaking the Hoarder Mentality: Document the Important Stories and Tie them to the Objects you want to Pass on to Future Generations.

On a personal note, my grandmother died a few years ago – but due to the hoarding that went on in that household, unchecked for decades, it took the full 2 years allowed to settle the estate. Even after her house had sold, we were working through the last portion of her belongings that were stored off-site in an environmentally secure storage facility. Up until the very last hours, going through that last batch of family significant items, the sheer volume of “things” and lifelong remnants was mentally and physically exhausting.

By the end of the final day allowed for the probate settlement, my father and his siblings agreed to split up the remaining boxes without knowing what was inside – in the hopes of making the last divisions equal. So after 2 years of work, the last divisions were made blindly – a scenario we all want to avoid.

At the conclusion of all the angst associated with an estate dispersal, there are still many times when I will look at something today and wish I could ask my grandmother or grandfather about its significance. Sure, it’s old, I grew up seeing it in their house, but is that the end of the story? Did they purchase the item, or did they get it as a gift – OR, did it come from the previous generation? Sadly, those stories are lost forever.

My exasperated point here is: Do not place the same value on your stuff. Prioritize the important things, connect them to you with stories, and work on getting rid of what is not as important. Because the biggest tragedy of all exists when the really important things cannot be seen due to the hoarding around them. In our attempt to keep everything, we are at risk of losing the most important elements of our heritage.

A Few Last Pieces of Advice:

There are a few other things you can do to ensure your family history survives, from housing the items, to labeling photographs, to estate planning.

  1. Once you have prioritized the most important sections of your collection, go through them with a fine toothed comb of analysis. Label all of the photos. Re-house the important documents and photos into archival safe folders and boxes (this is also a nice way to differentiate between the important and less important segments).
  2. For each box of documents related to a surname or family, write a research report that fits into the first folder – serving as a family introduction to what’s inside and where this collection fits into the family history. This is your opportunity to use the citations I mentioned earlier – but in smaller reports that do not seem as daunting. Include photos of heirlooms in the report to connect them in family context. You can keep these electronically active as you research, updating them periodically, and placing an updated version of the report in the file every year or 6 months depending on the research activity for that branch.
  3. Think about the odds of the entire collection surviving – and then explore ways of sharing copies of the history. The more copies that exist out there, the better the chance of connecting to future researchers: Making a photobook history through the many self publishers out there. These books come in slick professional looking products that your family will love to pass on as important keepsakes. Also, if you don’t plan on donating the entire collection to an organization, make copies of the research reports or photobooks you wrote and donate to local libraries and museums – this allows them to survive on file for researchers.
  4. Do you want to donate the collection you just put together? Consider getting advice from a local professional. Contact the museum/library of your choice and ask to consult with an archivist about your genealogy collection. They can advise you on best practices, and whether they would be interested in obtaining the collection – if you already know that they woudn’t be interested, or wouldn’t make a great fit, shop around for a place that does, and then consider estate planning to make the donation a legal agreement. Also, don’t be afraid to ask them about their collection space and future collecting policies – as well as staffing levels – as this affects processing time and the future access of your collection.
  5. But….you have a different scenario: your research is well sourced, not bulky, but stored neatly as a digital file on your PC or in the cloud. You’ve used a wonderful genealogy software that allows your files to be shared with multiple family members. That’s great! But what happens when the software you are using upgrades after you are gone – and the file can no longer be read – save as a gedcom? Perhaps. But since we cannot see the advanced technological environment coming along, it’s a safe bet to store your reports in multiple formats, including printed reports, and make sure you keep up with best practices of data migration.
Conclusion and a Last Word of Caution: 

I am NOT suggesting that you have to reduce your collection to one box or binder. In some cases, that is not possible – in others, that isn’t practical. However, when we archivists process collections, we are allowed to discard elements that do not fit the collection – categorized as “processing discards” =  superfluous papers with duplicate information, blank sheets, commercial (widely published) brochures/publications, damaged elements, etc. Knowing this, you may be tempted to dismiss my entire post – after all, an archivist can process my collection as they see fit after I’m gone. Really? Do you really want the reduction filter to come through someone who does not know your family and related collection?

NO – you want to retain that power and prepare to donate a unique and useful research collection.

Everyone thinks their genealogical research will be valued and preserved for future generations. However, unless we are proactive in ensuring its survival, it may not last past our generation. I understand the need to keep all of our research on hand while we work, but we must be more organized in the research, keep clear goals in mind for each branch, and then wrap up our work with reports – on a periodic basis. Just remember, reports can be amended in the future – but lost genealogy is an irreversible tragedy we all want to avoid!

I hope this makes everyone think about what I consider to be an emergency epidemic – one that I face every week. Please take this advice to heart – it is well intended and shared in genealogy love.

Happy Organizing!