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

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A tribute to a genealogical giant: Ruth Ellen Maness

The genealogical community has lost one of its giants. Ruth Ellen Maness was one of those whose expertise and dedication to the highest levels of genealogical research was unequaled.  Ruth passed away unexpectedly on June 22, 2017. It was my privilege to work with her as part of Family History Expos. My friend, Holly Hansen, wrote a memorial to Ruth in her latest Family History Expos Newsletter. Here is a quote from Holly telling about Ruth:
It is my privilege and honor to call Ruth a friend. She has been my friend for many years. I have watched her befriend and help so many others as well. I can’t remember when we first met, but I'm sure it was at the Family History Library, where she spent so many hours, weeks, months, and years. Even after retirement, she continued to volunteer there, to help patrons with their research questions. Ruth was the testing administrator for The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists. She held accreditation for multiple countries as well.

Ruth was a huge support for and encouragement to us as we contemplated holding that first Expo in St. George, Utah, so many years ago. She always supported family history events and the opportunity to share her knowledge with others.

Since retiring from FamilySearch a few years ago, she has traveled with us extensively throughout the United States. She has written and contributed to several Research Guide books for the benefit of researchers for years to come. Ruth was a pillar in the genealogy community and will be sorely missed.
There are always a few visible and highly acclaimed individuals in every profession and avocation. Ruth was quiet and modest but she spent almost her entire life helping others find their ancestors. Her knowledge of German and Scandinavian resources was encyclopedic. She was truly one of the greatest researchers I have every met or worked with. She will be sorely missed by those of us who knew of her greatness. I have found, over the years, that the real heroes of genealogy are usually the quiet, unassuming people who go about helping others without recognition. Ruth was certainly one of the greatest of these.

Genealogy and the Narrative Fallacy

The Flat Earth Model
One of the most important and influential books of our age was published in 2007. Here is the citation to my copy:

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. 2010. The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Quoting from the book:
The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.
Genealogists are particularly susceptible to the narrative fallacy. The distinguishing feature of a narrative fallacy is its believability. Even without realizing it, genealogists tend to be selective in the sources they accept and reject those that do not fit within their preconceived narrative. Once the genealogist has made his or her selection of the facts, the narrative becomes the new reality and any other interpretations of the same factual background are rejected.

In the course of writing this post, I received an email containing an extended and classical example of the effect of the narrative fallacy in the form of a narrative justifying an erroneous conclusion about one of my own family lines. I am not going to repeat the entire email which I received, but here is one statement that illustrates the thought process:
Yes, I know there is a written record for Nathan Tanner showing Elizabeth as his mother. Also in his will, he mentions Elizabeth as "my beloved mother." This is obviously wrong and I might add, is a very common occurrence in the very early colonial records.
The writer of this email is trying to justify rejecting both a birth record and a written will in an attempt to establish a different mother for Nathan Tanner. In effect, the writer is ignoring two separate and independently maintained historical records in order to justify a preconceived conclusion. This is, in essence, the narrative fallacy.

How do we avoid being caught in the narrative fallacy? I suggest that this may be one of the most difficult intellectual attainments. Our worldview is to a great extent determined by our cumulative experiences. While doing genealogical research, we have a tendency to place more emphasis on the documents and records we find supporting our preconceived viewpoints and therefore use those to reinforce our ongoing narrative. Interestingly, the email writer cited above derives support by quoting from a book which he/she acknowledges has no supporting sources and wish exactly contradicts his/her conclusions.

We find ourselves in this predicament whenever we try to justify a continued support of a cherished family tradition when the narrative is contradicted by historical records and documents.

I will be coming back to this topic from time to time as I discover examples supplied by accommodating genealogical researchers.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Genealogical Isolationists and the Consequences

Genealogy is a solitary pursuit. In its traditional paper-based past, a genealogist worked as an individual researcher. Occasionally a family would cooperate and share some of their joint information, but even with this sharing, families remained isolated from each other. This genealogical isolation first began to break down with the establishment of the GEDCOM program back in 1984. During my first twenty or so years of doing genealogical research, I worked entirely on my own. None of my immediate family members were at all interested in what I was doing and I was entirely unaware of the efforts of any other living family members. Even sharing my files by uploading copies of my data to the Pedigree Resource File did not provide any collaboration or sharing opportunities.

Across my many family lines, the research was fractured and disjointed. Some lines seemed to be well researched as evidenced by a collection of surname books, but others had apparently been entirely neglected. Slowly, as computer technology advanced, I was able to obtain an overall view of my family lines, but I still had no contact with any other family members. On some of my lines, such as the Tanner family line, to this day I have still never encountered a serious, source-based, genealogist who is actively working on this family line.

The effect of this isolationist fragmentation was that there was no "feedback" and errors accumulated rather than being eliminated. With the introduction of the internet, individual online family trees became a possibility. The internet opened up a way to share information. Unfortunately, the "sharing" process that evolved consisted primarily of indiscriminate copying. Shortly after online family trees became available, I began to realize that my early uploaded copies of my family lines, including all my early wrong conclusions and errors, were being quickly and efficiently copied across the internet.

The seriousness of this situation became evident when FamilySearch introduced the program. Some of my ancestors had multiple hundreds and perhaps thousands of copies. Most of these copies originated as result of the isolated word of family members for over a hundred years. But a significant portion was also the result of copies made from online sources such as the Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File.

Because each "genealogist" or "family historian" had to have their "own" copy of "their family" the number of copies, with all the accumulated errors and wrong conclusions, proliferated at an extraordinarily fast pace. The solution was the introduction of the Family Tree. This free, online, unified, collaborative program allowed everyone to cooperate and collaborate in fixing the problems generated by the years of isolation.

Guess what? Some individuals feel threatened by the unified program. There is still a huge core of isolationists who think they own their ancestors and that they somehow are right when all the rest of the world is wrong (sort of like some of the governments out there today). They not only fail to share their work, they become belligerent and protective to the point of refusing to cooperate with anyone. The tragedy is that they are very likely spending their lives duplicating research that has already been done. The Family Tree acts as a giant clearing house for genealogy. If you put your research in the Family Tree, then anyone else can see what has already been done and does not have to repeat your work.

But what about the issue of changes? Yes, the information in the Family Tree is in a state of flux. But that is the price we pay for over a hundred years of isolation. But what about the other online, collaborative family trees? Yes, there are some other collaborative family trees but FamilySearch is in a unique position due to its sponsorship by the worldwide organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church has far more than a mere economic interest in maintaining the integrity of the Family Tree. The Family Tree may evolve in the future, but it will be maintained in some fashion as long as is foreseeably possible.

But what about the isolationists? Too bad for them. They are condemned to spending a life duplicating the work of others and in the end having all their work lost to their posterity or anyone else for that matter.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Some Surprising Records on

A short time ago, I was asked to help a patron who had come from out-of-state to the Brigham Young University Family History Library with some genealogical research in the Philippines. I immediately accepted the opportunity because I simply assumed that likely had a large number of records from the Philippines for the reason that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a large number of members in that country.

I was not disappointed. There were a great number of records and I soon found some crucial ancestral names for the patron. The patron was obviously very happy. But what about finding records on the website from countries where there are few members of the Church? I learned from some of the other missionaries at the BYU Family History Library that the website had a large number of very useful records from India (see the screenshot above). 

Then I got interested to find out what other countries, outside of those usually associated with genealogical research, might be represented by records on the website. 

One key to answering the question is to start any search by using the Catalog rather than simply looking at the list of digitized records available in the Historical Record Collections. For example, there is a huge list of records from Italy. 

Granted, there are still places around the world where genealogical records are not easily obtained, but before you make such a conclusion, I would suggest that you do extensive online searches. The website has more than a hundred year's worth of accumulating records and I would not discount the fact that some records may have been obtained that are pertinent to most of the world's population. 

Another example comes from China. It seems that many researchers automatically assume that Chinese records are not available. However, FamilySearch has a huge and rapidly increasing number of records from both China and Taiwan. Here is a representative screenshot.

You will never know what you are missing until you look. One last example. This one is from Africa. 

If you keep clicking down in the places included links, you will see additional resources, but you can also search by looking for a specific country.

Monday, June 19, 2017

We Take A Break For a Family Reunion

When we have a family reunion, we all go camping. We will be camping in this lovely site in the Wasatch Mountains State Park. We will have about 40+ people all camping together for a couple of days. Hmm. Real internet connection. I might not have any posts for a couple of days. :-(

Meanwhile, take this opportunity to read some of my thousands of previous posts or watch some of the almost 300 videos on the BYU Family History Library YouTube Channel. :-)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Family History Guide adds Content Review

The Family History Guide is a free, structured and sequenced education website sponsored by The Family History Guide Association. The goal of the Association is:
To greatly increase the number of people actively involved in family history worldwide, and to make everyone's family history journey easier, more efficient, and more enjoyable.
The Family History Guide is being used as an essential training tool at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the BYU Family History Library, the Riverton FamilySearch Library, and many Family History Centers around the world.

The Family History Guide contains thousands of links to valuable family history resources. It is a monumental job to keep all of that useful content updated and accurate. It is also possible that the users can see additions and corrections that need to be made to the content. For those reasons, we have implemented Content Review.

This new Content Review feature is designed to allow users to provide detailed feedback on the Projects, Goals, and Choices on the website in three easy steps:
  1. Reserve a Goal. Only one person at a time can review any particular goal.
  2. Work through each Choice and each step in the Goal, recording your suggestions and feedback as you go.
  3. Send your feedback to The Family History Guide.
The submission process uses a Google Docs page to submit suggested changes.

The instructions for reviewing and submitting changes are easy to follow and of course, you can also submit suggestions about the content of the Content Review itself. 

We invite all who are using the website to consider sending us a Content Review when you find broken links or feel that further additions are or would be helpful. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Science Fiction and Genealogy

I have been a science fiction fan since I was about 7 or 8 years old. I can still remember the first science fiction book I ever read. It happens to be:

Asimov, Isaac. 1950. Pebble in the sky: science fiction. London, England: Sidgwick & Jackson.

The edition that I read was most likely one of the many published in the United States about the same year. Here we are more than 60 years later. Now we can read the "old" science fiction and see how many things they got "right" and how many things they got "wrong." We have to remember that the people who wrote much of the old science fiction (maybe not so much the folks shown above on the Amazing Stories cover) were smart and thought about the future a lot. Did they really get things right?

What does this have to do with genealogy? Just about everything. Let me give a little background.

If you go back and read science fiction from the 40s and 50s, you immediately see a disconnect between the future portrayed by the writers and what we are living today. In some ways, such as space travel, we are hopelessly behind where we should have been according to the science fiction writers. We have no colonies in space, no settlements on Mars or Venus and nothing at all on the Moon. We certainly have not discovered evidence of interstellar travel and have no way to speed up the time it takes to get to the planets around another star. Star Gates, Warp Drive, and a lot of other inventions are still waiting to be discovered. 2001 and 2010 have both come and gone.

However, in other ways, such as computers, we have access to devices that were never dreamed of by the early writers. Not one early science fiction writer predicted the rise of the personal computer. I am not talking about 60s and 70s TV series like Star Trek. You can always read computers into Star Trek, but the "computer" was the whole Enterprise and the com units or communicators were merely dumb cell phones with no memory. The closest the writers came to computers was imagining extraterrestrially made devices that were "wonderfully compact calculation machines." 

See Norton, Andre. 1954. Space pioneers; stories. Cleveland: World Pub. Co., Gallun, Raymond Z., "Trail Blazer," p. 92.

The essence of the impact of computers is our ability to almost instantly talk to anyone anywhere on the face of the earth (within a few very practical limitations). In addition, the computer power sitting on my desktop right now is so far above what could have been imagined just a few years ago, that we can hardly begin to speculate how technology already in the pipeline to be sold will continue to affect our lives. One brief example: the iMac Pro: the new iMac scheduled for shipment by the end of this year will have a 27-inch Retina 5K display, up to 42MB cache, up to 4TB SSD, up to 18-core Xeon processors and up to 22 Teraflops of graphics computation. No one could imagine that you would be able to buy that much computer power for a home use.

From our near-sighted and parochial genealogical viewpoint, we are still living in the 19th Century. I still talk to people who profess an interest in genealogy that eschew the use of cell phones and have no usable computer skills. We have major genealogical companies that resist using optical character recognition or crowdsourcing indexing. Granted the changes in technology have come faster than can comfortably be assimilated, but what if the world had changed as much as the science fiction writers had predicted?

I was caught up in a group discussion recently about fraud. Many of the participants expressed concern and admitted they had been defrauded by such mundane issues as robocalls and other telephone solicitations. As a culture, we are so naive that we cannot even defend ourselves against the dangers inherent in worldwide communication, much less take advantage of the opportunities it affords us.

For example, I just received a solicitation to "present" at a major genealogy conference. Hmm. If I did so, I would spend my time, my money and my effort to attend the conference and end up talking to, at most, a few dozen, perhaps a few hundred people. That would be that. I would be one of dozens of other presenters and my presentation would quickly be forgotten. However, let's take a different tack. Suppose I decided to do a webinar for the BYU Family History Library. Preparing that webinar will take me about the same amount of time it would take to prepare a presentation for the major genealogical conference. I would not spend any time at all traveling since I live 10 minutes from the Library. Because of the new technology, I can do my presentation at any time convenient to me with no substantial cost or effort. Once the webinar is recorded, we can upload it to Google on the BYU Family History Library YouTube Channel and I can get hundreds or even thousands of views. What is more, I can do several of these presentations every month not just once a year at the large conference. I can compress a hundred years' worth of conference presentations into a few months of work and anyone, any place in the world (practically speaking) can watch my presentations at a time convenient to them and save the same time and money they would have spent attending a conference. In addition, many other people can take advantage of the same technology. The number of viewers of our combined webinars exceeds any possible projection of the attendance at any possible genealogy conference.

Granted, there are other reasons for attending a genealogy conference, but perhaps sitting in a classroom is no longer one of those reasons. By the way, the longstanding genealogy conference in England, "Who Do You Think You Are?" is being discontinued. See "Who Do You Think You Are? Live! Conference to Cease." I happen to see a connection here.

Let's look at some other aspects of genealogy that will change due to technology. I regularly go to the BYU Family History Library to help patrons. Most of the time, the patrons have a specific genealogical question they would like me to answer. Let's suppose that they sent their questions to me electronically. I can now look at their portion of the Family Tree and see the problem and see if there is a solution. Let's further suppose that I have a solution. I could simply get together with the person online and through video conferencing techniques "talk" to them while they were working on their home computer and "solve" the problem. Maybe, they would like to meet in person. I could still have looked at their problem before meeting and we could expedite the solution and spend some additional time in training and networking.

This week, and other such websites, have added millions of newly digitized records to their online collections. Most genealogists are oblivious to these newly added records. From my experience, few genealogists even know that the online collections exist. I am consistently making researchers aware of digital collections that they have never heard of. In fact, I am continually learning about new additions to online websites myself and yet there are some genealogists who are more concerned with formalities than substance. They are still worried more about how to present their "findings" than how to use all of the technological changes that are happening all around them.

As I expressed in a recent post, my genealogical efforts have taken on the nature of a conversation with the world. Perhaps you would like to join in the conversation?

What else is happening? If I will be using Google Fibre with an iMac Pro, I can't even begin to guess what I can do. I am now living far advanced of what I used to read as science fiction.