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

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part One


Introduction

For some time now, I have been thinking about the concept of genealogical research. In order to further my thought process and organize my thinking, I have decided to begin a series analyzing and explaining the basic research processes as it pertains to genealogy's particular area of historic research. Obviously, as usual, this analysis and the accompanying explanations will be highly personal. In order to begin to organize my thoughts on the subject, I used the following book written, in part, by my friend Arlene Eakle.

Cerny, Johni, and Arlene H. Eakle. Ancestry's Guide to Research: Case Studies in American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Inc, 1985.

I do not intend to review the book, but I do intend to use the concepts contained in the book as a structure for addressing the current concepts of genealogical research. As I go along, I will add additional, more recently, published books. I may also refer to other even older books along the way. 

Since my very first attempts at historical research, in high school, over fifty years ago, I have been actively involved in research in some form or another. But simply doing research does not necessarily give someone the insight to analyze and understand the process. For quite some time now, I have been reading and studying the methodology and processes involved in discovering family relationships. Of course, my years of active participation as a trial attorney have also influenced by thinking.

I have written several blog posts about my impressions of the current state of genealogical research. The thrust of my concerns involve the fact that current genealogical methodology and analysis has become almost hopelessly tangled with concepts and jargon borrowed from both law and science. I am almost in despair at the task of separating the intermeshed and inappropriate legal and scientific concepts from from the core concepts of genealogical research. The current common adoption of the terms "facts," "evidence" and "proof" in talking about historical research is the most obvious indication of this integration. Historically, these terms were used in a general sense, but during the very recent past, the terms have definitely adopted a quasi-legal connotation.

When did genealogists begin incorporating legal and scientific jargon into their writings? If you read the following book, you will not find any reference to "proof" as such or to the more current concept of a "proof statement."

Harland, Derek. Genealogical Research Standards. Salt Lake City, Utah: Published by the Genealogical Society, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1963.

Harland does discuss the concept of evidence, but uses the term in a general way and does not try to relate the term to legal terms. By 1985, the Ancestry book, cited above, makes reference to a "preponderance of the evidence," a term directly borrowed from legal jargon. 

In an even earlier work,

Bennett, Archibald F. A Guide for Genealogical Research. [Salt Lake City]: Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1951.

the concepts of proof and evidence pre-date any attempted relationship to the use of these terms in the legal sense. It is not use of the terms, per se, that I find objectionable, but the implication that they are validated by their incorporation as quasi-legal terms. This culminates in the present assumed ability "advanced genealogists" supposedly acquire to write acceptable "proof statements," which are nothing more or less than their personal conclusions couched in quasi-legal jargon. From my standpoint, this is exactly the same as relying on the briefs submitted by one side in a legal controversy with weight being given to the formality of the statement, more than the content and research supporting the arguments made. After writing legal briefs for years, perhaps I resent the implication that my genealogical research is only acceptable if I follow quasi-legal guidelines and prove my genealogical case. If I believed that a "proof statement" was necessary, I would become fundamentally exclusionary and adversarial.

In writing about the subject of research, I will try to avoid the currently popular terminology and rely on the more traditional methods of describing genealogical research. I will also try to go well beyond the present issues of terminology and address a more thorough methodology for conducting research.

I will begin demonstrating my line of thought with this example. I recently became involved in researching one family line of immigrants from England and Wales. Nearly all of my other family lines have been exhaustively researched for over 100 years, but this line has had little attention from researchers. This particular line begins with my Great-great-grandfather, David Thomas (b. 1820, in Wales, d. 1888) and illustrates some of the issues involved. David Thomas was married three times, first in 1842 to Mary Howells (b. 1821, in Wales, d. 1860), next in 1862 to Adeline Springthorpe (b. 1826, in England, d. 1891) and then in 1871 to her sister Frances Ann Springthorpe (b. 1833, in England, d. 1879). I spent some time researching early church records which contained records of all three marriages. In the records of the marriages in America to the Springthorpe sisters, Adeline and Frances both reported their birth dates exactly ten years later than the English birth records. The remaining information supplied by the sisters is consistent with the English birth records; the parents and places are accurately reported. When were the two sisters born? When do I consider that I have completed a "reasonably exhaustive search" of the existing records? Who else is going to spend the time on this particular line and disagree with any of my conclusions? However, in this case, I have at least three other very able researchers to question my findings and collaborate on the conclusions.

I could resort to the currently popular legal jargon and analyze the "evidence" from the records and conclude that the birth records in England "prove" that the sisters were lying about their ages. Or, I could simply report that the discrepancy exists and that my conclusion, based on the available sources, is that the birth records are more reliable than the dates reported by the sisters. As an attorney, it would be very easy for me to make a convincing argument, now commonly called a "proof statement" that the sisters lied about their ages, speculating about any number of reasons this could be the case. What happens when we discover more records figure out that both records are wrong because we have the sisters in the wrong family? My issue is with the implied finality of using legal terminology. Why does it matter whether or not I use legal terminology to express my opinion as to the actual birth dates? I would submit that the main reason for avoiding the quasi-legal evidence and proof concepts is that the research here is open-ended. We are not deciding and closing the case. There is much, much more to the story of this family than a simple issue of the dates of the two wive's births. As I have learned by experience, legal arguments are designed with the intent to conclude the controversy. As attorneys we want to "win" the case, i.e. have the case decided in our clients' favor. This is not what genealogy is all about. We are not researching our families in order to win our case. We are merely investigating historical documents for information and drawing conclusions. There is a need to be careful, accurate and systematic in our research, but in all this I eschew any reliance on a specific type of formality. What is happening today in genealogy is too much like the Supreme Court of Arizona refusing to accept my brief for filing because I have not provided the correct number of copies.

Genealogical research begins when we stop copying others and start looking at the records and drawing our own conclusions. To try to impose on this process an adversarial need to prove our case does not add any validity either to our conclusions or our opinions. It boils down to this, why should I care what you think about your family? Why should I have to feel obligated to prove to you (or anyone else) what I think about the history of my own family?

So much for my highly opinionated introduction. Stay tuned, if you can stand it, for the next installments. 


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Is the cost of computer memory coming down?

As my collection of digitized genealogical documents and photographs continues to grow, I am periodically in need of more storage space. My current backup files consist of 3.33 Terabytes of data stored on 4 TB drives. Looking ahead, I am always interested in the availability of larger hard drives and check for prices every time I think about the need for a larger drive. Unfortunately, flash hard drives are not yet large enough or cheap enough to be a consideration.

I am particularly sensitive the "best price" per Megabyte of storage, although this is going to have to be adjusted to the price per Gigabyte. This go around, I was pleased to note that 5 Terabyte drives are now becoming available and that they now have the optimal pricing. There are 6 TB and 10 TB hard drives but the extra storage space is much higher priced than what would be expected. For example, a 10 TB hard drive is much more expensive than two 5 TB drives.

All such considerations are relative. I did some research into the historic cost of computer memory and in 1995, the standard RAM memory in a desktop computer was 8 Megabytes, hardly enough to operate a computer today. The 1995 large capacity hard drive was 9 Gigabytes and cost $2,399.00. (See http://www.jcmit.com/diskprice.htm and http://www.relativelyinteresting.com/comparing-todays-computers-to-1995s/) Today, a Seagate Expansion 5 TB Desktop External Hard Drive USB 3.0 (STEB5000100) is $149.63 on Amazon.com. You can compare this to a Seagate Backup Plus 8TB Desktop External Hard Drive with Mobile Device Backup USB 3.0 for $299.99. The largest hard drive I have seen at Costco is a 4 TB hard drive for about $119. But I haven't seen a 4 TB hard drive on sale at Costco recently in our local store, but the 4 TB drives are still available online.

The simple answer to the question in the title of this post is that prices are always coming down as new technology is developed. In case you need a reference, here is a chart from Wikipedia: Terabyte, that shows the differences between the different terms used for memory capacity.


Most genealogists would never use all of the capacity of a 4 TB hard drive in their entire life, but even though the drives may have that capacity, this does not mean they will last a very long time. Here is a link to an explanation from Seagate about the real failure rate of hard drives: "Hard disk drive reliability and MTBF / AFR." What this means in practical reality is that your drive may fail at any time. For this reason, I maintain two and sometimes three backup drives. I presently have my main internal 2 TB hard drive and three external backup drives. I also copy my primary backup drive periodically and give a copy of the backup hard drive to one or more of my children. 





Using BillionGraves to find the graves for Memorial Day

My wife's family has always had the tradition of putting flowers on the grave markers of their nearer relatives on Memorial Day. In fact, it was locally called Decoration Day. They also take the time to tidy up the gravesite and clean away grass and such around the marker. Since we have now moved to Provo, Utah, we had the opportunity to participate with others in the family at the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

The Salt Lake City Cemetery is on the side of the mountain, just north of the downtown area of the city. It commands a dramatic view of the Salt Lake Valley and on this May day, there were clouds threatening rain and some wind. The Cemetery is rather large and has just over 121,000 burials. Even though Monday is the official day, many of the local people pay their respects on the days before to avoid the crowds. Yes, there are crowds and minor traffic jams at the Cemetery.

I probably have dozens, if not hundreds, of relatives buried in the Cemetery of my own and we did take the time to visit my grandparents graves as well as that of one of my Great-grandmothers while visiting the graves of my wife's parents and other close relatives.

There is one major challenge in the Cemetery. The streets are set up just like a town with names and addresses for the blocks, but we always have a tendency to get lost since everything looks pretty much the same. This time, we we able to drive or walk directly to the graves using the GPS on my iPhone and BillionGraves.com's App.

All I had to do was search for the name of the relative and then tap on the link to the map showing the location of the grave marker. The program was exceptionally accurate and once I got used to moving the right direction, I walked directly to the grave. It was that simple. This happened despite the fact that the rest of those in our group were spread out all over the area claiming to be near the graves. They all finally realized that the program actually worked and subsequent searches were much shorter.

In the past, we have relied on waiting in line to get a paper map from the sexton's office, which we always seem to forget or lose by the next trip to the Cemetery. Using the BillionGraves App was a great improvement over tramping around in the mud and wet grass from the recent rains.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Flood of Online Genealogy Classes

Between the formal online classes, YouTube videos, and webinars, there is a virtual flood of genealogical information online. I thought it would be a good idea to review the status of some of the offerings. There are obvious networking and social reason for traveling around the country to genealogy conferences, but many of the same people who are presenting at these conferences have either free or paid websites with valuable classes. Here is a sampling of some of the classes and other instructional materials online. In addition, there are organizations that offer university level online courses. Depending on the type of offering, these can be free or fee-based.

Formal Classes

Friday, May 22, 2015

Update and Comments on the Popularity of Genealogy

In my most recent post, I considered the statements made by a Judge in a lawsuit decision concerning Ancestry.com. In the course of writing the Memorandum Opinion, the Judge made some observations about the fact that Ancestry.com may have "saturated the demand" for genealogical products. This started me thinking about some similar information available from Google Trends. Here is a screenshot of a current graph showing the number of searches done on the term "genealogy" relative to the total number searches done on Google, for the same term, over time. Quoting from the Google Trends website, "They don't represent absolute search volume numbers, because the data is normalized and presented on a scale from 0-100. Each point on the graph is divided by the highest point and multiplied by 100. When we don't have enough data, 0 is shown." What the numbers do show is relative popularity over time. To further quote Google, "A downward trending line means that a search term's popularity is decreasing. It doesn't mean that the absolute, or total, number of searches for that term is decreasing."

Here is the graph:


The search term was at 100 in January of 2004 and is presently at 7. I have shown this graph before in different contexts. But in light of the comments in the Court case, how do the companies stack up? Here is Ancestry.com's graph:


Well, actually, this graph sort of supports the Court's conclusion in the lawsuit. The high point of interest in Ancestry.com was in March of 2010 for 100. The current popularity stands at about 22. FamilySearch is mentioned in the Memorandum and here is what its graph looks like:


The high point for FamilySearch was also in March of 2004. The program is currently running at about 83 and has been at 98 recently. It is also interesting to compare the two companies:


Ancestry.com has traditionally been much more popular than FamilySearch. But now, they are running almost equal and both are trending down. From this graph, it doesn't look like to me that FamilySearch was posing any kind of threat to Ancestry. com until very recently. It certainly does not look like anything FamilySearch has done with reference to Ancestry.com has played a part in the future.

If we add MyHeritage to the mix, then we get a substantially modified graph:


MyHeritage.com peaked in February of 2010 and it is currently running at about 18. It looks like to me that the testimony and the facts in the Ancestry.com case cited above, did not delve into the relative popularity of the large online programs. Just in case you are wondering, here is the graph with Findmypast.com added


If I add back in the term "genealogy" we get another even more interesting picture:


You would have to do quite a bit of talking to convince me the topic of genealogy and any one of the big websites were becoming more popular.

Valuing Online Genealogy Companies -- A Legal Perspective


Within the last few months, the Chancery Court of Delaware issued a Memorandum Decision in the a case entitled, "In re Appraisal of Ancestry.com, Inc." This 57 page document gives some valuable insight into the inner workings of the large online genealogy companies. The subject of the Court's opinion would normally only be of interest to very sophisticated investors, but the subject matter, Ancestry.com, Inc. has just been in the news because of speculation of another sale of the company.

The more recent news release by Reuters.com, mentions that Ancestry.com, Inc. is contemplating an "auction" sale. You can see from the above legal Memorandum that the lack of such an auction sale was the basis for a lawsuit concerning the valuation of the company when it was purchased by its present owner, Permira Advisors, LLC. Since the company is presently privately owned, some of the previous issues regarding a fair price paid to stockholders will not likely be publicly aired.

The Court Memorandum gives a brief, but insightful, analysis of the more recent history of Ancestry.com, Inc. and opens up so perspective to genealogists about the business side of these companies. I especially liked the comment the Court made about the subscribers to Ancestry.com and comparing them to a "hamster wheel of new people coming in and people existing at the same time."

One part of the Memorandum deals with the issue of "Competitive Forces." I found this most interesting and here is a quote from the Memorandum:
Ancestry faces several competitive forces, including a number of start-up companies and an increasing amount of free archived information more readily accessible by internet search engines. Additionally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints operates a website that has resulted in a ―competitive dynamic for Ancestry. The website, FamilySearch.org, provides free online access to some of the Church‘s extensive resources—the Church has aggregated ―what's recognized as the world's largest collection of data and content that would be valuable for people researching their family history. This collection previously enticed interested individuals to travel to Salt Lake City, but the FamilySearch.org website has begun digitizing the collection and ―includes a lot of the same features and functionality as Ancestry.com.
Well, I do think that the FamilySearch collection of data, still "entices" people to travel to Salt Lake City, Utah, just as I did yesterday, but I am surprised that the Court viewed FamilySearch and Ancestry.com as "competitors." The availability of a free source for some documents may have an effect on the price people are willing to pay for additional documents and services, but I do not view a free website as being in competition with any of the subscription websites. I think it also interesting that the Court failed to note the existence of all of the other Ancestry.com websites, including its "free" websites such as FindAGrave.com and RootsWeb.com.

Here is another very interesting quote from the Memorandum:
At an April 19, 2012 board meeting, Qatalyst Partners (―Qatalyst), a financial advisor, made a presentation to Ancestry‘s directors. In this ―state of the union presentation, Qatalyst raised as among its concerns that Ancestry ―was getting people that were less engaged in the hobby and who would not maintain their subscriptions, though the Company‘s subscription base had been growing as a result of Who Do You Think You Are?. 
Qatalyst noted that Ancestry‘s subscription-based service raised questions regarding ―the size of Ancestry‘s available market, [and] the degree to which Ancestry had already saturated that market. As Jonathan Turner, a Qatalyst Partner, testified at deposition: 
There are only so many people who are interested and have the time to be able to devote a significant amount of their free time to genealogy and using the company‘s product and be willing to pay for it. And that was a—that was a concern because once the company hit . . . single-digit millions of subscribers, at this point the business was largely U.S. with a little bit of—a little bit of U.K. How many people left are there? 
These opinions seem to fly in the face of the promotional statements made by those who work for and support the large online database companies. I am also surprised at these statements that seem to ignore the number of members of MyHeritage.com which, according to the website today, has over 76 million members compared to Ancestry.com's 2 million or so subscribers.

You may want to review the Memorandum yourself and draw your own conclusions.

On travel time -- reality for our ancestors


The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah is 50.4 miles from my home in Provo, Utah. On a good day, using the freeway, I can drive from home to the Library in about an hour. Of course, when I get to the Library, I have to figure out where to park and so the actual time is more like an hour and a half. For an alternative to driving, I can drive for seven minutes to the Provo train station and ride a train to Salt Lake in an hour. I can then take the local light rail TRAX right to the corner by the Library. No parking. No freeway. This takes about an hour and forty minutes, depending on the schedule and if I hit the train at the right time and don't have to wait. Today, that trip will take me about two and a half hours because I missed an earlier train and had to wait an extra half hour. But the train has WiFi and electrical outlets and I am writing this post, in part, while traveling on the train.

What if I walked? According to Google, that same trip (a little shorted by a more direct route, would take me 14 hours and 46 minutes. I suggest that I could probably walk, at most, about 20 miles a day and so, in reality it would take me more than two full days of walking. If I could only make 10 miles a day, the trip would start to stretch out onto four or five days. That would require camping out or finding hotels or motels at the right distances to stop for the nights. How many times would I make the journey if I had to walk? Of course, I would not be able to do much else than walk while I walked. In fact, after twenty miles or so, I might not be able to do much more than sleep.

The point is simple. Most of our ancestors did not have cars, or trains, or WiFi, or need parking spaces. This may seem obvious, but I often find a distinct lack of perspective in the claims about how, when and where their ancestors lived, got married, and then died. For example, I have had people add children to a family living in the United States that were born in England. Is this possible? Yes, theoretically. But when did this family live? Many times I see this claim for families that lived in the mid- to early 1800s. The time it took a sailing ship to cross the Atlantic could vary from about 6 weeks to almost 6 months. The Mayflower, for example, took 66 days (See Voyage of the Mayflower) and remember, there was no communication available from America back to England other than turning around and sailing back. So, the passengers' relatives and friends in England did not even know if they had made it to America for many more months. In fact, the Mayflower passenger spent much longer on the ship simply waiting to leave.

Some of my ancestors lived in Northern Arizona during the late 1800s. To return to Southern Utah to visit relatives or for marriages in the LDS Temple in St. George, the journey could take more than three weeks, one way. I can drive the same distance today in a few hours.

What does this all mean for genealogical research? The answer is plain. As we got back in time, we need to adjust our perspective. A man and a woman who we find and claim as ancestors may have lived in two different towns. The towns may only have been 50 miles apart, but that fact raises a question as to how they became acquainted? What contacts did the two towns have? Why would they have visited the other town? When I was a teenager living for the summer in a small town in Eastern Arizona, I was talking to an older girl in her 20s and she informed me that she had never been outside of the town. She had never been the 45 miles to the next, much larger, community in her whole life. Even then, I thought this strange, but it would not have been that unusual for many of our ancestors.

When you start doing genealogical research, adjust your thinking to the reality of the time period when your ancestors lived. Take the time to think about your conclusions and make sure they reflect the reality of the time it took your ancestors to travel from one part of their world to another. Identifying places is of the highest priority in doing accurate genealogical research.