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

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Most Reviewed Genealogy Programs

One way to view the popularity of any product is to simply count the number of reviews. Of course, reviews can be both positive and negative. In fact, it is not uncommon to have reviews that wildly praise a program and another, about the same program, that condemn it to oblivion. I have learned to discount very negative reviews especially when there are a much larger number of positive ones and vice versa.  But I do have to admit that I will determine my purchases, in many cases, by the reviews the products have received. I am also wary of "friendship" reviews, that is, reviews that come from people who are really trying to promote the products. Also, more detailed reviews carry more weight than short blasts.

Most of the software reviews you see are solicited product reviews. In many cases, the reviewer has received some sort of renumeration such as a copy of the free product. This type of review is not necessarily bad, but always needs to be put in perspective. I have avoided doing genealogy product reviews per se, because my viewpoint does not necessarily reflect the "average user" of any product. Doing an adequate formal review of a product is time consuming and never ending due to the constant upgrades and changes in the actively supported programs. Reviews of software inevitably requires a comparison to be valid. It is not enough to say that a certain feature is good or bad if there is no other program that has that particular feature.

In my opinion, one of very few (if any) open forum, public review website for genealogy software is There are presently 3,025 reviews on the website. The website is maintained by Lois Kessler, who describes himself as a "long time programmer and genealogist, living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada." See About This Site.

The opinions in reviews can be brutal and very few products with any number of individual reviews can avoid some very negative ones. The most useless negative reviews are those that simply rant about how bad the program is without explaining why the person bought the program in the first place. Another interesting point about genealogy software reviews; those programs with the highest ratings are not necessarily supported programs. An example from is the online program which was closed down in September of 2014 and is still getting reviews for some reason.

From my standpoint, the fact that I write about a program does not mean I either endorse it or even use it. I try out dozens of new programs every year and write about quite a few, but I try to make my announcements as neutral as possible unless I find the program to be a significant advance or extremely and immediately useful.

In going through the reviews on, I have some of the same questions posed by Louis Kessler in the following two articles from the website, "How Good are GenSoftReviews Ratings?" and Can Genealogy Software be Rated Fairly?" Louis makes an interesting statement in his first article. He says in part, "...the programs that rise to the top of GenSoftReviews in ranking tend to be stable programs with a dedicated user base who like the program, that are less prone to user problems or major failures." You should take the time to read both of these excellent articles.

Here is another interesting comment from Louis about the perfidy of software reviewers.
So I’ve had to think about what all this means. People don’t believe the ratings on GenSoftReviews either when a program they are using is not rated highly enough, or when another program they do not feel is superior to their own is rated higher than their own.
That statement about sums up all software reviews except those that are extremely detailed and lengthy. When all is said and done about software, we all vote with our wallet and our clicks. Programs with few or no users generally get fewer reviews. This is the reason for the title of this post. A program with a very small number of reviews is either very newly released or has no customer base to speak of. If a program had only two reviews and both of the reviewers gave the program 5 stars, it will look great. If the same small number of reviewers both disliked the program then the program looks bad. However, if there are hundreds of reviews it means that the program is currently used by a lot of people and the opinion of any one reviewer is moderated by the large number of reviews. That is why the number of reviews is important and it also helps you to understand why you need to participate and review programs.

I do find some really interesting anomalies in the reviews but any comments I would make will show my own biases and prejudices. One last comment, I am very puzzled by software reviews of programs that are no longer available and no longer supported, especially when they are in the 4 and 5 star range. This shows one reason why genealogy software reviews have some challenges.

Don't Forget the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. It has millions of books, recordings, photographs, maps and manuscripts. I have always viewed the Library of Congress (LOC) as the ultimate library black hole. You can spend a lot of time just browsing what is there. The good news is its size. The bad news is that the LOC, like the United States National Archives, is woefully behind the rest of the world in digitizing and making its collections available to the public. Notwithstanding this lack of digital content, what has been digitized is extensively presented on the Library's website,

Part of the reason for its lack of attention to making its collections more available to the public comes from the fact that is the Library of the United States Congress. It is not a "public" library in the sense the term is generally used. As such the LOC has the task of providing confidential, objective and authoritative research and analysis to help inform the legislative debate. The LOC also oversees the United States Copyright Office.  See About the Library.

Unlike many of the genealogically valuable online resources I use frequently, the LOC is not entirely unknown to the average genealogist. If I ask a class about the LOC, there is usually a recognitive response. But if I ask how many use the LOC regularly, there is almost always no response. Why don't genealogists use the resources of the LOC more regularly? I can see several reasons. First, the LOC is mostly invisible to the average online genealogical researcher. I have never seen the website listed as one of the top anything websites from those who make such lists. Whereas some of the websites that frequently make such lists have only a faint shadow of the resources available. Since the LOC is not a public library, as such, it does relatively little to promote its collections.

Another reason for the LOC's lack of visibility is its almost impenetrable website. Its website is similar to many of those run by the United States government, they are so filled with information and yet so complicated that the average user cannot seem to ever find what they are seeking even if the user knows it is there. The LOC website ranks right up there with the Social Security Administration, the United States Geological Survey and the National Archives for obscure and almost useless websites.

From the standpoint of a relatively unsophisticated computer user, the LOC website is useless. Apparently, there seems to be no way to simply "look for your ancestors." Much of the website is dedicated to talking about a variety of subjects that seem to have nothing to do with finding your ancestors.

So why do I think the website is so valuable? Because I use it constantly and because despite all of the appearances I listed above, it has valuable and pertinent information. Here are some of the resources I use most frequently and by the way, if you think the only way to genealogical research is to search for your ancestors' names in some genealogical index, you are woefully in need of some major attitude changes and education. Just to be blunt.

Here I go with the resources:

1. The Chronicling America, Historic American Newspaper Project

Quoting from the website:
Chronicling America is a Website providing access to information about historic newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages, and is produced by the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). NDNP, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress (LC), is a long-term effort to develop an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages. Supported by NEH, this rich digital resource will be developed and permanently maintained at the Library of Congress. An NEH award program will fund the contribution of content from, eventually, all U.S. states and territories.
The Chronicling America section of the LOC currently has over 9 million pages of free, fully digitized and fully searchable newspaper pages as well as the comprehensive list of the location and holding of nearly all of the newspapers published in America since 1690. The LOC has also began putting it holding on Flckr.

2. American Memory

OK, I am not going to list all of the digital collections on the LOC. You can click here to see the list.

3. Maps

Here is the LOC's description of their map collection. You might note that it reinforces what I have previously noted about the digital condition of their collections.
The Library of Congress has custody of the largest and most comprehensive cartographic collection in the world with collections numbering over 5.5 million maps, 80,000 atlases, 6,000 reference works, over 500 globes and globe gores, 3,000 raised relief models, and a large number of cartographic materials in other formats, including over 19,000 cds/dvds. The online map collections represents only a small fraction that have been converted to digital form.
Notwithstanding the disclaimer, the LOC does have thousands of digitized maps online.

4. Preservation Directorate

 Genealogists should be just as interested in preserving what we do have as they are in searching those same records. The LOC is a basic reference source for information about all types of preservation, including digital preservation. The LOC website is the go-to place to find out about current preservation standards and methods. In a rare departure from their overall attitude towards the unsophisticated user, they even address the issue of Family Treasures.

5. Digital Collections

From what I have been saying, you may get the impression that the LOC does not have digital collections. That is not exactly true. What I am saying is the only a very small percentage of their overall collections are digitized and made available online. However, what is available is very extensive and includes, historic sound recordings, prints and photographs and website archiving.

6. Manuscript Collections

I think this part of the website, as well as other parts, illustrates why genealogists are not generally aware of what is available or even try to find out. This appears to be general items of historic interest. For some reason, unfathomable to me, genealogists seem oblivious to the fact that what they are doing is historical research. My experience is that the average genealogist has only about as much awareness of history as the general population of the United States which is woefully low.

7. The American Folklife Center

 Here is the description of this section of the LOC.
The American Folklife Center's Archive was originally founded as the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library in 1928. In 1978 it became part of the American Folklife Center and was subsequently renamed the Archive of Folk Culture. Today the Archive includes over three million photographs, manuscripts, audio recordings, and moving images. It consists of documentation of traditional culture from all around the world including the earliest field recordings made in the 1890s on wax cylinder through recordings made using digital technology. It is America's first national archive of traditional life, and one of the oldest and largest of such repositories in the world. To read more about the history of the Archive read"The Archive of Folk Culture at 75: A National Project with Many Workers,"[PDF, 1.52MB], by James Hardin.
Surprisingly, some of this is digitized and online.

Last but not least, you need to be aware of the Local History & Genealogy Reading Room. If, by chance, you get an opportunity to actually visit the LOC, you need to be aware of their holdings. They also have a very short list of genealogy websites. Here is a description of what is in the LOC for genealogy.
As one of the leading genealogical collections in the country, the Library has more than 50,000 genealogies and 100,000 local histories. The collections are especially strong in North American, British Isles, and German sources. These international strengths are further supported and enriched by the Library's incomparable royalty, nobility, and heraldry collection, making it one of a few libraries in America that offer such collections.
Despite its limitations, the LOC is a very, very valuable genealogical resource.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Expanding your view of the puzzle of genealogy to the entire picture

The availability of some types of genealogical records, by itself, often dictates where an ancestral investigation begins. Most casual or undirected research focuses on names and dates in the United States Federal Census and other sources that are highly promoted by the online repositories. The problem is that the investigation frequently ends where it begins, with a cursory examination of popular and readily available sources and no real concept of what to do next. From my standpoint, this occurs, in part, because the standard pedigree chart and the common default view of the online family trees emphasize individuals at the expense of family units.

I had this highlighted to me yesterday when I was helping a patron in the Brigham Young University Family History Library. The patron was looking at the default Detail View of one of his ancestors and asked me why the program had added in a random unrelated family. Here is what he was looking at. (I don't have his family, but the idea is the same with any family shown)

In this view, this is the wife's detail page. James Parkinson is married to Elizabeth Chattell, shown in the left column and Elizabeth's parents are shown on the right. Elizabeth appears as a child in her parents' family with her name bolded.

After looking at this type of entry or similar ones from dozens of other programs, the relationships here seem obvious. However, the patron could not figure out why the second, to him, unrelated family on the right had suddenly appeared. He did not see the surname connection between the wife on the left and her father on the right and further, missed that the wife was listed as a child. It actually took me several minutes of explanation before he got the idea of what was being shown.

This incident was not unique. It occurs frequently as people view our "standard" forms for representing families. I see the same issues with even more frequency when I try to explain the relationships in's Descendancy View.

In thinking about this type of situation, I believe that it comes from emphasis on the individual. We look for names and forget family relationships. In fact, the view shown above does more than that. It obscures interfamily relationships and their relationship to additional generations. Genealogy is not a process of filling in so many blanks in a form.

If you have ever watched a young child try to do a jigsaw puzzle, you will see what I mean. Until the child reaches a certain point in their development, they will pick up random pieces from the pile and try to fit them into any available space in the puzzle. In other words, they do not grasp the overall picture of the puzzle and the fail to see the relationship between adding the pieces and completing the picture. This is exactly the problem experienced by the patron yesterday. He failed to see the pictured formed by the members of the families shown and was trying to fit in random pieces.

This happens all too frequently with online family trees. Yesterday, I also found one of my direct line ancestors on the Family Tree had acquired three new children. This turned out to be exactly the same issue of finding pieces and trying to fit them in without looking at the whole picture. In this case, the three children came from a family with a father who had a name similar to my ancestor and a wife with the same name as my ancestor's wife. Coincidently, both the husband and wife were born in the same places as my ancestors. But the source records and the entries showed that my ancestors had married in Utah and their first child was born in St. George, Washington, Utah. There was a U.S. Census Record for 1880 showing the new family with a one year old baby in St. George. Notwithstanding this record, the children were added to the family showing their birth places in Massachusetts from another 1880 U.S. Census record where the one year old baby did not appear. It took me a few minutes to figure out what was going on, but I soon deleted the relationship of the three extra Massachusetts children.

This incident is repeated over and over again in the Family Tree and other programs. It would be easy to become overly frustrated with this jungle of poor choices out there, but the causes of this type of seemingly random behavior is inherent in the structure of the programs and forms we use for recording genealogical information. There is nothing in the Family Tree program, or any other program that I am aware of, that would point out the discrepancy between a young family in St. George, Utah and adding three children born in Massachusetts in the 1880s, at a time when traveling between St. George and anywhere in Massachusetts could take an extraordinary effort. At the time, the only way to get across the 300 miles from St. George to Salt Lake City, Utah and a connection to the railroad was by horse or ox-drawn wagon.

But even brushing aside historic transportation issues, the real failure here is looking at names, dates and places without considering the consequences to the family. I only have to go back two more generation on this same Parkinson line to see blatant examples of this problem of focusing on individuals and forgetting the family. Here is another example.

Apparently so far, no one has look at this "family." They have focused on putting the pieces without seeing the picture at all. Do you see what I am talking about? Maybe the marriage date is a typographical error, but the fact that it has been entered and no correction made is an indication of this common malady of looking at the whole picture with the level of a young child doing a jigsaw puzzle.

As the tools for analyzing the Family Tree have become more sophisticated, this type of problem is being demonstrated with more frequency. In this case the date is a typo and it took me only few seconds to correct. Now are we acting like children trying to force the wrong piece into the puzzle?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Some Thoughts on Oral History

As genealogists, if we think of oral history, we think of recording the life story of a relative. But actually, oral history has many facets and covers the spectrum from commercial interviews such as sports figures and politicians to academic investigations supporting a historical treatise about a specific event. My early exposure to all of these aspects of creating an audio record came from taking classes involving field techniques in linguistics. As a result, I acquired a Sony reel to reel tape recorder and started making recordings. Unfortunately, military service and other obligations intervened and I only made a very few recordings over the years.

Although making an audio recording of a relative may seem as simple as turning on a recorder and listening, there are some basic considerations that must be observed in order to have a usable product. I've recently been involved in producing a series of oral interviews of older, mostly retired professors from Brigham Young University. Just recently, I was asked to teach a class on oral history at a local conference. As a result of the invitation to teach a class, I did some more in-depth review of the online resources available. What I found was very interesting.

Most of the online resources were directed at oral interviews in conjunction with academic research and what was suggested was distinctively overkill for genealogists. Of course, if the genealogist is seriously considering a formal publication and using the audio interview as a source, the preparation and structure of the interview would be significantly different than a more informal, family history record. I concluded that as a genealogist, I was probably more interested in the stories than the facts of any particular event. I also concluded that I would rely on research and other sources for specific facts about events about a person's life.

I found that nearly all of the resources I consulted online about oral histories were woefully out of date with regard to any references to the recording equipment used. I even found references to maintaining tape recorders. For some time now, I have been using a pocket-sized digital recording device. My current recorder is a small Sony digital recorder that provides superior reproduction quality to the tape recorder I used years ago. I did purchase an inexpensive microphone to add some flexibility to using the recorder. In addition, the files produced are directly downloadable to my computer as MP3 files. My use of the pocket sized digital recorder is a far cry from a formal audio studio approach to recording, but the audio product I capture has good quality and is far easier to accommodate than trying to get the participants into a formal recording studio. I am very impressed with the Story Corps approach to stories, but the logistics of getting a person to a recording booth may outweigh any small advantage of the recording booth method of story preservation.

You can certainly make a valuable oral history recording with a smart phone. But I would suggest that the battery life and quality would be better with a dedicated recorder. But if it means getting an interview or missing the interview, use whatever is available.

Before conducting any oral interview it is absolutely necessary to determine how the recordings are going to be preserved. My current series of interviews are going to be archived in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library at Brigham Young University. However, a less formal genealogically related oral interview would necessarily have to be preserved by the family. There are many online sources for storing audio files and making them available to family members, but ultimately, it is important to treat the audio files just as you would any other computer file and migrate the format and maintain the file in a way that it can be preserved for the family.

Because my current series of interviews is being archived in a library, necessarily, I need a formal release from each of the participants. I am not a huge fan of making recordings, even of relatives, without their knowledge and or their consent. By maintaining a slightly more formal setting, I can avoid embarrassing or undesirable content. With some exceptions, the best place to conduct the interview is where the person being interviewed is most comfortable, usually in their own home. It is helpful to have quiet surroundings, but with the new technology this is not absolutely necessary.

Almost uniformly, online instructions for conducting an oral interview include a list of detailed questions and areas of interest to cover with the interviewee. I have found these questions to be stultifying and counterproductive. My philosophy in making oral history files is to allow the participant to tell the stories. I try to ask as few questions as possible and any questions are phrased as suggested topics. I have found that if I ask a specific question involving a date, an event, or the name of a person, the participant will become uncomfortable and the interview is essentially over. Some genealogist become disturbed because the content of the interview is not strictly accurate. If the genealogist feels the need for historical accuracy, they should transcribe the interview and add interlinear comments or footnotes correcting the information provided. The purpose, as I see it, for conducting such interviews is to solicit family stories and to preserve the voice of the participant. Subsequently, I am not all that concerned with accuracy, I am far more interested in the stories.

It is also important not to direct the interview into very personal areas. Let the participant become comfortable with the interview process and then asked general questions allowing the participant to supply the details they feel are important.

If possible, conduct the interview in one to two hour segments or even shorter time periods. Do not be concerned that the participant will repeat stories or events. Most of the time, the second or third retelling brings out details omitted in the first account.

Here are some online resources I suggest for conducting an oral interview and some resources with all types of audio recordings as examples. Remember, as I said previously, many of the suggestions concerning hardware are out of date.

·      The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide – out of date but useful
·      Oral History in the Digital Age – Oral History Association
·      Oral History Resources – Society of American Archivists
·      Library of Congress
·      American Rhetoric
·      Voices from the Dust Bowl – Library of Congress
·      H-OralHist

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Oldest Footage of London Ever

Thanks to John D. Reid of Canada's Anglo-Celtic Connections for the link to this absolutely fascinating video.

I just subscribed to their channel also. I am very interested in the modern/historic comparisons. This is a must see video for its historic perspective.

Genealogical Crisis of the Month: Government Destruction or Restriction of Records

After writing my short quasi-satirical piece on the Genealogical Crisis of the Month Club, I found that my example of the crisis concerning governmental restrictions limiting access to information was a real concern. With some small effort, I tracked down a bill before the Parliament of Australia entitled the "Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015." The online news reports of the effects of this bill are drastic. Here is one such article on the ExtremeTech website, "New Australian bill could outlaw VPNs in bid to stamp our Hulu, Netflix 'piracy'." A "VPN" is a Virtual Private Network or a network that uses a public telecommunication infrastructure, such as the Internet, to provide remote offices or individual users with secure access to their organization's network. See What is happening here is that the TV and movie companies are claiming, without actually proving, that Netflix and Hulu are violating their copyrights. Rather than forcing the companies to prove their claims, the government is contemplating passing a bill to limit online access to the services by giving the companies the right to shut down or limit the Australian public's access to Netflix and Hulu.

It may seem a jump from limiting access to some TV shows and movies to limiting genealogists from accessing records about dead people, but it is really all about the same conflicting interests: copyright, privacy and government control. You might not have noticed at all, but there was a recent controversy over the availability of the United States, Social Security Administration's Death Master File and the resulting Social Security Death Index or SSDI. The gist of that ongoing controversy was the fact that the Social Security Numbers of dead people, including dead children, from the SSDI were being used to generate false claims to the Internal Revenue Service. Rather than simply have the Internal Revenue Service check the SSDI or the Death Master File to verify the validity of Social Security Numbers, the United States Congress, after hearing testimony, decided to limit access to the records to everyone. Companies who were putting the SSDI online, such as and were accused of "aiding and abetting the fraud." In other words, those who were simply providing public record information were the "cause" of the people who were illegally using the information. So, just as it apparently happening in Australia, the United States Legislature passed a bill limiting access to the records to the public rather than addressing the root of the problem, the lack of competence of the Internal Revenue System. This was done without one shred of evidence that anyone had actually used either or to defraud the government. See H.R.295 - Protect and Save Act of 2013113th Congress (2013-2014). For a more current summary of this Bill, which was passed on 26 December 2014, see "Last Chance to Comment on Rules Regarding Social Security Death Index Access."

The practical effect of the passage of the law is that Social Security Numbers have disappeared from the records supplied by etc. in their SSDI listings. Ordering a copy of the person's SSA 711, Application for Social Security became much more difficult and expensive.

You may have also heard that the 1890 U.S. Federal Census was lost in a fire. That is true for part of the records, but what happened to most of the records was that they were destroyed by the U.S. Government. See "First in the Path of the Firemen"The Fate of the 1890 Population Census, Part 1 By Kellee Blake.

I could go on and on about this subject. There is no question in my mind that the diseases talked about each month in the old Reader's Digest and the current diseases and conditions highlighted in my current AARP Magazine are real, the question, of course, is how do we as individuals react to and confront this ongoing litany of crisis? If I have learned one thing in the last 40 years of being a lawyer is that there is almost always a work around for any disaster: unless you end up dead, you fight back. If you want a place to start for worrying about the loss of genealogically important records, you can start with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and oh, by the way, you might discover that no one really knows when it happened. See Wikipedia: Destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Join the Genealogical Crisis of the Month Club

Genealogy is all too placid. What we really need to liven things up is a Genealogical Crisis-of-the-Month Club! One of my very early, distinct memories is when I was living in a very small town in Eastern Arizona, far away from the civilized world, was of seeing a large airplane fly high above my head and being worried that it would drop an Atom Bomb on me. Notwithstanding the fact that the fear was ungrounded, it was real.

When I was a little older, I used to read the Reader's Digest. The one amazing thing about this magazine (don't get me started on Condensed Books) was that every month, month after month, they seemed to come up with a new disease threat. In my impressionable youth, I was constantly worried about symptoms and whether or not I had that Month's malady.

As I grew much older, my fears and concerns began to spread to such things as terrorists attacks, environmental collapse and global warming. Now, I have added the burden of a genealogical crisis to the litany of things I have to worry about. Now, let's see. What can I worry about today? Maybe I should start worrying about governments shutting down all the libraries, archives and limiting all the records due to "privacy" concerns. This, of course, will be caused by the "Privacy for the Deceased" Action Committee. After all, we don't have enough to worry about, do we?