Taking the DNA Plunge

Well before RootsTech 2011, I was considering whether or when to get a genealogy DNA test done. I think it was at a Toronto Ontario Genealogical Society event that I first listened to an excellent presentation on new discoveries in the field. The presenters were so enthusiastic that I couldn’t help thinking that maybe the high cost was worth the potential expansion of my knowledge about my ancestry, or at least my geographical origins.

Since then, I followed up webinars and other presentations, including one at RootsTech 2012, to make sure I had enough information to confirm that it was worth it, to figure out which test to choose, and to select a vendor. I was fortunate to have a conversation at a dinner just after RootsTech 2012 with a project leader for FamilyTreeDNA. He filled in some gaps for me about the importance of group projects for furthering connections and sharing understanding that is possible with DNA information.

Then I took the plunge, sending for my testing kit from FamilyTreeDNA. In a future post, I’ll discuss the tests I selected and more about group projects.

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Josh Taylor shares excellent methods in ISGS webinar

Genealogy rockstar Josh Taylor gave an excellent webinar last night for the Illinois State Genealogical Society, detailing how he organizes his digital files for his professional and personal genealogy research. He uses a number of tools to make his research time more effective, such as spreadsheets, file naming and embedding metadata within image files. These are more or less similar to the approaches I have been gradually adopting myself, so it was very helpful to learn how a professional applies himself to the same problems.

Two things in particular stand out from his presentation. One, that no matter how tempting it is to just dive into a set of records and browse where you think you might find a gem, it always pays to log your intended research in advance, with call numbers or film numbers, objectives, and other relevant information. This brings method into the activity and makes it much easier to fully document finds later. The second important thing for Josh (and for all of us taking even hobby genealogy seriously!) is the commitment to create accurate citations and attach them to the images of the material cited. He showed a very easy way to do this and said he is intending to go back and add proper citations even to material he researched years ago before he started using this method. Thanks for the inspiration, Josh!

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Heading home from RootsTech

My week in Salt Lake City is a wrap. At a post-RootsTech dinner last night hosted by Dick Eastman, I was asked my opinion of the conference. Several people nodded in agreement when I said some sessions were great, but there were too few for the intermediate and advanced genealogist. Two of the three keynotes were excellent, and the vendor exhibits were very good. The conference as a whole was well organized and the venue very good, as long as you don’t mind stairs and can live without coffee. I look forward to catching the sessions I missed from those recorded and live streamed. So many times, I had to choose between two appealing topics and sometimes I concluded that I made the wrong choice. In other cases, I walked into a session and discovered that it was poorly described and not a good pick for me at all. On balance, however, the whole week has been totally satisfying when I consider the intense three days I spent in the Family History Library making new discoveries about my family. For next year’s RootsTech, I’ll be curled up by the woodstove watching the streamed events.

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Three days at the FHL

The last three days were intensive, but fascinating. I had prepared for my research time at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City by reviewing the family lines that needed more information (basically all of them) and looking up some of the films that might be helpful. Using Evernote, I tagged census images and notes on research questions so that I could easily turn to them on the iPad when I needed to. I was determined to take notes avoiding paper as much as possible.
This approach worked much better than last year’s, when I came home with a full handwritten notebook to transcribe. However, it still falls short of what I would like to have in a research app. I was able to review my advance notes and flip over to my tree in Reunion pretty well. I made new notes as I discovered things and I captured images in snapshot notes with my iPhone. But it was too tempting to use paper for what I call thinking notes – new film numbers and new questions that came up as I worked. I will still have to transcribe these, especially to note films I viewed but which didn’t produce any useful information. As I spend the next three days at RootsTech, I’ll be looking for opportunities to try out any new app that may do the job better. Or maybe it’s out there already?

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Day One of RootsTech Week in SLC

It seemed to take forever to get from Owen Sound to Salt Lake City, but that was partly because I did an overnight stop in Toronto. It wasn’t essential, but it allowed me to visit family and make sure that the forecast snow squalls didn’t get in the way. On the way from the SLC airport in the hotel shuttle, another passenger remarked that he expected I’d be at the Family History Library as soon as it opened Monday morning, as he was planning. I said no, I thought I’d be still recovering from the trek to get here.
I was wrong. With jet lag in my favour, I was up and finished a hearty breakfast in time to open the doors at 8 am. Being here for a second time meant that I knew where to start, but there is still a moment of panic when you contemplate all the resources you could delve into, and you realize you only have three days before RootsTech takes over your time. What’s more, Monday is early closing day at the FHL, so you only have until 5.
I reminded myself why I was there – to ENJOY my family history research – and then took out my notes to select my first batch of films to review. At 5, I packed up and left, with lots of new notes on discoveries and dead ends.

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Gotta love a hard deadline

It turns out that going to a genealogy conference in February has a galvanizing effect on January resolutions. Like many others I resolved to get my genealogy stuff organized this year and, guess what, I really have to do it so I can make the most of my trip to Salt Lake City for RootsTech . Top of the list was fishing out my notes from last year’s RootsTech and the extra days I spent at the Family History Library working on my own lines. It was my first visit to the library in 2011 and I was pretty overwhelmed by the family history goodies there.

This year I added days for research, too, and I have a better idea of how to plan for it. Or at least how I should be planning for it. I finally started a robust research log, after checking out lots of templates other researchers have kindly shared. I used several parts of Thomas MacEntee’s log template on Google Docs to build a Bento library for sources I have found and entered into my genealogy software. MacEntee’s template provides for the robust citation information we all wish we had done all along. It will take me a while to complete entries for all existing sources.

Then I set up an Omnioutliner file as a kind of ongoing notebook for ideas and potential sources to research. In it, I’m noting films and books I’ve already consulted, but with much less detail than in the source library. This will go with me on my iPad, so I can refer to it and update it as my research progresses. What does your take-along research log look like?

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Saving for a special occasion

As a volunteer at my county museum, I am currently cataloging table linens. There is plenty of variety in this category, everything from decades-old redwork pillow shams to tatted tablecloths. This week I came across a set of crepe paper table napkins, dating probably to the early 20th century. They were delicately thin and fragile, but the strawberries and flowers printed on them were bright and clear. Their owner had kept them carefully away from sticky hands and sunlight, until her heirs ultimately donated them to the museum. I wondered about her. Did she ever intend to use them? Or were they just too special to be shared with teatime guests, then discarded.

I’m strongly in favour of using lovely things as they were meant to be used, rather than saving them for special occasions. Or, to put it another way, we can make everyday occasions special by using and enjoying the things we value. On the other hand, if the lady who treasured her paper napkins had followed my advice, we would not now have the pleasure of their delicacy and their vibrant colours.

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Nothing like the real thing

Marian Pierre-Louis writes of the importance of “getting local” with research in her Roots and Rambles blog and I couldn’t agree more. we are fortunate to have great tools to take us beyond the letters, records and even artifacts that might tell us stories of our ancestors. Not just maps, but street level views from Google and photos both modern and historical from sources like Historypin can help us round out what life was like for them. But there is nothing like being there.

I remember a research trip my mother and I took to Kendal in the Lake District. LIke many market towns in the UK, Kendal had preserved parts of its town centre and some significant buildings from the era when my ancestors lived there. We walked by some of the same architecture that my family would have walked by and we trod the cobbled streets they would have known. We got a sense of the life they had much more vividly than from all we had read about them. What’s more, we had opportunities to learn more about the area and local history we might not have come across from remote research.

A research trip to your family’s locality is not much about the things you will look up in repositories; it’s about the feel of the place, the things they might have seen each day, the spaces that were significant to them.

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How to deal with the unexpected

Much of the time we spend on genealogy, we are hunting. We’re always looking for that precious document or artifact that will take us further in filling in the details of our family stories, and if we’re lucky, we find something. But now and then we get even luckier than that. A gift falls into our lap. It could be a sheaf of letters a cousin finds in an old drawer, a pile of photos long forgotten, or an unexpected conversation that uncovers stories we never knew to ask about. We can and should be prepared to make the most of such things, and ideally we should be prepared to act quickly. Sometimes the gift is a loan, sometimes it is fragile. If we have a reliable process, we can swing into action and respond to the genealogical gift with care and gratitude.
Here is the process I followed for dealing with an interesting bundle given to my mother recently and shared with me. It was a brief handwritten history, a photocopied newspaper clipping. and a scrap of notepaper listing family names. The author of the letter, a cousin, handed the bundle over, on loan, during a conversation with my mother a few days ago.
My first step was to evaluate, that is, quickly determine the nature of the material and its physical state. It was sturdy enough to be scanned, so I moved to step two, capture. Even though I had a few days to examine the actual documents, I wanted to make sure I had a digital copy for future examination and reference.
Step three was to analyze the find. I read each piece carefully and considered how it might relate to information I already had about the branch of the family this was about. Finally, I documented the find, how I came to have it, and my ideas and conclusions about its meaning within my research. If I had not been required to return the documents, I would have implemented a fifth step, which would be to preserve the original in an appropriate container to protect it from damage.
So here are my steps, which, it turns out, are very similar to the steps we should follow for things we find on purpose!
1. Evaluate.
2. Capture.
3. Analyze.
4. Document.
5. Preserve.
Did I miss anything? What do you do when serendipity strikes?

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Gifts of Childhood

As a volunteer collections assistant at my local county museum, I am currently assigned to cataloguing shelves of artifacts, such as the school materials I was working on this week. I picked up a small wooden box labeled “Fourth Gift” and was immediately taken back to when my children attended a Froebel school. The Froebel gifts were a set of play objects – you wouldn’t call them toys – created to guide young children to learn about geometry, design, storytelling, all kinds of wonderful things. This fourth gift was made by Milton Bradley, a name we now associate with mainstream games. I wonder how mainstream the Froebel gifts were when this was used?

The ideas of Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) influenced many North American educators and the schools they set up for young children around the turn of the 19th century, which were named after the German word, kindergarten.

This fourth gift looked different from what I remember. It contained several smallish wooden pieces rather than the eight cubes in the Strong Museum collection, which looks more like I remember. But then again, other sources specify oblong blocks for the fourth gift. Perhaps the manufacturer took liberties with the design, or maybe the original contents of the box were replaced at some point. I wonder how many children today enjoy the magic of tiny wooden shapes that can become whatever they imagine.

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