On Margarine, Microfilm, and Chance Meetings

RoostTech 2015 is now one for the history books.  As it was my fourth RootsTech, much of my time was spent reconnecting with genealogy friends about research progress and life changes.  But even though the conference itself is now old hat for me, I still managed a couple firsts:  researching in the Family History Library and visiting Ancestry’s offices in Provo.  My main regret — other than not managing to find everyone I had hoped to say hello to — is that I had to leave early to attend a meeting Sunday morning regarding the future of the cemetery my great-grandfather helped found.  Talk about competing genealogy priorities!  🙂

But let’s not dwell on the negative.  Here are some of my favorite moments from the conference:

Surprise Cousin Meeting

My newest margarine cousins and me!

My newest margarine cousins and me!

RootsTech 2015 marked the third time I gave a presentation about the Margarine Moonshiners from Minsk, my ancestors who went to jail for selling margarine as butter in violation of federal law.  The first time I gave the presentation, I met my margarine cousin Zach for the very first time — he turned up unexpectedly at that conference just a couple hours before!  I invited margarine cousins Bob and Bernie to my second margarine presentation, but at first they said they couldn’t make it — until that morning they changed their schedules!  We met for the first time just minutes before my talk started.  And the same thing happened this time with Sheryl and her family — a regretful decline turned into a surprise first-time meeting in the exhibit hall just a couple hours before the start time!   At the end of the talk when I pointed her out to the rest of the audience, they gave her a round of applause.  It was a memorable moment for us both — for her, learning about her family’s crazy history in such a formal way, and for me, having yet again the fun of watching a cousin’s reactions to the story in real time!  Truly, my margarine moonshining ancestors are the gift that keeps on giving in so many ways.

Taking questions after my class about my margarine moonshining ancestors.

Taking questions after my class about my margarine moonshining ancestors.  I still can’t believe it’s not fiction, either, though I’ve been researching these guys for almost 4 years!

Amazing Researcher Connection

It’s been one of the greatest delights of my life to introduce not only my far-flung margarine cousins, but also my closer relatives to the amazing history I’ve been uncovering.  But like many of you, I’m almost always the one who is doling out information.  Especially as my area of focus narrows, I started to believe I had moved beyond a place where a fellow researchers could assist.

One of the records I shared.  (Advertisement from The Homestead News, 9/5/1896.)

One of the records I shared. (Advertisement from The Homestead News, 9/5/1896.)

And then an acquaintance approached me in the exhibit hall and said we needed to talk.  She had learned of one of my research projects through — of all things! — a proposal I submitted to the conference she is organizing, and that’s how she realized that our research interests overlapped.  It turns out that she has been working for many years on a friend’s tree, and his family came from the town I am researching.  More than that, one of his ancestors was top on my priority list for people to learn more about!  We were both giddy as we traded information — she shared records with me documenting the family’s surprisingly early arrival in the U.S. and movements around Western PA, and I shared with her newspaper articles, advertisements, deeds, and city directories documenting his life in some detail in the town in which he settled.  We each have taken a huge leap forward with the other’s info!

Incidentally, I discussed another resident of this town as a running example throughout my other class, “Story-Driven Research.”  Surprisingly, half the questions after the class ended were about the research itself, and not the techniques that went into it!  “Why do you know so much about a man who isn’t your ancestor?” was one question I received. I explained how much I learned about my great-grandfather by comparing him to his peers,  realizing that while he ended up as successful as they, he lagged behind them in getting there by a good 10-20 years.  “What do you intend to do with all this research?” another person asked, and while I stumbled over my answer, I was just gratified that anyone not from my town had an interest in my research at all!

Ancestry Tour

Friday morning I had the opportunity to spend the morning out in Provo at Ancestry’s headquarters.  Though I was there with a group for meetings, our host gave us a tour of the offices.  With signs like “Trees UI,” “Story Engineering,” and “Big Tree” denoting different departments, I could have spent a day learning about each team had it been possible.  (Their tech department seemed especially fun, having slightly modified all their signs, like “Tech Ops” to “Tech Oops,” “DBAs” (database administrators) to “DOAs,” and “Network” to “Notwork.”)  But the most jaw-droppingly awesome part of their operation was their digital production environment.  You, too, would have salivated over the rows of state-of-the-art machines and software to digitize every kind of record you could have possibly imagined.  Ancestry takes a lot of flack for outsourcing this work (including from me), but it’s clear that they do take on a fair bit of it themselves and have a number of QA processes in place to review what work the vendors have done.

Automated microfilm scanners.  See one in action here.

Automated microfilm scanners. See one in action here.

Rows of foot-operated book scanners.

Rows of foot-operated book scanners.

I spent the rest of the morning dreaming of the possibilities of all the records I would digitize… if only… After lunch in Ancestry’s cafeteria, the Shaky Leaf Cafe (!), I didn’t notice when the rest of my group was handing in their badges.  “I know what you’re up to,” my host joked.  “You want to sneak in here at night and digitize things!”

Actually, there were a lot of things from RootsTech I wish I could have taken with me.  To paraphrase an old tagline of a Jane Austen website I used to frequent, RootsTech is one of my havens in a world programmed to misunderstand an obsession with things genealogical.  Yes, I wish I had year-round, personal access to Ancestry’s state-of-the-art digitization operation :-), but more than that, the energy of the vendor hall, the excitement of swapping stories with fellow genealogists, and the endless learning opportunities are what I hope to carry with me in some way throughout the coming year.

Mocavo.com and 19th century German anti-Semitism

mocavoEarlier today I noticed something troubling on Mocavo.com, a genealogy search engine recently purchased by FindMyPast.com.  When you click “Search,” the second link in their navigation, you get to a critical marketing page (left) with screenshots showing how their search engine works.  The portion of the page outlined in red is reproduced below exactly as it I downloaded it from their site.

Notice the second listing, which reads, “We all know that Wagner, in his ‘Judenthum in der Musik’ thought Meyerbeer was a clever charlatan”:


Reading this quote, you might think little of it.  Who are these people?  Blah blah German I can’t read.  And, oh, how quaint that one dead guy called another a clever charlatan!

Would you be surprised to learn that this sample search result references one of the most important and well-known examples of German anti-Semitism leading up to the Nazi period?

  • This Wagner is Richard Wagner, a famous opera composer (you probably know his “Ride of the Valkyries”), who was also a notorious anti-Semite.  After his death, his music and ideas inspired the Nazis.
  • Meyerbeer is Giacomo Meyerbeer, a Jewish opera composer whose works were wildly popular in their time, but largely forgotten today.  Meyerbeer was an early mentor of Wagner’s, supporting him both musically and financially, but Wagner later turned on him, launching anti-Semitic attacks that were so accepted that Meyerbeer’s music stopped being performed.
  • Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music) is a hateful essay Wagner wrote, attacking Jews in general and Meyerbeer in particular.  It is a seminal work of German anti-Semitism, containing statements that some consider to recommend annihilating the Jews.

All of this information is well-known to historians of this period, as well as musicologists.  The quote in the Mocavo image — “[This leading anti-Semite] in his [notoriously anti-Semitic essay] thought [a once-famous Jewish man whose reputation he destroyed] was a clever charlatan” — is factual; it repeats one of the milder criticisms Wagner lodged against Meyerbeer.  But now that you know its context — who these people were, the historical and cultural background to this insult, and most importantly, the legacy of this enmity — you see that the casual reference to this nasty bit of history is, well, strange for a cheerful product tour meant to tempt you into a free trial.

I am not saying that Mocavo holds or promotes anti-Semitic beliefs for including this image; repeating that someone once said something doesn’t mean that they agree with it.  What I am saying is that Mocavo clearly has no idea what they posted prominently on their site.  Otherwise, why would they have knowingly given attention to a statement of hate in an age where we still struggle with that hate?  Nor am I saying that Mocavo should remove this article from their database; on the contrary, I am glad they made it easier for everyone to learn about this period.  But there’s a time and a place for grappling with unpleasant history, and I‘m sure if they had known what this record meant, they would have organized their sales pitch around anything else from their enormous database other than a casual reference to proto-Nazi sentiments!  Having worked for Internet companies all my adult life, I know how many levels of people are involved in creating, approving, launching, and testing important marketing pages like this one.  This surprising image means that at many levels of their genealogy company, not a single person was at all curious about what this search result meant.

And that’s the larger lesson for all of us:  How often do we, too, miss references to bygone personalities and events?  Even when the records provide context for our ancestor’s life, how often do we fail to research the nuances to understand everything that the record is telling us about times gone by?  Clues for the circumstances of our ancestors’ experiences are all around us — hiding in plain sight like this Wagner quote — if only we would exercise our own curiosity to pick them out and investigate what they mean.


Movaco wrote to me to address my concerns.

We have already removed that image and will find a more appropriate example of search results very soon.

Let me also confirm that you are right to assert that Mocavo does not hold or promote anti-Semitic beliefs, and that we would never intentionally give undue attention to such hateful works.

Genealogy Industry Report Card on the Heartbleed Security Flaw

heartbleedHave you heard about Heartbleed?  It’s a recently-discovered security flaw in the encryption software two-thirds of all websites use to protect your data.  This problem isn’t one of those fake-outs where your crazy friend posts something alarmist on Facebook that Snopes easily proves is ridiculous.  This time it really is as bad as your crazy friend says it is.  “On the scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11,” wrote cryptography expert Bruce Schneier.

As users there’s not much that we can do except wait for our favorite websites to upgrade their software to the fixed version.  Once they do, the recommendation is to change your password on all the web sites that were affected (here is a list of popular ones here is a better list being updated regularly).  That’s annoying and tedious, of course, but it’s the only way to be sure.

After ensuring that Treelines is not vulnerable to the Heartbleed vulnerability, I’ve gone through the major genealogy sites that use encryption software using a publicly available tool to see how the rest are faring.  The good news is that the sites all pass!  This tool also assesses the overall quality of the security measures each site uses to protect your data.  Here there is a wide range of grades, including two F’s by popular sites!

Site Heartbleed
Security grade (click on grade for full report)
Ancestry.com No A-
MyHeritage.com No   F     A-   **
FindMyPast.com No A
Archives.com No A-
FamilySearch.org No B
Geni.com No A-
WorldVitalRecords.com No B
Mocavo.com No A
GenealogyBank.com No   F     A-   **
Newspapers.com No B
Fold3.com No B
23andMe.com No B
FamilyTreeDNA.com No A-
Treelines.com No A
WikiTree.com No n/a*
FindAGrave.com No n/a*
BillionGraves.com No n/a*

* n/a means that the site does not use encryption software to protect the data you submit to it. It’s true that the sites marked n/a do not take credit card information, but it has been long accepted as the best practice that any time a user signs up or logs into a site, their information should be encrypted. If you use the same password on the sites marked n/a as you do on other websites, then a malicious person could lift your information from the one site and try it out on others where you do make purchases. It’s unlikely, but it is possible. (Sorry if I sound like your crazy friend on Facebook now!)

** Thank you to these companies, who improved their security after this post was published.

In Defense of Genealogy as a Hobby

phunts22.1283336178Recently I read in Carla Peterson’s impressive Black Gotham:  A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City how pharmacists sought to standardize their profession to eliminate quacks, improve their effectiveness, provide better patient care, and advance their knowledge.  The relevance of this history to her narrative is how the gates pharmacists erected mostly hindered, but sometimes aided her ancestors’ professional advancement, but it also provides a useful parallel to our unique historical moment within genealogy:  now that standards have been drafted, today’s researchers are similarly battling for widespread adherence to them so genealogy will be practiced in a more reliable manner and thus taken more seriously by the establishment and practitioners alike.  In short, our field is belatedly undergoing the standardization that pharmacology and every other respected discipline has had to undergo to enter the ranks of academic fields of study.

This process of standardization took its biggest step forward in the late 1990s with the creation of the Genealogical Proof Standard, but at the same time the Internet came along to threaten decades of progress.  The professionals dedicated to defining the boundaries of what is and is not good genealogy now find themselves guarding gates long trammeled by the huddled masses yearning to type names into search engines and get free answers.  Public perception of our field has been forever changed, academic acceptance still hasn’t happened, and the result is a community inflamed over why amateurs do such poor work and how can we get them to improve (as though that is the problem preventing acceptance).  The latest outburst in the blogosphere, ably summarized by Randy Seaver, grew out of a solidly-argued, non-genealogical article about the present pervasiveness and perniciousness of the attitude that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.”  “I fear we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise,'” writes Tom Nichols, “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”  It’s a thesis I couldn’t agree with more.  But as familiar as this description sounds to those of us sick of finding nonsensical trees on Ancestry, its application to our field is wrong. Continue reading

#TBT Throwback Thursday: Social Media’s Celebration of the Past

#TBT Me during my archaeology days.  Genealogy is less dirty!

Me during my archaeology days. Genealogy is a lot less dirty (though I lost my great tan). #TBT

Have you seen the #TBT hashtag around the Internet?  It refers to Throwback Thursday, a weekly social media ritual where people post old photographs of themselves to their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr accounts.  Like most memes, it started amongst the younger set, but I’ve been amazed to see over the past year not only how it’s grown on Facebook to include even people in their 60s and 70s like my parents, but also how it has served as a jumping off point for great conversations about family history.  My mother and one of my cousins never miss a chance to post pictures of their now-grown kids as children, and I have one cousin in particular who takes #TBT so seriously that she’ll message us days in advance to let us know when she’s dug out a particularly good picture she doesn’t want us to miss.  The fabulous photos she posts always kick off long conversations with relatives sharing their memories of our family’s past.


A favorite #TBT showing my mother (the flasher) with her cousins.  Three of these kids (including the one who appears to have wet himself) were tagged in this picture when it was posted to Facebook, and they started a wonderful conversation with their children reminiscing about times gone by.

Thanks to Throwback Thursday I’m getting to see old photographs I would have never seen and to overhear family history conversations that wouldn’t have otherwise happened, but the best part is — I’m not the one kicking off these conversations!

Fifty years before Facebook, my family had a club!  (Source:  Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion, 1/14/1955)

Fifty years before Facebook, my family had a club! (Source: Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion, 1/14/1955)

When it comes to engaging your relatives in genealogy conversations, the trick is to approach them where they already are in ways that will feel familiar to them.   Tech industry watchers may lament the future for Facebook now that it’s become so multigenerational, but for those of us who are our families’ designated historians, it means that where we’ll find our relatives is Facebook, and what they’re doing there is looking at our pictures, commenting on them, and especially if they’re older, connecting with people from their past they don’t see otherwise.  More importantly, they’re also already posting their own pictures to Facebook.  In short, every aspect of Throwback Thursday is something already happening naturally with recent pictures.  You just need to shift the focus, from time-to-time, to the past!

Sixty years ago when my father’s family lived in the same place, they could organize monthly get-togethers and a newsletter, but today when there are hundreds of us with our pictures and memories scattered all over the world, Facebook is the easiest gathering place we have, and Throwback Thursday is the perfect way to take advantage of the virtual proximity to gently prod your family into a trip down memory lane.  If you’re not yet on the #TBT bandwagon, why don’t you give it a try?  Post an evocative photograph or a fascinating record, tag the family members most likely to be interested, and see what conversation develops.  Maybe you can even get #TBT to catch on so well in your family circle that in the future, it’s you commenting on one of your relative’s posts!

The 1940 Census and My Great-Grandma… Jillie?

Jillie?!Here is my grandfather with his parents in the 1940 census.  What do you think his mother’s name is?

Ancestry says it is Jillie, but I know it is Tillie, my namesake.  Amusing, right?  In fact, Ancestry is so sure of its reading that it listed two Jillies on this one page alone!

As is now well-known, Ancestry relied upon vendors in China, Bangladesh, and the Philippines to index the 1940 census in just four months, finishing Friday (vs. 9.5 months for 1930).  Unfortunately, not only are the indexers not native speakers of American English, the majority aren’t even native readers of the Roman alphabet.  Comparisons of Ancestry’s outsourced index with the slower FamilySearch volunteer effort conclude exactly what you would expect — 23% vs. 12% inaccuracy on Carringer, Seaver, and McKnew in California; 12% vs. 2% on Alonzo in Utah.

Palmer example

The foreign indexers were trained via handwriting samples with mixed success.  The Palmer-style script most 1940 census-takers used shows that capital J’s and T’s look quite different (unless you confuse script with block letters, which this census-taker clearly was not using).  Better training might have caught this error.


Beba is a real name–so sayeth Ancestry!

But no amount of training can fix the underlying problem:  a lack of cultural awareness.  Lifelong Americans know that Tillie is an old-fashioned name, and Jillie at best a rare, modern nickname.  This aggregation of name data proves the name Tillie was extremely popular in my ggm’s day (she was born c. 1890).  Jillie, on the other hand, never appears, Jill doesn’t come into use until the 1920s, and Jillian the 1960s.

Even had the indexers cross-referenced such data, they would still fail on unusual and foreign names.  There’s just no substitute for a lifetime of passively absorbing a culture’s naming conventions.  Even FamilySearch’s American indexers do a poor job indexing the New York City records of my Eastern European ancestors, because cultural familiarization happens on a much smaller scale than country or language. Names that are obvious to me frequently confound their amazingly generous volunteers.

So, the problem isn’t as simple as outsourcing vs. on-shoring.   The bigger issue:  in neither case — Ancestry or FamilySearch — does the makeup of the indexers match the ethnic diversity of the people whose names they’re deciphering.  Ancestry wanted low cost/fast turn-around, and FamilySearch the speediest volunteer recruitment, but in both cases they were short-sighted:  a shoddy index doesn’t convert casual visitors, since bad search results discourage newbies and frustrate experts. My cousin abandoned her free trial after Ancestry didn’t return our great-grandmother, Fannie Yorker (found under Marker — enumeration district address searching is tedious!).  And I never use FamilySearch because time and again I get misses where I get hits elsewhere.

Until our indexing methodologies are more culturally aware, we aren’t going to raise our success metrics across the board.  The increasingly diverse community of genealogists needs its indexing organizations to brainstorm substitutes for our own instinctual familiarity with our communities’ naming trends.

Genealogy’s Chicken Little Moment

Yesterday a bombshell hit the genealogy community: NBC canceled Who Do You Think You Are?, its weekly show in which it traces the roots of a celebrity. The stock price of Ancestry.com fell 18% today as investors worried how this would affect the company’s growth. After all, “Ancestry.com’s prominent presence on WDYTYA, a partnership with NBC, contributed to a 42.6% spike in its online subscriptions, to 1.87M, in the two years since the show debuted” (source). But for those of who care about the success of the genealogy industry beyond the valuation of our stock portfolios, what does this news really mean? Should we be panicking?

For the time it was on the air, WDYTYA clearly ignited many people’s latent interest in their family’s history. And while there couldn’t possibly have been more Ancestry commercials during the breaks, the show itself was the best possible advertisement for genealogy. It made it look fun and accessible. The detective work was suspenseful, and the breakthroughs enormously satisfying. And most of all, the emotional impact of the stories on the celebrities was real and heart-felt. None of this was marketing hype. This really is what genealogy is all about. The personal payoffs are as real as the show portrayed. And it was this connection that the show created between the celebrities’ journeys through their family history and the potential journeys that await us, the viewers, that created the surge in subscriptions for Ancestry.

Too many of us are responding to the cancellation by bemoaning the shallow time in which we find ourselves and forgetting that the latent interest that preceded the show is still out there! Sure, Ancestry lost a major channel for outreach, but they — and we — still have a huge potential audience waiting to be reached. All of us in the genealogy community — bloggers, researchers, companies, even little start-ups like Treelines — can pick up where the show left off to make our passion as accessible as possible. Every single one of us who’s already researching his/her tree can be an advocate for genealogy amongst our own family and friends. We can improve our research tools and guides to help novices dive in more easily. We can broaden our offline societies into online social networks to better assist newbies in breaking down their brick walls. And most of all, we can wrap the dry research and data management with the same warm emotions that the show did to help people see, for example, that a ship manifest is not just a ship manifest, but a window into the life of a very brave ancestor whose choices made us who we are. No TV host is required for any of this!  (We at Treelines are hard at work on this last suggestion.)

The sky isn’t falling if we can take what made the show wonderful and use it to make genealogy as fun and accessible as the show portrayed.