On RAOGK

Update (June 2012):

As indicated in the recent comment below, efforts have begun to resurrect Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. A RAOGK Wiki has some basic information. There are also two Facebook pages, one for USA-based requests and one for international requests.

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An unwelcome piece of genealogy news this week, via Dick Eastman: Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness is going offline for an unspecified time in the wake of computer issues and its administrator’s health problems.

Read the full announcement here. I myself have yet to utilize RAOGK — I’m lucky to live close to my ancestral stomping grounds. But it’s a sad shock for the many, many fans of the groundbreaking volunteer referral network, which in 2010 was named one of the year’s Best Big Genealogy Sites by Family Tree Magazine.

It was also a bit of a shock to realize that this was the first I’d heard the name of an actual individual behind RAOGK, although I’m sure it’s not a big state secret. It’s just interesting that something like RAOGK can be out there as a dependable genealogy livesaver, and still be sort of anonymous. (I went back and checked the Family Tree mention from 2010, and there weren’t any names there, either.)

What also strikes me is the fragility of these labors of love. We refer to them, and rely on them, and assume they’re rocks. But ultimately a lot of networking efforts are the product of just a very few hearts, minds and wills. The idea of being the actual heart and mind of an institution like that is a bit frightening. Many recognize this, even if they don’t ‘fess up to it.

All you have to do is read the commentary following an announcement such as last week’s – many, many pleas for somebody somewhere to take over the work; maybe one or two actual offers to do so.

But I don’t want to make too much hay of a case where there aren’t a lot of particulars available. Maybe it’s just a temporary shutdown and the worries are premature. Maybe the logistics of getting a temporary administrator up to speed are just one more thing the RAOGK folks do not need right now.

In any event, I wish Bridgett Schneider all the best.  And thank you.

Note: There is a Facebook page where RAOGK volunteers are posting information about their expertise and availability.


The Pickle: Fierce Culture Warrior.

[Mrs. Leopold] said to her daughter, “I don’t know where you learned to use spices in such an original way.” Implying that … spices were common, and that real food, eaten by real people, was either plain American or French.

— Laurie Colwin, “An Old-Fashioned Story”

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Only a couple of generations ago, food was such a highly charged litmus test of Fitting In for immigrants. Hard to believe now! New Yorkers, for instance, revel in the ethnic and cultural diversity of their food scene, to the point of being tiresome about who gets credit for ferreting out the latest hidden gem. Chicago was much the same, from what I remember of my time there.

So I laughed out loud at Immigrant Identities, Preserved in Vinegar?, author Jane Ziegelman’s eye-opening paean to the pickle on the OpEd page of the New York Times.

Who knew the lowly pickle was once the equivalent of a culinary stealth warrior to stuffy, anti-immigrant cookery authorities? “The spices in it are bad, the vinegar a seething mass of rottenness,” declared one horrified 19th-century observer.

Holy brining barrel, Batman! Read the whole thing. It’s a hoot.

P.S. I had a very nice pickle (and terrific smoked-meat sandwich) at the legendary Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal several days ago. No seething masses of rottenness were anywhere in the vicinity. If you’re ever in the area and you haven’t yet tried smoked meat (a distinctive and delightful distant cousin to New York-style pastrami), you owe yourself a taste.


Up A Tree With The Times

Originally this post was a bit of a screech.

In “Who’s on the Family Tree? Now It’s Complicated,” the New York Times mused upon genealogy in the post-test-tube-baby age. Marian at Roots and Rambles also noticed this article, and pointed out its very interesting finding that birth certificate questionnaires are starting to catch up to the new realities, including questions on reproductive technology. Which was all good.

But something about the tone of the piece got under my skin. I really was irritated by the sense that the Times team found the new family realities kind of … icky, messing up the genealogy software and the school family tree projects and all that.

Thus, I ran on for a bit. Great length ensued.

I decided to reflect a bit more. I am still irritated, but at least I am able to boil my original post down to much shorter bullet points:

•  The piece was largely written from the assumption that the default family-study mode must be mommy+daddy+bio baby. In reality, genealogical studies almost by definition branch out into collateral kin and relationships through marriage and adoption. That is nothing new. Reproductive technologies are new, but is it so hard to encompass them within existing research techniques? Somehow I don’t think it would take that much imagination.

• Related: The piece ramps up a wistful nostalgia for a good old days in which we never had out-of-the-box genealogy cases. Nice try, but family realities (and cultural taboos) have been warring with the family tree forms for quite a long time. For instance, without formal record-keeping prior to the 19th century, adoptions often are inferred, but of course they are there. As seasoned researchers often point out, a strikingly “late in life” baby who pops up in a census might have been birthed by someone other than the listed mother.  I would think a matter-of-fact approach to the newer, technological realities would only help us by helping us be more expansive and forthright about our trees.

•  I do think the Times was onto something with the observation that “Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. “ If you’re doing this work to get into the DAR or a similar lineage society, you’re going to be approaching things differently from a person who sees themselves purely as a family chronicler. When you deal with the lineage societies, it’s a matter of their group, their rules.

•  But I think the basic genealogy techniques of researching, citing and reporting remain the same, either way.

•  Maybe the essential question is not “How do I fit my sperm-donor baby on my tree if my software doesn’t have a spot for that?” The deeper question is whether we’re comfortable with the way our families came to be, and whether we’re willing to stick up for that.

• If not, maybe family history research is something to be avoided. But I would find that outcome sad.


OT: My Summer Vacation

I live in New Jersey, where summer vacation has barely started at the time the Midwest is beginning its back-to-school shopping. Yeah, it’s high summer here. We aren’t even thinking about Office Depot for another four weeks. A brief news digest will surely show what I mean:

I am a Bastille Day baby. I have always enjoyed my stylish birthday! When I was younger and footloose I often went to French restaurants to celebrate. This year, I made my own cake, over my daughters’ objections. (Before you start to awwww and assume they were devastated at not being able to bake for me, they were actually pushing for a Carvel ice cream cake.) It was a Devil Dog cake, recipe courtesy of Deb at Smitten Kitchen. More on birthday cake later, in a family history sort of post, even.

I saw the New York Times story on family trees in the age of reproductive technology, had some thoughts and wrote a post which I’ve been mulling over to make sure my thoughts still hold up. I will post it, but for now I’ll just say I hate pseudo-trend pieces in the lifestyle section of the Times, for what it’s worth.

I just discovered The Diamond in the Window, a wonderful blog about children’s literature. What’s really great are the thoughtful recommendations passed along by the blogger’s own daughters, aged 11 and 9. I predict this blog will give me many answers on frustrating rainy summer days.

Played around with PowerPoint to make a simple, hierarchical family tree for a core group I’ve been researching among my paternal lines. I’ve been thinking of summarizing some of this research in a narrative to send around in Christmas cards to extended family, and the family tree diagram would be a visual aid. Doesn’t this sound like the sort of thing that would get me dropped from Christmas card lists?

Went to the beach here. And here. Before you ask: Snooki is nowhere to be seen, and indeed, unless the Jersey Shore crowd likes string cheese and juice boxes for lunch, they would be quite out of place at these beaches.

Am teaching Latin and German to my daughters. The Latin is for the older one, who needs to review for the fall, with the help of the Cambridge Latin series textbook. My long-ago, very basic high-school Latin is creaking back, hurray. The German lessons are something both kids have actually been asking about for some time. Their motives are not exactly pure — they are entirely too focused on determining whether a certain schoolmate and native German speaker is using swear words, for instance. Also, they have noticed that I sometimes talk with one of my sisters in German when we don’t want them to understand (we both majored in it in college, but sis is way better at it). It all adds up to a level of avid interest that’s touching, it really is.

But I still won’t teach them the swear words.


News Item: Accidents, Tudor-Style

A strange little article from the BBC: 10 Strange Ways Tudors Died, which I have to admit I thought was a review of a new trashy series about 16th-century monarchs. In reality, it is  a collection of accidental death reports culled from 16th-century coroner’s files by Oxford historian Dr. Steven Gunn.

The stories range from dubious landmarks — Britain’s first accidental shooting death seems to have been in 1519 — to period-specific hazards, as when bears kept for bear-baiting escaped and attacked random humans (hard to blame the bears, really). But many are simply bizarre, as in the case of the man who shot himself in the head with his own bow.

Dr. Gunn has apparently spent some time researching coroner’s reports and accidental deaths in Tudor England. The article does not say what scholarly conclusions he has reached about them, but preliminary findings would seem to indicate that the freak accident has a long and illustrious history.


Surprise! Maggie’s 91st birthday

I hit a gold mine this morning in Ancestry.com’s newspaper image database for the Times-Record of Troy, N.Y. Out of the blue, too!

This database had disappointed me before. However, a chance tweak of the search form this morning turned up so much stuff, and so unexpectedly, that it’s worth another post or two about tweaking search forms and defying expectations. (You’ve been warned.)

For now, I’m having a blast working my way through the treasure trove of clippings. They feature my great-great aunts, Margaret [Haigney] Roache and Mary [Haigney] Walker, and my great-great uncle, Martin T. Haigney.

Many of the clips are from a local-news page that took the terms “local” and “news” to lengths that are unimaginable today. When I studied journalism, we would talk about empathizing with our readership (yes, it was a while ago). Even so, that didn’t mean covering stories like a college sophomore “spending the holiday vacation with his parents,” or Mrs. So-and-so’s hospitalization from a broken hip.  The news business hasn’t been that personal for a long, long time.

My great-great aunt Margaret's 91st birthday was top headline news in 1961.

But back in the 1950s and early 1960s, news was extremely personal in the Troy Times-Record, and what good luck for me. I’ve got a lot of new leads to pursue on those summertime genealogy day trips I was musing about a couple of days ago.

In the meantime, listen to this Very Important News Item from 1961 about my great-great aunt Margaret:

Mrs. Margaret Roach prepared a birthday party yesterday.

She baked a cake and set the table for the party which was for herself. It was her 91st birthday.

The wisp of a woman, who weighs less than 90 pounds, lives alone at 2509 2nd Ave. Many of the friends whom she has been associated with throughout the years were present. She was born in Watervliet … She now lives alone and cooks, sews, shops and does about everything else for herself. She voted at the polls last November because she felt it her duty. In her leisure time, she reads and is up to date on the various news happenings. She wears glasses because of a cataract operation performed one year ago, but her eyesight is still as keen as her hearing.

There is a TON of other terrific stuff in the story, including biographical details about Margaret, her late husband James, her father and her siblings. Above all, it has those wonderful personal details that form a perfect  snapshot of Margaret, still truckin’ along and throwing herself birthday parties into her 90s.

The unnamed reporter who covered this nearly 50 years ago couldn’t have known what a big favor his little human-interest story would do for me and my genealogy research. But thanks anyway!


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