Freebies of Choice

A classic conversation is going on about genealogy, earning and freedom to choose whether you earn or not. I do not use “classic” in the snarky sense — this really is a tremendous outpouring of thoughtful posts and comments. I guess I’d start here, if you haven’t seen some of them. Or over here, where Thomas MacEntee adds to his GeneaBloggers roundup on the subject. Or maybe here, where Amy Coffin explains how “free” genealogy is never really free. You get the picture. Lots of good stuff.

As a professional writer, I know all about attempts to guilt you into working for free, as typified in the No Money, But Plenty Of Exposure want ad, whether in print or online. (Does anyone else find that phrase as pervy as I do?)

I really, really get irritated by the phrase “labor of love,” especially when it involves projects where writers are welcome to “contribute” for “nothing.” It implies that only money-grubbing meanies would scorn Labors of Love, as opposed to maybe being a person with people they love, whom they wish to help support with their talent. Or simply, people who don’t want to go broke.

So I’ve never been thrilled at the something-for-nothing mentality with regards to genealogy.

(I’m frankly amazed at how many individuals generously share extensive data on their websites and never even run an online fundraiser. As Amy points out, servers and domains aren’t free.)

Do labors of love have their place? Sure — depending upon the person, and the labor, and the love. And that is a person’s own choice — no matter how many examples one cites on either side of the aisle.

There is a fabulous story about the writer Colette being asked to contribute a piece to a literary journal. Upon inquiring as to her fee, she was told, well, 0 francs. She declined. The journal editor exclaimed, “But [Andre] Gide has agreed!”

Colette replied, “Gide is a fool,” and unleashed a terrifically stylish Colette diatribe about how writers who work for nothing do ALL writers a disservice by devaluing ALL writers’ work.

Should we be as harsh as Colette about those who ask for no renumeration? Nah. We can’t all be Colette, even though she had an interesting point.

But tell you what. Let’s also refrain from being harsh about those who strive for a return on their work. It’s an individual call.


Irish Family History: The Other ‘Hungers’

Last Saturday here in the Northeast was cold, rainy and windy; not charming. Fortunately I was warm, dry and inside, listening to a day of  lectures on Irish family history at Emigrants and Exiles: An Irish Family History Symposium at Drew University in Madison, NJ. Among them was Professor Christine Kinealy’s talk on why Irish people left Ireland and why, as she said, “the Famine is only part of the story.”

Co-sponsored by Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies and the Genealogical Society of New Jersey, this conference contained an ideal mix of individual case histories and broader historical perspectives. And the talk by Kinealy, who teaches at Drew, was a great example in the second category.

Kinealy is actually an expert on the Great Hunger of 1845-52, so the title of her talk was intriguing. A key point was that the Great Hunger, while certainly the biggest, was just one of many disasters to hit Ireland over the years. In the 18th century alone, for instance:

1717-18: Drought.

1725-29: Generalized economic downturn; “poverty, wretchedness, misery and want” force a wave of Scots-Irish emigration from Ulster.

1740-41: Famine (concurrent with a “Little Ice Age”).

1754: Another drought.

1771-75: More poverty and evictions, resulting in between 25,000-30,000 emigrations, mostly Presbyterians.

These dates are particularly important  for descendants of Irish families (like my husband’s) who emigrated prior to the 19th century. As a couple of the lecturers mentioned, if your Irish left Ireland in the 18th century, there’s a good bet they were Scots-Irish. Within a hundred years of the era in which the British established Protestant “plantations” in Ireland, economic and agricultural downturns forced many of these families’ descendants to emigrate, mainly to North America.

As researcher Clare Keenan Agthe noted, there’s a rule-of-thumb emigrant timeline drawn from patterns noted by Irish researchers, to wit:

1600s: Native Irish

1700s and early 1800s: Scots-Irish

Mid-1800s: Native Irish

It’s only a general guideline, of course. However, for those just starting out on their Irish adventures, these lesser-known timelines are worth keeping in mind. It’s easy to assume our people left in the Great Famine years because, so often, it’s true — how could it not be, with such a massive population shift? But it’s also possible that they left at other times, for other reasons.

Irish history is like that.

(I’ll be posting other tips from this conference as I go through my notes. There was so much great information and — by the way — Megan Smolyenak dropped by to show everybody how to give a great genealogy lecture and be funny while you’re at it!)

Links, 4.18.11

Originally these links led off with a nifty little item about Dr. Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, founder of the G.A.R., but it ran away and became a post of its own, which you can go read now if you want. The other links and I can wait. We’ll only be a little bit insulted.

O Canada: Diane Lynn Tibert writes that Ellis Island records can be of use to Canadian researchers, too. She illustrates with examples drawn from an index of Newfoundland family names found among Ellis Island arrivals. It’s one of those things that makes perfect sense once someone else points it out to you.

Royal stuff: In other Canada news, Kate Middleton has a Canadian connection. Her grandfather, Peter, served at an R.A.F. airbase in Alberta during the Second World War, and, in happier prewar times, visited Quebec as a schoolboy. I have not been keeping up with all the Kate genealogy news, so consider this a belated apology. (edited to add: Hey! Here is Kate’s family tree!)

Bronx memories: Always good to see a glimpse of big-city genealogy, this time from the Bronx. Mehroz Baig at Digital Bronx talks to family researchers with an interest in this corner of the world, including a woman from Yorkshire, England, who tracked down some long-lost cousins.

State treasures: Tampa Bay columnist Sharon Tate Moody, whose articles are consistently top-notch, scores a particular winner with this look at state archives and how much they can help your genealogy research. As she points out, not everything is digitized — so sooner or later every researcher who gets serious should consider a physical visit to the archives.

Customer data: Here’s a business-writer view of, courtesy of Investor’s Business Daily, which gives the online genealogy giant a nod of approval for attracting new customers. They also credit Ancestry with a “reasonable churn rate” — i.e., the amount of customers lost over a given period. Apparently Ancestry loses about 4 percent of its customers per month, compared to telecom and cable companies’ 2 to 3 percent. (The churn rate drops to about 2 percent for Ancestry subscribers whose memberships extend beyond six months.)

Fun and games: Aaaand … We now reach the intersection of gaming and genealogy with Family Village, a Facebook game launching next week. It will allow you to build a virtual town and populate it with avatars of your ancestors. They’ll be able to build houses, work jobs and buy stuff, all keyed to their own timelines — as the Salt Lake City Tribune points out, your great-grandfather can buy a Model T. The meanie in me considers that all this may not be so much fun as it sounds — “Whee! Great-grandma doesn’t have the vote!” But it does sound like it could be terribly educational.

Video pointers: Have you seen some of the National Archives videos on genealogy research? Here’s a nice one on researching regular Army soldiers. I will totally admit that once upon a time, I wasted much brain space wondering where a couple of my ancestors’ military service records were because I did not understand the distinction between volunteer and regular Army stuff. Don’t let this happen to you.

Happy Pesach if it applies — first seder is tonight, yes? Meanwhile the Archaeologist is warming up her vocal cords for the multi-service choir marathon known as the Triduum. Oh yes, and hiding candy from young people. Enjoy your week!

A G.A.R. Remembrance

The Springfield, Ill. State Journal-Register ran a nice recollection of  Dr. Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, the founder of the G.A.R. He was honored last week at a gravesite ceremony in Petersburg, Ill., 146 years after he created the flagship support organization for Union Army veterans.

The Grand Army of the Republic, to use its full name, was a real landmark — the first and largest U.S. veterans’ organization, instrumental in creating an awareness of the challenges faced by returning Civil War veterans and by survivors of the fallen. The institution of the service-based Civil War pension benefit owes quite a bit to the concerns of citizens like Stephenson, a major and regimental surgeon. (So thanks for all those pension files, Dr. Stephenson!)

At its peak, the G.A.R.’s membership was nearly half a million, with 7,000 posts throughout the country. (The last member died in 1956.) With numbers like that, it’s not surprising that the G.A.R. acronym required no explanation back in the day, any more than “V.F.W.” would now. Memories fade, of course. As a reporting intern, I covered the ceremonial opening of a time capsule from the 1880s, found in a building in in New Brunswick, N.J. Among the papers inside was memorabilia from the now-mysterious G.A.R.; a local historian had to explain what it was.

G.A.R. post records can be quite illuminating for researchers with Union Army veterans in their tree. This is good to keep in mind if you ever find the “G.A.R.” insignia on an ancestor’s tombstone.

As far as I know these records aren’t collected in any centralized way, but if you know where your ancestor lived, it’s worth checking into G.A.R. post history with local research societies, or with regional chapters of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

Links, 4.13.11

Call it spring fever, call it tax season, call it anything you like — perhaps Late Links? Sorry about that. How about these:

Bohemian rhapsody: Via the Prague Post, an interview with Julius Müller, founder of Toledot, a nonprofit Jewish family history center based in Prague. A major focus is digitization: Toledot is working on getting dozens of important genealogical source volumes online for those interested in Czech-Jewish ancestry.

Missing numbers: In Mobile, Ala., the regular “Yesterday’s News” feature has a noticeable dearth of yesterdays from 1860-61. The problem: a gap in the otherwise extensive microfilm collection at the public library. A librarian notes there are occasional dark mutterings about “underhanded manipulation,” given the crucial timepoint, but says the newspapers just aren’t extant, despite extensive efforts to find something. “It isn’t the only [gap], though it’s the biggest one.”

Real people: At RealScreen, Kelly Anderson describes how National Geographic Channel used a genealogy-based approach to craft a “people’s history” in its three-part series on the American Civil War.

A thousand times no: At the BBC blog Anglophenia, we hear Ricky Gervais explain why he will never appear on Who Do You Think You Are? So for the two of you who were writing the BBC wanting to know when the Gervais episode airs, just stop.

And on we go. Enjoy the rest of the week.

Ancestral Disaster Planning

What a haunting and fascinating story — a look at centuries-old stone markers in Japanese coastal towns, documenting and warning about the devastation of tsunamis.

“Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point,” warns a stone tablet in the hamlet of Aneyoshi. As the Associated Press reports, many villagers heeded this advice. One man said his family moved their inn to higher ground a century ago — Aneyoshi was pummeled by a huge wave in 1896.

Some of the markers, like the one at Aneyoshi, were meant to function as yardsticks. Others simply memorialized past disasters and warned of the need to be vigilant.

Longtime coastal residents, as well as scholars who have studied the old tablets, note that the last serious tsunami to hit Japan was in 1960, and even that was relatively weak, generated by an earthquake off the coast of Chile. Those who experienced Japan’s most powerful tsunamis previous to this died years ago. And, as scholars have noted, in many places the old warning markers went unheeded.

“It takes about three generations to forget,” one expert said.

Read the whole thing.

Endangered Species?

Are genealogy software programs “going the way of the dodo”?

This comes by way of a recent item in the San Francisco Chronicle’s technology q&a column. The question concerned which genealogy software to use. The answer failed to make an important distinction: Research aid or research repository? is a classic research aid. You can mine acres of information there: census results, Social Security numbers, city-directory entries, military enlistment records, and on and on.

Once you have your data, you need to put it somewhere — in a notebook, or, of course, on a computer. Genealogy programs are classic repositories. On the most basic level, they give you a family tree to fill in. You could also store family photographs, fill in reference notes and make detailed biographical notes about your ancestors, to name a few examples.

Can you do this stuff on, too?

Yep. provides an interface to record and share the results you get from their databases, as well as from other, non-Ancestry sources. On the upside, it’s quite elegant to have everything in one place. When you find a nugget of information on Ancestry’s databases, it’s a snap to save it to your online family tree. And if your laptop goes sour on you, your research is safely stored online.

Should you do this at Ancestry? Um, maybe. There are certain downsides, as others besides myself have pointed out.

1. Your research will be pasted into other people’s trees without attribution. It just will. Not everyone does this! Just lots of everyone. You have to decide how you feel about it. Some believe passionately that genealogy research is useless if not shared, and are willing to trade exclusivity for a chance to connect with distant cousins who might see a public, online tree. Others feel less charitable when those cheery, wiggly Ancestry-leaf “hints” show up on their trees and link back to their own (uncredited) research.

2. Worse: Your research MISTAKES  will be picked up and perpetuated. That’s why I took my public tree private — I realized some stuff I had parked there to “hold” while I evaluated it was being passed along uncritically. Now a couple of key “facts” that are actually “wrong”  keep recirculating like Sunday pot-roast leftovers that refuse to be eaten. Yes, I was naive. I don’t treat online trees like primary sources, so I didn’t realize anyone would think of my tree that way.  Well, duhhh, as my 9-year-old says.

3. What if you can’t afford your Ancestry subscription any more? The good news: Your tree doesn’t disappear on you. You can still view and edit it as a guest. You can also export it or invite others to view it, as well as add or delete photos, stories, audio or videos. However, without an subscription, you can’t view the subscription-only database records attached to it, so your online tree’s functionality is somewhat diminished.

4. Ancestry. Is. Not. Cheap. Honestly, the cost is so often mentioned in passing, as if a couple hundred bucks a year is a minor inconvenience. Some might forgo this in favor of a one-time investment for genealogy notation software, and access Ancestry at the library.

At the moment, the core of my family history research is contained in my Reunion 9.0 program on my Mac laptop. This is not my be-all and end-all solution. I dislike the vulnerability. I’ve lost a hard drive unexpectedly. I didn’t lose years of research because I back up, but the charms of an online compilation are obvious.

But the charms of an compilation are not necessarily as obvious. The whole question is rather more thorny and nuanced than declaring genealogy software dead and calling it a day.