Doing the Time Warp in Street View

Fresh from the Department of Neat Ideas comes something called Historypin, best described as Google street view with vintage photos thrown in. The Flowing Data blog explains that it is the brainchild of the organization We Are What We Do, built in conjunction with Google and intended as an Internet experience through which older and younger generations can connect.

The idea is you can look up an address and see both the current street view plus a vintage street view of the same area, assuming somebody has uploaded one. The site seems to be in the beta stage, and there aren’t terribly many photos yet. But the potential fun and potential educational value are obvious, especially as more people upload photos. (Thanks to Actuarial Opinions for forwarding the item!)


On free lunches (or the lack of them)

My Google alert for genealogy turned up some alarm this past week about the dangers of relying too heavily on the Internet for genealogy research.

I’d just add that the belief in a Big Rock Candy Mountain of genealogy wonders predates the arrival of Ancestry.com. A lot of people love the idea that somewhere, somehow, all the genealogy records they need will be in a single place. If they evolve beyond a casual interest in genealogy, they soon find out that:

1. People generate all sorts of records in all sorts of places, some of which don’t share their records with big repositories, whether out of inertia or sheer desire to be annoying.

2. If you go back far enough, people didn’t generate much in the way of records, period. In which case no “central repository” is going to give you everything you need, anyway.

3. The way home to Kansas, Dorothy, is with your own two feet. You just gotta belieeeeveee.

When I first started my genealogy quest, Internet databases were practically nonexistent. But the Big Rock Candy Mountain idea was still out there.

I’d often talk to a relative about setting up an interview, only to be told that I simply HAD to journey to Salt Lake City (or order up a couple of FHL microfilms) and I’d find everything I needed to know. It was funny how people never saw themselves as my most important genealogy source. No, there had to be a Big Universal Official Source somewhere.

So I wouldn’t say the Internet caused this situation, although it certainly has intensified things. The problem is the myth of a one-stop solution, and it’s worth a good rant.

Because getting past this idea of the Universal Genealogy Bat Cave is so important. It’s such a barrier to creative thinking and problem solving. And once it drops by the wayside, a lot of supposedly impregnable brick walls can come tumbling down.


And another newspaper thing …

Over on the Brooklyn genealogy email list, correspondent Julie Parks recently contributed an interesting search tip for the Fulton newspaper database, a great New York source. The tip: searching by your ancestor’s street address as well as name. As she notes, it’s true you can pull up a lot of information about people who are not your ancestors, particularly if they lived in apartment buildings. But one might get lucky, too. Some respondents to the initial post didn’t have much luck searching address alone, but others got results with a name/address combination.

I have only just started playing around with this option myself — it’s pulled up a couple of articles I had already found. But I’m looking forward to experimenting with it some more to see if some of my more elusive ancestors might pop up.


Raiders of the lost Internet

Martin Hollick at The Slovak Yankee made an important point the other day about what he calls the “hidden Web” — i.e., potentially useful online genealogy databases that won’t necessarily pop up in search engine results. To me, he’s also talking about putting the “re” back in front of “search.” Sit down in front of a computer anymore and it’s all about keywords.

Well, that’s the way we’re living now, but to me the problem with keywords is twofold. First, everybody’s figured out that you have to deploy them, which means it’s possible to waste a lot of time clicking into sites that are not much more than prettily arranged collections of buzzwords. Second, thinking up good keyword searches is only one part of analyzing a research task and coming up with a coherent search strategy. As Hollick notes, you need to know about specific sites that have good information. I have gotten my best tipoffs from genealogy email lists, where kind posters have given detailed feedback on good databases and searchable sites.

I also see a lost aspect from the days before search engines (and heck, before the Web). Please understand, I wouldn’t want to return to those days. Does anybody remember things like this:

That is what it looked like when a person hooked into something called Gopher, an information-sharing protocol from antiquity, also known as 1991. You can read about it on Wikipedia, to which I am indebted for this nostalgic image. I was never anywhere close to Gopher-geekdom — I was one of the carpetbaggers who played around with it when AOL introduced its Usenet (another historical link provided) and Gopher portals back in 1994-ish. My point isn’t that text-intense, root-around situations like this are so fantastic to use — I don’t care what the nostalgists say, they weren’t — but they did encourage a bit more thought about what you were trying to find and where you might most productively go looking for it.

It’s similar to the mourning for the classic card catalog — the lost opportunities for serendipitous discoveries, the ways flipping through cards jogs the thought process in ways that clicking on links doesn’t. I wouldn’t argue for backtracking on progress, that’s silly. But it’s good to remember there’s always more than one way to tackle a problem, before we get lost in a keyword-generating haze.


Ancestry Searching: Some 101-Style Tips

A while back I attended an Ancestry.com webinar on how to make the most of your searches. I know Ancestry’s search engine twists and turns are a hot-button topic. Last fall, for example, Randy Seaver did a succinct rundown of old vs. new interfaces, at least as things stood at that point. (All I can repeat is that in case you didn’t know, you can still use the “Old Search” button at the top right of the “Search All Records” page.)

But this post (like that webinar) isn’t for searchers expert enough to know just which part of the interface annoys them the most. It’s to pass along some basic procedural tips that struck me as useful for those just starting to explore Ancestry databases.  Many might think, “What, this is news?” Well, as we used to say on the copy desk, there are babies born every day who never heard of Elvis. So there.

Where to start: Do not start at the Ancestry home page. Go to the Search All Records form, and use the Advanced Search option. Checking the “exact” box is … debatable. For common given names and surnames it can help — did you know there are more than 800 variations of the name Catherine? For dates, “exact” is problematic, as we shall see.

Useful keys: To spare your fingers, know that: P = preview; J = next; K= previous; N= new form; R= current form.

Three things to do upon locating a record: (A) Read it. Really look at all the information. Scan for clues as to immigration year, time of marriage, total number of children. In census entries, look at the neighbors — some might be collateral kin. (B) Save it online to a shoebox or online tree, if you do online trees. (C) Save it offline however you prefer to do it, by saving it to your hard drive or making a printout, or whatever. I was snickering at this advice until I remembered all the records I’ve re-read and re-saved over the years.

Play with date ranges: The webinar instructors advised beginning with a plus/minus range of 10 years. For example, ancestors didn’t always care about just when they were born; there really was a time when one’s birthdate wasn’t a matter of vital importance. So start with a wide range, narrowing it as you go, depending upon the hits you get.

Use wildcards to play with spelling variations. You can replace as many characters as you want, as long as there is a minimum of three actual characters in the search term. I can pull in lots of  variations on Haigney by searching H*g*y. This can be a real help with a name that goes under multiple spellings.

Look at all types of records, even if you are certain your ancestor would never be in them. Don’t search assuming that he or she: was never in the army/never left their home county/never copyrighted anything anywhere. You may well be surprised. I have.

Bon voyage and good luck!


Genealogy pitfall: When good certificates go wrong

My great-uncle Leo's death certificate (1901).

As a genealogy enthusiast I forget not everyone hears the words “death certificate” with excitement. And truly, some death certificates are always hard to read, like this one for my grandfather’s brother Leo Haigney, who died a little ways past his third birthday, in 1901.

Leo died from tubercular meningitis; there wasn’t much hope in pre-antibiotic days. The doctor was called on February 15; Leo died a week later, on the morning of the 22nd. Convulsions were listed as the secondary cause of death. I can’t imagine what it must have been like as a parent to watch a death struggle like that. More accurately, I could if I really tried, but as a mother, I just don’t want to go there.

Instead,  I will imagine what it might have been like for my great-grandfather Joseph, Leo’s father, giving the information for the death certificate. This is not a task you’d do in a calm state of mind. My parents died twenty-five years apart, but the extreme fog on my brain was exactly the same each time, and it didn’t really lift until about a month after the funerals.

So, I’m not terribly surprised at what transpired on Leo’s certificate:

Father: Joseph Haigney, born U.S.

[Correct, given information from other sources.]

Mother: Mary Haigney, born Ireland.

[Incorrect, according to other sources. Leo’s mother was the former Catherine Connors, born in New York State.]

Why is “Mary Haigney” on Leo’s death certificate? Well, this information fits Joseph’s mother, whose name was Mary and who indeed was born in Ireland, according to census records. What seems likely  is that upon being asked the question, “Mother’s name?” a grieving father responded with his own mother’s name, not the name of the deceased child’s mother.

This little story shows why death certificates, though valuable, must be treated with a lot of caution.

Genealogical material can be divided into two important categories: original and derivative. Original material is based on firsthand knowledge of the people and events being described.  Derivative is everything else. Death certificates can fall into either category. For example, a deceased’s widow can’t automatically be expected to have firsthand knowledge of her inlaws’ birthplaces. But she might, if everyone grew up together in the same town.

So we find ourselves asking, who was the informant, and how likely were they to be right about the information they were asked to supply?

And we also have to factor in the state-of-mind problem. Does the information make sense given what we know from other sources? Even an informant we could expect to be right might get it wrong, as my great-grandfather did.

Here is a frank and informative discussion on how grief and disorientation can affect one’s ability to provide accurate information for death records. And here is another discussion about how to evaluate what’s on a death certificate.


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