Monday, June 30, 2014

Why I (and you) can jump into family history research now

It has seemed to me that in the past 15 years, every few years there is a big push to do work on family history, with lots of noise on the general conference level and on the ward level about how the game has changed and finding your ancestors is easier than ever.

In my last ward, there was a lady who was on a mission at the family history center in Mesa and she often bore testimony of the amazing advances in technology that the Lord was bringing to the work of family history research.  (I love you, Sister Nance!)  She was so excited so often that I just couldn’t ignore her.   Because of her, I would TRY to do things in my family history.   But I never seemed to get very far.

I’m going describe for you some of the very real obstacles I faced in getting more involved in family history.  (I’m pretty confident that you will recognize these same obstacles are ones you’ve faced.)  Then I’m going to describe how these obstacles are being overcome.

I remember when I first started looking at family history stuff on the computer, my dad gave me a copy of his Personal Ancestral File (PAF), that data file that had what seemed like oodles of names already in it.  (PAF is no longer in use.) 

Clicking around my PAF file, it seemed like so much had already been done.  Who was I to think that I could somehow add to that immense amount of data—names, dates, places, ordinances?   And where did all those names, dates, and places come from?  How did they figure that stuff out?  How could I know that information was accurate?  If I happened to come across conflicting information, how would I know what information was right and what was wrong?

(This problem was underlined to me when I went through the family history information my Grandpa had accumulated by the time of his passing.  He had several printed out copies of family trees and had circled and noted conflicting information.  I could just imagine that his lawyer mind was probably highly annoyed by those conflicts and he was probably trying to resolve them.)

When the International Genealogical Index came online, I was very interested in using it to search for ancestors.  But to test how effective it was, I first tried to find my dead grandparents in it.  (Start with who you know, right?) I got a resulting list of names, but nothing that helped me see how I could tell whether one particular record had the right person or not.  I said to myself, If I can’t find and recognize the people I know, then how can I be sure I can find and recognize the people I don’t know?   And I gave up.

Around the time Family Tree came online, I was in a ward in which the leadership recommended that we take some time to try to merge duplicated individuals in our family trees.  I took the counsel and put some work into that.  As I studied certain individuals in preparation for merging them, I noted some startling discrepancies in dates.  I wondered, “How can people think these are the same individuals when their dates are so different?”  It made me really wonder where they had gotten that information.  After a while it got so I couldn’t tell with any confidence what information was right and what was wrong, and without any way of telling, I gave up again.

About five years ago, I took a class from ASU on family history research in which the major assignment of the semester was to write a family history narrative for each person in my four generation pedigree chart.  I learned about the records that are used in family history research and I learned how important it was for sources to be cited.  

It was then that I realized why I had a troubles getting into family history research to do temple work.  The nature of the research requires that you accumulate evidence in the form of documents to back up your assertions, but there was no efficient way to share that evidence with other people who might be interested.  Also, it is the careful consideration of that evidence that helps a researcher figure out the next thing to look for, so without some way to look at the records, it would be hard to make progress.

So, here are the main problems:
--You need a way to determine if you’ve found the right person.
--You need a way to examine other people’s work on people in your tree.
--You need a way to centrally share documents used as evidence so that other people don’t have to duplicate searching efforts.

Another problem that bothered me about doing family history research was that I had this idea that I was only allowed to do temple work for direct ancestors and their siblings.  I looked at my family tree and how far back it went and I didn’t feel I had the research skills to make a contribution to the lines that end in the 1600s or 1500s.   My concern is often echoed by you and others in this form—“My family’s work has already been done.” 

Now, here’s the thing that is totally exciting—the church has figured out how to solve most of those problems.   The way they solved them is simple in concept, but the way they have implemented it is very sophisticated and extremely user-friendly.  They made a way for us to attach sources we find to people in our family tree.  (Look for the “Attach to my family tree” button.)  And not just the information on the sources is tied to the tree, but the digitized images of the sources, so you can look at an image of the actual document (like a census) and find out that great-grandpa Jones was a miner who lived in a rented cabin.

And when you attach sources, Family Tree does all the work for you.  It makes an entry, it creates a citation in the correct format (for all those genealogists who are sticklers for their citations), and it provides a link to the source so anyone can see it.

What this means is that we can finally begin to document our ancestors’ lives with sources and evidence and everyone will be able to see that and help build on it.  It means I was finally able to see evidence that shows one of my ancestresses sometimes went by “Anna” and sometimes by “Hannah,” and that made it so the discrepancy doesn’t bug me anymore.   I could tell Anna was the same as Hannah by all the people around her in the record.

Not only that, but Family Search also makes it very easy to attach records you’ve found to all the family members listed in the document.  I could attach that 1900 census not just to Hannah, but to all Hannah’s siblings and her parents, so I did that, for which their descendants will probably thank me some day when they decide to work on their family history.  If I found a sibling of Hannah that isn’t in Family Tree already, that was exciting because it meant I found someone who’s going to need temple work done!

Now, concerning this idea that “all the work has already been done.”  Contrary to my previous notions, we are allowed to work on collateral ancestral lines.  If our ancestors had siblings that married, we can find their spouses and do their work.  We can find their children and do their work.  We can find the parents of the spouses and do their work.  They are all family.  What this amounts to is finding cousins.  We will probably have to get permission first from their descendants, but we can do it.

Finding the sources and attaching them to your family tree is what is going to help you make progress finding people who need their work done.  It’s going to give you information that will help you break down the brick walls where you’ve been stuck.

Getting youth into family history

There is a reason the church is saying the youth should get involved in family history research, but it’s not necessarily because they are good with technology and grown-ups aren’t.  It’s because it is easy enough that the youth can do it because it doesn’t require nearly the time investment that it has in the past.  

The major advantage youth have in doing family history research is they don’t have any preconceived notions of how it used to be or any of the discouraging memories of how hard it was.   (Adults have often tried to do it in the past, sometimes multiple times, and have given up.)

The church is making the search process easier.  Each person in your family tree has their own profile page and in the right side there is a place called “Record Hints” that lists records automatically found by the software that have a very high probability of belonging to that person.  (This seems to have been added just recently.)  You just have to look at the records to make sure and then you can attach them to that person with one click. 

Another way the church is making the search process easier is by including a “Search Records” link on each ancestor’s page.  When I am on Hannah’s page, when I click “Search Records” in the right sidebar, it takes me to a search screen and the software has already populated Hannah’s info into the search fields so I don’t have to constantly retype it.  That makes it really fast.  I can add more search terms or change them easily.

Also, the search results show a lot more detail now than they did just five years ago and I can make a pretty good judgment just by looking at them that they are or aren’t what I’m looking for. 

After I have attached a bunch of records to Hannah’s profile page in Family Tree, I can see what I’ve got at the bottom of her page.  And if you run your mouse arrow over the right side of those source entries, you will find little up/down arrows that allow you to reorder the source list.  I like to put them in order that they occurred in Hannah’s life so I can tell more easily what records are missing.  After putting them all in order, I have 1900, 1920, 1930 censuses and then I know that there is still a 1910 census record to find.

One thing I have learned over the space of 15 years is you can only temporarily give up on family history research.  The tools are changing and they can change really fast.  If you get stuck, give it two years, just do indexing, and then try it again.  (Put it on your calendar.)  By the time you get back into it, the search tools will have evolved to make the process easier, more sources will be online, and you will be able to find things you couldn’t find before.  

I had a nagging desire to work on family history that bit me back in April and eventually I decided to just jump back in and LOOK at things in Family Tree just to see if there was anything I could do.  I hadn’t touched it for something like four years, and I had given up three separate times in 15 years.  But I was astounded at how much had changed and excited to see I could attach sources to my ancestors.  Since then, I have spent just about every Sunday afternoon searching for sources on the ancestors I know about, and in the process I found collateral lines that needed work done.   For the first time, I found someone.

Do you know how satisfying that was?  After all the times I had tried and stopped work on family history, I FOUND PEOPLE WHO NEEDED TEMPLE WORK DONE!!  (The audience goes wild, slings roses in all directions, and moshes enthusiastically with the orchestra while the world rejoices)

Other family history research tools: Puzzilla

One difficulty with Family Tree is that it is hard to navigate around.  I recommend using instead.  Puzzilla is an internet tool that directly interfaces with your Family Search account and creates a tree with dots on it that allow you to see as far back as 8 generations. 

How does this help?  It helps you find the holes in your chart really fast.  I can choose Hannah and see all her descendants, or I can choose the option see all her ancestors.  Then it gives me a nice little link that takes me right to that Hannah’s profile page in Family Search so I can start searching for records on her.

Other Tools: Ancestry, Findmypast, MyHeritage

A very exciting development is that the church is partnering with Ancestry, FindMyPast, and MyHeritage so that members will have free access to those databases.  They have a number of difference sources that FamilySearch doesn’t have.

 So now what?

Go look at your Family Tree account.  There’s a nice sweet spot that goes back to about 1860 that is pretty well documented where there are lots of records.  Look at your grandparents, great grandparents, and g-g-grandparents and find sources to document them and their family members.  You might be surprised at what you find.

More reading
A 100-page manual on how to use Family Tree  

“In Which We Bid Farewell to NewFamilySearch and WelcomeFamily Tree” at Keepapitchinin.  (Keep in mind that since this was posted, Family Tree has made attaching sources even faster than just using the Source Box.)


Ramona Gordy said...

I love Family History work, but it has been a challenge to very every thing. I found something really interesting on my dad's family. His last name had at least 5 spelling variations, and coming from a family of 5 brothers, each one picked a variation. However at some point in their history 2 of my dad's younger brothers had a falling out with their dad, and one brother changed his name completely and added Jr. So everyone thought he was adopted, or a step son, but we knew my grandmother had not remarried. He died with this name. The other younger brother took his mom's maiden name and still uses it. So it was a challenge to verify everyone, even my grandmother.
My husband was brought up in an Irish Catholic home, so he has 5 middle names. At first I thought they were random, but each of his 5 names is the name of a grandfather, a great grandfather and uncles. I found out that these are all traditional family names that run through at least four generations.
Before I "broke the code", my husband only knew Nana and PopPop. lol

Michaela Stephens said...

Ramona, good for you for working on breaking down those brick walls! I'm sure future generations will thank you for sorting that out.
I hope you and your husband put all that information with sources into family tree!