Monday, October 5, 2015

Sink or Swim, I'm Jumping In

When it comes to tech stuff, I'm pretty confident I can hold my own on many aspects. But don't expect me to be on the cutting edge with the early adopters. You won't, for instance, catch me sporting Google Glass while wandering the halls of the Family History Library. I need to sit back and assess the situation before I decide a new development is right for me.

Of course, by then, that development is no longer new—but at least I may try it.

I wasn't exactly the first—though certainly not the last—to try DNA testing. I found my way around the tutorials, editorials and other commentary online about how to apply DNA testing results to the world of genealogy. I spent considerable time and money on getting myself educated, heading to conferences and seminars to mount that learning curve. Yet, there was one aspect of the DNA testing world that had me hesitating.

"You need to try this," my mystery cousin urged, likely right after he and I first connected, thanks to DNA testing, back in November, last year. Our autosomal tests hadn't turned up the level of relationship we had sought—in fact, wherever we connect, it is farther removed than sixth cousin—but we still wanted to figure out our mutual ancestor. He wanted me to upload my test results from Family Tree DNA to a free utility known as GEDmatch. A computer geek himself, he even offered to do the upload for me. Stubborn two-year-old-at-heart that I am, I insisted, "I'd rather do it myself."

And never did.

Of course, I had questions. I always research things to death—which is a subtle way of saying I got stuck in analysis paralysis. Guess what that meant.

Fast forward nearly a year. Now, I know it requires a special kind of patience to wade through nine hundred possible matches and figure out the precise nexus tying two mtDNA results together—so why on earth ask for more data in which to get bogged down?

As has been pointed out so many times, each of the three major DNA testing companies are like a pond in which you can go fishing for cousins. If you fish in one pond, you only catch one set of fish. If you fish in all three ponds, you have the possibility of catching that many more fish. GEDmatch is like trying to fish in all three ponds—without having to pay the price to play in all three places.

When I was a kid, one of the delightful parts of my childhood was the annual visit to my aunt and uncle, who lived on a lake in New Jersey. When all the cousins were there together, it was like one continual beach party. There was only one catch: you had to know how to swim. Although I did have swimming lessons, our family was also firmly in the camp of those who believed in learning by jumping in. There's that survival mechanism that kicks in and tells you, if you want to make it, you'll figure out how to swim.

Maybe I've been running away from that natural mechanism for too long, this year. And there's no reason to have done that to myself. There are all sorts of online encouragements for jumping in—which is good, because the GEDmatch site offers up a bland FAQs page. Bloggers from all over have posted about GEDmatch—with overviews, experiences, tutorials, explanations of features and all-round praises. What more could someone hesitating on the water's edge want?!

While I've been stalling at the shoreline, my mystery cousin was diving in to the DNA testing world. Once an adoptee who only wished he knew something about his birth parents, he has now determined who his father and mother were, and has had the opportunity to actually meet his birth mother. He has been so immersed in the process, appreciative for all the help sent his way by "search angels" that he has delved into the realm wholeheartedly, to help others with what he learned, himself. Now a blogger in his own right, he produces a daily post called, appropriately, Search Angels.

Yet, as much time as I've spent on pushing out the periphery of my maternal family tree—and exploring his matrilineal line's family history—I still haven't found that nexus. In the meantime, I've finally been warming up to the invitation to "Come on in, the water's just fine." Sink or swim, I'm going to try my hand at uploading my DNA data to GEDmatch and see what happens. If nothing else, at least I know how to tread water.

Above: "The Young Boat Builders," 1893 oil on canvas by British artist, William Hemsley; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

When It Rains, It Pours

It rained this week in drought-stricken California. While I can't exactly call that pouring, we welcomed the arrival of what we hope will be a very productive rainy season.

Funny how some parts of life parallel others. While I've taken a detour from my usual blogging mode of sharing family stories I've run across during my research, I've also been tap dancing behind the scenes. Good things are happening. Don't want to label that too many good things, but I've certainly been running to keep up.

After months of struggling with my DNA results for both my husband's and my own accounts, suddenly things are jelling. This, of course, gives me the impetus to keep plugging away at building out those family trees to help fuel the need to match others' surnames with generations they've yet to sketch in on their own tree.

The two trees, in particular, benefiting from this frenzy of activity in the last half month are the same ones as before: the maternal lines for both my family and that of my husband. Those, incidentally, are the two lines which include American colonial ancestors or pretty close to that era. You can get a lot of descendants from settlers arriving in a stable, records-driven country in that long a span of time.

For instance, right now, my maternal tree stands at 5,399 individuals—an increase of 132 from the middle of last month. My husband's maternal tree got an even bigger boost of 236 individuals, to bring his tree's total to 2,237 people—all, for the most part, still resident in Ohio, while mine are scattered all over the south.

While I've only contacted two potential DNA matches on behalf of my husband, and only one for my maternal line, it's been the people contacting me—or responding to my previous emails—that have kept me busy this time. That is a refreshing change, but it has certainly kept me on my toes.

What has become most obvious in these contacts is that some come from lines which I had absolutely no material on, at all. That provides the explanation for why I was stuck in trying to figure out the nexus between our lines. Some of those DNA puzzle pieces are indeed hidden, and it takes teamwork to figure it out. That's the value in actually following through and communicating with those matches we receive when we spring for that pricey DNA testing. There actually are other people out there as keenly interested in this new genealogical pursuit as we are. It's just that it takes sifting through a few other accounts which tested—maybe for reasons other than genealogy—and just don't intend to respond to inquiries about matching family trees.

I have yet to perform that calculation suggested by Blaine Bettinger in his blog, The Genetic Genealogist, back in August. All in good time. The good thing about rain showers is that there is a lull between storms.

Above: "Rainy Evening on Hennepin Avenue," 1902 oil on canvas by German-born Robert Koehler, who spent much of his career in the United States, eventually settling in Minneapolis and being instrumental in the founding of what is now the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Is It Family History Month
Where You Live?

It's October. Have you made plans to celebrate Family History Month?

While #familyhistorymonth doesn't exactly make the niftiest hashtag, the event that started off with U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch sponsoring a resolution Congress passed back in 2001 has been gaining a presence online and in social media. In addition to the federal designation, several states and even cities have made similar proclamations. Perhaps Family History Month is coming to a location near you, too.

Of course, the senator's website includes mention of the special designation, noting that "more than 80 million Americans [are] actively searching for more information about their ancestors."

None less than the United States Census Bureau joins in the commemoration. In their blog, named fittingly, Random Samplings, they mention a few tidbits about census trivia that would be of interest to one of their largest constituencies: us. (Well, yeah, we're their customers, but we're more the bargain basement and sales rack shoppers—you know, yesterday's shoppers.)

There are several states jumping on the celebration bandwagon, as well. The State Library of North Carolina mentioned the designation in the introduction to their "Beginning Your Search" page at their website. Blogger Heather Wilkinson Rojo catalogued an impressive list of October events occurring throughout New England. Closer to home, for me at least, the Sacramento Archives Crawl is the October go-to event, occurring today—alas, while I'm teaching a genealogy class—at the California State Archives, complete with instructions in their blog on how to get the most out of this fun and informative program.

It's not just the government sector getting into this act. You can be sure that lead entities in the genealogy world are enthusiastically promoting the month's designation, as well. published their best recommendations for the month's activities—both online and off. Family Tree Magazine urges patrons to "hold your own party" and offers their webinar, "Discover Your Roots" to watch on demand, free, for the month—including encouraging local genealogical societies to share it with their members, and libraries to show it to their patrons.

There are some entities which you'd expect to be part of this celebration. FamilySearch, for one—which notes in their blog that October is also a month set aside to celebrate heritage, and in recognition of that, provides their own list of suggestions for the month.

Of course, the one everyone turns to for all things genealogical—Cyndi Ingle of Cyndi's List—is right there providing her own list of links about Family History Month, including both local and international links. Apparently, the Clark County, Nevada, Genealogical Society has a jump on the rest of us, with their link proudly displayed at Cyndi's List.

Of all the websites I'd expect to host something this month, there was one event I was aware of for which I couldn't easily find any promotional material: Find A Grave. I'd heard the buzz, locally, about plans for a meetup, but never saw anything on their website. It does make sense that the announcement would come through Ancestry, though, and apparently the date set for the "Global Meetup" is Saturday, October 17.

As for the messages found on social media, it took a trip to Twitter to discover FindMyPast's participation in the Family History Month promotions, but there it is: a link to their own post on festivity recommendations.

They are not the only ones tooting their horn on social media. Ancestry is rolling out giveaways on their Facebook page, and sponsoring a contest on Pinterest.  

It seems our local genealogical society has been springing to life with many more possibilities for outreach and education lately, but somehow we didn't even get the idea to capitalize on this golden opportunity. Perhaps ours could have been one of those cities officially designating this October Family History Month, and partnering with other local groups to launch a series of events in commemoration.

What about you? Have you been to an activity or celebration as part of October's Family History Month? What do you think? Is there a way you could make this part of your local genealogical society's yearly offerings to your own community?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Connecting the Dots

Whenever I run across a research problem that has me stymied, I've learned to recall a vignette from years ago. Though it's been so long since it happened, it still speaks to me, loud and clear. It's actually taken on a symbolic role in my mind, one that helps me shake loose of restrictive quandaries and have faith that there is an answer.

Have you ever had anything like that—a brief experience that seems to speak volumes? It's experiences like that I've learned to treasure, because they seem to take on a life bigger than the moment in which they occurred. They transmit a metaphysical message that keeps on inspiring, across the board, across time.

In this case, it was an event from my childhood that provided that message that still speaks volumes. Actually, it came from a television program that aired in my part of the country from the mid-fifties to the late eighties: Wonderama. But don't let that silly—and humble—setting fool you; this vignette came with a pearl of wisdom for me.

At least, that's where I think this little vignette occurred. Funny about childhood—some memories become so fuzzy over time, while others remain crystal clear. The show it happened on has obviously become a fuzzy memory—including the on-air personality whose act this was—but what happened has become a treasured symbol for me.

I seem to remember this was the work of a television host known in the broadcasting world as Sonny Fox, although come to find out now, his real name was Irwin Fox. Although, like many others in show business, he was featured in a variety of venues, the one he is likely most known for is his programming for children. Thus the Wonderama assignment.

Among the many features of the program—games, contests, educational segments, and, of course, the ever-present cartoons—was the part that I remember most. Anyone from his television audience could send Fox a letter, asking him to draw a picture of a specific item. From that day's selected fan mail, the host was to comply with the enclosed request on the air, live. The catch was that the artist was required to use only the lines, dots, or other squiggles sent in by the young letter-writer, and that Sonny Fox could only use a set amount of lines to connect all those dots—I think it was five—in such a way as to compose the requested drawing.

The camera would zoom in on the letter's set of squiggles, and then on Sonny Fox as he replicated the set of disjointed items on his easel. He would read the letter aloud so everyone would know what was being required of him. Then, he would set to work.

Of course, there would be a prize for anyone able to stump the on-air artist. But it was a rare moment when Fox conceded.

What was amazing—still is, even after all these years—was to see that TV host come up with creative ways to meet the goal by the deadline. He definitely had a way of thinking outside the box.

Whether I'm remembering the right program or the right television personality is a moot point after such a long time. But remembering that he demonstrated how it is possible to connect seemingly disjointed blips of ink on a page and create them into a viable sketch of the required subject has made an imprint on me. It's reminded me that no matter how unlikely it might seem that those dots, squiggles and lines could fit together, there really is a way.

Over the years, I've had experiences where I've faced that same type of challenge. I'm sure you have, too. It's those times when you think, "There's no way this is all going to hold together—and work out!" But when you know how to connect those dots—and do it with an artistic flair—it seems the world's your oyster.  

Above: 1915 oil on canvas by Swedish artist Carl Wilhelmson, "Brunnsvägen, Fiskebäckskil," depicting a path to the coast in his native fishing village, Fiskebäckskil; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Well-Rounded Genealogist

No, this is not about genealogists who need to push back from their desk and take a walk. But it is about being well-rounded in a different way.

If you have been at this research pursuit for any amount of time, you realize that it is not solely genealogy that we do. We delve into a vast number of disciplines, all in the time it takes to trace our roots back through the generations. We simply can't help it. To understand our ancestors is to understand their history, their geographic location, their personal beliefs, their physical constraints, their economic status, and so many more circumstances that blend to become life-as-that-ancestor-knew-it.

Perhaps in the past few weeks, as I've been teaching another genealogy series, my mind has also been on education as it applies to the research we do. How do you explain all that to someone who has just started out, and thinks only that he or she wants to assemble that family tree? It is only after the task is started, when the person becomes engaged in the process that the realization begins sinking in. The goal of discovering one's family history becomes a multi-faceted spread of opportunities.

Since I was discussing education in yesterday's post, it brought to mind one aspect of curriculum design: the style of learning known as the unit studies approach. Basically, that is where you take one topic—for the sake of today's discussion, let's pick genealogy—and, much like mind-mapping, you put that label down in the middle of a blank sheet of paper.

Then, you think of every other topic that can be related to that main item, and add it to that sheet of paper, arranging labels in relation to that original word. I've already mentioned a few above: history, geography, religion, health, economics. We could go even farther and include language, customs, politics, social class, migration routes. Some topics would actually become sub-headings to other topics on that sketch of the unit study's subjects. Language and customs could be a subset of geography. Politics might cross-apply, as well.

From that list of inter-related subjects, drawn out mind-map style on the paper, you could extrapolate a plan of study to cover that expanding area you once conceived of only as genealogy. And that would likely represent what you, by default, have discovered without any such elaborate plan—you've just found yourself delving into that material as you went along, seeking to know more about your family's story.

After immersion in the pursuit of your family history, you likely have acquired a better understanding of, say, life in early 1800s Cleveland, Ohio. Or migratory patterns of the German Palatines. Or early French trappers along the Mississippi River. You know: the stuff you never dreamed you'd be diving into.

In the process, not only have you informed yourself of topics you never before dreamed you'd be studying—and in your spare time, to boot!—but you've built up a considerable body of knowledge from which to draw when you hit your next research dilemma.

And yet, just like that never-ending family tree, you keep on learning. Whether by attending local genealogical society meetings or regional conferences, or by watching webinars online, or spending the day in research libraries, you find the resources keep on coming, as well.

It is as if we heed a call, not to learn just who our ancestors were, but to learn about their lives—almost to become their companions on that stretch of the timeline they claimed as their life's span.

Above: "Church-goers in a Boat," 1909 oil on canvas by Swedish artist, Carl Wilhelmson; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Learning to Answer Your Own Questions

I am an education renegade. If you had known I am an advocate of homeschooling, you might have suspected that. It was probably in my DNA to hold the education system at arm's length, but I still blame my mother—a public school teacher who was horrified at what she saw as the leftovers of a malfunctioning ideology. I cut my teeth on her diatribes about classroom vignettes. Reading, decades later, The Underground History of American Education hardly surprised me.

I prefer, instead, to opt for independent discovery. Individual learning. An inquiring mind. When I discovered the word "autodidact," I fell in love with it.

So, what's the matter with me now? Here I am, teaching beginning genealogy classes, and the more questions my students toss at their devoted teacher, the more I love it. Why? Because I get to talk even more, answering those questions.

Instead, I need to remember my educational roots. When students ask me where to find the answers to their genealogical research questions, I need to remember to prompt them to use the tools I've already shown them to find the answers for themselves.

I can't believe I just now woke up to that solution. What aileth me?

Just as the Internet has brought us myriad opportunities to research our family history, it has also provided us the tools with which to delve deeper in our quest to find just one generation more. Remember Google? Why is it that we can use "Dr. Google," as my college-age daughter prefers to call it, when we are looking up the URL for our favorite store or restaurant, but it doesn't even come to mind when we are wondering whether we can access, say, old newspapers in Manitoba?

Likewise, when contemplating what life might have been like in our ancestors' hometown in Illinois—or Ireland—why not stop by Wikipedia? For a brief introduction to topics, Wikipedia is a good start. For a more specialized bird's-eye view of a genealogical topic, another "wiki" can come to our rescue: the wiki at

I am surprised at how many people know about another resource for self-directed genealogical learning—Cyndi's List—and yet, don't use it. "It's too big," I hear people whine. While that may be true—hey, that's the Big Box of one-stop genealogical resources—it still is a way to inform yourself about any topic. For my class members wondering how they can find resources about their great-grandparents' country of origin, taking a spin through the lists of lists at Cyndi's List is well worth the time. You just have to do it.

And remember those old forums? Yeah, they're so "nineties." But they are still pertinent. I'm not above posting my query on a message board at Ancestry or Rootsweb, or even searching through the old posts at GenForum, now that it's been brought back to life. That's how I knew, years ago, about the Manitoba newspaper resources blogger Gail Dever just stumbled upon a couple days ago.

On the flip side, what I find today might be something you found years ago, too. That's why another resource—as Gail discovered—is the world of Facebook pages devoted to genealogical research. Between specific interest groups and genealogical societies, social media—whether at Facebook or Google+ or through lists posted by participants at Twitter—is turning into a go-to place to ask your family history questions, as well.

There are so many more resources to help with your research questions that I couldn't possibly post them all here. But you get the idea. There are tools you can use. All you have to do is ask the question. As we all know by now, the answer is out there. Somewhere.

Above: "Bicycling," 1887 watercolor by Montreal native, Henry Sandham; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Younger Outlook

If you were to attend a local genealogical society's meeting, you would gather, from what you saw, that genealogy was squarely in the domain of the active-retired population.

Perhaps you would be right. However, signs from the thriving online world of genealogy blogging, as well as through establishment of organizations such as The NextGen Genealogy Network, may reveal a different scenario. Apparently, there are genealogists out there—active, intent on their research, fully engaged in the process and a long, long way from retirement age. Though they may not be found in your local genealogical society meeting, they are quite visible in social media outlets, and just as vocal on the blogging scene.

And yet, the question keeps getting asked: "How do we expand to include the youth?"

I guess I got struck with the opposite reaction when I read the article I referred to in yesterday's post. In my mind, it sorta morphed into "Ten Signs Your CEO Genealogy Society Has an Outdated View of Marketing Building Its Membership."

That question, "How do we expand to include the youth?" incorporated into someone else's blog post, ended up being almost seen as inflammatory by some. I can understand why, but it helps to read the responses posted online in other (young) genealogists' blogs, like Elyse Doerflinger's incredulous question, "Young People Aren't Interested in Genealogy?" She observed that while "each person does genealogy and family history research for a different reason" and that each person may have a different end goal for becoming involved in genealogy,
most people from my generation want to discover a family story and tell it—whether that be in a blog, in a book, in a video, whatever.  Because most people feel the best connection to their past when the names and dates become more meaningful with story.

Don't you find yourself agreeing with that statement? In my opinion, that doesn't sound much different than the reasons "older" people give for engaging in family history research. In other words, perhaps we are too focused on labeling a problem as one based on age—the "generation gap"—rather than seeing it in more pragmatic terms. Our reasons for doing research may be what bind us together, rather than differentiating us.

The way we approach coming together to share our common passion, however, may be what is at the crux of our differences. And yet, those varying modes could very well be the key to the synergy allowing us to make progress as genealogical organizations, working together toward a sustained future.

Though I find something vaguely grating about its tone, the blog article posted at the beginning of this month in Young & Savvy Genealogists re-imagines our genealogical societies, set in the future.

Stop yourself before you utter those words, "Well, maybe that's because you are old," and realize we really need to let go of that concept. We've learned in the world of work to engage in communication based not on labels ("young" or "old") but on explanation of observations about behavior. Putting things in terms of beneficial versus non-beneficial actions would be a more productive re-conceptualization of this dialog.

I find framing any dispute in terms of age to be wearying. Truth be told, I shy away from revealing my own age, simply because I hate to be labeled and put in a box. Age really is a mindset. I love the connections granted to us in this current decade by social media, and the immense satisfaction of instantaneous access to mounds of information at the click of a mouse or the tap of a finger on a touchscreen. I love thinking about the possibilities such technological wonders afford us and dream about how I can better apply these resources. My natural proclivity would be to hang with those much younger than my age cohorts, because that is exactly what they find interesting, too.

But in saying that, I generalize and stereotype. And really, it's possible that "not technology savvy" can be said for some "younger" people by some old-and-hip social media junkies. It really comes down to personal interest. Not the number of candles on your birthday cake.

While the succession-planning necessity facing each of our societies will not go away, it troubles me when a genealogist puts this "age" quandary in the terms of "if I don't like it, I'll take my toys and go home." And yet, that is exactly how this analysis comes off. Again, from Young & Savvy Genealogist:
Historical and genealogical societies of the future understand that reaching my generation is crucial to their survival. Embracing new technology means bringing us into their organization by default. The environment the society creates by the activities they engage in will determine if we will choose to stay.
Does technology remain the monopoly of the "young"? Can no one do technology without operating on their terms—and theirs, alone? I find a hard bargain driven by a demanding negotiator to be the very opposite of the grace needed for multiple parties to come to peaceful agreement. There is certainly a better way to arrive at rapprochement between these two camps.

Since we cannot choose our age any more than we can change our skin color, perhaps in seeking a solution, we can start by putting things in terms of behaviors that can be changed. Ironically, in the very article that I started off by mentioning, the author answered his own question by reflecting on the common denominator which attracts people—"young" or "old"—to genealogy (emphasis added is mine):
You cannot simply sell genealogy as a pastime or a fun activity competing with the entertainment industry; you have to communicate a sense of passion for the entire concept of learning about families. Rather than admonish people about their duty to preserve their ancestors, they need to have some idea that the activity will benefit them personally. Some of us will choose to do research and be involved in genealogical projects when there are many other equally as valuable choices, but we cannot expect others to see the value of doing research without providing an emotional connection between the activity and an increase of self awareness and self esteem.
While that may be the common denominator attracting people of all ages to genealogy, it is not necessarily the same thing as what will draw all people to participate in a genealogical society. Yet, that too will have its draw. The challenge is to determine what that draw might be. The pitfall would be to get drawn into doubtful disputations laced with labels. The task must be all about seeking to identify motivations and behaviors around which we can build collective action for mutually-held purposes.

In leading our genealogical organizations through the changes they must face to become relevant in changing times, we can't couch the dialog in terms of age. For our survival, we need to evaluate the situation we face in terms of actionable goals, and address it through all the tools currently available to us and the skills we can bring together as an eclectic team spanning a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. 

Above: "Moonlight," 1874 watercolor and gouache on paper by American landscape painter Winslow Homer; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain. 
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