Oh The Changes I Have Seen in Genealogy!

When writing my blog post on The Importance of Genealogy Societies in an Age of Digital Technology it got me thinking about how much genealogy has changed since I started researching my family history.

I have been doing family history research since the mid-1970s. A school project got me started when I was 11 years old. To find out about my Mum’s family letters had to be written to family members in Ireland and England to get information. This required writing the letter on the blue flimsy airmail paper, posting it and then waiting for a response. Everyday you excitedly waited for the mail to be delivered. My Dad’s parents lived near us so a visit to Granny and Grandpa helped me to find out about his side of the family. This is one of the family trees I got from a Grand Aunt.

 

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Every time I visited family in Ireland I asked more questions and gathered information. In the 1980s I started doing actual research. One of the first books in my genealogical library was “Handbook for Genealogical Correspondence” prepared by the Cache Genealogical Library. It was an American book first published in 1974 and I got the third edition from 1980. Writing letters was one of the main ways to do research from a distance.

 

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This book included the “essentials of a genealogical letter” writing to relatives, libraries, archives and other repositories. They gave you tips to write to “church record keepers” and “public officials.” There was a section under “public officials” about writing a letter to get information about a census record. These days we just go on the internet and search a census in a matter of minutes, if you are lucky.

There was a section on why letters were returned and the responsibly of the Post Master.  They looked at International Reply Coupons. Who out there remembers these? IRC’s for short, they were purchased from your local post office and were included in a letter to provide return postage when writing to another country. It was always protocol to include a self-addressed stamped envelope when sending a written query.

In the mid-1990s I was on the internet researching my family history with my dial up connection. Remember that long loud screech? There weren’t many databases online but you had message boards where you could post information about family branches you were researching. People from around the globe were coming together to share information. You also had email which was faster and less expensive than the postal service especially for overseas correspondence. Sharing information still required the postal service. When I do a google search on some family names those online queries I posted more than a decade ago pop up in the results.

The internet opened things up. I used to subscribe to the Genealogical Research Directory. Anyone out there remember the GRD? This was edited by a couple of gentlemen from Australia. You would pay your yearly subscription fee and that would include a certain number of entries in the book. Then you would wait for the large book to arrive in the mail. Near the end of the run they used CDs. When the book arrived you would go through it and see if you could find anyone searching for the same families you were researching. Then a letter, and eventually an email, was sent off and you waited. I found several distant cousins this way. It was something I looked forward too each year. A local library had older versions of the book and I started off searching those for information before I subscribed myself. These books were about three inches thick and took up a lot of room on the shelf.

There was a point in the 1990s and early 2000s where people were buying CDs with genealogical information on them. You used to go to the Family History Centre or local library to view census records on CDs. How many computers come with a CD player now?

Family history societies were important because their journals would have articles that could help with our research, provide information on a previously unknown local resource and the societies also provide research help for those who were not able to go to the local repositories. Their importance hasn’t changed in the days of the internet. In fact I would say they have become even more important when you are searching a particular area. No one knows the local records better than the family history society, except perhaps the local history librarian.

 

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Then Ancestry arrived on the scene. This opened up a whole new world to people researching their family history. It was the first time that you could access information quickly and at home, or the local library depending on where you had access to the database.

Now there are other large companies putting a great number of genealogical databases online. They are not the only ones because some of the larger family history/genealogical societies have put specific databases online for their members. The National archives and libraries of several countries have put digital images of their records online. Some are free to access and some are behind a pay wall. This is not an inexpensive process. It costs millions to provide records in digital format. These records are preserved as long as the format they have been digitized in keeps up with the changes.

I have been though all the changes in family history in the last forty years. Some have been good and some not so good, but then that’s life. The influx of genealogical records online has made more people interested in their family history. There are still a large cross-section of countries that don’t have a lot of information online and old fashioned research is still required. Those countries that do have a lot of information online you will find that it’s still not everything and you will have to go and do research in an archive, library or other repository.

The online databases are a great tool and they help you to move forward at a quicker pace than forty years ago. Everyone will get to a point where they will have to get down and dirty looking at old records. I say dirty because you will get dirty looking at old records. They have the ages of time on them and it rubs off on you.

I like the ease of doing research online but I truly enjoy getting down and dirty in local repositories and doing the research in the actual records. There is something very satisfying about touching an original document that records an ancestor’s baptism in 1769. All hail the dirt of the ages!

 

© 2016 Blair Archival Research – All Rights Reserved

The Importance of Genealogy Societies in an Age of Digital Technology

Amy Johnson Crow interviewed D. Joshua Taylor at the RootsTech conference. She posed the question “In today’s world of social media, where everyone is sharing seemingly everything, do we still need genealogy societies.”

This got me thinking. Genealogy societies have always been a partner to my research. They had resources that could help me with my research. You could say that genealogy societies were the databases before the internet. The members would visit local libraries, archives, county offices, court houses, cemeteries and churches in their area and transcribe information that was a boon to researchers.

In my genealogy library I still have books and pamphlets from these societies that I have used to research my family history. As technology advanced some of these resources found their way onto CDs. Now you can find many of them in member sections on society websites. Thankfully they are still publishing books with information from smaller resources. The smaller record groups are not usually found on the larger company websites.

 

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They publish books on the history of their areas as well as local businesses and trades. This can help you learn more about the community where your ancestors lived.

Genealogy societies are important because their journals have articles that could help with our research such as providing information on a previously unknown local resource. Some of these journals are now available electronically. The best place to find past years of genealogy society journals is PERSI (Periodical Source Index) which you can now find on Findmypast.

Genealogy societies provide educational opportunities. They have monthly meetings, seminars, workshops and conferences. All these provide the attendees with an opportunity to learn more and to improve their research skills.

One thing I wish more genealogy societies would do is to either live stream or video their meeting lectures. They could put them behind membership walls and this would allow members who don’t live near enough to attend the meeting to watch the lecture. I often feel like I am paying a lot of money for membership fees to societies and not being able to avail myself of all they have to offer because I live abroad. These days everyone has the ability to take video with their cameras. You can use YouTube or embed them on your website. As we saw at RootsTech the app Periscope was used to live stream expo hall demos.

The majority of people who run genealogy societies are dedicated volunteers who have been with the society for many years. We are missing the younger people who may not see the importance of the genealogy society. There is a theory that we can find everything online. We can’t.

 

Jane Watt representing Halton Peel Branch Ontario Genealogical Society Conference 2013

Jane Watt representing Halton Peel Branch Ontario Genealogical Society Conference 2013

 

As Josh Taylor said in Amy Johnson Crow’s interview the genealogy society is a community to share information and stories. It is a place to learn new ways of research and keep up to date on all the changes.

Every genealogy society should have a social media presence. This will hopefully help bring in some of the younger people. Some of the societies that do have a social media presence aren’t using it to their advantage. There is a lack of knowledge about what genealogy societies have to offer. The first step is to promote their printed publications containing the transcriptions from local records and make these publications easier to access. It would save printing and postage if they were turned into eBooks.

Genealogy society memberships have always been part of my genealogy budget. I belong to the Glasgow & West of Scotland Family History Society, The Manchester & Lancashire Family History Society, The Genealogical Society of Ireland, The National Genealogical Society and The Ontario Genealogical Society which includes the Halton Peel Branch, the Irish Special Interest Group, and the Scottish Special Interest Group. These societies represent the areas in which my ancestors lived, where I live now, as well as my current interests.

Remember, if you are researching your family history no one knows the records of their town better than the local genealogy society, except maybe the local history librarian. Both places are brick and mortar and they house documents in paper, film and other formats. Both the genealogy society and the local history librarian are important assets to your family history research.

 

© 2016 Blair Archival Research – All Rights Reserved

Ancestors found in the Criminal Justice System – Survey Participants Wanted

Today I received this press release from Aoife O Connor. Have you found criminal ancestors or ancestors involved on the other side of the criminal justice system in your family tree? If you have you may want to participate in this survey.

A Criminal Ancestor

Are you descended from convict ancestors transported far from home or did great, great, great uncle John end up in court for squabbling with the neighbours?  If your ancestor was a hardened criminal, a victim of a miscarriage of justice, a political prisoner, or in court for not paying their dog licence a new study is looking to hear from you.

Criminals in the family have always fascinated family historians and it seems more of us are discovering more of them all of the time.  The digitisation of the records of the criminal justice system and newspapers are bringing to light a side of our ancestors that may have previously been kept secret.

The crimes themselves range from the minor, even amusing, to the serious, and tragic.  From a few cows wandering unsupervised along a country lane resulting in an appearance at the petty sessions court and a 2 shilling fine, to a young girl stealing some lace and being transported for 7 years to Australia, a sentence which really meant a lifetime exiled from her native land.  A young boy imprisoned for vagrancy.  A rebel.  A highwayman.  A murderer.

The documents which record their crimes often have amazingly rich details not found in birth, marriage, or even census records.  From prison registers we can get physical descriptions of someone who lived long before the invention of photography, we can learn their height, weight, eye and hair colour, and any distinguishing scars or features such as tattoos.   From newspaper accounts of trials we hear their voices as they give evidence.

But how do we feel when we come across an ancestor who broke the law?  And how do they shape how we view our family’s history?  Is a criminal ancestor someone to be ashamed of, to celebrate, or part of a larger story?  What do their crimes, and the punishments they received tell us about them as people, and about the time and society they lived in?  You can help provide the answers.

As part of the Digital Panopticon project, Aoife O Connor of the University of Sheffield wants to hear from family historians across the globe who have discovered ancestors who were connected to a crime.  She is conducting short anonymous online surveys.

Aoife is based in Dublin, Ireland and is studying for her PhD part-time.  Her own family history includes, among others, one ancestor aged 18 imprisoned in 1821 for thirteen days on suspicion of stealing a frame saw (the same ancestor was fined for excise duty evasion to the tune of £12 10 shillings in 1838), and another who was fined two shillings at the Petty Sessions Court on the 24 December 1855 for driving a horse and cart with no reins.

March Speaking Engagements

 

The big party in March is St. Patrick’s Day and so I will be presenting three Irish lectures this month.

The first two will be at the Oakville Public Library. On March 3rd I will be presenting “Taking Your Irish Ancestors Back Over the Pond” and on March 10th it is “Researching Your Irish Family History from Canada.”

On March 19th I will be presenting “Researching Your Irish Family History from this Side of the Pond” at the Kingston Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society.

If you are interested in attending any of these talks please contact the host group.

© 2016 Blair Archival Research – All Rights Reserved