In this episode Mike Ashenfelder shares how you can apply these professional best practices to your precious files and get them in great shape.
Changing Digital Formats and Technology
Remember cassette tapes, 8-track tapes, long-playing vinyl albums, 78s, or how about even cylinders? The changing formats of audio over the years is a prime example of how technology keeps changing. And that change forces us as family historians to change too.
Large cultural institutions are faced with the challenge of continually changing digital formats and technology as well. According to Mike Ashenfelder, “it’ll continue to evolve…technology evolves.
Your digital camera takes JPEG photos for instance. My iPhone’s camera, it takes something called .HEIC. I’ve never heard of that up until we got this new camera. But it’s another contender, and there will no doubt be another one further down the road.
The point of my book is that you should save all files in the highest quality, so that you can pass them along to future generations. And yeah, there will always be new software, there will always be new files to save something might be better than .GEDCOM files (for genealogy). You never know. But basically, it comes down to saving, organizing and preserving things as best you can.”
Because file formats will continue to evolve, like archivists at large institutions such as the Library of Congress, it’s critical that family historians keep their eye on the latest standards and take steps to keep up before their current media is obsolete.
Digital Preservation at the Library of Congress
According to Ashenfelder, the Library of Congress received a large government grant in 2000 to study digital preservation and how other institutions were handling it. They pulled in other institutions and shared information. In the end, they discovered that generally speaking cultural institutions “all have the same basic practices.”
At the LOC, Ashenfelder wrote about digital preservation and interviewed a lot of subject matter experts. While there were many similarities, some details varied from institution to institution or project by project. But essentially, it always comes back to following standardized practices that ensured that files could be found. And that’s what we want as genealogists. We work hard to find genealogical records the first time, and no one wants to struggle to find them a second time on their own computer.
As we’ve discussed in previous videos and articles here at Genealogy Gems, well organized, easy to find files are more likely to be retained when passed onto future generations. If our files look disorganized and unnavigable, they run a greater risk of being tossed or lost.
Ashenfelder explains that institutions like the Library of Congress put naming conventions in place and stick to them. If you’d like to learn more about naming conventions and hard drive organization for your digital genealogical files, watch episodes 7 & 8 of Elevenses with Lisa, and my video class Hard Drive Organization.
Preserve Photos Like the LOC
I’ve used Backblaze for many years to ensure that all of my computer data is backup on the cloud offsite. Mike said that an executive at Apple recommended it to him as well. Get a free trial of Backblaze (thank you for using our affiliate link if you decide to try it out.)
Three ways to watch: 1. Video Player (Live) – Watch live at the appointed time in the video player on the show notes page. 2. On YouTube (Live) – Click the Watch on YouTube button to watch live at the appointed time at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Log into YouTube with your free Google account to participate in the live chat. 3. Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere and chat.
There’s a very important story behind each one of your genealogy records. In this video and article we discuss why it’s critically important to understand the provenance of each record. We also talk about specific things to look for as you analyze their meaning. Great genealogy research requires a great understanding of the story behind your genealogy records! Keep reading for the show notes that accompany this video.
The story behind your records includes many important areas to be considered:
Provenance / History
The reason for the record
Information source (primary vs. secondary)
Motivating factors of the informants
Let’s take a look at each of these.
In the art world, knowing the provenance of a piece is crucial to understanding its value.
Provenance looks at an object’s origins, history, and ownership. Investigating and analyzing the provenance of a piece can shed light on:
whether the piece is authentic,
whether it truly was created by the attributed artist in the stated timeframe,
What the value of the item might be.
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 37
The principle of provenance is true for genealogical sources, too.
The Story Behind the Records
Provenance is important because it helps us determine how much weight to give the information provided by the genealogical record.
We need to ask When and where was the record created? We are looking for:
Records created closest to the time of an event
Documents created in places associated with your relatives
Documents created by people who knew them or were authorities
Review the Record’s Source Information
It’s important to take the time to review the available source citation information for each record we use. Fortunately, many genealogy websites that provide access to the records of our ancestors also provide critical background information about that record. This can help us find the answers to our questions and help us evaluate how much credence to give the information.
Scroll down and click through to get the rest of the record’s story.
Sometimes it just takes a little digging to uncover the backstory on a record. For example, the census enumerators received detailed written instructions before being sent out into our ancestors’ neighborhoods to collect data. You can review digitized copies (or transcriptions) of those instructions at the United States Census Bureau website for all years of the decennial census except 1800 through 1840.
1860 Census Enumerator Instructions
Whether you’re researching at home or in an archive, look for or ask for the finding aid or reference guide for the collection you are using.
A finding aid may include the following sections:
how the materials were used
contents / physical characteristics
restrictions on use
scope and contents note, summary and evaluation
box or file list
Learn more about Finding Aids in Elevenses with Lisa episode 31 featuring the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center. It includes a discussion of finding aids.
Whenever possible, consider a source as a whole. It’s tempting to want to zero in on the paragraphs or photos that interest you most, but you may miss out on important information that changes what this source has to tell you. For example, the specific placement of a photo in an album can be as significant as the printed photographic image. A photo’s position can indicate the relationship of the people in the photo to others on the same page, or the timeline of events.
Does the record appear complete?
Take note if any part of the source appears to be missing or illegible, especially if it appears that some of it has been deliberately removed, erased, or crossed out.
You may be able to make more sense of the partial information—or take a guess at why it was removed—as you learn more about the family. There may be a perfectly innocent reason for the change. But you may also be seeing evidence that someone who wanted to erase unpleasant memories or conceal a scandal.
Where has the item been over the years?
Where the source has been kept over time and who possessed it is an important part of provenance. Try as best you can to reconstruct and document the chain of custody of the item.
Resource: Heirloom Tracking Template My Heirloom tracking page helps you document the complete story behind your precious family heirlooms. Premium Members can download the template from Elevenses with Lisaepisode 6.
Is the record the original?
Whenever possible, consult the original version of a genealogical record. Indexes, typed-up copies, or abstracts may not be as complete or accurate. Remember, handwritten or typed copies of older originals may have been made in the days before photocopying technology.
The Story Behind the Document: Motivating Factors
Another important question to ask about a record is Why was the record created? Understanding the motivation of the person, organization or governmental agency creating the document can help you anticipate their possible bias. It can also provide clues regarding information that you would expect or hope to find, but don’t. While the information may seem important, it may not have fallen within the scope of the original intent. Therefore, you may need to look for additional records that can help fill in the gaps.
Tax lists provide an excellent example of why we need to understand the motives and scope of the records we use. When reviewing a tax list, we need to determine if the government was taxing real or personal property and if it was including every head of household or just adult males.
Why was the information provided?
The original purpose of a source is highly relevant to how much faith you put in its contents. Here are a few examples of why the information provided might not be totally accurate:
A woman might have altered her testimony in divorce proceedings in an effort to minimize damage to her own reputation and future.
Newspaper articles may be filled with a variety of biases by the author, publisher, or those being interviewed.
A man may have lied about his age or citizenship on a draft card, either to avoid military service or in order to be included despite being underage.
Comparing the record with similar records can help reveal where the truth lies.
Who was the informant?
The information on a record is the person who supplied the information. Sometimes this is the same person who created the record, such as the writer of a diary. In the case of a U.S. census, the informant is the person in a household who told the census enumerator about the people who lived there. In many cases, it’s impossible to know who the informant was. Thankfully in 1940, census enumerators were instructed to mark the informant with a circled “X,” as shown in these two households. This is just another example of the value of doing
Reliability of Informants
A source may have multiple informants. Each may have had unique knowledge of the situation. For example, on a death certificate a relative may provide the personal information while a physician provides the death-related information.
If the informant shares the deceased’s last name they:
likely are a relative
likely had first-hand knowledge of the deceased’s marital status, spouse’s name, and occupation.
(if father or brother) likely have provided primary information relating to the deceased’s birth, and parents’ names.
Even when a relative is close, we need to stop and think about whether they knew the information because they experienced it first-hand or were told about it. For example, if the informant was the deceased’s father, the information about the deceased’s mother (his wife) such as birthplace would actually be secondary since he presumably wasn’t present when she was born! And that leads us to understanding the difference between primary and secondary sources and information.
Primary & Secondary Information
Historical evidence can either be considered primary or secondary information. Genealogical scholar Thomas W. Jones defines these terms in his book, Mastering Genealogical Proof:
“Primary information is that reported by an eyewitness. Primary information often was recorded soon after the event, but it may be reported or recorded years or decades later.
Secondary information is reported by someone who obtained it from someone else. It is hearsay.”
Interestingly, the same document can include both primary and secondary information. It helps to think in terms of primary and secondary information instead of striving to designate the source document as primary and secondary.
How do all these clues add up?
It’s clear that as genealogists our goal is not only to evaluate each family history source, but also each piece of information it provides. Asking the right questions helps us ultimately answer the all-important question: how much do you trust what this record is telling you?
Answers to Live Chat Questions
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
From Debra L.: Is the book (A Cup of Christmas Tea) good to give to 12 year old tea lover? From Lisa: It has a wonderful message for any age of caring for others in the family, especially older relatives. (It’s not really about the tea 😊)
From Mary P.: As custodian of my parents’ life memorabilia I need help with the 5ish address books. Can you suggest an attack plan to glean information, what to store/record\research online etc. ? I’m overwhelmed. From Lisa: It’s really a matter of how much time you have. I would lean toward transcribing them into Excel spreadsheets that can then be searched and sorted, including a column to indicate the relationship (friend, co-worker, relative, etc.) Store the books in an archival-safe box like this one.
From Mary P.: I’m back, can you help with this project? My grandfather built two houses in Garwood, NJ about 1920. I’d like to find information on their construction and owners/renters over time. From Lisa: Elevenses with Lisa episode 20 & episode 28 have everything you need!
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The new MyHeritage Collection Catalog is making the site even easier to use. Read our 3 favorite uses for the new MyHeritage Collection Catalog, and a description of how MyHeritage counts its records.
The new MyHeritage Collection Catalog has just been released, and is dedicated to searching records collections on the site. It’s a public catalog, available whether you are a subscriber or not, so now you can easily see whether MyHeritage may have the historical records you need.
It’s a public catalog, available whether you are a subscriber or not!
“The new Collection Catalog provides a useful listing of the collections on SuperSearch and is a gateway to the vast historical treasure trove of 7.8 billion records currently offered by MyHeritage,” says a MyHeritage press release. “The catalog lists our 6,503 main collections and excludes tiny collections that have fewer than 500 records each.” (Those may be added to the catalog later on.)
Here are 3 top uses we see for the new MyHeritage Collection Catalog:
1. Look for specific record types for a particular place and time period. Use the left side menu to select record types, locations and time periods. Within many of those, you’ll be able to choose more specific subcategories. You can also do keyword searches if you’re generally looking for particular kinds of records (“newspaper” or “church”).
2. See what’s new on the site, or what collections have been recently updated. To see what’s been added or updated lately, roll over Sort by and select “Last updated.” You’ll also see a little tag on any collections that are new or have been recently updated. This helps you to know whether you’re seeing the most recent data available, particularly in collections they index from other websites, such as the FamilySearch Tree or Geni World Family Tree.
3. See how many records are in a collection. This may help you determine how comprehensive a particular database might be, and compare how many records for a particular place are on their site.
Speaking of record counts, MyHeritage also shared a description of how they count records. I’m really encouraged to see a major records site do this and I hope this trend continues! In our newest quick reference guide, Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites, we talk about how difficult it is to compare record content on different genealogy websites because there’s no uniform standard for counting them, and they don’t all define their counting methods alongside their site statistics. Here’s MyHeritage’s description of how they count records:
“In structured collections, such as census records, birth, and marriage records, each individual name is counted as one record. For example, a marriage document naming both the bride and groom is counted as two records. Nicknames or aliases are not counted as additional records. In family trees, each tree profile is counted as one record, even when it is available in more than one language. Each photo is counted as one record. In unstructured collections, such as newspapers or yearbooks, each page is counted as one record even though it may include hundreds of names. We count each page as a single record because we don’t want to inflate the record count by guessing.” (MyHeritage previously published this information in a 2014 blog post.)
Getting the Most from MyHeritage
Here at Genealogy Gems we strive to help you get the most out of the genealogy websites you choose to use in your research. In the case of MyHeritage, we’ve got two jam-packed quick reference guides like no others on the market:
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