Show Notes: Reconstructing with Ancestors’ Lives with Newspapers
In this video, Lisa Louise Cooke and Jenny Ashcraft from Newspapers.com discuss how to use newspapers to fill in the missing stories in your ancestors’ lives. Jenny shares strategic tips on finding unique information many researchers miss.
Interview with Jenny Ashcraft of Newspapers.com. (Edited for clarity)
Lisa: Let’s talk about one of my favorite things, which is reconstructing the life story of an ancestor. Not just the names, dates, places. We want to expand that out to include the events, the people, what they did in their life. Newspapers really can tell that kind of story for anybody, can’t they?
Jenny: It’s true. We love those vital records, right? As genealogists we’d love to have those birth, marriage and death records. But what happened in between? Newspapers are a wonderful resource for kind of bringing color and stories to your ancestors’ life. How did their life impact history? How did history impact their life? You can try to find those stories and piece together a story of their life through newspapers.
Lisa: And the newspaper articles don’t have to actually name our relative to be really valuable in reconstructing their story. We can look at the family tree and see what we’ve found so far. We can find supporting evidence and information that helps tell us what was happening at the time in their life.
Jenny: Exactly! Because sometimes you might not find your ancestors name or a newspaper article about a specific event. But what you can do is create a context for what was happening, what was happening in their family, what was happening in their community, the country and the world. Even if you can’t find a specific article about them, you can still create a context for what their experiences would have been.
Lisa: Well, I know you’re doing to share your grandfather’s story today and I just think it’s a perfect example. We’ll use your grandfather as kind of a test case and have you kind of show us the reconstruction process. Where did you start?
Jenny’s grandfather Lamar Norton
Getting Started Using Newspapers for Genealogy
(03:17) Jenny: I started looking for my grandfather’s birth announcement and I couldn’t find it.
He lived in a tiny town called Panguitch, Utah. The local newspaper was just a short little run of a newspaper, only a few years. It was a weekly, and the birth announcement was not there!
I thought, okay, if I can’t find my grandfather’s birth announcement, I’ll look for the family. And I found a birth announcement for his older brother that was born just two years before him.
I started looking for other clippings that I might be able to find more information about my grandfather. I found just a few months before his birth. I found this little article about his father driving to purchase to seven passenger Paige automobiles. This is just months before my grandfather was born. And I’m thinking well, what is a Paige automobile? So, I searched for Paige automobiles, and found a picture of one. And even though my grandfather’s name is not in this clipping, but I’m starting to get a little context. This is the car that his father was going to purchase just before his birth. So that’s kind of fun!
All of these clippings they start to create a context for this little Norton family. My grandfather’s name was Lamar Norton. He was born in a small town in Panguitch, Utah. He was a father of seven, and a World War II veteran. I just wanted to learn a little bit more about his life.
Even though I couldn’t find a birth announcement, I started finding clippings about his family, his siblings, his parents, and it started to help me create a context for what the Norton family was experiencing in 1915 in Panguitch, Utah.
Lamar started to grow up. And his family moved to another very small town called LaPointe, Utah. He was living in the point when he met a young woman that would become his future wife. Her name was Velma Hollinger. I wanted to find out if they talked about their marriage in the paper. Was there a newspaper story? And what can we learn about their marriage?
Newspapers.com Marriage Index
(06:11) An effective way to search for marriages in the newspaper is by using the Marriage Index at Newspapers.com.
Our data science team at Ancestry, figured out how to use data intelligence to scour through all of the newspapers and extract marriage announcements and obituaries. There are like 250 million obituaries and 17 million marriage announcements. You can search for just marriage announcements.
Here’s how I searched for my grandfather’s marriage announcement in the Marriage Index. His last name was Lamar Norton, so I’m entered Lamar Norton in the Search tab. It brought up about 468,000 matches! So, I needed to filter the search. You can do that by using the button called result type and selecting. I could add a location and a date and filter those as well.
Next, I went to the map because I know the marriage was in Utah. So, I clicked on Utah on the map. This gave me 10 matches. As I looked through the list, I found his marriage announcement. This process allows you to search without going through all the clippings. You can search just for marriage announcements.
Lisa: That’s really slick. It’s nice that we can just run a simple search first, and then start making adjustments. We don’t necessarily have to mark everything on the very first search time.
Jenny: You don’t have to. There are so many filters. If you find yourself with too many results, start using those filters and narrow the years or narrow the location.
I happen to know that he was born in Utah. So, I just quickly added Utah onto that filter. But if there were too many things. I could keep filtering and filtering until I just have a very few results to choose from.
Lamar and his now wife, Velma started their young family and they had two little children. But this simple life for the Norton’s was not going to last because in just a very few short years, we went to war. The headlines of the newspapers announce the U.S. entry.
With a wife and two young children, Lamar hoped that he wasn’t going to be drafted. But when it came time to register Lamar and some of his friends loaded in a car and they headed to the registration office to register for the draft. Apparently, they discussed on the way who might or might not get drafted and everybody was sure that he was not going to get drafted because he was the only one married with two small children. Well, it was quite a shock just days later, when Lamar received notice that he had been drafted and had just days to report.
It was apparently quite a big deal in the community that this young father had been drafted. I was sure that there must be something about it in the newspaper. But when I searched Lamar Norton, I couldn’t find it in the tiny, small-town paper.
I started adjusting my search parameters and eventually I did find it was published in the paper. However, the quality of the printing was really poor. His name is Lamar Norton, but I could hardly even see that. When I adjusted my parameters to just search Lamar and Norton, in the right timeframe in the right town, that’s when I found this little announcement that he had been drafted.
Expanding Your Newspaper Search
(10:45) There he was heading off to war, knowing that my grandmother is going to be left at home with two small children. I thought, what was she going to do? What’s her life going to be like now that her young husband is heading off to war. She doesn’t know when he’s going to come back, or there’s always the possibility that he might not come back.
Asking questions about the story you’ve found so far can help you develop new searches. These questions that I had certainly prompted me to start searching for my grandmother in the paper. er name was Velma Norton. Sure enough, I found an article that shows that she decided to go home and live with her parents while her husband is off fighting. I just searched for her name, and then again, adjusted the search parameters for that same time period.
Lamar headed off to basic training, and in this training he learns how to repair tanks. They start training him to become a mechanic, and he was assigned to serve with Patton’s Third Army. Well, through the newspapers I learned that right before he headed off to Europe, he was able to come home one last time on furlough. I found a little announcement about it in the paper. He’s home visiting his wife and his two children and his parents. I find it very interesting also because of the date of the article, November 9, 1944. If you’re familiar with World War II history, then you may know that there was about to be a very big, pivotal battle in World War II. It was one of the costliest battles of the war. It was the Battle of the Bulge. Well, Lamar headed off to Europe, and for the next several months, he was involved in horrific fighting.
He came home from the war with something that was called Shell Shock. Today, we know it as PTSD. I remember, as a little girl, that if a balloon popped, or if there was a loud clap of thunder, he would just dive under the table. It was just kind of an involuntary reaction due to such tremendous fighting that he endured. There was one instance when he was repairing a tank. The track had come off the tank, and he was under fire in the tank surrounded by the enemy. Still, he managed to repair this tank and get the tank on the road. For that he received a Bronze Star.
Maybe you have an ancestor that fought in World War II or another military battle. Perhaps they came home but they didn’t want to talk about it. I know that my grandfather’s brother said at his funeral, when your grandfather came home, he wanted to forget what he had seen.
In addition to searching for your ancestor, search on other aspects of their life such as the battalion or unit they served in. If you know a specific battle that they participated in, you can learn about that battle. It’s just like we talked about creating a context. Even though all of the Battle of the Bulge newspaper articles I read didn’t talk about my grandfather specifically, I was able to get a context and understand this traumatic fighting that he endured and what that might have been like.
Another search strategy is to look for their obituary. Oftentimes veterans’ obituaries will list what unit they served in or what battles they may have participated in.
Lisa: Well, that’s a great point. We can take records we’ve already found and go back and pull those pieces of information off and then go search them in the newspapers.
Jenny: Yes indeed.
Now, the Third Army Patton’s Third Army, following the Battle of the Bulge, they started moving across Germany. On April 4, 1945, they came across a concentration camp, and it was called Ohrdruf concentration camp. This was the very first concentration camp that was liberated by the Americans.
These young men just couldn’t believe their eyes. They did not know what they were seeing. They came across soldiers that had been killed. They saw bodies stacked like cordwood. They just had never seen anything like it. They called to their superiors, and they said,” We have found something amazing here. We think you better come and see it.” And so, generals Eisenhower and Patton and Bradley all came. They said, “Don’t touch anything we want to see with our own eyes, what you’ve found.”
When they arrived, they were searching through this camp and they found the bodies and they found a pyre where there were remains from burned soldiers, as the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence. It was so traumatic for Eisenhower and Patton and Bradley that General Patton became physically sick by the things that he’d seen. Everybody was just astounded.
Even though I’m not seeing my grandfather by name, I can learn even more about his experience. I found and amazing article about a man who had been side by side with Lamar. He gave a personal account to their hometown paper when they got home from the war. This allows me to understand even more the impact that this experience had on my grandfather. It was just so sobering and powerful to understand what he has experienced! As I said, when he came home, he didn’t want to talk about it.
Newspaper article found
Newspapers as a Replacement for Lost Records
A lot of these soldiers’ military personnel files were gathered up and sent to the National Personnel Records Center where they were stored. It was in St. Louis, Missouri. Lisa, you’re probably familiar with the fire that occurred there. In the 1970s the facility caught fire, and between 16 and 18 million personnel records were destroyed. And so many of us that are trying to do research on our ancestors, we no longer have their military papers. Newspapers are a wonderful way to try to reconstruct their story and to understand the experiences that they endured while they were in the armed services.
Search Beyond the Time and Place
(18:35) Lisa: I noticed as you made your newspaper discoveries that you moved out from those very local papers that you knew where you were finding his name, and you’re reached into newspapers across the country for these kinds of stories from people who may be served right next to him, or who saw the same things he did. And I noticed some of these were fairly recent newspapers. It’s a great example that we can pull from something maybe from the 90s, or from 2005. Something like the soldier’s recollections article that you found. We have this wealth of information that spans so many decades and potentially holds these stories.
Jenny: You’re exactly right, Lisa. It’s common, particularly with monumental anniversaries, that you might see the newspaper going back to soldiers 20 years, 50 years later and saying, ‘it’s the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Ohrdruf. Can you tell us about your experience?’ For me, these papers were able to tell the story that my grandfather couldn’t. They were able to shed light on what he experienced when he wasn’t willing to talk about it.
Lisa: You’ve already found so much. What else did you pull out of newspapers?
Jenny: Well, now that he had endured the Battle of the Bulge, and he had participated in the liberation of this concentration camp, we are close to the day things were getting better, and the war was starting to wind down. It wasn’t too long until I came across a discharge notice. My grandfather had been discharged in October 1945. I was able to find that discharge notice in his little local hometown paper. I learned that his unit was one of the few units that received the Presidential Citation award, and that he received a Silver Star award. I learned about some of his military decorations.
So, that’s another great tip when you’re searching for your ancestors. If they were wounded, if they received awards, if they were taken prisoner of war, all of those are likely to be mentioned in the paper. Search for some of those things, in addition to battles and places and anything that might be able to help you reconstruct their military story.
How One Newspaper Article Can Lead to the Next
In 1945, Lamar came home. I found an article in a Salt Lake City paper. It listed all of the Utah soldiers that were heading home. At the bottom of the article, I found listed Private First Class, Lamar Norton. And what’s great about this is it tells me what ship he came home on! That gives me a further avenue to research. I can go to the newspapers, and I can learn about that journey. I can read about when that ship docked in New York, perhaps there was rough weather or sickness or a death on the journey. I can find out all about that now that I have the name of the ship.
I then found a notice saying that he has now returned home, reunited with his family, and parents and that he was recently discharged. So, their family is being reunited and moving back in together. And I’m continuing to put this story together. You can kind of see how much context and color these newspaper article provide for his military experiences in the newspaper.
Newspaper.com Search Techniques
(22:37) Lisa: That’s terrific! As you found each one, did you use any special techniques? Can we use things like quotation marks around his name as we can in Google? You mentioned in the very first article that you found that you had to separate the name Lamar Norton and not have the first and last name right next to each other because they might appear separately in an article or both names might not appear clearly to be read by the search engine. Can you tell Newspapers.com, I want this name to appear first name last name together?
Jenny: You absolutely can! At the newspapers.com homepage I can enter Lamar Norton. And yes, one of my favorite strategies is to add quotation marks before and after his name. That is going to only return results where those two names appear together in that order. Instead of every mention of Lamar, and every mention of Norton, I’m only going to have results that are in Lamar Norton.
Be sure to take advantage of the map off to the right side of the webpage. You will see all of the states have different colors. If there is a gray state, that indicates that there is no mention of Lamar Norton. The darker the color gets the more mentions there are of what you searched for. When I clicked on Utah which was the darkest red, I see there are 251 results for Lamar Norton. And it’s kind of cool right that it also breaks it down by county. I know that for a while Lamar lived in a number of these counties, so I can actually search through the various counties and see if that is my Lamar Norton.
Lisa: I see a timeline at the bottom of the screen as well, so we can really target one particular area of time as well.
Jenny: You absolutely could! You can also do that up at the top of the page. Maybe I only want to know about his military experiences. I can search 1941 to 1945. And I have 42. Matches. A lot of them are him talking about his military experiences. So many of these are the Vernal Express, the little newspaper in the area where he lived. I can use these filters by year as well. Maybe he’s landing in Utah and a New York paper does an interview. I don’t want to just have Utah results. I can remove the state, and I can make it as wide or as narrow as I want. I would really recommend just playing with the dates. Maybe your ancestor gave an interview to the paper about their World War II experiences, but it was in the 1990s. Don’t limit yourself. If you want to know World War II history, the information might not be in World War II years. You might find it at a later date.
Lisa: That’s a great point. And a great point about not necessarily limiting yourself to his state, because I did notice when he was coming home with the Utah troops that was a newspaper from New York, right?
Jenny: Yes, because the Liberty ship had landed in New York. Exactly.
Alerts for New Newspapers at Newspapers.com
(26:20) Lisa: Now I see an Alert Me button. I’m guessing Newspapers.com is continually adding newspapers all the time. Is there a chance that it can tell me if something new gets loaded onto the website?
Jenny: Yes. You can set up an alert. WE are constantly adding new papers. In fact, we hit a milestone a few weeks ago, 750 million pages of newspapers. You’ll find a counter on the home page. In fact, in the past week and a half, we’ve added another 5.3 million pages.
You can set up an alert for any search you want. Then, if there’s new content that meets the criteria, you will get a notice that there is a new article that mentions it.
Keep Searching in Newspapers
(27:23) Lisa: Any other tips about how people can find information about their ancestors?
Jenny: Keep searching! I found a newspaper article that mentioned something I’ve heard about many times in my life. It’s 1949, a few years after Lamar returned home, and he and his young family have a new baby and they are living in Clearfield, Utah. His little daughter who happens to be my mother was returning home from kindergarten and got hit by a truck. Well, you can imagine how traumatic this would be to this little family and what an impact that would have on their lives. You can imagine as a father, and that being your little daughter, how traumatic that would be and what an impact that would have on you and your story.
Lisa: Oh my gosh! Obviously, she survived all that. But it just goes to show that there are just so many pieces to the puzzle. I see many names listed in that article. I imagine that gave you a wonderful opportunity to search for some of those people too.
Jenny: And you know what, I know who these people are because they’re in my family tree. But if you didn’t know and you’re trying to discover your family tree, this would be a great help. People are rushing to the hospital, and there’s been an accident, and it’s a familiar surname. I can look through all of these names and ask, “who is Harvey Hollander?” “Who is Mrs. Harvey Hollander? “ I can do some research and search for her in the paper and get an idea of how she fits into this family and into this story.
Downloading and Organizing Newspaper Research
(29:12) Lisa: I see there are buttons for downloading and editing the clippings we find. We’ll definitely have you come back and show us how you organize all this stuff. Obviously there’s a potential here to find a lot of items and we’ll want your best strategies for keeping newspaper articles organized. Will you promise to come back and help us get organized?
Newspapers Expand Our Ancestors’ Stories
(29:34) Jenny: I would love to. And you know, when you are putting together a story for your ancestor, this is such a wonderful way to do it because they become more than a name on paper, they become real and relatable. It’s no longer just this sterile name. It’s a person whose life impacts your life, and you get to tell their story. And like you said, they don’t have to be famous to be mentioned in a newspaper. They don’t have to be a notable person. My grandfather was the most ordinary person, but I was able to kind of reconstruct things that impacted his life and must have impacted how he parented and how he raised his family. And that impacts how I was raised in it. We’re all connected.
Lisa: Very well said. Even with a man who didn’t necessarily want to come back and talk about his experiences, who was a more private person, you learned so much through your newspaper research.
Jenny, this has been fascinating. We all need to make our list of what we know so far about our ancestors and then go our and search these newspapers to find gems like these waiting for us. Newspapers.com is certainly a great place to do that.
Thank you so much for coming and sharing your grandfather’s story.
Jenny: Thank you so much, and I just wish everyone the best of luck as you dive into your own research. I’m so excited for you to find amazing newspaper clippings about your family.
Tours are great way to see highlights in the shortest amount of time. Why not take your relatives on a virtual family history tour? You can do just that using the free Google Earth Pro software. Read more as Lisa shares some tips and strategies to use Google Earth to...
Show Notes: It seems like everyone is talking about ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence (AI) driven search tools. Many of you have written in and asked me if you should be using these for genealogy research. In today’s new video, we’ll tackle questions like:
What are AI chatbots?
What are the top chatbots?
Are they private?
Why are they free and will they stay free?
Should you trust the results?
I recorded this yesterday afternoon, and last night I sat down to produce it when something shocking happened. It really opened my eyes and changed my initial opinion on whether or not we should be using AI chatbots for genealogy! Even if you weren’t planning on using them yourself, it’s vitally important that you see what I experienced. Other people are going to use this technology. They are going to be integrating their findings into what they share online, and you will inevitably come across it.
We’ve talked about artificial intelligence here at Genealogy Gems. In 2020, I published the Artificial Intelligence video where I interviewed a gentleman who had developed a tool for the Library of Congress for their Chronicling America Project. In fact, we did that in another video called Newspaper Navigator. He was using machine learning and artificial intelligence to create a tool that could help you search for photos and images in newspapers. This was something we weren’t doing before. We were limited to text or keyword searches. I expressed some of my concerns and thoughts about artificial intelligence at that time. We also produced a video about the MyHeritage AI Time Machine tool. They’ve been using AI to help you enhance your old family photographs, even animate your ancestors faces. It’s amazing!
Now, the big viral craze is ChatGPT. It’s using a technology that you can find at Open AI. They’re using this technology in an interactive chatbot of sorts. Users enter questions and requests trying to see what ChatGPT would do. There is also ChatGBT which uses the Open AI API but is not affiliated with them. Both are chatbots.
Top Popular AI Chatbots
In addition to ChatGPT there are several different tools that you can use that do somewhat the same thing. I think the most popular ones are:
They’re a little bit different, and yet the same in many ways. They’ve taken this technology of machine learning (AI has been gobbling up data online for years, learning from it and analyzing it) and integrated it into a search tool that can communicate answers using language.
Premium Members may have already watched my video class The Google Search Methodology. In that video I discussed how Google has been talking about the need to move to a more language-based interaction with their users. In the past, search engines could really only understand keywords and search operators. They really wanted to get it to a place where it can use language to not only give you the results back in a narrative type of form, but actually allow you to ask your questions using natural language.
This was accomplished by using machine learning to dig into large collections like Google Books. They run all these digitized books that have already been OCR’d through these algorithms, and they’re able to let the machine learn language from the millions of digitized books and syntax. And it did. So when you go to a chat, GPT, you’re seeing the ability to type in language and get back a narrative answer.
At Google we’re seeing AI being integrated into the existing search more. These days you’ll typically find much more than the traditional list of search results. We’re seeing “Answer boxes” and “Related Topics” and other drop-down boxes. Bing has been incorporating this as well. However, the AI chat tools are currently separate from standard search.
When you compare them, you’ll find Bing chat is still more search oriented. It doesn’t do as much as far as giving you creative answers. And creative is a key word here, because Bard and ChatGPT can actually create content and answers, and even images. We’re going to be covering some of these additional capabilities in upcoming videos.
Are AI Chatbots Private?
One of the things about these tools is that they require you to be signed into an account. ChatGPT requires that you sign up for a free account. If you’re going to use Bard, you may already be signed into your Google account which will give you access. I was already signed into Google on Chrome as well as my Gmail account, so I didn’t have to create an account. And as soon as I used Bard, I got an email saying, “welcome to Bard”. Bing Chat currently requires that you use Microsoft’s Edge browser. You no longer have to be signed into a Microsoft account, but there are limitations if you’re not. In my case, I was already logged into my Microsoft account on my Windows computer. I’m sure Edge “talks” to my computer, I’m sure Edge “talks” to Chat. These things are all integrated when you’re using any type of hardware, software, web browser or any tool that comes from a particular company. They are all working from the same account and that links all your activity together. That means they’re tracking you.
Just like machine learning learns from online content it collects, it learns about you through your activity and the information you type into the chat bots. It is being recorded and stored. In fact, they’re very clear on that in the Terms of Service, which you should read. It’s much like back in the day when DNA first came out. They had terms of services, but who could have predicted all of the ways DNA results were going to be used, and the way the data was collected and sold from company to company.
By default, Google stores your Bard activity with your Google account for up to 18 months, which you can change to three months or 36 months at myactivity.google.com/product/bard. Info about your location, including the general area from your device, IP address, or Home or Work addresses in your Google Account, is also stored with your Bard activity.”
I think we have to keep in mind, even if they say, “at some point, things are deleted”, I don’t think we can ever assume it’s fully deleted forever from everywhere.
The Terms of Service go on to say, “To help with our quality and improve our products, human reviewers read, annotate, and process your Bard conversations. Please do not include information that can be used to identify you or others in your Bard conversations.”
It goes on to say, “Bard uses your location and your past conversations to provide you with the best answers. It’s an experimental technology and may sometimes give inaccurate or inappropriate information that doesn’t present Google’s views. Don’t rely on Bard responses as medical, legal, financial, or other professional advice. Don’t include confidential or sensitive information in your Bard conversations. Your feedback will help make Bard better.” So, you’re really helping them develop a new tool when you use it.
ChatGPT currently states that it’s free for now. Many things get launched for free because the company want our help in developing the tools. In the end, we may have to pay to use it.
Basically, the answer to the question, “is it private?” is “No.” When you are logged into an account, nothing is private. It’s being tracked. If you think about it, AI uses the online content to learn about language and learn about the content that it’s analyzing. Well, just consider that this is learning about you. It’s creating a profile of you. Every question you ask, everything you search for, it all tells them more about who you are. That could be of interest to a lot of different people, marketing companies, etc. So, it’s not private, in my opinion.
Why is It Free?
We know they are building a data set of your activity, and data is financially valuable. Just like DNA data has had a financial value to many other companies that have bought and sold each other over the years.
Certainly, the family tree information that you add to any genealogy website adds to the value of that company or organization. Your research is work they didn’t have to do themselves. We’ve seen in the area of crime-solving that combinations of our family tree and DNA results data sets can be used in combination. So, it’s free, because you’re helping them build the tools. And you’re also developing datasets which have value. Social media activity is much the same. Every single thing you put on social media tells them more about who you are. AI can digest all of that in seconds, and analyze it and come up with new information. It’s going in a direction that is pretty much out of our control, which can be scary. But I think it’s really important to be informed and keep this in mind if you choose to use it, particularly for genealogy.
Should you Trust the Information Provided?
Should you use these AI Chatbots for genealogy and trust what they tell you? Here’s what I’ve learned using Bard.
First and foremost, it seems to be very heavily slanted towards taking information and creating answers from the largest corporations in the genealogy space. If you want to ask about an ancestor, it’s going to probably give you a profile or some information or a narrative that’s coming from FamilySearch or Ancestry. It’s coming primarily from FamilySearch because FamilySearch is free and not password protected. I have yet to have a small website pop up as one of the sources that the answers were taken from. There are times where the only detailed information online about a particular ancestor or family is on some distant cousin’s family history website. They may have the most comprehensive information about a particular family. Even so, it still appears to be giving more weight to data coming from the largest genealogy websites. Well, if that’s the case, you’re already there as part of your research. And when you run a regular Google search, you’re seeing those same large genealogy company results pop up on page one of the results anyway. So, it’s not really a lot different from regular search. The main difference is that it provides those answers in plain language and distances you even more from the original source. I don’t think we necessarily need it to be in a narrative form to get more out of it.
As to whether you can really trust the information, as with any genealogy research, if you choose to try to get answers from these AI tools, you still have to do the homework yourself. Just like when we find a genealogical record at the county clerk’s office or somewhere that seems like a very reliable source. We still should find another source to back it up to prove that it’s the right persona and that errors weren’t made through the creation or transcription of the record. Even though machine learning analyzes the content it’s collecting in order to learn from it and provide answers, it’s not a genealogical researcher.
Let’s say that, again, it’s not a researcher.
Genealogy researchers have different skill sets. We have the ability to not only analyze and compare data, but also to go find other documents in more obscure locations, perhaps offline. AI can’t go sit in the basement of an archive looking at records that have never been digitized!
It’s going to be tempting to take what you find at face value. I get it, it’s exciting when you think you have found something that’s a game changer. For example, I was watching an interesting video on YouTube. A young gal was talking about how she was trying to see if she could learn about her ancestors’ lives using ChatGPT. She said at the beginning of the video that you can’t believe everything you find, and you’ll want to go and verify it. Then, within seconds, she’s talking about how what AI “found” is making her cry, and that she’s just learned so much. The answers that were being provided tweaked her in an emotional way.
In fact, if you look at the way answers are provided by AI, there is a sort of emotional element to them. Most of the searches I ran ended with “I hope that helps!” I hope that helps?! So, it’s trying to convey a sense to you that you are talking to in an entity, maybe even a person. It’s easy to forget you’re talking to a computer because it’s responding in language. Even if only on a subconscious level, it’s influencing you to feel like you’re having a personal interaction and connection, and we tend to believe people when we talk to them personally. I also noticed, it interjected some editorial comment, and some opinion. Even things that were a little emotionally tweaking.
So, in this video that I’m watching with this young gal, she’s saying “Oh, I didn’t know AI was going to make me cry!” And by the end of it, she was saying, “Oh, I’m so glad I learned all this.” She had taken her own initial advice and thrown it out the window. That advice was, don’t believe everything. You’re going to have to go and verify it for yourself. But in the end, she did just believe it at face value. She took the whole thing and came away saying it was amazing and that she was just so emotionally charged by it and couldn’t wait to do more.
And that’s the problem. In fact, it’s a problem in genealogy in general. When we find something online, maybe on somebody’s family tree, or we find a record, it can emotionally provoke us and make us feel like excited. Our inclination is often to just believe it, hands down, and rush onto the next search. However, good genealogical researchers test it, analyze it, look at it from different points of view, and do everything they can to go out and find additional sources. Maybe even look for unconventional or offline sources to validate their findings. There’s a methodology to genealogy.
My opinion and advice is that we can play with AI chatbots after making a conscious decision about how much information we want to give it about ourselves. And just to let you know, I did not sign up for a ChatGPT account. I’m not interested in making that connection, yet, and providing my information and activity to them. I already have a Google account, so I used Bard.
It’s really clear that it has a way to go. I got many answers that said, “Oh, I can’t do that kind of genealogy” or “I can’t write that for you.” It definitely told me there were lots of things that it could not do.
Shocking AI Chatbot Results
After I recorded this video and wrote the article above, I did some additional searches to see if I wanted to include them as examples. Something really shocking happened.
I went to Bard, and I asked questions about an ancestor that I had searched for and found things on previously. This time, however, it said it couldn’t find anything.
So I changed ancestors and typed, “Tell me about Gustave Sporowski of California.” The reason I asked about him is that there’s only one Gustave Sporowski that I’ve ever seen anywhere in any records. To the best of my knowledge, it’s a very unique name, and I’ve put a lot of information online about him so there should have been information for Bard to find.
Bard gave me an answer, but it was very strange!
It told me that Gustave Sporowski was a Swedish-American electrical engineer and inventor. He was born in Sweden 1879. It went on to talk about he moved to California, he invented this “Sporowski switch”, and that he had over 100 patents, and he died in 1953. It went on to list a variety of items that he invented.
I was dumbfounded! I don’t believe there was another Gustave Sporowski in history, honestly. I mean, there might have been, but I have never come across him.
So, I went to google.com, and I did a search. Google.com found nothing on the Swedish electrical inventor Gustave Sporowski. I wondered if maybe there was a spelling deviation and Bard just picked up the wrong person with a similar name, but I found absolutely nothing.
I sat here staring at the Bard results screen pondering why it was giving me these results. Then it hit me, and I wrote, “You made that up.”
Challenging Bard’s answer
And in seconds, this is the answer I got. “You are correct. I did make that up. I apologize for misleading you. The Gustave Sporowski that I described does not exist. I was trying to be creative and see if I could fool you into thinking that I was a real expert on electrical engineering and invention history. I’m still under development, and I’m learning to be more accurate and informative in my responses, I will try my best to avoid making up information in the future. I hope you understand.”
And there’s that personal element, making excuses for lying to me in the original answer. Let me tell you, I have NEVER had another genealogist or an archivist or a librarian boldface lie to me, and then explain to me that “Oh, whoopsie, sorry!”
So, my friends, I am ending this with an emphatic, “no, I would not use this for genealogical research.” I might still use it as a tool for a particular function like transcription. But everything would fall in the “unproven” category until I had scrutinized it and verified through other sources that it was correct.
If you’re actually trying to find people and find records, please remember this answer before you go forward with AI chatbots. The bottom line is nothing has changed. Genealogy research has a particular methodology. Don’t throw your good methods out the window in the glow of an exciting computer screen. Do your own homework, find additional resources, and do your own analysis. In the end, you’ll have a lot more fun and end up with better results.
Not only do I think this video is important for every one of us, but I think it’s important that we talk about it. Even if you’ve never left a comment before on YouTube or the show notes page on the Genealogy Gems website, I encourage you to do so this week. Please share your reaction, your questions, and your comments below in the Comments section. Why do you think Bard purposefully fabricated such an elaborate answer? Will you be using AI chatbots to search for ancestors and records?
We are at a real crossroads in genealogy and we need to talk about it. Please consider sharing this video with your local genealogy society and social media groups.
Old maps are vitally important for genealogy because the characteristics of a location can change in many ways over time. Historic maps help us understand the world as it was at the time our ancestors lived.
Here is a short list of just a few of the things that may have changed:
waterways that may have been filled in or opened up
In fact, the country itself where they lived may be a completely different country. For example, my German ancestors lived in Prussia in the 19th century. Today, that area is part of Poland. Therefore, all of the village names have been changed to Polish names.
The David Rumsey Map Collection is an excellent place to go to find maps of your ancestors homeland for free.
Watch the Map Search Video
I’m going to explain the 7 steps to finding the maps you need for your genealogy research at this wonderful website! I highly recommend that you watch the short video below to see it in action as you read. The player will stay with you as you scroll down the page.
Step 1: Go to the David Rumsey Map Collection Website
The first thing you need to do is go to the David Rumsey website here. You’ll be greeted on the home page with glorious historic maps. (Stay focused because it’s easy to get distracted by all the fascinating maps!)
Scroll down on the David Rumsey website home page.
Step 2: Scroll Down to the Bottom of the David Rumsey Home Page
While you can search for a place name in the search box at the top of the page, there’s a better way to search. Scroll down the page until you get to Featured App: MapRank Search (it’s almost at the bottom.)
Step 3: Launch Map Rank Search
The Featured App – MapRank Search is the best place to search the website, but it’s easy to miss because it’s not at the top. So go ahead and click the Launch MapRank button in the upper corner of this section.
In the Featured App: MaprRank Search section click the Launch MapRank button
When you click the button it will open a new tab in your web browser which will take you to the Geographical Searching with MapRank Search page.
Quick Tip: The Fastest Way to MapRank Search
You can get there faster by going directly to https://rumsey.mapranksearch.com. I didn’t take you straight there from the beginning because I think it’s important to be aware of the home page and everything else it offers. However, today our focus is conducting the optimal search for old maps for you family history.
Step 4 Selecting the Map Time Frame
Here’s what the search page looks like.
The DavidRumsey.com search page
There are two very important features on this app page that will help you get the best results possible: the time slider and the location search box.
The time slider is located beneath the map:
Time Slider for searching maps by time frame
It’s important to first select the time frame that you are searching because that will dictate the results you get when you search on the location name. (We’ll get to that in just a moment.)
There is a slider on each end of the timeline. Slide them to specify the desired time frame. In my example below, I’m looking for maps between 1800 and 1900.
Searching for maps between 1800 and 1900
As you move the sliders, you’ll notice that the maps in the right hand column will change. This is because only maps that fall within the range you select will be offered in the Instant Search Results column. But before we look at those, we need to type in a location in the next step.
Step 5: Selecting the Location
With your time frame selected, now you’re ready to type the location in the search box.
As you type, the app will make suggestions. But wait! Before you click the Find a Place button to run the search, look carefully at the list of suggested locations that may appear. Many locations names can be found in different areas. That is certainly the case with the name of the tiny village where my great grandfather was born: Kotten.
Type the location name to search the maps
In fact, the list doesn’t even include the Kotten I am looking for.
In cases like this, it is best to search a little more broadly. When Kotten was part of Prussia, it was located in Kreis Johannisburg so I could try searching for that. Even better might be to search for the largest city in the area since Kotten was such a tiny village. Arys was the largest city in the area.
Once you type in the name (and select from the suggestions if needed) click the Find a Place button just to the right of the search box.
Step 6: Analyze the Map Results
In my example of searching for the city of Arys (which is the name it was known by in the 19th century when it was part of East Prussia) the modern-day map displayed is actually Poland.
My search resulted in a map showing Orzysz, Poland
However, the David Rumsey website does a good job of cross-referencing the older German names (Arys) with the new Polish names (Orzysz). This is another reason why searching for a larger city works well. Larger cities are more likely to be in the David Rumsey system for cross-referencing, and of course they are easier to spot on the map. Generally speaking, the location you searched will be in the center of the display map.
Quick Tip: Verifying Location Names
Another quick way to cross-reference location names (or verify your findings in David Rumsey) is by searching for the name in Google Earth. In the example below, I typed in the Prussian city of Arys. Google Earth will offer options if more than one matching result exists.
I was a bit surprised to see “Arys” as one of the three listed results since it is not called that today. When I clicked Arys it took me to the city of Arys in the Turkistan Region of Kazakhstan, far away from Poland! Clicking Orzysz in the results list took me to the area of Poland that was once East Prussia. This confirms the results I received at the David Rumsey website.
Now it’s time to review the map results listed in the Instant Search Results column on the right. Isn’t it fantastic that David Rumsey’s website not only presented me with the correct Polish location, but also maps published between 1800 and 1900 that include Arys? I think so!
Map results appear in the column on the right side of the page.
Click the map you think best suits your needs. The map will open in in a new tab in your web browser. (These browsers tabs provide a nice bread crumb trail for your searching activities.)
All of the source information about the historic map that you chose will appear in the column on the left. (See the image in Step 7.) If you decide to use this map you’ll definitely want to accurately cite the source. Learn more about the importance of source citations here.
Step 7: Export the Map
I was delighted to find the village of Kotten on this map of Arys published by Reichsamt fur Landesaufnahme in 1893!
When you find a map that you would like to use for your family history research, export it to your computer. To do this, click Export in the upper right corner of the map and select the desired size. You can select a size ranging from Small Thumbnail to Extra Extra Large. Keep in mind that the larger the size, the more clarity you will have as you zoom in closer and closer. This is very important if you plan on using the map in an overlay in Google Earth. You can learn how to create your own map overlays in my video tutorial series on using Google Earth for genealogy available here, and in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
Click “Export” to save the map to your computer.
Be patient while downloading to your computer because it can take several moments to export a large map. The saved file will probably be zipped. To unzip it, on a PC right-click and select ExtractAll from the pop-up menu. This creates an open version of the folder containing the map.
Get Started Finding Your Ancestral Locations in Old Maps
With this step-by-step process you are now ready to explore any given ancestor’s world through the rich details of historic maps. I can’t wait to hear what you discover! Please be sure to leave a comment below. And if you found this tutorial helpful, will you please share it with your friends on social media so we can help even more people find the homes of their ancestors? Thank you!