Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ignoring the Online Miracle with Misconceptions: Part One - The Large Genealogy Websites

For a genealogist who started over thirty years ago in a world dominated by paper, the obvious advantages of online genealogy seem positively miraculous. I can now do research in minutes that used to take a special trip to Salt Lake City, Utah to visit the Family History Library. Libraries still dominate my life, but even in the library I use a computer more than anything else to teach, research and learn.

Some of the greatest online resources are the huge online genealogy programs. Six of these large, online database programs have joined in a mutually beneficial partnership. has opened part of its vast collection of records to these partners in exchange for the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints receiving free memberships in each of these vast resources. But I was aware of or using them before the partnership was implemented.

Interestingly, I constantly receive feedback from genealogists who are either unaware of even the large database websites or simply not interested enough to become informed about the records available online at all. There are several very common and persistent false assumptions out there that I seem to hear regularly. The danger in pointing out any general misconception is that those who have the misconception don't recognize that they have it and those who don't have it can't believe that anyone would have that misconception.

For the purpose of this post, I am confining my comments to the following websites:
I am not including subsidiary websites such as which is owned by Ancestry or large included websites such as which is included in and

From my perspective, the most common misconception concerns thinking that the large online database websites all have the same resources. Granted, there is some overlap such as the United States Federal Census Records, but each of these large database programs have unique resources that are not duplicated by any other genealogy website. One way to begin to understand this misconception is to routinely do Google searches on the names of the database programs on each website. It is also entirely possible that one website has an index of a collection that is completely imaged on another website. A superficial search of any of the listed websites will show some overlap, but the real question is whether or not they have the documents you need to find your own ancestors and if you fail to search the larger websites for whatever reason, you are simply operating under a misconception.

Here is where we get into the issue of defining the contents of these websites in different ways. All of the larger websites use different terms to describe their holdings. These terms, such as records, collections, documents, individuals, etc. are arbitrary and have different definitions on each website.

Let me start with an example from As is the case with each of these websites, the key to identifying the contents of their holdings is their catalog of all of their collections. The Catalog is as complete a listing of the records and other publications held by FamilySearch as is available. My example is a book about my Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner. Here is the book from the catalog:

Since this book is now digitized and online on, the book is no longer available in paper format in the Family History Library.

This book is not available from Google books and is not found any other place online and especially not found in any of the other large genealogy websites.

Here is another example of a unique database this time on The database is called the
"Great Britain, Atlas and Index of Parish Registers" and it is based, in part, on "The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers." This extremely useful database contains maps of the English parishes and the date of the earliest registers in each parish. 

I could go on and on with examples of unique databases or collections as they are usually called. However two more examples will probably be enough to illustrate that those who have the misconception that these large online websites all have the same information is a gross misconception. My last examples on this topic are's vast Books and Publications database with 447,870 completely searchable items and's even more extensive collection of 725,872 old books from around the world also completely searchable. 

Stay tuned

Friday, October 21, 2016

LeVar Burton - RootsTech Keynote Speaker Announced

FamilySearch seems to be able to get some extraordinary people for the Keynotes at RootsTech and RootsTech 2017 is no exception. The Friday, February Keynote will be given by LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow, Star Trek the Next Generation, and the impactful 1970s television miniseries that launched his career, Roots. Here is the announcement:
RootsTech is thrilled to announce LeVar Burton as a featured keynote speaker on Friday, February 10, 2017. This celebrated individual has touched countless lives in his various roles as actor, director, producer, writer, and speaker. His passion for literacy, storytelling, and imagination has generated millions of fans throughout the world. Come see why his inspiring life experiences make him a perfect match for the RootsTech stage.
We are starting to ramp up for the upcoming RootsTech 2017 on February 8th through the 11th, 2017.  Here is some more information about LeVar Burton.
LeVar Burton is known by millions as the face of Reading Rainbow, the beloved, long running PBS children’s television series, and for his role as Geordi La Forge, Chief Engineer in the iconic Star Trek: The Next Generation series. Many also remember seeing his talent debut in 1977 when he was cast in the groundbreaking role of Kunta Kinte in the landmark television miniseries Roots. In addition to his familiar talent as an actor, he is an accomplished director, producer, writer, speaker, educator, and entrepreneur. He is the honored recipient of 12 Emmy Awards, a Grammy and five NAACP Awards. Burton has experienced continual success in his innovative efforts to promote his passion for literature, storytelling, and imagination. He is the Co-Founder and Curator-in-Chief of RRKIDZ, the online home of Reading Rainbow and Skybrary. With millions of fans throughout the world, he continues his mission to inspire, entertain and educate.
If you haven't registered, it is time to do so. Also, RootsTech 2017 starts with two break-out sessions on Wednesday, February 8, 2017 so plan accordingly. Most of the hotels are close to being sold out also.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Copyright Boat Anchor on Creativity and Research

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, known as the Copyright Clause, empowers the United States Congress:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
This particular two line sentence in the U.S. Constitution has been turned into morass of complex regulations and interpretations of those regulations numbering into the thousands of pages. Originally styled to protect authors and inventors, the United States Copyright Law now primarily protects publishers and aggregators that take advantage of the extended terms of copyright protection to take advantage of the authors and make money through contractual limitations that go far beyond the original intent of the Constitution.

Presently, under the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. This legislation lengthens copyrights for works created on or after January 1, 1978 to “life of the author plus 70 years,” and extends copyrights for corporate works to 95 years from the year of first publication, or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever expires first. The reason why these extensions were passed by the U.S. Legislature was that Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse was in danger of passing into the public domain. With the new laws, Walt Disney now has an extension to 2023 and enough time to seek further extensions to the copyright act. These extensions were not created to protect authors, but to protect the United States Balance of Payments. See Copyright Extension. See also, "When is 1923 Going to Arrive and Other Complications of the U.S. Public Domain." If you think you understand copyright law, I suggest you read this article carefully.

Determining when and if the copyright on any particular work has expired has become a complicated and almost impenetrable morass of changing laws and regulations, not to mention thousands of court cases that have interpreted those same confusing rules. Some large aggregator companies have used this intense legal confusion to create large digitized collections of books and other material and under a claim of copyright protection have contractually limited the use of the items even when some are clearly in the public domain. Essentially, these companies are circumventing the law by claiming that they have the ability to enforce a contract with those who agree to their provisions. I seriously doubt that these companies have negotiated a contract with each of the actual copyright holders of all of the thousands and perhaps millions of books that they include under their contractual umbrella. It is now common to claim that "copyright law was supposed to prevent publishers from literally stealing each other's business." See comments to "Is it legal to scan a book you own to create an ebook for your own personal use?" I suggest that this commentator and all those others who believe that publishers were intended to be protected read Article 1, Section 8 quoted above. 

In an attempt to get some control over the interpretation of the laws and regulations, Cornell University has since 1999 published a summary of the current status of the copyright laws called "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States 1 January 2016."  If you examine this chart carefully, you can see that certain works, those unpublished works when the death date of the author is not known, are protected as far back as 1896, however, most works registered or first published before 1923 have now passed into the public domain.

Copyright law in the United States and most of the rest of the world is a good idea that has been twisted and changed until the original concept is hardly recognizable. Copyright reform on a large scale is long overdue. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

How many books have been digitized?

I am always interested in the disparity between our perception of reality and what is actually happening in the world around us. Genealogists are no exception to this perceptual myopia. Genealogists' main activity is discovering records about their ancestors and relatives. From this, you might expect that they would have an active interest in finding these valuable records. One reality is that these valuable records of our collective past history are in published books. As I have observed in previous writings, from my own observations, very few genealogists are aware of the trove of genealogical books even when they are sitting in a large library.

If some lucky genealogist happens to stumble across a book, such as a surname books written about an ancestor, they then likely become convinced that the book is absolutely true and start adding everything in the book into their family tree, but that is another issue.

One of the main limitations with books has always been finding them. Libraries are a wonderful place to explore the world of books, but you do have to go to the library and spend time looking. Many of us have extensive experience in local, public libraries. Unfortunately, very few of these local institutions have many books that are helpful to genealogical research. If your family happens to be from the area where the library is located, the library may have some extremely valuable items for research but generally, a smaller, local library will have a few of the more "popular" books on genealogy and little else.

Please do not misunderstand me, local libraries usually have specific research opportunities in the form of locally donated books. They may also have other donated or accumulated items of interest including newspaper collections and local memorabilia. But they have limited space and limited book collections.

Larger libraries with huge book collections and vast research opportunities are primarily either in large cities or associated with larger colleges and universities. The fact that they are destination research centers makes their use primarily limited to the serious researcher.

Now we come to the impact of digitization. Now, for all practical purposes, anyone with a connection to the internet can access millions upon millions of books that include overwhelming number of genealogically relevant items. The main challenge with this monumental digitization effort is that the digital books, also called ebooks, are scattered all over the internet in thousands of different websites. Determining whether or not a particular book can be accessed on the internet in digital format can be a daunting research task.

Copyright law in the United States and elsewhere imposes a really strange and daunting limitation on research. I can go into a physical library and look at any book that is available regardless of the copyright status of the book. I do not have to know the copyright status of the book to check it out of the library. But digital books are viewed as a threat to the publishing industry and so copyrighted digital material is highly regulated as you can see anytime you rent a video and have to read the "FBI Warning." So, I can find a particular copyright protected book online and see that there is a digital copy available, but only under some very restricted circumstances can I actually read the digital copy of the book even though I could visit the library and read the physical copy of the book without that same limitation.

This restriction is slowly being eroded by digital libraries such as, but as yet, these online lending library arrangement contain very, very few books of research interest. Fortunately for genealogists, many of the books we find valuable for research purposes are in the public domain, so these books are more generally available online.

So how many books have now been digitized and where are they? That is the question. It is only through exceptionally diligent online research that anyone can find relevant digital books that are freely available. Some websites even restrict the use of public domain digital material as if they had ownership rights. For example, the Brigham Young University has a huge online collection of digital books numbering in the millions of volumes but access to the collection is limited to students, faculty and some staff members only. The books cannot even be researched on a limited basis by non-students. The irony of this situation is that if the BYU library were part of the organization, the public domain portion of their collection would be freely available online to anyone who was interested. What is even more interesting about this situation is that many much smaller and less important university libraries are active participants in the organization. See the HathiTrust Partnership Community.

My example of the Brigham Young University Library is just one of many examples of the spotty availability of digital books. One institution may make a given book freely available while the same book is classified in a restricted section of another website.

The question of numbers is really nearly impossible to answer. For example, Google Books has millions of digital books online but does not publish the total number anyplace that is discoverable. Some websites provide a number but the manner in which individual items are counted differs dramatically from website to website so an accurate count is impossible. All I can really say is that there are millions upon millions of books available online and that perhaps a subset of millions of those books have genealogical interest. I can also only say that as genealogists we need to remember to include detailed online book searches in all our general research efforts. The days of relying on local and larger libraries for this material are over. We still need to go to libraries for the yet-to-be-digitized items, but we can access so much online now that we should focus our initial efforts on online sources.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Update on Preserve the Pensions Project

The War of 1812 Pension Digitization Project has raised over $3 million in an online crowdsourcing effort sponsored by the National Archives,, and with extensive participation from genealogical community and the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). As prominently mentioned on the Preserve the Pensions website, as these valuable historical documents are digitized, they will be made available to all at no cost, and the original pension files can be retired to much less active use. So far, over 4 million images have been preserved.

FamilySearch volunteers are also matching the entries in the Pension Files to individuals in the Family Tree and in the future those individual entries will be indicated as being in the Pension Files.

Here is a screenshot of the free image link on

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Vanished Collection Reappears on Fold3

I recently wrote about a collection of Arizona World War II Draft Registration cards that appeared in the Historical Record Collections and then disappeared without any notice. Well, apparently, there was some negotiation going on because the collection showed up on as a "newly" added collection. No problem for me, I have access to both programs.

But perhaps this is a word to the wise that collections may end up moving from a "free" program to a subscription program without notice. I suppose this is good reason for making digital copies of the documents to your own computer database rather than relying entirely on online sources for storage. Don't get me wrong, I think moving as much as possible to online programs is a good idea but now I will try to be more careful to also keep a copy of all that I find on my own computer.

Moving Beyond Census Records: Part Nine: Finding Both the Living and the Dead

For reference, the forms and question lists for each of the remaining United States Federal Census years is as follows.

1920 Census

1930 Census

1940 Census

In each census year from 1920 to the present, the questions including the supplemental questions asked have become more detailed and extensive. By the 1940 Census there were 50 questions. However, some of the genealogically important questions, such as those pertaining to marriage, were asked of only a statically significant portion of the U.S. population and therefore become far less useful for genealogists. In addition, the number of readily accessible online public records has increased dramatically making the identification and location of individuals much easier since the 1930s.

For example, in the past few years, the large major online genealogy websites have included hundreds of millions of public records. Here are some of the examples of such records that have become readily available and completely searchable. It should be noted that these websites include information on people who are still living as well as those who are dead.

United States Public Records, 1970-2009
This collection is an index of names, birthdates, addresses, phone numbers, and possible relatives of people who reside in the United States between 1970 and 2009, although there are a few records outside this range. These records were generated from telephone directories, property tax assessments, credit applications, and other records available to the public.

U.S. Public Records Index, 1950-1993, Volumes 1 and 2
The U.S. Public Records Index is a compilation of various public records spanning all 50 states in the United States from 1950 to 1993. Entries in this index may contain the following information: name, street or mailing address, telephone number, birth date or birth year.

U.S. Public Records Index 1970-2010
This collection is an index of names, addresses, phone numbers, and possible relatives of people who resided in the United States between 1970 and 2010. These records were generated from telephone directories, property tax assessments, credit applications, voter registration lists and other records available to the public.

In addition, there are hundreds of other websites, mainly commercial websites, that can assist a researcher in finding and identifying even living people in the United States. Many of these commercial websites are involved is what is commonly referred to as "skip-trace" information. That is information about people who have "disappeared" usually because of debt collection efforts by debt collection agencies. There is a major industry that has developed in the United States helping creditors, attorneys and financial institutions to locate and identify people. 

Many genealogical researchers who are unfamiliar with the number and availability of public records about living people are both surprised and appalled at the detail of these records that has become immediately available for a small fee. Only the most sophisticated and diligent people can avoid being readily identifiable. The publically available information readily available to these companies includes details of people's lives that go well beyond the limited questions in the U.S. Census records. 

The largest of these online commercial databases are probably and Both of these very large companies have a web of subsidiaries for locating and providing information about living individuals. These services now come under the euphemism of "risk management" services. 

It may not be obvious to some, but one of the best methods to find people in the United States is through city directories and telephone books. All of the large online database companies have at least some of these directories incorporated into their collections. But there are other large online collections of such records. These can be found by searching for some combination of the words "digital historical city directories" or "digital online telephone directories." Some, perhaps most, of the online telephone directories are either pay-per-view or subscription services. 

Although the U.S. Census records are one of the most valuable collections of records in the country, they are just the barest of beginnings for doing adequate genealogical research. It is extremely important to use additional records to supplement the initial findings in census records both to correct errors in the census records and to expand the information found and fully document the lives of our ancestors.

Previous posts in this series.