Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Learning: 10 Source Citations Everyone Needs to Know

Learning how to do source citations is one of the most important steps to taking your research to the next level. As I was going through the process of learning about source citations, I had a vision in my mind of the lesson on source citations I wish I would have seen a long time ago. So that's what I've created for you all today, and I hope it becomes a benefit to everyone who sees it!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Getting Started: Thrift Shop Genealogy

One of the realities of being a young genealogist is that you are broke most of the time. Our income has a non-negotiable function of keeping us alive--and between paying our own bills, handling student/life-related debt, and the rest of our various expenses, there may not be much left over.

Calculate in the money we've already decided to spend on genealogy for software, record access and subscriptions, books, and research trips there isn't a lot left over. How we make our dime stretch is exactly what makes us so savvy--it's out of pure necessity.

So from one savvy researcher to another, I'm going to let you in on one of my best secrets in how I save money.

The Thrift Shop

I'm gonna pop some tags
Only got 20 dollars in my pocket

The thrift store has saved me thousands of dollars on my genealogy bottom line so far. As I've been unpacking and setting up my office, that much has become blatantly clear to me. Let me break down some of my finds with you by category, and leave any others you can think of in comments!

Office Supplies:

  • Binders - All sizes and colors
  • Report Covers - Smaller and lighter than binders, excellent for mailing reports or charts to family, genealogical societies, libraries, or clients
  • Various office supplies - dividers, hole punches, sheet protectors, organizer bins and trays, file boxes, staplers, etc.
  • Computer/ Tech gadgets - Wireless keyboards/mouse, external monitors, power cords, HDMI cables, plugs, cables, adapters of every kind.
  • Data storage - external hard drives, CDs, DVDs, flash drives, etc
  • Thank you cards - For grandma letting you tear her house apart looking through her stuff

Photos/Photo Restoration

  • Printers - also, any missing power cords or cables for yours
  • Paper - Standard, Photo, etc.
  • Ink cartridges
  • Scanners
  • Photo Albums
  • Frames
  • Software


  • Computer software - Family Tree Maker, Adobe Acrobat Pro, Photoshop, etc. If you're willing to use outdated programs as workarounds, this can save you hundreds of dollars on software.
  • General History - Some of my best Civil War resources were ones I found at the thrift store
  • Local Histories - ALWAYS stop by the thrift store on your research trips to where ancestors lived. You never know what you could find there.
  • Research References - Even though we don't use Chicago Manual of Style or MLA, principles of good research are universal. They're still worth a read. Same thing with used textbooks.
  • Dictionaries - Look for older references to be able to look up outdated words from old journals and letters
  • Atlases - Wish you had maps to mark up, hang on the wall, or use for a craft? Get an old atlas or map book from the thrift store and go to town
  • Also, check out and other used book sites. I refuse to pay full price for a book anymore. Sure, the publisher and the author don't get any money from me. But they should have thought of that before they charged $50 for book! You want my money? Put that crap on Kindle!

I'm not a cloud--I don't make it rain.

Giving Back/Service Opportunities

  • Bibles - Do you check Bibles at the thrift store to see if someone wrote family details in them? If you find one, have you ever tried to return it to the proper family? Did you know you can donate these to archives and they'll preserve/index this information? Even if you only take some shots with your camera phone and post them online, it's better than doing nothing. Be sure to take down the name of the store where you found it.
  • Photos - Have you ever found unmarked photos? If they're cheap, purchase them and see if you can't return them to their original owner. If your cash is short, try to take some decent shots with your camera phone, front and back. Post them online and see if you can't find the owners. Good genealogy karma is real, and you never know if someone might be trying to do the same thing for your family right now.


  • Music - I can't work without music in the background, and I always need more. Music is a powerful tool for jogging memories too. Get to know the music your grandparents listened to. Play it when they're around and see what memories come to mind as they hear it.
  • Movies


  • Dry Erase Maps - Get a map, put it in the proper sized frame, make sure the frame uses glass. You can now write on it with dry erase markers. Trace migrations, or even mark permanent locations in permanent marker
  • Photo Tree - Ever seen one of these jewelry trees at the thrift store? You can re-purpose it like I did using small picture frames from your local craft store. 
  • Cross Stitch - Once upon a time, family members would create a cross stitch of their family history. You can do the same thing, and sometimes thrift stores have the thread, needles, patterns, and hoops to get started
  • Scrap book - Also find your materials and trinkets here

And as a bonus, here's an anthem for your awesome thrift store finds:

Saturday, July 12, 2014

My AncestryDNA Review: A Cautionary Tale

[UPDATE: Please be advised that this review is almost two years old. In that time, there have been several changes to AncestryDNA's product. Because those features have greatly impacted the AncestryDNA test and its usefulness, I have given a second review of those additional features. Thank you for your continued interest. I wish all of you the best success in your efforts with DNA testing for genealogical pursuits. -Heather, 28 Jan 2016]

As some of you know, I took the AncestryDNA test back in February of this year. I got my results back a long time ago, and even though I posted them on Twitter I never blogged about them. I made a video about my immediate reaction, but never shared it. I wanted to give myself time to see, from start to finish, the impact their DNA test would have on my research. That's what makes a DNA test successful, in my book. What impact did it have on my research?

But first, let me share my results:

My AncestryDNA results

As you can see, I'm one of the most diverse people, genetically speaking, that you could ever hope to find. What I have to discover in terms of international research and connections to people across the globe cannot be understated. It has never been more apparent to me than it is now how much I need to make solid DNA connections with other people. It may be the only way I'll ever know some of my heritage.

As a matter of disclosure, both of my grandmothers were illegitimate children. So a significant amount of this genetic material represents people who are unknown to me.

What impact has the AncestryDNA ethnicity estimates had on your research?

Absolutely none. These genetic percentages have not had any impact on my research whatsoever. Not in terms of people I know about already, nor those I have yet to discover. How could they? The African heritage was of no surprise to me. I didn't need a test to confirm this to me. The biggest surprise to me were the amounts of Jewish heritage I possess. But again, what am I supposed to do with this information? How am I supposed to use that to find the people to whom I'm related? How is this of any genealogical benefit to me at all?

Paying for information I cannot use puts me into the exact same position I was in before I ever knew the information. In fact, I was better off BEFORE I took the AncestryDNA test in this respect because then at least I would still have $99 and could take a test from a different company.

My Suggestion: If AncestryDNA wants the ethnicity estimates to have greater value and overall impact on someone's research, this needs to play out in the cousin matches. Instead of telling me what the match's genetic breakdown was like, and leaving me wondering which part of their breakdown applies to me--tell me which one applies to me.

I won't pretend to understand what Ancestry's beef is with a chromosome browser, but in terms of privacy this feature I'm suggesting doesn't have to be complicated or threatening in any way. Even if you highlight, italicize, or bold the Region I share with my match, this is better than what this system currently does--which is nothing. Preferably, I would like it if they would at least show me the chromosomes that apply to this match. But if you can't/won't do that, give me something--anything--that I can work with.

Final grade for the AncestryDNA ethnicity estimates: D+
It has potential. They have demonstrated to me that they have the ability to deal with a complicated genetic sample like mine. But this feature is so under-developed, I'm glad it was never my real motivation for taking the test. Because if it were, I'd be even more disappointed.

What impact has the AncestryDNA cousin matching had on your research?

None. Worse than none. If I could give a negative score for this, I would.

This feature was the reason I took the AncestryDNA test. Believe it or not, I did my research on this test before I took it. I already knew the ethnicity results weren't going to impress me much. But I figured I would more than make up for that via the cousin matches. And to be honest, this didn't happen.

How can two little strands cause so much drama?
When I open my cousin matches, I have 188 pages of matches. At 50 matches per page, that may seem like a lot of people. But everything after page 3 are what they called "Distant Cousins." That means that they're 5th cousins or even more distant than that. The ancestor we share is so far removed from both of us that our chances of tracing them accurately on paper will be difficult. So in AncestryDNA's best interest, they don't count. Since AncestryDNA hasn't given me the tools I need to analyze these cousins more carefully, they've really given me no choice but to decide these distant cousins don't count.

Which leaves me with pages 1 through 3. And I honestly wish I had better things to say about the experience I'm having there. Because I paid $99 for these three pages of cousin matches, and it was the only money I had to spend on a DNA test. I want in my soul for it to have been worth it because I don't get a do-over with someone else. This is it, at least for the foreseeable future.

They've matched me with 2 second cousins, 6 third cousins, and 96 fourth cousins. Let me break down my real results for you by group:
  • One second cousin I already know. We have all of the same information. The other has a private tree and hasn't responded to my messages to find out who she is. 
  • Of my third cousin matches: 2 have private trees, 2 have public trees with no matches to anyone in my tree, and 2 have no tree. None of them have responded to my messages to collaborate
  • Of the 4th cousin matches: 17 have private trees. One of them has allowed me to see hers so far. Our connection could not be determined. 24 of my matches either had trees unavailable or no trees at all. That leaves me with 55 matches I can explore right now, none of which match anyone in my tree.
    (Three people have responded to my messages, but only to ask me for help. I was very grateful for their cooperation, please don't misunderstand. But when no relationship between us could be determined, how was that experience supposed to be anything but disappointing for all of us involved?)
  • The only matches I have where Ancestry could determine our shared ancestor--based on our matching trees and NOT DNA--were from the Distant Cousins category. And one of them I know for a fact is wrong because we both descend from step-children of the same ancestor. We have him in our trees as a father to his non-biological step children, but at least in mine I have marked him as a non-biological parent to Laura Griffin Clark. Not that this translates over to AncestryDNA at all, which is a stupid error on their part. (I'm sorry. I've tried to refrain from using the word "stupid" in this review because it's terribly non-constructive. But that's what that is. Not implementing the biological/adoption information from the Ancestry trees is stupid!)

It wasn't until I saw what other testing companies could offer me, and I discovered what a chromosome browser is, that I realized how short-changed I was. And apparently, this has been an ongoing battle with Customers of genealogical DNA testing from other companies have been asking for better DNA analysis tools. refuses to supply them, their rational being concerns of "privacy," and the idea that they want their product to be more "simple."

Let's talk about that word for a second. Simple. If something is simple, that means it is without significant barriers to the ends and objectives it was meant to achieve. It also means it should be approachable to all users, of any experience level, who choose to use it. True simplicity means I can achieve results without struggle, and anyone who comes before or after me should be able to do the same thing.

Simplicity does NOT mean that you deliver an inferior product, on purpose, at full market price to customers who don't know any better. That is not true simplicity. It's dishonesty. And the ways in which this test is inferior is not allowing people to achieve results, or oftentimes leading them to false conclusions. Not only is this bad for genealogical research, it goes against the Genealogical Proof Standards that professional genealogists know they're supposed to uphold.

And because AncestryDNA delivers such a sub-par product, it doesn't end up being simpler to the users in the end. It ends up being much more difficult for all of us to draw meaningful conclusions from our tests. So they need to come up with a better justification than this. Because that is a royal load of nonsense.

Potluck Mentality: Let me show up
but not bring anything!
My Suggestions: Make full participation in the cousin matching mandatory. If you're concerned about privacy and not getting your feelings hurt by what you find in a DNA test, then DNA testing is not for you. I shouldn't have to beat down someone else's door asking them to come play. We pay the same amount of money for our tests. They get to see my results, and I don't get to see theirs? This compromises my results, and means that has to deliver an inferior product to me because of someone else's potluck mentality.

DNA for genealogy HAS to be collaborative, or it does not work. By definition, it CANNOT work. You can't have a service that relies on comparative science, and isolate it down to services provided for a single user. But that's what AncestryDNA tries to do, and that's what users with privacy settings do. Privacy settings eliminate interactions between users. And it's an inappropriate way to approach DNA testing for genealogy.

Also, chromosome browser! Either buy one or build one! Or come up with something even better. Give me the analysis tools I need. I would say, "Or I'm going somewhere else." But that's already a foregone conclusion. I AM going somewhere else, anywhere else, that can do a better job with "cousin matching" than AncestryDNA.

Final grade for the AncestryDNA cousin matches: F
My disappointment with the service I have received is so complete, I have nothing good to say.

Final grade for the AncestryDNA test as a whole: D-

I trust as a company, they've always given me the best results in terms of genealogy related products. I am exactly the type of customer they should be trying to make happy. I'm not only fiercely loyal to their products, but I have consistently recommended them as the only place for my friends to go when they are serious about their genealogy research. Not only that, but I'm 24--I am their future. I am the market they most need to worry about reaching. They have a very real vested interest in keeping me happy for a long time.

While I still feel that in terms of record access, database quality, and mobile platforms they have no real rival in my eyes, I expected the same caliber of service from my DNA test. And I didn't get what I paid for.

I took this particular DNA test because I truly believed that had ambitions to be the market leader of DNA research--as they are in every other facet of what they do. I trust them to be around a long time with my information. I felt secure in that guarantee.

But seeing as they've decided to discontinue their Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA services, I don't see how they could ever be top-dog in the market now. Especially not after destroying irreplaceable DNA samples and removing access to the results from their website.

Until I see some momentum on their part in terms of change, I will not purchase another DNA test from them. I will not encourage anyone else to take an AncestryDNA test. In fact, I will join a growing vocal portion of the genealogical community that discourages people from taking AncestryDNA tests.

I feel ya! Same thing happened to me. What should I do now?

I wish I had a better answer. You can export your DNA results from AncestryDNA for free, but what to do with them at that point is a mystery to me. If you have $69 you can upload them to Family Tree DNA. They have way more analysis tools and they come highly recommended from a lot of people I've been listening to so far. You can buy a test from them too, but honestly they seem a little expensive to me.

23andMe is another option, and in terms of what I've seen of their interface via this Google Hangout, it looks pretty awesome. Wish I had $99 for another test.

Your other option is to wait for to come back online (like I am right now) and upload your AncestryDNA results there for free. They'll provide you with more analysis tools so you can see exactly what is going on with your DNA results. You know, so you can actually USE them for something. Here's to hoping that turns out better, but no word on their site about how long they're going to be MIA.

Maybe you'll get lucky and find some money in the street somewhere...