Sunday, September 18, 2016

Gmail for Genealogy

If your efforts to discover new family connections are anything like mine, you get a lot of email. Messages from DNA cousin matches, distant cousins, lineage societies, repositories, conferences--not to mention the promotions and updates from a host of websites and blogs. Eventually, your hobby takes over your inbox. And once you've missed enough messages from your spouse, the day job, or from some other activity not related to genealogy, the need for a separate inbox for genealogy becomes apparent.

The prettiest thing about my inbox isn't my flower, but when it's empty!

I've been a Gmail user many years. As a result, I had messages related to genealogy stashed in every corner of my personal inbox. I know Gmail has tools to wrangle in all of these messages, in ways that would make them easy to access. So, I finally got around to setting up my genealogy inbox. Even though it took some time, I can see now it was time well-spent.

Gmail has tons of features, options, and even some bonus features to make your genealogy experience all the more stream-lined and organized. Let's take a look at some of them, so you can make the most of your Gmail inbox for genealogy!

The Sidebar

Because I've been a Gmail user for so long, I've seen many incarnations of the left sidebar. I remember when it was elegant and simple. I remember the introduction of Google chat, the abysmal failure that was Google Buzz, the endless head scratching of Google+, and the game changer of Google Hangouts. Because I don't use most of these features, especially when I'm not in the throes of answering email, I disable most of them.

To disable these features for your Gmail inbox:

Click the Cogwheel icon on the top right side of the screen > Settings > Labels > Check or uncheck the Circles, Labels, and Categories you don't use.

To disable the Chat/Hangouts window:

Settings > Chat > Toggle to "Chat off"

Eliminating distractions begins with removing them from sight. By clearing out this real estate on your screen, you make it easier to get in and out of your inbox with minimal distractions.

Labels, Folders, and Filters 

Labels make up the bulk of how I organize my inbox--whether it's my personal inbox, or for genealogy. Because I'm a paperless genealogist, I have an organizational system for my digital files in Google Drive I follow fastidiously. I finally woke up one day and realized the labels and sub-labels in Gmail will allow me to replicate this same system.

Folders and labels are interchangeable. If you create a label, your inbox creates an identical folder. You're then able to label single or multiple messages, or move them from your inbox into one or more corresponding folders.

To do this, simply open a message, click on the folder or label buttons, create a new one by typing the name into the box, or checking one or more previously created labels or folders from the list.

The system I use involves creating a new folder for every surname in my research, then creating a sub-folder for individual people. So for example, I have a folder/label for all messages related to the Fenity family. But I also have separate sub-folders for Catherine Fenity, Pomp Fenity, and Callie Fenity. Now when I want a specific message about Catherine Fenity, I don't have to rely on using the search box, and hoping I use the right combination of search terms. It's much easier to find the messages I'm looking for when I take the time to sort them exactly the way I would access them in any other place.

I can also set it up where the only labels that appear in my left sidebar are those with unread messages.

To turn on this option:

Click on the Cogwheel > Settings > Labels > Choose "Show if Unread" for all of the labels you want to exhibit this behavior

Filters enhance this functionality by automatically sorting messages into combinations of labels or folders, according to the parameters you establish. So for the Fenity family again, I can set up a filter that will automatically label any new messages mentioning the Fenity surname.

To set up a filter:

Click the Cogwheel >  Settings > Filters and Blocked Addresses > Create a New Filter > Enter your desired criteria. If you have existing filters you'd like to migrate from another account, choose Import Filters.

With all of these features working together in an inbox dedicated entirely to genealogy, there's no way I will miss another important email with a valuable discovery just waiting for me to see it!


Creating contacts for different repositories, family members, historical and lineage societies, and repositories, can make your research process more seamless. Because Gmail contacts also provide a Notes section, my contacts list has become the most natural place to track the various records requests, and my interactions with repositories and lineage societies. Where I have a specific contact name, the date of my last inquiry and its outcome, and any restrictions or payment requirements I should remember, are all at my fingertips. Instead of looking up that information for the umpteenth time on a website, I can go straight to my inbox instead.

If your personal email is a Gmail account, and you've been using your personal email address book to track your genealogy contacts, you don't have to re-enter each one manually to a new email address. You can export certain groups, or all of your address book. Because I had previously organized my genealogy contacts into a group, it was easy enough to export the genealogy group as a CSV file.

Setting up groups of contacts based on a common surname, research project, DNA group, or a variety of other applications can be incredibly helpful. If you send out email updates on a project, want to include family members on some of your current research, don't forget to include someone just because their name didn't come to mind when you wrote or forwarded an email. The time it takes to set up your contact groups is worth the investment.

Bonus Features

There are tons of other features you can access in Gmail. Sometimes it's worth it just to poke around in the Settings menus to see what you come across. One place you can look for some bonus settings is the Labs tab, where you can find some beta features.

Some Labs features I'm trying out:

  • Canned Responses - "Save and then send your common messages using a button next to the compose form." If this one will let me set up a form message to my DNA matches, where I can add the interesting and specific bits, this could save me a lot of time!
  • Mark as Read Button - Allows me to mark messages as read without opening them. When I already know what a message says, I just want to get it out of my inbox. Adding this one step to my inbox screen keeps save me time when I process a lot of new emails.
  • Quick Links - "Adds a box to the left column that gives you 1-click access to any bookmarkable URL in Gmail." get back to your research faster by having your favorite sites bookmarked right in Gmail. If you're going to click away, why not get back to work, right? And if you like the look of an empty left sidebar, enabling this one comes with three little dots at the bottom of your sidebar. When you click on them, it hides the Quick Links section.

You can also check out the Themes tab, where you can use a ready-made theme, or add custom images to your Gmail background. Old family photos, maps, artwork, or even your own blog art can be a helpful way to differentiate your genealogy email from your personal email.

If you need to set a reminder to send some email, find or update contact information, or any other to-do list items, Gmail also has you covered. Click on the drop-down menu on the top left of your inbox screen (the same one where you access your Contacts) and click instead on Tasks. A small task list appears in the bottom left of your screen, complete with check boxes. Add your reminders in the place where it's most important to see them--the place that corresponds to the work you need to do--and you'll never forget to send another important email again!

So what are your favorite Gmail features? How are you using and adapting them to your genealogy and research needs? Let us know in comments!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Your DNA Cousin Match Database: Getting Started with our Excel Template

A reader from a recent post requested a template for setting up a DNA matching database. Because it's quick and easy to set one up in Excel, I threw one together quickly. Please feel free to reuse for non-commercial purposes, but not to repost.

When you open this file, it's going to be a View Only file in my Google Drive. In order to use it yourself, you need to download it. The link to do so is on the top right corner, next to the Print option. You'll then be free to use it in Excel, or with whatever other spreadsheet software you want to use that is compatible with Microsoft Excel.

I've got the Filters already set up and enabled, which means you'll be able to sort and filter information when you analyze the data. In order to see those matches with the greatest similarity/longest segments, sort your Segment Length column from largest to smallest. If you want to see the other matches that might also connect to a given cousin on the same chromosome, sort the Starting or Ending Point from largest to smallest. Reading the ranges between these two numbers, determine where there may be overlap. Use the matching utilities from your testing company or analysis website of choice to determine whether a match exists. Record your findings in your Notes section. If you're able to determine who the common ancestor(s) are that you share with a match, record that information in the Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA) column.

If you decide you want to move different columns around, or add more columns, I recommend turning off the Filters (highlight headers, Data > Filter button toggled off), changing things around, then turning the filters back on.

If you use the table in Excel, I've frozen the column headers, so they continue to show up as you scroll down through the data. To enable or disable this option, highlight the headers, go to View > Freeze Panes > Unfreeze Columns, Freeze Top Row, or Freeze First Column, according to what your preferences are. I don't know if this option works in Google Sheets or not, or in any other spreadsheet software. So bear that in mind.

However, now that I'm seeing this open in Google Sheets, I think anyone who decides to use this may want to consider using it there. Not only will this allow you to access your spreadsheet from multiple devices at once, the layout of the file itself is much nice in Sheets than in Excel. Because of the way Excel scrolls the tabs across the bottom of the screen, you have to click through a series of tabs over and over again to get from Chromosome 1 to Chromosome 22. In Google Sheets, however, all of the tabs display across the bottom without any of them being hidden. This may not be an issue, depending on the size of your monitor or display resolution. But definitely check around to see what you like/makes your life easier!

Let us know how it works out for you in the comments, and be sure to like and subscribe to our Genetic Genealogy series on Youtube!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Giving Back: Indexing & Transcription Opportunities for Genealogists

So, who wants more free genealogy records online?

Who wants to find them, transcribe them, build the database to host them, and pay to maintain them?

I think we're all a little guilty of this. Whether it's because we simply don't know about all of the opportunities available, or we think we don't have the necessary skills required, or we're just feeling too lazy/busy/set in our ways to help. We've all made the excuses. But there's no time like the present to jump in and lend a helping hand!

Records are unsearchable, and therefore invisible, until they are transcribed, tagged, and indexed. If we want things to be free and searchable, we need to be part of the cost cutting measures. And the repositories who are already taking on the bulk of this free access burden need our help with the most time consuming part. It's the single greatest contribution we can make to a record collection. Why wouldn't we share the skills we've accumulated as genealogists to help institutions across the globe to provide better records access to all of us? If we aren't part of the solution, we're part of the problem.

Check your favorite repositories--local, state, regional, and national--to see what they need from you. If you come across, sponsor, or need volunteers for any transcribing projects, add them in comments!

These are the ones I've come across so far just through Google searching, my own research, and reaching out on social media.

International/National Projects:

State (US):

There are certainly more projects available out there than just these. So please, let us know when you find them. 

The research you help by giving back may just be your own!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Setting Up a DNA Cousin Match Database: A Success Story

DNA testing for genealogy is one of the best investments I've ever made into my research. The more I invest into my understanding of the subject, the greater returns I receive from it. And at no point was that ever more apparent than when I connected with a distant cousin several months ago.

Photo of Charles Miller Doyle and Birdie Price
from the collection of Irene Doyle Ashley,
 ca. 1920-1950; Scanned by Dwight Edwards,
Alameda California, 2016.
I initially reached out to this cousin more than a year ago, at a point when I was just beginning to figure out what I was doing with DNA analysis. I'd written dozens of such emails, and finally clued into something important. Reaching out to a DNA cousin match is good. Offering to help them determine the connection you share is better. But being able to share a real theory about where you think that connection is--this is the best approach, the essential component to every email we write to DNA cousin matches.

Had I not mentioned to this cousin that I was a Doyle descendant, and through looking around at shared matches I suspected he was too, he might never have written me back. He might have never taken the time to answer the vague form email I'd gotten into the habit of sending. And that would be truly tragic, because without this connection I never would have seen the pictures he shared with me of my 2x great grandparents.

Even though I made this connection on AncestryDNA, the real potential of this connection is untapped at, where I can analyze the DNA segments in greater detail. But inviting him to use GEDmatch and performing the analysis of our DNA segments were only the beginning. Having a way to compare our match to hundreds of other matches, in detail, across various other testing websites is the necessary next step.

By setting up a DNA database, harnessing the powerhouse of DNA testing for genetic genealogy becomes a reality. And in my newest tutorial, I explain how to set up such a database in spreadsheet software you already use. Whether you use Microsoft Excel or Access, Google Sheets, or any other type of spreadsheet software, many of these tips I share will help you to get started with your DNA cousin match analysis.

In many respects, setting up a centralized database of DNA matches isn't a question of starting over. It's learning how to be more organized int he efforts you're already making, in order to obtain the results you want, and solve the mysteries you're trying to unravel through DNA.

[ UPDATE: Be sure to check out our free Excel template for setting up your own DNA database, based on this presentation! ]

Friday, April 1, 2016

Guest Post: Translating the Past

When I was eight years old, my family was given an amazing gift by our distant relatives in Germany: an enormous green book, full of our family history, dating all the way back to 1610. However, there was one problem - the entire book was written in German, a language no one in my family spoke. The mysteries of our family history would have to wait.

Source: Katherine Schober of SK Translations
All rights reserved
When I began high school seven years later, I was thrilled to discover that one of the foreign languages they offered was German. Along with my cousin, I began studying the language, with all of its confusing grammar, male and female nouns and funny little umlauts. Despite its difficulty, I soon began to love German's intricacies, and, slowly but surely, I was able to read more and more of our family's "big green book." As I went on to get both my Bachelors and Masters degrees in German in the following years, I was excited to be able to read even more stories from our family history book, learning exactly which relative came to America from Germany and when. I share my family story in a post on my blog, From Germany to Missouri: My Own Family Story.

Today, I have turned this passion into a career, helping other people discover their ancestors by translating old German documents and handwriting into English.

As a German-English genealogy translator, I work with all kinds of documents, including old letters, newspapers, church registers and various certificates (baptismal, marriage, death). While some people might be tempted to use Google Translate for their translation needs, the tool unfortunately doesn't cut it for genealogy documents. In addition to the obvious reason of Google not being able to read handwriting, genealogy documents often contain old-fashioned words and abbreviations that Google isn't capable of translating. Plus, if Google is confronted with difficult grammar or certain idioms, the translation output simply doesn't make sense. My guest post on Geneabloggers explains in detail the Six Reasons Why a Human is Better than Google Translate for Genealogy Documents.

That being said, Google Translate can be used for translating individual (modern) words. If you want to know that "Bruder" means brother, for example, the tool can be quite helpful. However, if you want to be able to read a baptismal certificate, or the contents of a love letter from your great-grandmother to your great-grandfather, a translator is the clear way to go. How does this translation process work, you ask? Check out my steps below:

Step 1: Transcription

The first part of the translation process is to transcribe the old handwriting into actual text. In Germany, for example, our ancestors used a type of Gothic-style writing called Kurrentschrift, which is a script very different from the “normal writing” used in Germany nowadays. As you can see below, an “e” looks like a cursive “n”, the lowercase “p” and “g” are almost entirely the same, and there are three different types of the letter “s”. Combine these differences with various styles of handwriting, and it can be quite a challenge!

Source: Katherine Schober of SK Translations
All rights reserved

Using a sample alphabet, called a key, can be helpful to identify each letter until words begin to emerge. These samples can be found online for a variety of languages, including German. The one on the left is a Kurrentschrift sample from 1865, and is available to download from Wikipedia.

Every now and then during the transcription, a word in a letter or document might give me pause. When this happens, I play a sort of hangman game with myself, filling in the spaces of the letters I recognize in order to see what that one indecipherable letter in the middle might be. When I figure it out based on the other letters and the context, I feel an immense sense of satisfaction. For me, these words are a key to the past, and I enjoy unlocking them for my clients.

Step 2: Translation

Once I finish transcribing the handwriting into typed German text, the translation part of the job begins. This is usually the easy part, as the documents are often straightforward and fun to translate. An avid history enthusiast, I am just as curious to see what your ancestors were like as you are.

One of my most interesting jobs was translating a series of letters from a family in Germany to their relatives in America between 1943 and 1956. In the first few letters, the German family, stuck in the horrors of World War II, wrote to their cousins in America begging for support. After initially sending a letter stating the items they needed (shoes, clothes, flour, etc.), they then sent a rather insulting letter a few months later as to why the rich American relatives hadn't sent any provisions to help their family in their time of need. The third letter a week later then offered an extremely embarrassed apology, explaining that the American care package must have crossed in the mail with their “insulting” letter, and that they did receive the goods and were ever so grateful.

This one sided-exchange was like watching a story unfold, and it is all the more interesting when you know that the story is true. Every family has such stories waiting to be told - don't let yours get lost to the depths of history!

Step 3: Delivery

My favorite part of the translation process is sending the finished project to the client. People are very excited to be able to "get to know" their ancestors more deeply, and I love being a part of this process. Whether it be reading the very words that their great-great-grandmother wrote about starting life in a new country, or finding out exactly where their great-grandfather was born so that they can make a trip to see his hometown, the genealogy translation process is very special.

Although the genealogy search can be overwhelming, understanding where you come from and reading the words of your ancestors is an incredibly rewarding experience. Through translating documents from the past, I have learned that our ancestors, although they lived in different times, are not so different from us. They too had worries, hopes and dreams, and it is an incredible gift to be able to learn what these dreams were. It is important for us, as the younger generation, to take advantage of that gift, keeping the words of our ancestors alive today.

Katherine Schober is a German translator, specializing in genealogy. After living in Austria for four years, she recently moved back to the States with her Austrian husband. She works with old German handwriting in letters, certificates, church registers and other documents. Contact her at for more information on her services, or follow her on Twitter @SK_Translations

 © 2016 Katherine Schober
All rights reserved

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Remembering Our Foremothers: Researching Women's Suffrage

(Source: North Carolina Museum of History)
March in the United States is Women's History Month. And since it's also an election year, there's no better time to consider how the lives of the women who came before us were shaped by the women's suffrage movement.

When we think of women getting the right to vote and the fight to pass the 19th Amendment, we often think of movies like Iron-Jawed Angels. We remember the "main characters" Alice Paul or Susan B. Anthony. But women's suffrage didn't just exist in political arenas with well-known activists. It was a subject on which men and women without any kind of political office or formal influence formulated their own opinions. They acted, or were prevented from acting on those beliefs, based on where they were living and the larger powers at play.

Understanding how women's suffrage affected local communities is a largely unexplored topic. Full surveys of records related to this movement for many locations throughout the U.S. do not exist. When these records are gathered into one collection, they often are not a high priority for digitization. Much good can be accomplished by the genealogical community to advocate for access to these records. 

But in order to understand the necessity of that advocacy, seeing what I found as I researched women's suffrage in the American South will illustrate some of the challenges that may await you.

Where do I begin in researching women's suffrage?

Before you touch a single voter list or registration record, there is some information you should collect for yourself first. You want to identify the women in your family who were alive in your country of interest at the time women received the right to vote. While this varies by state and municipality in the U.S., beginning with the women of or close to voting age at the 1920 election can be a good place to start. You can then move forward in four-year increments, to trace where these women were living and how old they were at each subsequent election.

I'm keeping track of this information on a spreadsheet, which you can see here:

Information that you'll want to track on your spreadsheet includes:

  • Full name (maiden and married surnames)
  • Whether the woman attended school
  • Whether the woman was literate
  • Repositories and record collections of interest to the cities, counties, or regions you're researching
  • Her age and residence at each election, beginning when women were allowed to vote in her state
I found that the 1910 and 1920 US Population Schedules of the census were the most helpful in determining literacy and schooling, since these questions were addressed directly on the population schedules for those years. For residence information, I copied the district information directly from the 1920 census because these districts will often correspond to election districts. 

Much of the information you need to determine a woman's voting status can be found on records you already possess in your research. Looking more closely at these records to determine what you "already know" about your female ancestors may reveal some details you've missed.

Understanding Voter Requirements

Many states used carefully crafted voter requirements to prevent undesirables from participating in elections. These requirements were most common in southern states, and are usually outlined in state constitutions from the time period in question. Since the majority of the women I was searching for lived in southern Virginia, I decided to start there. Because I was beginning my research with the election of 1920, I wanted to know what the voter registration requirements were like at that time.

The 1902 state constitution of Virginia outlines the voter requirements at work throughout the early 1920s. Their requirements were typical of other states in the South:

  • Women had to be 21 years old, a state resident for at least 2 years, a resident in their county for 1 year, and a resident in their voting precinct for as little as 30 days or as long as 6 months. This meant that if you were a woman who moved to Virginia less than two years before an election year, you would lose the right to vote in the state of Virginia.
  • Men and women were required to pass literacy tests. This test was defined as the voter registrant assigning you a portion of the Virginia state constitution to read and interpret. Since female children in the South often came from farming families, they were expected to drop out of school to work the farm, usually at younger ages than their brothers. The lack of prioritizing female education made it much more unlikely that women in the state of Virginia could pass a literacy test.
  • Voters in Virginia were also required to pay a poll tax. Without the ability to gain lasting, gainful employment outside the home in many rural communities, women often were not in a position to pay poll tax. If a family's income was sufficient for one person to register in a household, undoubtedly it would be a man who would do so.
  • The only exception to these requirements were veterans and their sons, and property owners who had paid at least $1 in property taxes in the past year. Wives rarely inherited their husband's estate. Instead a wife was often given a child's portion, along with her children, as her husband's estate was divided. Depending on the size of her portion, or pressure from her sons to relinquish her land, she may never have enough property to pay a full $1 in property taxes in a year. And since women were not permitted to enter military service, they would never be given leniency on the literacy test or excused from paying poll taxes. Daughters of veterans did not quality, and were also not afforded the same leniency given to their brothers.

These voter requirements were not declared unconstitutional in the state of Virginia until the passage of the 24th Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This means that every woman residing in Virginia and attempting to vote between 1920 and 1965 was bound by these restrictions.

Source: Unknown

When I refer back to my spreadsheet, I see that my ancestor Celia Jane McMeans was living in Virginia at the time the 19th Amendment was ratified. Even though this should have fully enfranchised her, she was prevented from voting because she could not pass the literacy test. This fact about her life had never surfaced before because I'd never put all of these pieces together until now. And it saddens me profoundly to see how she and other women in my family were prevented from exercising their right to vote.

But what saddens me more is how difficult it was for me to uncover that they were denied this right. I had to piece all of this together, without the benefit of access to voter or suffrage records of any kind. And the frustrating thing is, I know these records exist. I know where they're kept. But because I live 2,000 miles away from them, I may never see them or know if they hold any information about my family.

Finding & Accessing Records Related to Suffrage

Few records related to women's suffrage have been made fully available to the public. Many of these records have not been microfilmed, digitized, or indexed. As such, the only way to view many of them is by visiting special collections or research rooms to see and handle the original documents. Often collections of these types are exceedingly fragile, and can only be handled by appointment with the assistance of repository staff.

Some of the most common records to search for are voter lists or voter registration records. These are similar to city directories, in that they're organized roughly by geography and generally list people by first and last name. Voter lists may or may not have addresses on them. However, if a person appears on a voter list, it's because they registered (and fully intended) to vote.

Other records that would be useful to search are from local branches of women's suffrage leagues and organizations. The meetings, protests, and activism of these suffrage leagues were often reported in local and regional newspapers and women's suffrage publications. Searching various newspaper collections, Google Books, and state archives and historical societies can be helpful places to start. Once you identify the organizations that were working towards women's suffrage in a local community, the research question becomes determining whether your ancestor was associated with that organization.

Because my research for women's suffrage focuses primarily on Grayson and Pittsylvania Counties in Virginia, the local women's suffrage league chapters of interest to me are the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. The Library of Virginia has provided a thorough research guide for the records in their collection, including the membership lists for various counties in Virginia. However, these records have not been digitized, and no one I contacted is aware of any plans to do so.

(Source: The Virginia Historical Society)

When this happens, local historical societies, courthouses, and public libraries and archives may have their own copies of records related to these suffrage leagues, or alternatives to them. But because local repositories often lack a complete catalog of their local history and genealogy-related items, it can be difficult to determine exactly what records they have. Using the Ask a Librarian section or sending an email to ask about specific records that might exist is sometimes the only way to compensate for the lack of an online catalog.

I also enjoy reaching out to other researchers in my counties of interest via Facebook research groups. Thanks to the Grayson County, Virginia Facebook group, I know that some voter records still exist and are kept in the basement of the courthouse. Using websites like Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness also makes it possible to find volunteers who are willing to search those records at little to no cost--or to provide such a service in your local community, if you are willing.

There must be a greater effort given to indexing the records related to women's suffrage while we still have them. Without them, many of us in the younger generations will never know about our personal connections to this period in women's history. This would effectively and tragically silence the voices of one of the most important generations of women who ever lived.

At the height of its activities, the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia alone had about 20,000 members. Many among these are women whose names have never before been associated with the cause of women's suffrage. We all agree that their struggles and sacrifices in relation to suffrage should be remembered. But what are each of us doing in our research, and what are these repositories allowing us to do, to make sure these contributions are never forgotten?

Preserving Memories

Some of your female ancestors may have been voting long before the 19th amendment was ratified. Others may have continued to struggle for that right until it was granted long afterwards. Some may never have gotten to exercise their full rights of citizenship, and some may have refused to do so. Recording the civic behavior of our foremothers is an important part of their story, no matter how far removed they are from that first election. And as with many research projects in genealogy, it may be easiest to start with your closest female relatives and work backwards.

Some interview questions that might be helpful to ask the women in your life:

  • What was the first election your remember voting in? Do you remember who you voted for?
  • Did you vote for...? (Example: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, any other president that would be a good conversation starter, or be of particular interest in the future.)
  • Do you ever remember going with your mother or father when they voted? Do you remember where the polling place was?
  • Was it hard for you to choose a political party? Why or why not?
  • How have your political views changed since you were younger? 
  • What does it mean to you to have the right to vote as a woman today? What do you want your posterity to remember as they exercise their right to vote?

Preserving the voices of the women in our lives today is part of the ongoing legacy of women's suffrage and the 19th Amendment. How well we preserve that legacy will determine what the future generations of women voters will see when they look to us. They'll want to know what we did with the greatest degree of civic and social influence women have ever had.

And if there's anything we can learn from 20,000 Virginia suffragists whose voices are currently silenced on a shelf, let it be that recording the civic stories of our mothers will allow us to avoid the same fate.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Learning: The Trouble with Indexes

I am a huge proponent of indexing, especially as a volunteer. I believe that the volume of records left to be made available to the public is so enormous, that volunteer indexing is the only way many records will ever see the light of day. There simply aren't enough resources--in money or time--for any one organization to pay for what records exist to be indexed.

So it falls to every genealogist, the users of these records, to seek volunteer opportunities to index records wherever possible. Everyone who cares about these records, and the people listed on them, must become a well-trained custodian of the past. How we index records is a part of that stewardship.

So when we consider what makes up a good index of a record set, I think we can agree on some core elements.


The index that is created must be an accurate representation of what is written on the records. Some errors will always present themselves due to transcription, and these are especially understandable with handwritten records. But an index greatly loses value when all names and details that appear on the records are not included, or the index misrepresents any data points.


The index should be searchable by all relevant data points. And I'm consistently in the camp that says that if it appears on the record, it's relevant information. While it may not be practical to make every record searchable by every data point, an index's search functionality should be as inclusive as possible to every name that appears on the record.

One significant example of a commonly missing search parameter is race. At the time of this writing, the only website of the Big Four (, My Heritage, FindMyPast, and FamilySearch) that allows you to search universally by race is This creates a significant impediment to doing research for anyone of African descent.

The problem becomes compounded increasingly when the black individuals for which I'm searching are not African American, and have no connection to the United States. But the example I'll be addressing below applies specifically to the challenges of indexing African American records.

Availability of Original Images

Not every index can provide images for original records. To do so is often cost prohibitive, especially for smaller organizations that are new to indexing.

However, every index should communicate the origins for the information being indexed. Date ranges, specific locations, repository, and all other information necessary to obtain copies of the original images should be present in the index description and item descriptions.

Not only does this aid in the crafting of quality source citations, but makes it possible for interested parties to request original copies.

I think we can all agree that the organization that makes it easiest for genealogists to index records on a large scale is FamilySearch. Their interface has provided the standard for any organization wanting to engage their communities in indexing efforts. What they deliver, especially since it relies almost entirely on volunteers, is impressive.

But sometimes even they can miss the mark.

Pittsylvania County, Virignia Death Index on FamilySearch: A Bad Example

What happens when an index is created, but many of the above points are ignored? How does it affect a person's ability to find desired records?

After the Ben Affleck/Finding Your Roots controversy hit the fan, it really got me thinking about what the best approach is to document slavery. And while I think everyone has a right of privacy to share or withhold whatever they want about their family to an international audience, I think slavery demands more of genealogists and family historians. Because I have slave holders and slaves throughout various lines of my family, I've decided to document both groups with total openness and objectivity.

Pittsylvania County, Virginia has a treasure trove of records in comparison to other communities in the South, including for African Americans. I decided to start there, which led me to Virginia Deaths and Burials, 1853-1912 on FamilySearch.

When I first sat down to do this project in September of last year, there was no way to search this collection by race. As of this writing, that has since changed. Because I was specifically interested in slaves held by the Keatts family in Pittsylvania County, my search parameters included the years 1853-1865.

The following are examples of records I found.

One issue I noticed, having seen both the originals and another index of these records, is the placement of the slave holder's name. As you can see here, it has been placed in the father's name position. While I cannot comment on the paternity of any of the slaves owned by my family, I can vouch for the fact that the original records made no such attempt. On the original records as provided by the other index, Richard Keatts is labelled in a column specifically designated for the owner of deceased slaves. He is also listed as the Consort, or informant.

The practice of putting the slave owner's name in the father's name field is consistent throughout the collection, regardless of the gender or relationship of the owner. Aletha "Letty" Keatts is female, the sister of Richard Keatts, and her name also appears in the father's field.

Upon closer inspection of the FamilySearch collection, giving the owner's name, followed by "(Owner)," and providing that information as the father's name appears to be the convention for all records related to slaves in Pittsylvania County. In order to have that degree of compliance with this many records, this has to be what the indexers of the collection were instructed to do. However, without the original images, I cannot say whether every slave holder in the FamilySearch collection has such a designation. Additionally, that convention is not disclosed in any description of the collection, or in the Known Issues page of the collection that I could find.

Additionally, the emancipation status of every African American was stated plainly on the original records. Whether the deceased was white was answered with a Yes or No. In a second column, labeled "Colored," their emancipation status was listed as either "Slave" or "Free." However, that information was not indexed in the FamilySearch collection.

While it may be possible to isolate all of the enslaved African Americans by using the race search box and searching for "Owner" in the father's name field, there are some issues with this approach. The first is that I cannot determine if every slave holder has such a designation. The second issue is that every search result with that designation appears twice--once as a result for the deceased individual, and once for the so-called father/owner.

As a result, anyone trying to find enslaved ancestors in Pittsylvania County for this time period has to comb through a results list full of duplicates. Anyone trying to find emancipated ancestors for the same time period is unable to isolate these results from everything else. Given that this information is so clearly stated on the records, the real issue here is the way the records were indexed. The indexing program simply didn't have fields to index the names of slave holders.

But if real efforts are going to be made to index records pertaining to African Americans and their ancestors, these improvements to the indexing program need to be made. And the fastest, simplest way to correct all of the issues related to these records is to re-index the collection.

While it is possible to rely on user submitted corrections to individual records, which FamilySearch stated to me as their proposed solution, the lack of thorough correction to all affected records shows a real lack of accountability for the situation they've created. Some might also say that an inaccurate or "quirky" index is better than no index at all. But for errors that so disproportionately affect the African American community, such a glib response is unconscionable. It leaves us to wonder how many other collections related to slavery have similarly botched indexes, and what FamilySearch is doing to identify and correct these issues.

A Lesson Learned

The most important lesson to take from this example is that indexing efforts should be well-planned if we expect them to be well-executed. Taking shortcuts, or trying to avoid proper adaptation of current resources to created a true derivative, ultimately creates more work than it alleviates.

Because of the way computer databases are constructed on the back end, the only chance there is to address multiple records at once is when the collection is indexed. After that, it is a one-by-one, tedious effort to do any corrections.

Indexes can be incredibly useful. They serve a necessary, low-cost function in providing free access to records. But unfortunately, there is a dark and messy underbelly to them of which every genealogist should be aware before using them.

The issues that come with them sometimes make them about as useful as another brick in the wall.