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Monday, June 23, 2014
An Interview With ACPL Genealogy Center Director Curt Witcher
Posted by Diane
What if you could go to work every day in the United States' largest public library genealogy collection?
Curt Witcher does: He's the director of the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library (ACPL) in Fort Wayne, Ind., which has collections covering the United States and beyond.
Witcher kindly took time to be interviewed for the July/August 2014 Family Tree Magazine, but we didn't have space to include the whole Q&A in the issue. Here's the rest of our enlightening conversation about the Genealogy Center and a unique family history resource that its librarians produce:
Q. How many visitors do you get on an average day?
A. It depends on the weather. We could see only a couple dozen on bad days, but we push 1,000 people some days. In 2013, we saw just over 96,000. Between May and August, about 80 percent of patrons come from out-of-county.
Q. How does The Genealogy Center continue to thrive in the public library setting?
A. Libraries have a lot of competing priorities these days.
It can be really challenging for libraries to have a large and noted special collection like we have. We were born more than 50 years ago out of desire to serve the underserved genealogists. It was like throwing a match on dry wood: the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Indiana state library and others started donating historical materials to us. We now have north of 1.1 million physical items.
We’ve had some pretty consequential endowment gifts specifically for the Genealogy Center. But to be honest, the community loves the fact that we have this center. We account for $6.3 million in indirect economic impact, like hotels and restaurant business. This community also has a century-long love affair with the library. Its per-capita support is in top 10 percent. The library takes up an entire block and has 13 branches.
Q. You must be very proud to watch PERSI grow up.
A. PERSI [the Periodical Source Index to genealogy articles in US and Canadian magazines and journals] is the brainchild of my predecessor as manager, Michael Clegg. He wanted to do something consequential for genealogists worldwide, like a Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature but for genealogy and local history.
We’ve run a pretty modest operation but through our partners over the years we’ve done pretty great things. First PERSI came out in paper. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had a partnership with what’s now FamilySearch International to put PERSI on microfiche, then broadcast it out to their Family History Centers. It was our first breakout from the traditional print library market—to make PERSI more mass distributed.
Then we worked with Ancestry.com, then HeritageQuest, to get it online. Now we're over the moon to partner with FindMyPast and add digitized content. Customers today are not satisfied to find the indexed entry. Their expectation is to get to the article with a click.
With keyword searching on Google, why do we still need PERSI?
People are tired of huge datasets. We don’t want 31 million hits on a narrow topic.
The more-sophisticated searchers know that not everything most important is on the first five pages of Google search results. We’re so committed to having another way to find their family history. If you don’t use periodical literature, you risk missing 30 percent of the materials you need to move your research forward.
Q. What is your role with PERSI now at ACPL?
A. We continue to subject-index PERSI (it’s not an every-name index). We have the equivalent of 6 full-time staff on PERSI. We thumb through every page to make sure we don’t miss anything. Easily 25 percent of these publications have significant articles that just don’t make it to the title page. It’s not the most exciting job to index every article, but you understand you’re contributing to one-of-a-kind resource for the exciting family history world.
See the July/August 2014 Family Tree Magazine for more Q&A with Curt Witcher.
5 Questions Plus | Libraries and Archives | Research Tips
Monday, June 23, 2014 10:05:24 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Genealogy Q&A With Mocavo Chief Scientist Matt Garner
Posted by Diane
We were thrilled when genealogy website Mocavo's
chief scientist, Matt Garner, agreed to be quizzed by Genealogy
Insider columnist Sunny Jane
Morton for the "Five Questions" Q&A in the May/June 2014
Family Tree Magazine (now mailing to subscribers
and coming soon to ShopFamilyTree.com).
Garner has one of the brightest minds in the
genealogy technology field. He leads the team developing "intelligent character recognition" software, which
eventually will be able to "read" handwritten records—making them
(relatively) quickly and easily searchable online.
Journalists typically ask more questions than they think they'll
need, to elicit the most interesting information.
We had a hard time limiting Garner's answers to just five for the magazine, so we're sharing them all here:
You’re the chief scientist at Mocavo now. Do you wear
a lab coat, use test tubes or anything like that?
While my title may conjure up images of Bill Nye, or
perhaps a mysterious, maniacal laugh, it simply means that I
oversee the research and development team at Mocavo. We work on
exciting things like electronically detecting and transcribing
handwriting from historical documents, improving the accuracy of
documents read by optical character recognition (OCR) and
generally using technology to both accelerate the pace and the
usability of historical data that is brought online.
What’s your lab like?
My “laboratory” is pretty amazing: a supercomputer, containing more
than 2,000 high-end CPUs. At the helm, my desk rivals NASA’s mission
control. My walls are covered with additional screens displaying
up-to-the-minute data, surrounded by oversized white boards
containing copious amounts of detailed scribbling from our most
How did you land in the genealogy industry?
I remember spending full days alone in the Family History Library in
Salt Lake City when I was only 9 years old. Every time I have left
the family history industry, my heart finds its way back. I’m just
as passionate about a document that contains hundreds of names as
I am about, say, a handwritten letter that may only relate to a
single individual. I know that to someone, somewhere, that
document has great value.
I’m also passionate about using technology to solve large-scale
challenges and problems. I’ve worked in a number of IT-related
positions and have been lucky to be able to find a number of
positions where both my engineering skills and my passion for
family history have aligned. Every time I have left the family
history industry, my heart finds its way back.
What historical writing style just about drives
you—and the computer—crazy?
Interestingly, it’s modern handwriting that is
disastrous. The advent of the typewriter (and subsequently the
computer) has lowered the standard of handwriting beyond
recognition and utility. Centuries-old handwriting, with a bit of
practice, is still largely legible by both man and machine.
Some of the bigger challenges surround cases where script is
handwritten on preprinted forms and overlaps printed lines and
text on the forms. It is more difficult to read such documents
accurately than freeform, handwritten letters.
What’s the coolest historical document you’ve ever
seen? OR Do you have a favorite historical font, type of writing,
I’m very fascinated by the RMS Titanic. While
working at FindMyPast in London, I was involved in bringing online
the complete, handwritten passenger lists for her fateful voyage.
Also, I later got to take a look at the original, handwritten
personnel file of Edward Smith, her captain, which was from the
personal collection at the private home of the Commodore of the
present day Cunard White Star line.
In a past job you handled credit card megadata.
What’s more fun, Mastercard accounts or genealogical documents?
The last position I held prior to making the jump into
the family history industry was in the Chief Technical Officer
role at a large credit card processing company. I was responsible
for making sure that literally millions of dollars got from point
A to point B on a daily basis and especially, that no
hackers invited themselves into the mix. The security protocols
were stringent and extreme. I was on-call 24/7. The position was
exceptionally stressful and demanding.
I recall once a split-second-long glitch in our system caused a
six-figure sum of our clients’ money to disappear into thin air.
Luckily, after some considerable, and painstaking,
around-the-clock effort, we got every penny back to its rightful
I certainly don’t miss even an ounce of the day-to-day stress of
that much responsibility. Luckily, all the gray hairs I gained
from that position have since regained their color.
What do you do when you’re not at your computer?
I pretty much spend all my spare time entertaining my
twin 3-year-old daughters, which is undoubtedly the highlight of
my day. Other than that, you might run into me at the local home
improvement store. I’m always in the middle of two or three DIY
projects around the house.
You’ve flipflopped between leading companies and
providing brainpower behind the scenes. What role suits you best?
I’ve enjoyed my time at each company in the industry
that I’ve had the privilege of contributing to. Pretty much all of
my roles have been similar—working simultaneously in product
design, software engineering and R&D, in one way or another.
I’ve also founded two of my own companies in the family history
space. Both were acquired by bigger companies in the industry and
became integrated into their respective products.
Much to my wife’s chagrin, I think I really am an entrepreneur at
heart. I prefer small, nimble teams and am always on the lookout
for the next big thing in the industry.
Mocavo features a genealogy search engine, historical records (free to search one collection at a time) and family trees. Want to see how you can find ancestors with Mocavo? Watch Family Tree University's Making the Most of Mocavo video course, available in ShopFamilyTree.com.
5 Questions Plus | Genealogy Web Sites
Tuesday, April 15, 2014 10:01:55 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Q&A With Dick Eastman, the RV-ing Genealogy Blogger
Posted by Diane
For the “Five Questions” interview of our March/April 2012 Family Tree Magazine (page 12), we asked genealogy blogger Dick Eastman about his adventures in his new RV.
(March/April subscriber issues are mailing now, and the digital edition is available at ShopFamilyTree.com. The issue will be on newsstands starting March 6.)
It was hard to choose just five of Dick's answers for the magazine, so I’m putting all of them here. You can read even more about Dick’s peripatetic life from his RV blog.
Q. How long have you wanted to tour the country in an RV?
A. More or less forever. I don't remember when the idea first occurred to me, although I know it was many years ago. I have traveled extensively for business and for personal vacations most of my life. The "vagabond lifestyle" appeals to me. Now, for the first time, I am a homeless person and am enjoying it.
Q. Are RVs hard to drive?
A. Not really. Physically, motor homes are very easy to drive. They have automatic transmissions, power steering, and power brakes. The physical effort involved is about the same as driving an automobile.
However, the driver does have to remember that the motor home is wider and taller than an automobile and it doesn't stop as quickly. In other words, it doesn't stop on a dime. Anyone driving a motor home soon learns to leave a lot of space between the motor home and the vehicle in front of them. You also have to keep an eye open for low bridges and overpasses.
Q. Where are you most looking forward to visiting in the RV?
A. Anyplace I have never visited before. While I have been fortunate enough to visit many well-known tourist attractions, I have missed hundreds of smaller "gems" and I hope to change that. I want to go to the balloon festival in Albuquerque, the huge airshow in Oshkosh, Wis., and drive the winding road in Deals Gap, NC and Tenn., which is supposedly the most winding road in North America, an attraction for anyone who owns sports cars. It has 318 curves in 11 miles. I hope to drive it in a sports car, not in the motor home. (I tow a car behind the motor home.)
Q. If 1 is someone who wakes up in the morning and decides on a whim where he'll park the RV that night, and 10 is someone who plans out every detail of his itinerary months in advance, what number are you?
A. Probably a 2 or 3. I deliberately do not plan very much. I prefer to be surprised. Occasionally, it backfires, but most of the time it works well.
Q. Have you ever gotten lost in the RV? (While driving it, not inside it.)
A. No. Never. Of course, I do carry four GPSs, a road atlas, a thick book of all campgrounds in the United States, a cell phone, and two two-way radios. It is difficult to be lost.
Q. What do you consider the most essential item for the RV-ing genealogist to possess?
A. Patience. The second most important thing is a good toolkit: pliers, screwdrivers, and things like that. Unlike your home, everything in a motor home shakes when you are driving down the road. The appliances in a motor home suffer a lot more vibration than home appliances will ever encounter. Wires under the dash shake loose, pictures fall off the wall (I had this happen), and other strange things happen. I am almost always performing some minor repair of an unforeseen problem.
Q. If you had to pick, which one of these bumper stickers would you put on your RV?: "This is how I roll" or "Genealogy is TREE-rific!"?
A. Genealogy is TREE-rific!
Q. If you could choose anyone from history as your RV copilot, who would it be?
A. OK, I have to give you two answers: Lewis and Clark. Those two adventurers set off to see things they had never seen before.
I would give honorable mention to several Arctic and Antarctic explorers, except that they spent much of their time in very cold weather. I have already done that. I was born in Maine, lived in northern Vermont, lived in northern New Hampshire, and spent two winters in the Canadian subarctic amongst the Eskimos in in Labrador. I've seen my share of cold weather! Now I am seeking sunshine.
Genealogy fun | Genealogy Web Sites | 5 Questions Plus
Wednesday, February 15, 2012 9:51:58 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)