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# Wednesday, 12 April 2017
Q&A With Randy Majors, Creator of Online Map & Search Tools Genealogists Love
Posted by Diane

Randy Majors is the inventor of the Historical US County Boundary Maps tool genealogists use to trace their ancestors' county boundary changes (we at Family Tree Magazine think it's so useful that we made it one of our 101 Best Websites for 2016).

AncestorSearch, which lets you run genealogy-specific advanced Google searches, is another one of his creations. Our intrepid reporter Sunny Morton tracked him down to ask a few questions about maps and genealogy.

Q. What inspired you to develop the county boundaries tool and AncestorSearch?
A. Both were born out of my own genealogy research: thinking there have got to be better, quicker, more efficient ways of performing tasks I do repeatedly.

Q. What’s your professional background?
A. In college, I got degrees in geography and GIS (geographic information systems) just as that technology was moving mainstream. I spent much of my early career developing interactive, computerized mapping tools for the energy industry. When I became interested in family history more than 10 years ago, I just applied my skill sets and interests in mapping and programming.

Q. So you love maps?
I’ve been interested in maps forever. You know how other kids have lemonade stands? I had a map stand in third grade.

Q. Have you had personal research success success using your tools for genealogy?
The county boundaries tool has mainly helped me overcome mistakes. How many of us have discovered we haven’t found something because we were looking in the wrong place?

With AncestorSearch, I’ve taken six or seven family lines back at least another generation. Despite how much is available on the big genealogy websites, it’s funny how often something is buried on a site you don’t expect. And a lot of people have messaged me about people they’ve found using AncestorSearch, including living lost cousins.

Q. What’s the Let’sWalkTo tool on your site?
That one is not related to genealogy. It’s literally just another example of something I was interested in. My wife and I like to walk everywhere. When we go out to dinner we rarely drive, either where we used to live in Manhattan, NY, or now in Denver, Colo.

When I’m traveling, I use this tool, too. You enter your preferred walking distance and the address, and get a list of restaurants and bars to click on. You can filter for a specific type of food or entertainment and by price point. This is just a mash-up of walking distances and restaurant information on Google Maps, but it’s so useful.

Q. Tell us about a map hanging on your wall right now.
Manhattan in 1836. Only the southern tip was populated and there was only forest land where Central Park is. I can see that a building that’s now several blocks in from the water was actually on the shoreline; so many of the old rivers are now partly filled in. This map reminds me how this island has been so hugely transformed.


Randy and Sunny teamed up on a May/June 2017 Family Tree Magazine article about using old maps to solve genealogy research problems. Get your copy of this issue today in It's available both as a PDF download or a print magazine!

5 Questions Plus | Genealogy Web Sites | Maps
Wednesday, 12 April 2017 14:44:20 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Wednesday, 23 March 2016
Where Do They Find All Those Old Records? Interview With FamilySearch Content Strategist Suzanne Russo Adams
Posted by Diane

For the January/February 2016 Family Tree Magazine, contributor Sunny Jane Morton asked Suzanne Russo Adams, content strategist for FamilySearch (and formerly for about the cool old records she discovers traveling around the world for her work. Here's the full Q&A:

FTM: Tell us about the content strategy team you work on at FamilySearch.
: We're a team of nine, and we refer to each other internally as the “Raiders of the Lost Archives.” One of our engineers made us a poster about that, and I see ourselves that way. We travel the world, go into archives and discover lost treasures of historic records.

FTM: What parts of the world are assigned to you?
: I cover parts of the United States and the federal strategy (what we get from the National Archives and Records Adminstration), southern South America, Italy, Portugal and the Adriatic Sea, as well as help with New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Isles.

FTM: Do you see distinct attitudes about old records in different countries?
: Yes. The areas I work with in Europe tend to be more open and want their records to be freely accessible to the world.

Portugal is amazing. It’s neat to see how much they care about their records and want people to have access. We’ve been able to digitize all the Catholic church records in Portugal because they were held by a government archive. Italy is the same way about records access. They have a website called “Portal for your Ancestors” where they're working with us to publish their civil registration records. They see it as a way of giving people back their heritage.

FTM: Any particular country you’ve fallen in love with?
: Half my heritage is from Italy, and that’s my research specialty. I love Italy. But I fell in love with Brazil’s people, culture and records. And the food is so good. I think what put me over the edge in Brazil was the archivist at the Archdiocese of São Paolo who pulled out all the old church court records. He kept showing me all these cool cases. He was so excited!

FTM: Share a cool discovery you’ve made.
: We got a lead on these cool civil ID cards in Brazil. That’s not a record that we have (or any company has, really) traditionally acquired. They have tons of information and include pictures. We’ve found them all over—mostly I’ve seen them in South America. Depending on the country, they go back to the late 1800s, early 1900s.

FTM: What’s different about working for FamilySearch rather than Ancestry?
: As a nonprofit organization, FamilySearch has the luxury of being patient when working with archives, which requires considerable time to contact, establish rapport and orchestrate records access agreements. When it came to digitizing the civil registrations in Italy, I saw Ancestry pull out and FamilySearch win the contract. But it took seven years.

But what really lured me to FamilySearch was because our scope is so international, not just those cultures and countries that may be commercially viable. In just five years, I’ve been to Brazil, Peru, Switzerland, Germany, Italy (twice!), Portugal and around the United States.

FTM: Do you coordinate efforts with your counterparts at other genealogy organizations?
SRA: Yes. We try to work very closely with the three major commercial partners, Ancestry, Findmypast and MyHeritage. We try hard to work together on targeted records collections when it makes sense. But some of the companies aren’t interested in the areas we are interested in, and there we go it alone. Like, FamilySearch places more emphasis on South America whereas our partners don’t. We also work with growing numbers of nonprofit genealogical and historical societies and churches to help digitally preserve and index records of mutual interest.

FTM: What do you learn when working with all these international records?
: I learn a lot about migrations and the multicultural heritage of a lot of these countries. There are connections between South American countries like Argentina and several European nations, not just Spain.

For me personally, this has expanded my love of a lot of different cultures. Looking at the records of people who lived long ago, I see a commonality. We all have shared experiences: throughout history we’re all just people trying to live our lives, all over the world.

5 Questions Plus | | FamilySearch | Genealogy Industry
Wednesday, 23 March 2016 15:54:56 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Wednesday, 23 September 2015
An Interview With Tabitha Almquist of the National Trust for Historic Preservation
Posted by Diane

The chief of staff at the National Trust for Historic Preservation was destined for the job: Tabitha Almquist was raised by historic home rehabbers and considers herself “a preservationist since birth.”

Old places, like those Almquist works to preserve, serve to connect us with our ancestors in a profound way. Our Genealogy Insider columnist Sunny Jane Morton interviewed Almquist for the October/November 2015 Family Tree Magazine, and we're sharing the full interview here:

FTM: What’s your earliest memory of swinging a hammer?

TA: When I was 10 years old, my mother was the manager of a small town that had recently acquired a Victorian house to be renovated for its new town hall. My mom wanted the whole community to understand the importance of preserving old and special places, so she devised a contest for residents to suggest paint colors for the soon-to-be town hall. This was my first taste of community engagement for preservation, and, at the time, I had no idea what kind of impact it would have on my life and my career.

FTM: How did your family’s interest in historic preservation affect your childhood?

TA: My parents’ hobby is to renovate old homes and they do all of the work themselves—while living in the houses. So many weekends were spent on a house project, while dinners were sometimes eaten sitting around a makeshift table. We washed a lot of dishes in bathtubs, cooked on outside grills in freezing temperatures and wielded sledgehammers for after-dinner entertainment.

Small sacrifices, though, for being able to live in a house that quite literally was revived on our blood, sweat, tears and lots of laughter.

FTM: Tell us about a project that didn’t quite proceed on plan.
TA: My father was sustainable and green long before it was hip to be. He thought it would be a terrific idea to use some old wood and other materials that had been taken out of our house to build a pen for peacocks he recently purchased. Unfortunately, even as a trained architect, his execution of the pen was far from desirable for the peacocks, who eventually flew away to find a better home. My dad was devastated.

FTM: What’s your favorite (or least favorite) phase of a fix-up project?

TA: I love the concept phase, when everything is on the table and you really have to spend time in a place to determine what you want to do and what the house is calling for you to do. I’m a bit of a traditionalist and try hard to be respectful of the era when a structure was built, but I also like to acknowledge that historic houses should be lived in and enjoyed. Historic preservation isn’t about re-creating rooms with velvet ropes to keep people out. To me it is about mixing today and yesterday and creating an atmosphere of comfort and wonderment.

FTM: What’s something you took away from your recent preservation sabbatical in Rome? (Lucky you!) 

TA: It was very humbling to be reminded that the places we try to save everyday here in the US are so very young compared to many of the places in Roma. But, we must remember that at one point in time, the Coliseum was only 200 years old, as was the Ponte Sisto (my favorite bridge in Roma first built in 700s and rebuilt in 1400s) and also Santa Maria in Trastevere (portions of it dating back to the 1100s). All of these places are here today because people loved them, used them and recognized their importance in an ever-changing society.

FTM: Tell us about your house.

TA: It’s my favorite old place: an 1830 vernacular house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. I remember vividly walking through my front door for the first time and knew instantly it was the place for me. I have had a terrific time making it my own refuge.

FTM: Tell us about a place you love that’s connected with your own family history.

TA: I am a ninth-generation Washingtonian. There's a place on Capitol Hill called Congressional Cemetery. The National Trust actually included it on our "America’s 11 Most Endangered Places" list in the 1990s. At that time it was in need of major landscape maintenance and many of the headstones were crumbling.

The cemetery is now a popular haven for dogs and their owners, who have brought the place back to life, while being respectful of its inhabitants. When I was serving on the board of the nonprofit that oversees the cemetery, my grandmother informed me that our family has more than 70 relatives buried at Congressional. I take my dog there now and am often overwhelmed at my many connections to this unique place.

* * * *

The October/November 2015 Family Tree Magazine is available in print or as a digital download from

In addition to help preserving historic places, it has expert advice on using your DNA matches, organizing your genealogy with Evernote, finding old marriage records, researching Welsh ancestry and more.

5 Questions Plus | Family Tree Magazine articles | Historic preservation
Wednesday, 23 September 2015 11:35:07 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Monday, 02 February 2015
An Interview With Pam Beveridge of Heirlooms Reunited
Posted by Diane

Meet Pam Beveridge, a genealogist who reunites old artifacts she’s found in New England with the descendants of those who originally owned them. She kindly answered Family Tree Magazine contributor Sunny Jane Morton's questions in the magazine's January/February 2015 "Genealogy Insider" column about heirloom rescue, plus a few more especially for our blog. 

Find Beveridge—and even take part in her mission—on her Heirlooms Reunited Facebook page or Google+ Community.

FTM: How did you get into this?
PB: I’ve been collecting old photos and manuscript items for about 40 years. I used to stop at antique shops in Maine and New Hampshire. Finding things online starting about 15 years ago really bumped up my collecting. Now I’m starting to let these things go. You go through life in your acquisitive stage and then you get to your inquisitive stage and I like to think that’s where I’m at now.

FTM: What’s with all the autograph albums on your site?
PB: They’re wonderful. They were the social media of their day. Some of the older ones have hand-colored engravings in them and must have been a prized possession. Many hand-drawn designs by the owner’s friends and relatives reflect an amazing commitment of time and talent. The words that people wrote in them came from the heart and soul.

FTM: Any other preferences or themes in your collection?
PB: I’m more interested in hardscrabble people than famous people. Famous people have a huge record. But this might be the only remaining artifact or record of this everyday person. With artifacts, I limit myself to items from no later than the early 1900s for the privacy of living people. And if an item doesn’t put someone in a very good light, I shy away from it.

FTM: What do you get out of this hobby?
PB: I get to time-travel with these artifacts. They have expanded my knowledge of the world and history. The contacts are a lot of fun. People I’ve met through Facebook, Google+ and my blog help me with translations and research. But hearing from families is the best. I’ve had people tell me they’ve cried when they saw their great-grandfather on my site.

FTM: Is your experience always that good?
PB: No. Once I connected with a young man whose ancestors were in a Bible I had. When he saw it, he offered me only $10 for it because it smelled bad. In that case, the Bible will be safer waiting for a descendant who appreciates it more.

FTM: What’s a great heirloom that’s come back to you?
PB: I found my great-grandmother’s Bible on eBay by making alerts out of the surnames I’m researching.

FTM: What you do is kind of heroic, don’t you think?
PB: The people I know who volunteer [in the genealogy world] don’t think of themselves as heroes. More like we’re stewards and we’re on a mission, and we couldn’t be any other way. If there’s a snake hiding under that stack of old books, you’ll find out how heroic I am.

5 Questions Plus | Family Heirlooms
Monday, 02 February 2015 11:33:10 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Monday, 23 June 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, 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, 23 June 2014 10:05:24 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Tuesday, 15 April 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

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 recent brainstorm.

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, etc?

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 owner.

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

5 Questions Plus | Genealogy Web Sites
Tuesday, 15 April 2014 10:01:55 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Wednesday, 15 February 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 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.

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Wednesday, 15 February 2012 09:51:58 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [8]