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<2009 January>

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# Wednesday, 14 January 2009
Closures Next Week at DC Repositories
Posted by Diane

A reminder if you're planning on doing genealogy research in the Washington, DC, area next week: Some repositories will close or change their hours on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Monday, Jan. 19, a federal holiday) or Inauguration Day (Tuesday, Jan. 20), or both.

For example, all National Archives and Records Administration research rooms will be closed Monday; Washington, DC-area research rooms also are closed Tuesday (but the museum will stay open). The Daughters of the American Revolution Library will close both days.

Call ahead to ask about special hours at the repository you plan to visit. Check Inauguration Day road and bridge closures, too.

Libraries and Archives
Wednesday, 14 January 2009 08:45:10 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
Me vs. Court Records at the Family History Library
Posted by Diane

I got into it with some court records during last Saturday’s Family History Library research match. When the final bell rang, the judges put their heads together for a few minutes and declared the score … a tie.

Out of the two cases I was looking for, a criminal trial and a divorce petition, I found the petition.

After much scrolling of microfilm, I located both cases listed in a handwritten index (in multiple indexes, in fact, which was a bit confusing). In a roll of district court minutes, I learned the divorce was transferred to a special district court.

The special district minutes, on a different roll of microfilm, reported the case was dismissed with court costs to be paid by the plaintiff, my great-grandmother (that made me chuckle—she was destitute; I doubt they ever got their money), but didn’t say why.

On yet another roll of film, I scored a pretty good hit: The case file held the divorce petition with my great-grandmother’s accusations against her husband, as well as a court order for the sheriff to serve him. He’d pled guilty to violating local liquor laws and was a guest of the state penitentiary at the time.

His case was even more challenging. The index gave a minute book number and a page number, but neither seemed to match up with the content on any roll of the FHL’s court records microfilm for the county. The trial was in June 1913, yet the case file number in the index corresponded to cases in the 1880s, long before my great-grandfather was in the country.

On the recommendation of the information desk consultant, I checked the 1880s case file film to see if a long-ago court clerk had misfiled the records. A batch of files that would’ve included my great-grandfather’s case file number was missing. There must’ve been a blip in the numbering system at some point.

Then I scrolled through the case papers for 1913—maybe the indexer wrote down the wrong number. Nothing.

The consultant pointed out that keeping track of the papers a court action generated over a stretch of time was particularly difficult before computers. And of course it’s possible the records escaped microfilming or are just gone.

I once requested my great-grandfather’s case records from the county court, but at that time all I knew was the date, not the information from the index, and my letter was returned with the note “found nothing.” Now, having spent hours glued to a microfilm reader getting nauseous from the whirring images, I hope my request didn’t cost the clerk half a day’s work.

I’ll probably risk the clerk’s ire and send another, very polite, request for a search, along with a photocopy of the index page.

court records | Family Tree Firsts | FamilySearch
Wednesday, 14 January 2009 08:02:35 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Tuesday, 13 January 2009
Inside’s Top-Secret Data Center
Posted by Diane

Inside the unassuming building that is the data center for and other Generations Network properties, rows and rows of cabinets house the 5,328 servers that hold the Web site, all those indexes and digital images, and users’ family trees.

In all, it’s 2.5 petabytes of data (one petabyte is equivalent to 283,000 DVDs).

A lot of security protects that data. A guard watches cameras 24/7. Windows are bulletproof. Sensors monitor windows and doors. The guy walking us around had to swipe his badge at several doors, then lay his palm in a Mission: Impossible-like handprint reader to enter the server rooms.

I can’t disclose the location and photographs weren’t permitted (darn it, I forgot my hidden-camera lapel pin), but the folks at sent these approved images:

Some rows of server-filled cabinets:

Still more servers:

(This makes me feel insecure about the jumble of cords shoved behind my TV stand.)

There’s 807,000 Kw hours of power running through the cords per month—about the amount used by 1,076 average homes over the same time period. An elaborate air conditioning system keeps the servers from overheating.

If things do get too hot and the smoke detector sounds an alarm, all life forms have two minutes to scram before a fire-suppression chemical hisses into the room and starts to suck out the oxygen.

An automated system reroutes traffic around servers that are getting overheated or full, then alerts the techies who can replace those machines. Batteries can run the place for an hour should a power failure occur; huge generators can keep it going after that.

Regular disk backups are transferred to tape and whisked weekly to a Granite Mountain disaster-proof storage vault (near the one where FamilySearch keeps its master microfilms).’s monthly hosting costs run $300,000—$143,000 for the space, $112,000 for power and the rest for bandwidth. That’s part of what you’re paying for in your subscription. (A larger chunk of your subscription fee goes to adding new content and upgrading current content.)
Tuesday, 13 January 2009 12:30:41 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [4]
1911 UK Census Goes Online
Posted by Diane

The 1911 UK census is online for the first time at, a site from the fee-based UK genealogy site

The scheduled release date wasn’t until 2012, but public demand got it moved up. But sensitive information relating to illnesses and to children of women prisoners will be held back until 2012.

The 1911 census covers England, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, as well as those aboard Royal Naval and Merchant vessels at sea and in foreign ports. It’s also the first British census to include full details of British Army personnel and their families stationed overseas.

More than 27 million people's census entries—80 per cent of the English records—are available today. Over the coming months, 9 million records from the remaining counties of England, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, as well as the naval and overseas military records, will be added.  

You can search by name, place and birth date (you’ll need a free registration). By summer, you’ll also be able to search on an address. Each record page view costs 30 credits; you can buy 60 credits for about $10.30.

The record images are color, scanned from the original census returns, which generally results in better images than scans from microfilm.

census records | Genealogy Web Sites | UK and Irish roots
Tuesday, 13 January 2009 08:20:15 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Monday, 12 January 2009
Online Searching: It’s Complicated
Posted by Diane

The search presentation of Friday’s meeting at shed some light on what happens after you hit the Submit button, and why your results sometimes don’t seem to make sense.

Not being a computer genius, I offer this layperson's interpretation:

Every variable your search contains—every date in a range, every place of residence, every keyword—computationally is a separate query that runs through the millions of records in’s servers.

The search engine operates on an algorithm that assigns each record points based on terms in your search that match data fields in the record. Some data fields, such as the name, are weighted more heavily than others (that is, a matching name would get more points than a matching place of origin).

The search engine also assumes some terms are the same, for example, Kathleen and Cathy (who knew there are 800 variations on the name Catherine?), Florida and Fla, Syria and Alssyria. And it tries to account for the variations in spellings, the roaming birth dates and other unexpected information in historical records. Search product manager Anne Mitchell calls this “fuzziness.”

That’s why some records in your search results seem far outside the realm of possibility for your ancestor—the date or place may have been off, but the other stuff was close enough to get the points necessary to make the list.

Frustratingly, sometimes records you know aren't your ancestor get more points than the ones that might be him. You could spend hours sifting through all the search results—it's hard to know when to stop (someone said after two or three pages of results, it's unlikely you'll find the record you're looking for).

Mitchell said that the search engine's algorithm will soon be adjusted to subtract points when a name or date in a record doesn’t match what you typed in. Before, this additional step in the search process would’ve taken too long and made the servers start smoking. But now that the engineers have almost figured it out, your search results should appear in a more logical order, with the best matches higher up on the list.

It’s entirely possible my ancestors’ passenger list has been destroyed and they hid from the 1920 census enumerators, but once the changes go live, I’m going to repeat these frustrating searches.

Something else to think about if you have an Ancestry Family Tree: Family trees product manager Kenny Freestone said the quality of a family tree search—the automated search that give you those “shaky leaf” hints next to individuals in your tree—is more precise than for a ranked search. That’s because the hints are based on several generations of your tree, rather than just one person.

(And, by the way, you now can hide a tree so it’s completely excluded from the index.) | Genealogy Web Sites
Monday, 12 January 2009 09:38:50 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Sunday, 11 January 2009
Secret Genealogy Blogger Revealed! (Partially)
Posted by Diane

Before I left for Salt Lake City, we Family Tree Magazine staffers were speculating whether I’d finally encounter the anonymous and well-informed Ancestry Insider blogger. 

And I did! Dear Myrtle and I were sitting across the table from him,  though silhouetted as he was against a bright window, I couldn’t really see him. But I did snap a photo:


Shoot. Well, he says to tell you that if Brad Pitt wore suspenders, they could be twins.

Genealogy fun
Sunday, 11 January 2009 00:04:21 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Saturday, 10 January 2009
From Paper (or Film) to the Web
Posted by Diane

Our tour included the corporate offices

and the digitization department. This is Laryn Brown, head of the Document Preservation department, in front of monitors tracking the scanning.


About a dozen people operated different kinds of scanners; one photographs books and automatically turns the pages. There was a flatbed scanner bigger than me.


In the works is a UV scanner, which can bring out ink on severely damaged and faded records (we saw an example of what this technology can do—it turned a nearly blank page into a readable document).

More and more often, though, will digitize paper records on-site at repositories, with digital images sent to headquarters for processing.

Yes, many records are indexed in China and Uganda. Indexers receive months of training in English and whatever language the records are in; they're asked to key exactly what they see, even when a word is misspelled. US employees do quality spot checks and occasionally send back batches of records for re-indexing.

Back in the USA, another team examines records and indexes to “normalize” those misspellings and aberrations in data fields. Say a set of records is from California. The clerks who created the records way back when may have written the state as CA, Cal., Calif. or Calfa. The staff will add “California” to the index for these records so they come up in customers' California searches.

More on searching later!

I was lucky enough Friday to be in the company of some wise bloggers and super-experienced genealogists. For their observations, see Dear MyrtleEastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, Genea-Musings, the Ancestry Insider and GenealogyGuys.
Saturday, 10 January 2009 23:54:07 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [2]
New and Next at
Posted by Diane hosted a bunch of genealogy bloggers yesterday for a tour of its offices and top-secret data center, and a look at what’s coming up on the site. I’ll cover it in several posts over the next few days. First, a summary of the soon-to-come stuff:

  • Some search engine tweaks should get you better search results that appear in more logical order. Right now, the search engine “scores” how well records match your search by awarding points for each term that matches. Soon, the search engine also will dock points from records with names or dates that don’t closely match what you entered.

Another update will help keep records dated, say, 1930 out of your search for someone who died in 1900 (search engineers have had to find a way to do this without making your searches take forever).

  • A wiki-like tool will make it easier for to add corrections to’s indexes. (Senior vice president Andrew Wait admits the current mechanism isn’t the best.)

  • Upcoming DNA test price cuts will include a $79 33-marker Y-DNA test (down from $149) and a $149 46-marker test (down from $199). The reason for the cuts? wants to build its DNA test results database to make it useful for people searching it for genetic cousins. Currently it has more than 30,000 results; they’re shooting for 150,000.

The DNA area also will feature more educational tools, many developed with help from partner 23andMe.

  • Content-wise, is increasing efforts to digitize and index records in county and state archives, which means more scanning of paper documents rather than microfilm.

  • You’ll see new content including state censuses, a 1940 census substitute in the form of city directories from the era, state vital records, military records including Navy cruise books, naturalization documents from 1792 to 1989 (indexes just went live on the site; images are still to come), US Chinese immigration records, prison and criminal records, and more.

  • More Civil War records will come out in conjunction with Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday; a Vermont and New York records release will coincide with those states’ 400th anniversaries.

  • Look for more promotion of the World Archives Project, which vice president of content Gary Gibb says lets save indexing costs and put more resources toward aquiring records.

  • Wait also announced a goal to increase family history education—including how to use resources that aren’t on
Saturday, 10 January 2009 08:27:24 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Thursday, 08 January 2009
101 Best Sites: Texas Archives and a Genealogy Wiki
Posted by Diane

Our look at two of this year’s Family Tree Magazine 101 Best Web Sites picks takes us to Texas and around the world:
  • Texas State Library and Archives Commission: We categorized this site as “Best for Military Researchers” for its online index of 54,634 Lone Star State Confederate pension applications and Texas Adjutant General Service Records (1836 to 1935). But I’ve also found it helpful for other records: This archives was the source of information on my great-grandfather’s brief stay in the state penitentiary for bootlegging. I was impressed with the online information and staff responses to my research questions.
  • WeRelate: This is a community Web site just for genealogists that works on the "wiki" principle, where users generate and update the content. Created by the Foundation for On-Line Genealogy in partnership with the Allen County Public Library, the free site has pages for 1.5 million people/families.
Users can upload GEDCOM files, upload and annotate scanned documents and photos, share family stories and biographies, and generate maps of ancestors' life events.

Read more about using this and other genealogy wikis in the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine (on newsstands and Jan. 13).
See the rest of the best on

Genealogy Web Sites
Thursday, 08 January 2009 10:22:21 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Wednesday, 07 January 2009
New Online Index Guides You to St. Louis Ancestors
Posted by Diane

Dennis Northcott, archivist at the Missouri History Society in St. Louis (my old stomping grounds) wrote me about the new Missouri History Museum Genealogy and Local History Index.

The index includes references to hundreds of thousands of St. Louis ancestors who appear in more than 225 museum research sources.

That includes St. Louisans’ Civil War-era loyalty oaths, early 20th-century yearbooks, Who’s Who publications, local censuses, WWI service member questionnaires, newspaper clippings, church histories, business letterheads and others.

You can search the index by a person’s name, business/corporate name, or street address (great for researching the history of your house and its former occupants).

You’ll find a search tips link on each search form—Northcott suggests checking out those tips before you start.

Matches give source information for the resource the name or address appears in, then you can click to order a photocopy.

Learn more about the index in Voices, the Missouri History Museum’s online magazine, and see the museum’s Web site for additional St. Louis-area research help.

Genealogy Web Sites | Libraries and Archives
Wednesday, 07 January 2009 08:22:20 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]