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# Monday, January 19, 2009
Do You Know Your Inaugural History? Take Our Quiz!
Posted by Diane

In honor of tomorrow’s presidential inauguration, we’ve set up a a little quiz to test your knowledge of inaugural history trivia.

After you’re through, click Submit to access the answers on our Web site.

Click here to quiz yourself.


Genealogy fun
Monday, January 19, 2009 1:26:46 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [2]
Climbing Down Santa's Tree
Posted by Grace



Cryptozoologists (people who study animals whose existence has not been proven) have traced the evolution of Santa Claus back to his ur-grandfather, Wildman. Santa Claus belongs to the Winterman branch of the family; Reindeer come from the Myth branch; Snow Queens and Elves are two branches of the Folklore crew. Click here to see the whole family tree.

Celebrity Roots | Genealogy fun
Monday, January 19, 2009 1:14:25 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Thursday, January 15, 2009
Wrapping Up Our Look Inside Ancestry.com
Posted by Diane

If you haven’t already read our series of behind-the-scenes posts about Ancestry.com, here are the links:
Over at the Genealogy Blog, Leland Meitzler created links to posts from all the blogger day attendees.

Clearly, the day was designed to communicate a specific impression: one of a personable, open company. And despite Ancestry.com’s reputation in some circles as a big, bad corporate monster, I gotta say, the Ancestry.com people we met seemed to genuinely care about preserving historical records and making it easier for customers to research family history. They listened thoughtfully to the suggestions of folks in our group, answered questions honestly and were frank about saying when the company has messed up.

So the goal for the day was accomplished. Now to see whether Ancestry.com delivers on the objectives that surfaced in all the presentations we saw. Here’s what to look for:
  • More new content and improved current content (for example, more accurate US census indexes and better images)
  • Technological improvements to both give you better search results and facilitate easier collaboration between users
  • More listening to customers
  • Marketing efforts focused on expanding the customer base and promoting the World Archives Project

  • Consumer education about how to do genealogy beyond using what's on Ancestry.com
  • A happier Family Tree Maker user experience with updates including templates for various types of sources, the return of book building and new report formats

Ancestry.com
Thursday, January 15, 2009 8:29:08 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Wednesday, January 14, 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, January 14, 2009 8:45:10 AM (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, January 14, 2009 8:02:35 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Inside Ancestry.com’s Top-Secret Data Center
Posted by Diane

Inside the unassuming building that is the data center for Ancestry.com 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 Ancestry.com 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 Ancestry.com 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).

Ancestry.com’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.)

Ancestry.com
Tuesday, January 13, 2009 12:30:41 PM (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 1911census.co.uk, a site from the fee-based UK genealogy site FindMyPast.com.

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 1911census.co.uk 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, January 13, 2009 8:20:15 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Monday, January 12, 2009
Online Searching: It’s Complicated
Posted by Diane

The search presentation of Friday’s meeting at Ancestry.com 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 Ancestry.com’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.)


Ancestry.com | Genealogy Web Sites
Monday, January 12, 2009 9:38:50 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Sunday, January 11, 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, January 11, 2009 12:04:21 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Saturday, January 10, 2009
From Paper (or Film) to the Web
Posted by Diane

Our Ancestry.com 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, Ancestry.com 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 Ancestry.com 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.


Ancestry.com
Saturday, January 10, 2009 11:54:07 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [2]