Monday, January 31, 2011

Upcoming "Newspapers Online" Talk

Next Tuesday, February 8, I will present my talk on using online newspaper archives for genealogical research at the Oakland Regional Family History Center (ORFHC). The class is part of the Intermediate Genealogy Series presented jointly by the ORFHC and the California Genealogical Society. There will be some time after the class for hands-on practice in the library.

Newspapers can provide incredible amounts of information that will help your research. They can also give you a more complete picture of your family members by telling you more about their lives. Beyond the types of things you'd expect -- births, marriages, deaths -- I have also found job, military, relocation, hobbies, civic involvement, travel, naturalization, and arrest information, and more.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wonderful Record Discovery

One of our regular patrons came into the Family History Center not long ago and said she wanted to ask for some advice.  A few months ago she was in North Carolina doing research on her family.  While she was in one office, she noticed a book on the floor under a trash can (yes, you read that right) and asked the clerks what it was.  They didn't know and said she could pull it out and look at it.

It was a "cohabitation register" from after the end of the Civil War (or would that be the War of the Northern Aggression, since we're talking about North Carolina?), for black couples who had not been permitted to marry legally while they were slaves but who had what were essentially common-law marriages.  They were allowed to register their relationships and thereby make them legal and binding and legitimize their children.  Michael Hait, the well known researcher of black American genealogy, told me that most former slave states had these registrations.  He also said that several of the marriages were recorded in the Freedmen's Bureau Field Office records, but that many states had their own registers, as with this one.

There are a few hundred entries.  It's minimal information -- names, when the relationship began -- but what a find!  Thinking quickly, our patron took photos of all the pages in the book.  Unfortunately, I believe after she was finished the book was returned to its previous home on the floor.

What the patron wanted to know was what she should do with the information now that she had it.  I suggested she transcribe the names and create an alphabetical index, then submit it to RootsWeb, USGenWeb, and any genealogical and historical societies that are relevant for research in that county .  I also asked if she would give a copy of the file to our Family History Center.  Sharing information is a long-standing practice in genealogy; I've uploaded several indices to RootsWeb and also shared them with other Web sites.

A story like this makes you wonder what other records are buried and forgotten in other offices and repositories.  The next time you see a book tucked away, maybe you should ask to see it . . . .

Friday, January 28, 2011

"Who Do You Think You Are?" Returns February 4

The new season of the very popular television program "Who Do You Think You Are?" is scheduled to air at 8:00 p.m. (7:00 p.m. Central) on NBC on Friday, February 4.  According to the e-mail message I received from today, this season's celebrities are Vanessa Williams (February 4), Tim McGraw (February 11), Kim Cattrall, Rosie O'Donnell, Lionel Richie, Steve Buscemi, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ashley Judd.

The first season of the series was talked about up, down, and sideways on many genealogy lists.  Like many other people, I enjoyed the program, but before it starts up again, I have some comments I want to air.  Many researchers put in lots of hours before each episode, and most of the research doesn't make it on air, just the "sexy" parts.  At least with Susan Sarandon, they showed someone plowing through microfilm, instead of just another computer screen.  One of my favorite things was how everyone had archive directors help them with their research.  Sure, that's realistic!  Another interesting tidbit that came out after the Kudrow episode aired was that the record she got to see in Belarus, which had been brought from Moscow, is available online for free.  But that wouldn't make for dramatic television, would it?

The upshot is that it's entertainment, so there shouldn't be an expectation that they make the research look realistic.  Unfortunately, the general public doesn't understand that, so they go to a Family History Center all excited and then become frustrated because they can't find everything with half a dozen clicks.  Anyone who thinks it will be that easy to find your family history should read the classic article from Dan Leeson, "Where Is My Family's File?"

Please understand, I don't want to dissuade people from researching their families.  I am thrilled every time someone comes into the Family History Center and begins looking.  It's exciting for them and for us when they start finding records and moving back in time.  But not everything is online, and records can be transcribed and indexed in creative ways, and sometimes records really are lost, and it will take more than one afternoon of poking around on the computer to discover all the wonderful information about your family that's waiting for you.  I just want everyone to have realistic expectations of what they can find and how long it might take.  I've been doing this for 35 years, and I still do the Genealogy Happy Dance when I make a big discovery.

So if you get bitten by the genealogy bug after watching "Who Do You Think You Are?", what should you do?  Look up a genealogical society or a Family History Center in your area. People there will be happy to help you start your search.  And if you don't find all the answers right away, be patient and keep slogging through.  Your ancestors are waiting for you!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

African American Research Workshop

This workshop series started last September and is being held at the Oakland Regional Family History Center, where I volunteer.  We did not meet in November or December because of the holidays, so we're just starting up again for the new year.  Wednesday night we watched a Podcast of a lecture by author Isabel Wilkerson, who talked about her book The Warmth of Other Suns:  The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.  The book discusses the three primary routes that blacks used to leave the South between about 1915-1970, to the Northwest, Midwest, and West.

I'm attending this workshop not only to increase my knowledge in general and to be able to help more patrons at the Family History Center, but also because I am researching the family of my aunt's sister's late husband, who was black.  As I've mentioned before, I have a very extended family.  My aunt, to whom I'm very close, is married to my mother's brother.  I've been working on her family history for close to ten years and sharing the information with her sisters, whom I also know.  Several years ago, her oldest sister asked if I would be willing to research her late husband's family.  Theirs was an interracial marriage that was able to happen only after the Supreme Court struck down state laws against miscegenation, thanks to the Lovings.  (You can read about the story of the Lovings at  That's when I started learning some of the intricacies of researching black genealogy, but I still have a lot to learn.

So far I've traced two of his families back to 1870, but I have not been able to get past that yet.  Just recently I found an entry in an online index for the marriage of his great-grandparents in 1878, so I'm hoping that will take me back a little farther.

While listening to the Podcast I thought about him in context of the information.  He apparently followed the Midwest migration route, going from Georgia to Ohio, while it appears the rest of his family stayed in Georgia.  He and the millions of black Americans like him took a brave leap, leaving behind the segregation of the "emancipated" South.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011 Closing Expert Connect

Word has quickly been circulating that is shutting down its Expert Connect research service.  This service, started in 2009, allowed people who wanted research done to post their questions and solicit bids from professional genealogists. took a percentage of the total paid for a job.  I had signed up for the service as a researcher but had not been very active.  Yesterday I received an announcement from saying that it will no longer offer Expert Connect as of March 18, 2011.

Coincidentally, acquired ProGenealogists, a professional genealogical research company, in late 2010.  Many people are hypothesizing that decided that since it now had its own in-house researchers, there was no need to make space at the table for outside researchers.  Two particularly good posts on the subject have been made by Randy Seaver of Genea-Musings
( and Thomas MacEntee of High-Definition Genealogy (

If you were a customer of Expert Connect, what should you do now?  If you have already made contact with a professional researcher and you're happy with that person, stay with him.  If you have not hooked up with a researcher yet, visit the Association of Professional Genealogists Web site (  You can search there for a researcher based on location or research specialty.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Understanding the Jewish Calendar

Detail of Medieval Hebrew Calendar
I am happy to say that I am already back on a positive footing with lectures.  Today's talk by Steve Morse, "The Jewish Calendar Demystified", was informative and entertaining.  I always enjoy Steve's presentations, and I never fail to learn from him.  I found out it was entirely reasonable for me to be confused about how the Jewish calendar works.  It's very complicated, with lots of rules and exceptions and corrective formulas.  Luckily, as he pointed out, nobody really needs to know how to do this by hand nowadays; we have computer programs that do it for us.  I'm certainly not an expert now, but the calendar makes a lot more sense to me than it used to.  And along with educating attendees about the calendar, Steve explained how the letters in the Hebrew alphabet are used as numbers and how to read dates on tombstones.

Steve has made this lecture available, with his other talks, on his famous One-Step Website (  "The Jewish Calendar Demystified" is at  True, it isn't the same as seeing him give the presentation, but the information is all there.  While you're on the site, check out the other talks and the incredibly useful utilities he has created for transliteration, better searches, and more.  If you don't already have his site bookmarked, I'm sure you'll find a reason to do so.

Steve's talk today was at a meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society (  We in SFBAJGS are fortunate to have Steve as a member.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Advanced" Internet Research Techniques?

I suppose it had to happen.  I've been to so many good talks lately that I was overdue for a dud.  Today a fellow researcher and I went to a presentation given by an investigative reporter who published a well reviewed book a couple of years ago.  I will not give the name of the reporter or the book because I unfortunately found the talk extremely disappointing.  The reason I am writing about it is because it was interesting (and dismaying!) to see the research skills the speaker discussed as being advanced and unique, but which my friend and I considered to be basic skills any professional researcher worth his salt should have in his arsenal.  Facts presented during the talk were not sourced; a broad list of sources without specific citations was given at the end, and there was no way to tell where any given piece of information came from.

The topics of deep research skill sets and good source citations come up semiregularly on some of the genealogy e-mail lists I'm on.  I have often read comments from long established genealogists who say that the quality of research done by serious family history researchers not only rivals but often surpasses that of researchers in many other fields.  I used to take those views with a grain of salt, perhaps because most of the researchers I knew outside of the family history field did quality work.  After today's presentation, I'm not so sure.

I realize one cannot draw a conclusion from just one speaker, and I am not trying to paint all investigative reporters with the same brush.  I attended a talk given by a different investigative journalist at last year's IAJGS annual conference in Los Angeles, and it was excellent.  But the fact that today's speaker has been published and has received positive reviews for the research done for the book leads me to question the standards used to measure nonfiction books in the general market.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Upcoming Presentation for San Joaquin Genealogical Society

I will be the speaker at the March 17, 2011 meeting of the San Joaquin Genealogical Society (  I'll be presenting my talk on using online newspaper archives for genealogical research.  I'm looking forward to meeting the genealogists in Stockton!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Jewish Calendar Demystified

Sunday, January 23, 2011, 12:30-3:00 p.m.
Congregation Beth Israel Judea
625 Brotherhood Way, San Francisco

The Jewish calendar is important to genealogists because Jewish vital records use Jewish dates (of course!). The Jewish calendar is both a solar and lunar calendar, with the months synchronized to the moon and years to the sun. This means the rules governing the calendar can be a bit daunting (that's an understatement). Steve Morse, the creator of the incredibly useful One-Step Website (, will present the calendar in an easy-to-understand—and sometimes tongue-in-cheek—fashion.

I'm really looking forward to this talk.  For years I have been confused by the Jewish calendar and how the dates of holidays are determined, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.  Come learn with me!

More information about the talk and about Steve can be found at The talk is free and open to anyone who wants to attend.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Genealogist vs. Geologist vs. Gynecologist

I was mentioned in a Career Builder article about confusing job titles posted on CNN:

I talked with the reporter in November and just found out this morning I made it into the article when someone posted the link to a mail list I'm on.  Wow, I made it on CNN!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Newspapers Online" Talk in San Mateo

Saturday I gave a presentation to the San Mateo County Genealogical Society ( on using online newspaper databases in genealogical research.  Almost 60 people came, and we kept adding chairs.  The talk went very well, and everyone said I explained things very clearly and that the examples were excellent.  One person told me she felt "inspired!"  That's the kind of thing you love to hear as a speaker!  It was a great group, and they've asked me to give another talk later this year.

Right after my talk I drove as quickly as I could to get back to Oakland so I could attend the Blogging 101 workshop at the California Genealogical Society (, where I learned how to get this blog going, thanks to Craig Siulinski (  He was a patient instructor and walked everyone through the process.  It obviously worked -- my blog is here!

I think my Saturday represents a fundamental truism of genealogy -- we can always learn more, and we often can teach someone else something that will help that person with his research.  Take advantage of educational opportunities as often as you can, and reach out to others to give them guidance with their research if you can.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


I have been doing family history research since I was 13.  My interest was sparked by what at the time was a fairly standard assignment in junior high school -- do your family tree back four generations.  I still have the purple mimeographed handout.  I even have my original notes from interviewing several family members.  That assignment got me hooked on genealogy.

Since then I've researched all branches of my family, including collateral lines (I definitely believe in whole-family research).  I've taken trips just to meet family members, including one trip to New York and New Jersey when in five days I put 700 miles on my sister's cars and drove through all five boroughs of New York City, plus the two counties on Long Island.  I used to share copies of updated research with all the relatives I was in touch with, until I had three major surgeries in less than four years.  I'm working on getting back up to speed on that.  Not only is it nice to get feedback from people about the work I'm doing, it also ensures that more than one copy is out there.

When I became interested in doing research professionally, I took the advice of several people and volunteered to do research for a few people.  I ended up working on the family history of everyone in my office, my half-sister, my aunt, and several friends.  Oh, yeah, I was hooked!

My professional experience turned out to be a good background for going into this work.  I've worked as an editor for more than 20 years, and I'm also an indexer and translator.  My college degree was in foreign languages (French major, Spanish and Russian minors).  I've done research of various kinds for many years, and I always want to find the answer to a puzzle.

I hung out my shingle in 2005.  My very first ad led to a client, who stayed with me until health problems changed his priorities last year.  Through all of this I now have experience with general American, black American, English, German, Greek, East Indian, Irish, Jewish, Portuguese, Russian, and Scottish ethnic research.  My specialty is Jewish research.

I do a fair amount of volunteer work.  I've been on the staff of the Oakland Regional Family History Center for more than ten years.  I'm the publicity director, programming person, and newsletter editor for the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society and the editor of The Galitzianer, a quarterly journal for Jewish genealogical research in the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia.  I have been the treasurer of the California State Genealogical Alliance and the representative of the Northern California chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists.  I've worked on several transcription projects, several of which were posted on RootsWeb.

In my blog I plan to talk about projects I'm working on, information I find that I think other people will find useful, and different directions research can take you.  I hope you enjoy my take on things!