Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Collaborative Genealogy

Another issue that has come up with respect to the kerflufle is the question of "the one true tree."  The debate has been framed in terms of a choice between everyone working on their own, private trees and everyone contributing to a master tree with a single "profile" for each person.  There are the predictable questions of how to make trade-offs between efficiency and quality control.

Personally, I think we need to look to the third model, which I think is kind of a genealogical version of a folksonomy.  For the long version of a definition, refer to this article by Clay Shirky.  For a short definition...a taxonomy is when you arrange things in pre-defined, top-down categories, and the operating assumption is that there is a "right" category, or categories, for each thing.  To my thinking, this is analogous to the one true tree approach to genealogy.  A folksonomy, on the other hand, is a bottom-up sorting system, where each user tags things with his or her own categories, everyone can see how everyone else has tagged those things, and what is useful emerges from general consensus.  Oddly enough, someone is already doing this in the genealogy

Consider.  I can build a tree on  This is my tree, and only those people I specifically select can edit it.  But, through Member Connect, I can tag people in other trees that I think are, or could be, the same as a person in my tree.  Now, I get the efficiency of seeing what other people are doing without the rigor and angst of forcing a merging of our research.  The same is true of the ability to link people in my tree to source records like census records and newspaper pages.  Anyone else looking at the same census record can see this link and other records that have also been linked to the person this record has been linked to.  The more people who agree with these links, the stronger the consensus, but no one is forced to accept the consensus view against their will.

Of course, if I don't want to collaborate, the ability to link source records to people in my tree serves as my own personal set of organized bookmarks into ancestry's monster site.  Which is also sweet.

Saturday, August 27, 2011, WikiTree and Charging for User-Contributed Content

Like a lot of folks, I've been following the kerfluffle.  I just had a chance to listen to the recording of the Geneabloggers Radio show with the CEO of, and I have a few thoughts.

First, a bit of background.  Before the announcement, I hadn't been terribly impressed with before this -- I posted a small tree and found it frustrating that it wouldn't accept place names it didn't recognize (which I assume was a result of privileging the ability to use a master place name database for cool mapping purposes over the ability to enter the name of a place as it was used at the time of the event), the lack of basic error-proofing (like simple date checking to prevent accidentally entering a death that was earlier than a birth), and the fact that I found content from my personal website lifted wholesale and pasted in as a "document" without any credit whatsoever.  I also don't care for what seems like constant and almost deceptive attempts to get me to upgrade to pro.

I am now unimpressed with as a company -- they didn't handle the introduction of these changes well, and now that I've listened to Noah explain the problem they were trying to solve, I have to say that the problem, which is a variation of data decay, is one anyone working professionally with databases should have predicted from the beginning.  If they're not great programmers and not great communicators, what are they great at?

I've also entered a small tree at WikiTree, and, while I like the basic idea, and the ad-based income model, I fear that they may be a bit too techie for the average genealogist.  I found it tricky to figure out how to edit the various sections, and I think I'm pretty web savvy.

Part of the general problem here has nothing to do with genealogy.  All over the web there are social sites wrestling with the same problem.  Developing and operating a good site is not free and requires full-time attention, so the host is not being unreasonable to want some revenue.  However, while the host may provide the site and the features, there really is no product until the users contribute a critical mass of content (or social-ness), which they are usually doing for free.  Thus, when a site operator sells the site, or starts charging for it, those members who contributed often feel betrayed or robbed; of course, if the site operator tries to continue subsidizing the site, the operator, and the site, probably won't last.

While I was doing interviews for my doctoral research, I heard a lot about a very similar situation in another hobby area.  When the site operator decided to stop going to a full-time job all day and supporting the social site all night and try to make a living from the site, the community almost imploded; many formerly active participants left and have never returned.  After a few false steps, I personally think the site operator has found a good balance -- the parts of the site that depend on free contributions from users are free to use, and she has put a her effort into finding ways to provide other features that premium users are willing to pay for.  And, no (I'm talking to you,, site search and editing your own content don't count as premium features.

So...on one hand, this mess is not caused by some flaw that's unique to, because this is an issue that is coming up all over the web and hasn't been resolved, but, on the other hand, this issue has come up before, so should have seen it coming. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Wichita Photos

Another great link from Wichita State University -- a joint project between WSU, the Wichita Public Library, and the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Society to provide digitized photos of Wichita.  There are approximately 1000 photos online.  The collection is searchable by keyword, date, and 20 subject categories.

Check it out at

Saturday, August 20, 2011

WWI Plaque at Pawnee County Courthouse

On my way out of the courthouse in Pawnee City, I saw this brass plaque listing Pawnee County people who served in WWI.  Unfortunately, I didn't notice that the list only goes to K, which makes me think there's another somewhere.  Sigh.

I like the fact that they listed the Red Cross nurses as well as the soldiers!

I've put the complete list of names after a jump (I think)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dr. Edward N. Tihen's Notes on Wichita Newspapers

I found a cool resource on the Wichita State University library website today.  Dr. Edward Tihen read and took notes on "nearly every" issue of the Wichita newspapers from 1872 to 1982.  WSU has transcriptions of these notes in searchable PDF files. They have also identified and organized notes on almost 500 topics including particular buildings, neighborhoods, individuals and events.  Each note is tagged with the date of the paper, so you could use this as an index to the microfilmed paper.

This may not be as good as a full-text, searchable archive of the newspaper, but I'm not aware of such a resource yet for the Eagle and Beacon.

Check it out at

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pawnee City Cemetery

If you find Pawnee City, you've found the cemetery -- it's right on the main road through town.  It's a big, well-kept cemetery with a very good directory and map in a little house onsite.  Beware -- there are half a dozen sections, with names, and the block and plot numbers repeat, so you really do need to write down the names (guess who didn't do that the first time!)  Most of my Shellhorns and Aikins have markers; the Colony plot, however, has several names in the directory but only one marker.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pawnee City Historical Society

The Pawnee City Historical Society, in Pawnee City, Nebraska is primarily a museum site, with more than 20 historic buildings and many exhibits.  They have recently acquired a building which they call their genealogy building, but haven't had time to really do much with it except house AMERICORPS volunteers this summer. This building is pretty much only open by appointment and a very nice lady came on a Sunday afternoon to open it up and spend about an hour (without air conditioning!) with me. 

What they have:
  • Cemetery records, including directories and maps for Cincinnati and DuBois, and the actual burial records for the Pawnee City cemetery
  • A booklet, written in '70s, about the history of Cincinnati and DuBois, for sale for $7. (This same booklet is available at the Beatrice library, which is only helpful if you can get to the library.)
  • Some digitized photographs 
  • Some old land record books from the courthouse.  The courthouse still has the Grantor and Grantee indexes and the Deed books, but the historical society has the old books that are organized by legal land description.
  • A few school graduation and county fair souvenirs, mostly hidden behind glass
I got the sense that these folks know how to run a good historical museum but are in uncharted waters when it comes to offering a good genealogy library.  There have given in to the temptation to create "displays" on the flat surfaces, which makes it hard to work with the cemetery records, and the land books are in a back room until someone figures out how to work with them.  If they can find a local genealogist to give them a little advice, though, I expect they'll put together a great resource.

I entertained myself on the drive back to my hotel thinking about what a visiting genealogist really wants from a local library...

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I'm a Genealogy Librarian!

Well, I'm an assistant librarian at a genealogy library, which is not exactly the same thing.  I did my first shift this morning as a volunteer at the Midwest Historical and Genealogical Society in Wichita. We weren't busy this morning, so I split my time between administrative things like learning to use the copy machine and exploratory things like poking through the library catalog and the piles of data CDs next to the computer.  The main librarian left us the task of checking a few of the obituary binders for missing pages and I was blown away by how much work the society has done on them, clipping obituaries, death notices and miscellaneous articles about accidents and murders from the Wichita Eagle and Beacon newspapers since 1955.  The binders take up a whole bookcase.

It seems that local genealogy libraries have to split their focus to serve two different audiences -- those who live in the local area and want to research their lines, which requires resources about other areas, and those who are researching lines in the local area, but may not live there.   The MHGS library reflects this -- the basement is devoted to Wichita and the surrounding areas, and includes resources the society has acquired, like city directories, and resources the society has created, like the obituary binders.  The other two floors are more outward looking.  Before joining the society, I had not appreciated how much material they have accumulated on other states; I had always assumed that, because my family arrived in Wichita in the 60's, local libraries wouldn't really have much to offer me.  I stand corrected!

Friday, August 5, 2011

DuBois Cemetery

The DuBois cemetery is just south of the town of DuBois on the main road through town. It's very easy to find and very well maintained.

I didn't see an onsite directory, but the Pawnee Historical Society has a directory and map.

I found a few Shellhorns and Miners here, and lots of Britts.  Selected photos are here.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Cincinnati Cemetery

Because the town of Cincinnati pretty much disappeared many years ago, the cemetery is located in the middle of a cornfield.  It is very well maintained today, but shows signs that suggest it has not always been so.  There is no onsite directory, so I would recommend stopping at the Beatrice Public Library or the Pawnee City Historical Society before heading out into the countryside; the cemetery is small enough to walk around looking for stones, but you'd want to be sure you are looking for Cincinnati rather than the DuBois or Pawnee City cemeteries before braving the gravel roads to Cincinnati. It also appears that there were a lot of burials for which there are no markers visible today.

I found markers for several of my relatives, both direct ancestors like Elisha and Flora DeWitt and Elizabeth DeWitt, and for other Miners, Lores and DeWitts.  I've put them all on my website at Cincinnati Cemetery.  (I only took pictures of relatives or probable relatives, which I estimate at approximately 1/4 of the visible markers.)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Beatrice Public Library

The public library in Beatrice is gorgeous.  Lovely building, nice landscaping, very interesting interior. 

They have a pretty good genealogy section, especially, as you would expect, for Nebraska.  Except for the county I was looking for...Pawnee, which is southeast of Beatrice.  I don't think it's the library's fault -- I didn't get the impression during my trip there's much of an organized genealogy force in Pawnee county. 

I did find a couple of useful things.  One was a cemetery index.  The other was a tiny history of Cincinnati and Dubois; from it I learned that Cincinnati was located in a floodplain, which discouraged the railroad, and that the combined effects of periodic floods and the railroad going elsewhere caused the residents to pretty much pack up and move north to DuBois (which is pronounce DOO Boys).  This helped explain some patterns in my data, which made me happy.

It was nice to have the genealogy section out in the main part of the library, like we...I don't know...belong?  Don't have to be hidden in a separate room?  Is the genealogy happy dance really that distracting for other library patrons?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Planning My Research Trip

Things I found helpful while planning (and conducting) my recent research trip:

Evernote: This is free-form (and free!) note-collecting software that syncs across all your mobile devices.  I put together a notebook with weblinks, snippets of text, and lists for all the stops I planned to make, including libraries, my hotels, courthouses, etc -- and they were all available on my phone, my iPad, and my laptop, even when I didn't have internet access.  I was also able to share it with my mom, giving her the info she would need if she needed to track me down (and my phone didn't work for some reason.) I find I'm using Evernote more and more as I learn more about it.

Google Maps: I made a custom map with pins for every library, cemetery, courthouse, hotel, restaurant, and symposium location I thought I might stop at.  It was very helpful for planning my days.  It would have been more helpful during my days if A) I had internet access everywhere and/or B) there was a way to sync it to my car's navigation system.

TMG: The genealogy software I use, The Master Genealogist, has the option to print lists of all the events that meet a given criteria, sorted however you like.  I made event lists for every event that took place in the counties I was visiting, sorted by city, which helped me figure out who to look for in probate indexes, deed books, and cemetery indexes.  I even had a couple of addresses of residences and businesses to check out in hopes of finding original houses, businesses or churches (I found a couple of possibles).

A plain spiral-bound notebook: I still find this the best way to take notes on the fly -- you can schlep it around a cemetery, use it to hold down grass while you take a picture, and use it as a plate for your afternoon M&M break.  Plus, you can use it anywhere, anytime, without worrying about power or dropping it (or sweating on it -- those cemeteries were hot!)

This article by Thomas MacEntee:  I didn't use all of his suggestions, but it was a good way to start focusing my thinking.