Thursday, October 8, 2015

AncestryDNA: A Year Later

As some of you may recall, I did a post about my initial experience with the AncestryDNA test. That post is more than a year old now, and AncestryDNA has undergone two major changes since then. There are new features to consider, and how they have fundamentally changed my experience with their DNA test.

Like last time, I wanted to give myself ample opportunity to use these new tools before doing a follow-up review. And unlike last time, I have something else to which I can compare my experience. Not only have I been using, I’ve also uploaded and unlocked my free trial matches at Family Tree DNA. While my experience with these sites have informed my perspective, I will try to save my comments on each of these sites for their own respective posts.

I won’t be reviewing the Ethnicity Estimates again, because my opinion of them has not changed.

Cousin Matching: C-

My experience with cousin matching has improved significantly. The first impact my DNA test has had on my tree came from using the tools at AncestryDNA. I began the process using the surname search, which is one of the best tools on AncestryDNA. It allows me to search through my cousin matches’ trees for a surname, a location, or both at the same time.

An example of the surname search, using the surname Halsey

I reached out to one of my cousins, then decided to compensate for her lack of response by researching her family tree for her. Thanks to what little information she provided on her parents, I was able to use obituaries and newspapers to trace her family until I arrived at our common ancestors. I never knew where they went after the 1920 census, and the answer was with her line of the family. They moved to Somerset County, Maryland. Her ancestor was the youngest sibling in a family I’d never realized had more children—the only ones still living with them ten years later at the time the 1930 census was taken.

The names and new census records were added to my tree—and my cousin is none the wiser. Which is probably for the best, because I don’t know how to explain to her what I did without using the words, “Don’t freak out, but I stalked you a little bit.”

A general lack of communication is still one of the predominate issues with DNA testing. This was my chief complaint in my previous review, and over time I've come to understand that this isn't a problem unique to AncestryDNA. With every DNA testing service to which I've been exposed, responses to inquiries are rare and wait times are long. It's the human element of the equation that no DNA testing company can control.

The surname search, plus some extra elbow grease, was enough to find the match between us. AncestryDNA deserves credit for that--and the maps, surname lists, the search functionality, and all of the other tools they've come up with to analyze your cousin match. But the set of tools AncestryDNA provides is still incomplete. The single greatest thing they can do to improve the cousin matching experience would be to have a chromosome browser. I still believe it's unadulterated stubbornness that perpetuates their refusal to build one. A chromosome browser, together with the other tools they provide, would make their DNA test a tour de force of unstoppable discovery.

I understand that people take DNA tests for different reasons. Based on my experience with reaching out, I'd say that more than half of the people with any genetic connection to me have no interest in collaboration. That means that more than half of the messages I send will never amount to anything. This makes me think that some people come into this relationship already knowing they don't wish to contribute. But rather than wasting my time lamenting about it, I'd rather we simply created a way to be upfront with each other.

What reaching out to DNA cousin matches feels like
In my mind, this situation could be handled with a single check box--either as part of the registration process, or a prompt to every person who is part of the AncestryDNA system. “I am currently interested in collaborating with other researchers for the purpose of finding our common ancestors.” Check yes or no. I envision this as a status update type of feature, where we all can act like grown ups and communicate our intentions from the outset. I'm even envisioning that after a person hasn't been active on AncestryDNA for more than 3 months, that status is automatically changed to "No."

Imagine being able to filter your cousin matches by the people who are actively using their DNA tests. No more wasting time sending messages to people who never had any intentions of responding to them. If we can't change other people's behavior, we can at least communicate the behavior we all intend to exhibit.

DNA Circles: C

This was the first of the two newest features to the AncestryDNA test since my last review. A DNA Circle is where AncestryDNA points out the people who share DNA with you, as well as a common person in your trees.

I questioned this feature when it first launched, because all it takes to throw it off is for several cousins to have the same wrong information in their trees. While the DNA Circle links people together with shared DNA, the DNA Circle does no good if the ancestor it claims to represent is wrong.

However, this is not entirely AncestryDNA’s fault. Relying on member trees as part of this process is necessary. Research will always be a part of genealogy, including genetic genealogy. It’s on us to do a better job with our research, so the matching algorithms can do a better job of connecting us together. Being more exact is a necessary part of that process.

Moving forward after my DNA test, I made a lot of changes to the way I used my Ancestry member tree. I created a second tree in which I placed biological relationships only. I removed all extraneous information, including photos, to streamline my work with this DNAonly tree. I expanded the scope of my research for this tree to include all descendants, all siblings and half siblings, second marriages--anyone with a biological link to my direct line ancestors. At the same time, I cleaned up the dates and places in the Facts section, since these drastically improve the Map tool for the cousin match tree comparison. If we want better quality DNA Circles, we each need to participate in some aggressive housecleaning.

What I dislike is how the DNA Circles come with a page for the common ancestor, and that page is a random assortment of stuff from the trees of everyone in the Circle. Photos, Stories, Facts, dates, and names become an unattractive, oftentimes inaccurate jumble of ugliness.

There are no source citations, no criteria for anything that is placed automatically on that page. Being able to clean up and correct these DNA Circle pages is a much needed feature. Unless we're trying to create the world's largest (and worst) Ancestry member tree.

Rather than seeing an assemblage of what everyone has collected on the DNA Circle, I’d rather start with a blank slate, to which my cousins and I may add information. Provide us with the ability to collaborate, allowing us to choose what to add to this ancestor's page. Make valid source citations a requirement for submitting anything to an Ancestor's DNA Circle page. Otherwise, it becomes a compounded source of ignorance instead of providing genuine insight.

In fact, increasing the quality of the DNA Circle ancestor pages and Ancestry member trees could go hand-in-hand. currently provides shaky leaf hints to member trees, which have a certain reputation for being garbage. These hints and copying data from other member trees is how errors spread and become entrenched in the family consciousness. Instead, why not hint everyone to the DNA Circle page? Let it become the single, authoritative source for researchers as they assemble their trees together--whether they've taken a DNA test or not. I'd much rather be introduced to cousins who haven't tested yet this way. If/when they do take an AncestryDNA test, I'll already know who they are!

I'd also like to see some better communication tools for the purposes of DNA collaboration. With each DNA Circle page, I envision a Google Hangouts-style interface which would foster online meet-ups/family reunions, group research discussions, and individual conversations between descendants. These meetings could be private, or publicly stored as part of the DNA Circle page.

A DNA Circle as it stands now seeks to reconstruct the identity of the dead. In order to do the greatest good, it should foster communication and a sense of kinship among the living.

Ancestor Discoveries: C+

Of all the new features on AncestryDNA, this one has me the most excited. This feature has done great things for me already, despite the accuracy shortcomings of the DNA Circles. Over time, I imagine this being one of AncestryDNA’s biggest assets—the thing that sets them apart from other testing services and websites.

So imagine a DNA Circle has been formed for an ancestor. It’s well established, and there are plenty of cousins all matched together. The only thing missing is you, because you share the same DNA as everyone else in the Circle. But the matching algorithm hasn’t matched you to the Circle, because you don’t have the ancestor in your tree yet.

Bummer, right?

Not anymore!

Ancestor Discoveries is intended to do exactly that. It has already done this for me. My Greene family is a hot mess. That’s what happens when the courthouse that services your ancestors burns down… Twice. I was stuck on Henry Greene for ages, until the Ancestor Discovery for his grandparents came along. I did the research to back up the information, because I know better than to believe people on the Internet. I had to go into some unusual places to find the evidence I needed, but finding it was a direct consequence of my Ancestor Discoveries. In terms of results, it really has delivered.

Part of why I like the direction AncestryDNA is going with Ancestor Discoveries is because the lovely so-and-so's with private trees are included. If they fit into a DNA Circle, they become a part of my potential Ancestor Discoveries. Everyone else with a private tree that isn't connected to a DNA Circle can be triangulated via the Shared Matches tab on their cousin match page. I now expend less effort on figuring out where these people fit into the puzzle, and move on to other research problems. AncestryDNA is figuring out ways to avoid giving me an inferior product because of someone else's privacy settings. As one of my chief complaints from my first review, the privacy settings of other users is one of AncestryDNA's areas of greatest improvement.

My only complaint regarding the Ancestor Discoveries is one specific place I've seen it fall apart. To put it delicately, I come from Southern communities in which endogamy was a common practice. I'm one of the lucky ones whose ancestors moved away before the family tree got too tangled, and our current generation is far removed from it. But some of my cousins who are still living in these communities haven't been so fortunate. I connect to them in a multitude of places. We have multiple sets of common ancestors. How well do the Ancestor Discoveries reflect situations like these? Because I know just enough about the science of how the relationship estimates are calculated to know this effectively hoses the entire thing. And some of the Ancestor Discoveries I'm getting suggest the matching algorithms are struggling.

And don't you all go making fun my endogamy. There are two types of people in this world: people who are inbred, and people who don't know it yet.

In situations like these, having segment data matters. I need to see the exact length of the DNA segment. Comparing it to standard genetic inheritance estimates is crucial to properly calculating my relationships to my cousins. I can't judge how skewed my inheritance is without the numbers--data that AncestryDNA does not display as part of its test. While I'm able to use to get this information, I would love so much more to have it as part of my Ancestor Discoveries. Localizing these connections, as well as analyzing them for accuracy, would be so much simpler with the segment data than it is without it.

Final Grade: C

AncestryDNA has made promising progress. I no longer consider it the worst $99 I ever spent. I still encourage anyone who is planning to take a DNA test to consider all of their options before purchasing one from AncestryDNA. Understand that you are making sacrifices of functionality no matter which testing company you choose, so be sure you choose the one that aligns with your reasons for testing.

Regardless of which testing service you use, your plans should also include uploading your results to As a more open source option, it provides many of the analysis tools and data AncestryDNA is currently lacking. While there's a bit of a learning curve to using GEDmatch, it's time and effort well spent. If you need a beginner's guide, be sure to also check out our Genetic Genealogy for Beginners video series.

Good luck, and happy testing!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Historical and Genealogical Society of Tomorrow

As a child, I grew up watching old school cartoons--especially those by Tex Avery. I remember sitting on the floor in my grandparent's second story apartment in rural Maryland, eating carrot sticks and watching the bizarre antics of politically incorrect animals. Among my favorites was the World of Tomorrow, the satirical look into the new century through the lens of the 1950s.

It's in that same tongue-in-cheek, yet curious spirit that I find myself asking what the historical and genealogical societies of tomorrow will look like. This question is largely inspired by my interactions with many different genealogical and historical societies over the past few months. I've had experiences both good and bad--both of which indicate where these societies will strive and struggle to find their place in the future.

With that, I present to you... The Historical and Genealogical Society of Tomorrow!


If a genealogical society is still spending money on sending paper newsletters through the mail, their organization is trapped in 1998. And if their website hasn't had any sort of major overhaul since then, I rest my case.

Social media, blogging, and email will take the place of paper newsletters in the genealogical society of the future. There are too many other important, meaningful ways their financial resources could be used than by sending out paper. Because paper newsletters are usually disseminated monthly or quarterly, to be heard from so infrequently is a losing battle for relevance. And as conserving natural resources grows in importance, unnecessary uses for paper will become increasingly unconscionable.

Throughout the years, many societies have tried to cut costs with low budget websites, and have avoided making real investments in their web presence. But it isn't enough to stick a Facebook badge on the old website and to call this the future. The HTML relics of yesteryear, complete with technicolor Comic Sans font and Clip Art bouquets, need to be given a proper burial. Today and tomorrow these websites need to be replaced by smarter solutions, especially for storage and security.

Because genealogical and historical societies of the future will take their place on the front lines of digitization, their websites need to become robust repositories of information. Becoming an online community trust means providing original records, transcribed indexes, photos, maps, better catalogs and directories for newspapers, books, periodicals, and vast collections of other records. Becoming the first providers for all legally available records is a market just waiting to be created.

If historical and genealogical societies want to participate in that market, they need to prepare themselves by stepping firmly into the future with their technology.


Preserving local history is a community affair. It requires interaction between organizations of all kinds, at every level. The historical and genealogical society of the future knows how to be the bridge between these organizations. Schools, colleges and universities, libraries and archives, courthouses and public offices, civic organizations, and businesses, and government offices of every kind, each play a role in this mission. Finding, protecting, digitizing, and sharing a community's history is a shared responsibility. Anyone can play a part, and successful societies recognize they can reach out to anyone.

Military participating in cemetery cleanup in Hawaii
Historical and genealogical societies of the future know how to create volunteer opportunities, both online and offline. They identify and exercise every resource at their disposal. If creating a new index means paying for scanning services, they're the ones to create and promote the GoFundMe campaign. Then they reach out online for volunteer indexers. When it finally comes time to build or expand the website for a new collection, they find the college students in web design who need an internship to graduate. These societies understand that when they unite diverse groups in a common love of family and history, they make their communities better places to live.

Collaboration in historical and genealogical societies of the future also means looking beyond immediate geography. Various historical records are no longer kept in the places that created them. Some of the most passionate historians do not live anywhere near the places they study. Societies will expand their reach to these places and people. Because these societies are looking to adapt, they will find ways to expand their membership offerings to those outside their communities, both online and offline.

Meetings are Old News

Gone will be days where the only way to attend meetings of these organizations is to actually live nearby. The genealogical societies of tomorrow will accept that the newest generation, in order to adapt to an ever-changing economy, has become one of the most transient in history. Their first cross country move is a rite of passage, their first experience living abroad a must-have. Especially for the minimalist urban living which defines the Millennial generation, the thought of a meeting that cannot be attended remotely is incomprehensible. Yes, including for genealogy, because hardly any of us live in the communities where our ancestors lived.

Webinars, Google Hangouts, and live YouTube events are the meetings of the future. It's what the new generation expects from any organization to which it gives its paying patronage. Attendance is not limited by geography, time zone, or day of the week. The most experienced researchers for a community may not actually live there, but they can be engaged and participating with the genealogical community who does. Because all that is required to create a YouTube channel is a computer, an internet connection, and a device that records video, anyone can do it. Google and YouTube have made all of the investment to make the software, the interface, and hosting the video available for free.

The only limitations for historical and genealogical society meetings of the future are a lack of imagination, and willingness to learn.

Generational Culture Clash

Historical and genealogical societies of the future understand that reaching my generation is crucial to their survival. Embracing new technology means bringing us into their organization by default. The environment the society creates by the activities they engage in will determine if we will choose to stay.

Reaching and retaining our generation is summarized in one word--inclusion. We want to feel included in every part of the society--decision making, leading projects, organizing events, spending funds, all of it. Our voices need to be heard, and have an impact. At the same time, we need to feel everyone else is included, too.

The most compelling way to attract our crowd in the future will be by preserving a more inclusive history. As the genealogical and historical societies of the future become the force behind creating new record collections, they need to include all types of people in these collections. Millennials are interested in minorities, the underdogs, the "forgotten" history not included in the history books. In many communities, the history of African Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community, and even women have received almost no attention by their local historical and genealogical societies. By collecting and preserving the records from these populations of their community, these societies choose to be inclusive. They become inviting places for my generation and our values.


The place where inclusiveness will fall apart most often for historical and genealogical societies of the future is the Paywall. Paywalls have made their way into the genealogical community, and their place has been unquestioningly embraced by many historical and genealogical societies already. 

But my generation hates paywalls. We hate them because they are not inclusive--they exclude someone from information, services, and a community based on their ability to pay. Because Millennials are the greatest consumers of digital media, we're the ones most affected by Paywalls. In staggering economies where we're also the ones most affected, we're the ones with the least disposable income. We resent paywalls both on principle, and out of self-preservation. 

But that doesn't mean our generation isn't willing to part with money. We prefer to donate and give based on the value of what we feel we have received. We embrace payment options that allow us to give according to what we have. Where we can't give money, we're often willing and able to work, trade, or barter. 

More than anything else, we delight in proving that you can accomplish more by being less concerned with money. In order to appeal to the Millennial generation, embracing this philosophy will be a necessary part of organizational growth and transition.

As a matter of demographic disclosure, I am 25 years old. I have been actively researching my genealogy for ten years. I consider myself an advanced non-professional. I am a paperless genealogist, and I do the vast majority of my research online. As part of the first generation to grow up in the Digital Revolution, there was never a time where I had to do genealogy without the Internet. To put it bluntly, I am incurably hard wired to share because to me, that is what genealogy has always been.

I have also never joined a historical or genealogical society. I have nothing against them. But I have also never come across one that was interested in the communities I research, who also has much to offer as I have to give.

My most recent experience with a genealogical society demonstrates how much adapting there is to do--both for these groups, and for me and the denizens of tomorrow. I contacted a genealogical society, in search of plot information for a cemetery which has not been well digitized. It will take years to identify all of the people, especially those of African descent, who are buried there without headstones. This society's is the most comprehensive database that exists online for that cemetery. However, it is also behind a paywall. 

I attempted to negotiate, offering to trade information with them. If they had no information about my family's exact location in this cemetery, that confirmation alone would be helpful. At which point, I would gladly give their names, death and burial dates, and my original sources--to add to the database. My instinct is to share.

The person I spoke to insisted at first that I buy a membership in order to access the cemetery collection on my own. The society only offers an annual membership, priced at $30. Their website has no other collections pertinent to my research. I live hundreds of miles away, and cannot attend any of their meetings. The bulk of that expense is to create and send a paper newsletter I don't want, and is not relevant to my research. But this is the way things have always been done. 

We spend all of this time trying to figure out how to tear down our brick walls, and now we're finding better ways to build them between each other. 

And maybe it was foolishness, maybe it was desperation, but I asked the person on the other side of the wall if perhaps there wasn't a better way.

I didn't get an answer right away. I didn't expect to get one at all. But the person--a woman, come to find out--took a brick out of the paywall, and passed me a name for a missing daughter I had never seen before. She even threw in some contact information for the caretakers of the cemetery and its records--a contact I never would have found on my own. And true to my word, I sent the names, dates, and sources for the rest of my family members buried in that cemetery.

I tried to be an example of the change and collaboration--the future--I believe in. Part of envisioning the future in genealogy is being part of the changes you hope to see. And my greatest hope is that this type of common sense cooperation becomes the rule of the future, not the exception.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Free DNA Discoveries from

DNA testing is among the many technological revolutions taking place in the genealogical community. With a little help from AncestryDNA, 23&Me, and Family Tree DNA, you can connect with other descendants of your ancestors to increasingly remote corners of the globe. By collaborating with them, many genealogists are tearing down long standing brick walls and making incredible discoveries.

However, there are limitations to genetic genealogical testing--and not just the 8 generation window the technology gives us at this present time. These limitations instead come from expense, and the boundaries between testing companies. If the descendants to whom you need to connect have tested with a different company than you have, you may not see that match until one or the other of you takes a second test with the right company.

But does it have to be that way? In our day and age of open source software and good digital citizenship, there are no necessary boundaries between testing companies anymore.

Introducing is a website which allows users from each of these testing companies to upload their DNA test results. No matter where you live or which of the testing companies has performed your test, is free for you to use. You are then placed into a database, which includes users from each of the major testing companies.

Learning to use GEDmatch requires a little more than the average sit-down to learn how to use it. Because of that, we've provided a beginners guide with our Genetic Genealogy video series. This final video in that series provides a beginners introduction to GEDmatch, and the three most essential tools on that site: the One-to-Many match list, the One-to-One analysis, and the Admixture utilities.

Have you taken a DNA test and are still waiting to make the right cousin match? Check out and see what you can discover today!

AUTHORS NOTE: This is not a compensated endorsement. I receive nothing from GEDmatch for writing this post.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Using Microsoft Access for Genealogy

Let's be real for a minute. As genealogists, one of the worst mistakes we can make is being our own worst enemy. Many moons ago, I did this through being disorganized. But as I wrangled my digital files into submission and limited all of my papers to a single binder, organization became one of my greatest strengths.

Now that I'm organized, my new enemy is inefficiency.

Inefficiency: The Genealogy Edition

Let me set a scene for you. You find a family group sheet or a report you really like to track certain information about a family. Maybe it's your research log, or tracking vital records for a family, or any type of family group sheet--anything you use to analyze your research. Naturally, you have copies of those reports for different ancestors. So the number of them begins to grow exponentially.

But then what happens when it's time to update them? Do you hunt down each one of them, and update them individually? When it's time to delete the outdated ones or backups, there's no easy way to do that. And what happens if you find a new report you like more, or want to make changes to the one you've been using? Do you copy and paste all of that information from your old form onto your new form? That takes forever!

The moment I have a blank document where I'm typing information I already know, about people I've already discovered, that to me is inefficiency. For a long time, it seemed like a necessary evil because I didn't know of any programs that could avoid that needless repetition.

Then I discovered Microsoft Access.

Introducing: Microsoft Access

Microsoft Access is a great source of untapped potential for genealogy. In terms of a learning curve, the transition is minimal--it uses the same menu and command structure as the Microsoft Office ribbon. Learning the unique functions of Access was simple. Everything I needed to know, I learned from YouTube. Creating a fully customized database is no more difficult than creating a PowerPoint presentation.

Looking at you, Evernote!
No coding, no tinkering with new platforms or websites. No more apps bricking up my phone. No more wondering if some website is going to get hacked and all of my data is going to disappear. And no more sacrificing functionality because a website like Evernote seems to think that fully functional rich-text editing is some kind of luxury.

For me, Microsoft Access's single greatest strength was how it unified my research tasks. I don't have research logs, document tracking, DNA matching lists, repository contact information, and other such documents and information scattered all over my computer and different platforms anymore. All of that information is organized and working together in the same stand-alone program.

How else does it help my productivity? In Microsoft Access, the data entry mode and creating reports from that data are two different steps, not one. If I create a family group sheet in Microsoft Word, the only way for the information to end up on that family group sheet is if I type it on there. The same is true of Excel, OneNote, and Evernote. To create a new document or page means I have to copy and paste, or type, for every additional report I create. The creation of the form and the data entry and pretty much the same step.

In Microsoft Access, the form on the left creates the report on the right

 In Access, this is not the case. It allows me to create forms for data entry. I enter the data, and it saves that information into a spreadsheet. Once that information is on the spreadsheet, it's there until I delete it. So I enter the data ONCE--for any person, from any family line--on the same data entry form. It will store it all that data together on the same sortable spreadsheet, which I can export in a variety of formats. But I'm not just limited to displaying that information on a spreadsheet.

When I want the information on a specific individual or family, I can easily create a report from Microsoft Access. It takes the information from my spreadsheet, and will create any combination or number of reports that I want it to create. It will sort, organize, or reorganize the data on that report in whatever way I wish. I can change the report content or design without having to retype any information I've already entered. It simply pulls all of the same data from the spreadsheet, and enters it for me on the report.

No more hunting down a specific document to update, which is already outdated the second I finish it. I don't even create reports until I need them anymore. Every document I create is up to date, existing in real time with the rest of my research. All I have to do is backup my database, and it backs up literally hundreds of forms--all at the same time.

If the definition of efficiency is only having to do something one, Microsoft Access is the only program I've found that allows me to be efficient in everything I do.


If you're spending more time tinkering with documents and websites than getting your research done, maybe it's time for a change.

And maybe that change should be Microsoft Access.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Family History Library: Crushed by a Waterfall of Knowledge

I recently took my first trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

I have wanted to make that trip for so long, and I finally got a chance to go. I'll be the first to tell you that I expected a Shangri-La of records, where I would not be in want of discovery because it would simply be everywhere. I imagined my most productive day magnified a thousand times. I couldn't wait to be crushed by a waterfall of knowledge.

As usual, how little my fantasy resembles reality was a comedy of errors from start to finish. I never imagined I could be so prepared for an experience, yet be so entirely unready.

How I Prepared

I use Microsoft Access 2013 for all of my cataloging, list making, and report generating needs. This includes creating a research list of books and microfilm specific to the Family History Library. I generated this list over a long period of time, until the cost of requesting all of the microfilm for use in my local family history center exceeded the cost of a trip to Salt Lake City.

I checked every roll of microfilm to make sure it was stored on-site at the Family History Library. A certain portion of their collection is stored off-site at the Granite Mountain Records vault, and needs to be requested in advance. My research was focused primarily on verifying vital statistics of my father's lines in Virginia and North Carolina. Nothing exotic or difficult. While the volume of stuff I wanted to look up was probably beyond my grasp for a first time trip, nothing I desired was exotic enough to present a real challenge.

No. It all fell apart... because I am human.

This could have been us, Family History Library, but you playin'

Mistake #1: No Experience Using Microfilm

My first mistake was focusing the bulk of my day on microfilmed records, when I have only used microfilm twice in my entire life. The first time I was 16 and especially helpless because I was having my first real repository experience. The lady who brought me to the Cecil County Historical Society looked up the obituary for me, and that was the end of it. The second time I looked up an obituary for my grandfather at the public library when I was 17, which I don't remember being at all strenuous.

But then again, I'd never seen a demon in my life quite like this machine.

My version of genealogy hell is having to load and unload one of these contraptions for eternity

The missionary at the desk showed me how to load the reels onto the machine, and it couldn't have appeared more simple. But I swear, I found every wrong combination of ways to insert microfilm into that accursed machine. In a choice that should have been a 50/50 shot, I somehow turned the odds against myself even more. If I was lucky enough to get the film loaded onto the machine, the images would be backwards, upside down, or both, and I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong.

So I'd try to pull the reels off, and they'd be on there so tightly I'd have to give them a good tug. One or both of the ends of the reel would fly out of my hands and tumble to the floor. I'd pick them up and try again. I spent more of my time loading and unloading the stupid machine than actually finding records.

Once I'd find a record I wanted to copy, I'd have to pull it off of the infuriating the machine, take it over to the ScanPro, a slightly less infuriating machine, and somehow get the reels onto it. Then I'd have to find the image I wanted all over again. Then scan the record, print it, and rewind the film. Walk back over to my little microfilm cubby of darkness... then go back to get my microfilm spool I left on the ScanPro... every... single... time. Without fail.

I was reaching Infomercial levels of stupidity, and it was only 11 o'clock in the morning.

Mistake #2: Numbers are my Enemy

Anyone who has used is probably aware that they are super at providing the roll numbers for their microfilm collection. If you've ever found an indexed entry for a family member, and wanted to look up the original on microfilm, you're in luck. Check the bottom of the page, and there will usually be a film number and a reference ID number to help you do it.

The film numbers on the U.S. and Canada film floor range from 5 to 9 digit numbers. For someone like me who has a hard time reading numbers without transposing them horribly, digging through those drawers was not a pleasant experience. I'm still trying to figure out how the numbers of the outside of the drawers corresponded to what was in the drawers, because it was never all that clear to me. I tried to figure out a range as best I could and started yanking two or three drawers open until I finally found what I wanted.

It was a slow, cumbersome process in which I ended up pulling three wrong rolls by accident, and having to put them all back. Which on its own is not a huge deal. But all of these mistakes were starting to add up in terms of lost time.

Mistake #3: Fine Print

Once I plowed through every single roll of microfilm I had on my list, I'd been in the library for five hours already. I hadn't eaten, which was a huge mistake. I had about an hour or so left to look at books. So I headed up to the third floor where the books are supposed to be...

SPOILER: True to her word, my name was actually in the book

I was searching for this book. As I headed over to the 929 section on the third floor, I saw they were all reference books. I knew I had to be in the wrong place, so I asked a missionary. He said to head to the first floor. Back to the elevator I went...

So I head over to the shelf where the book is supposed to be. As soon as I get to the shelf, I can tell something is wrong. There are too few books on the shelf for this to be the right place. So I go to find someone to help me.

We pasted the call number I had copied from the FamilySearch catalog back into the website... and for whatever reason, the computers in the library were bringing up every book but that one I wanted. I've never seen a call number cataloging system like theirs, and I wasn't impressed by how difficult it was making a very simple process. I also had to spend a good five minutes convincing the woman helping me that I wasn't nuts, the book I wanted existed, no that other book there is not it, and no it wouldn't be digitized because it was published in 1996.

Eventually, however, she did arrive at the cause of the problem:

If the book you want is labeled as High Density, it means the book you want is stored in a part of the library you are not allowed to access. You have to head down to floor B1 and ask someone at the window to retrieve the book for you. Give them the number in the green circle. My example here is 0293154. Trust me. There's no less than 20 minutes of my life I could get back had I known this information. They will pass you a clipboard and ask you to sign out the books you're using. When you're done, take the books back to the window.

Mistake #4: Budgeting Time

I knew this was going to be difficult for me the entire time I was planning this trip. Time management is a particular weakness of mine. But I recognize that the only way I'm going to get better is by gaining more experience in research settings.

Current Status: This
That said, I honestly wish I would have gone after the book first. I wouldn't have gotten as many copies from the microfilm, but the microfilm records didn't provide any additional insight like I thought they would. Had I gotten less accomplished, I'd still be in the same place I am right now. Now I know that the indexes from FamilySearch haven't left anything out. What you see on the index is what you get on the original image, at least for every record I tried find.

This one book ended up being the best find of my whole trip. But I had already been on so many goose chases that by the time I had the book in front of me, I only had 30 minutes to use it before I had to leave.

So I whipped out my new camera and started taking photos of the pages. It did a fantastic job. It was the first thing I was able to do without a struggle all day.

The book was massive. I didn't have the time or the desire to photograph the whole thing. So I checked the index and copied the other sections of the book most relevant to me. It was a good decision.

Overall, I'm glad I put myself into this situation. All of it gave me experience, and served to make me savvier than I'd been before. Knowing what I would do differently now is exactly what is going to make next time so much better.

Until then, I need to go recover...

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Genetic Genealogy for Beginners, Part 2

For part 1, click here!

This round, we'll be talking about:
  • How to read chromosome browsers
  • What matches looks like
  • False matches (IBD vs. IBS)
  • Matching criteria from different testing companies

Next time...
Introduction to!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Genea-Adventure!

One half of the Young & Savvy Genealogists team is heading off on a genea-adventure tomorrow to Salt Lake City for the Federation of Genealogical Societies & RootsTech Conferences.

I'm a Blog Ambassador for FGS!
I left sunny, warm Brisbane on Friday afternoon & flew to Sydney. Tomorrow (Monday morning) I fly to LAX and then on-wards to Salt Lake City. I have never been to Salt Lake City and I have not been to LAX airport for five years. Plus, I have never flown to the US without my parents before so it really will be an adventure!

I am super excited to attend my first RootsTech & FGS Conferences. I cannot believe it is actually happening! I would love to meet as many of you as possible, and perhaps rope in a few other young genealogists to do some guest posts on Y&SG. That would be awesome!

If you wish to keep up with my genea-adventures at the conference, I shall be attempting to daily blog over at Genealogically Speaking, updating my Facebook, and live tweeting. Hopefully the internet lives up to its expectations! I shall be doing some vlogging too, but depending on the hotel internet, those may not go up until I am at my Grandparents the following week.

If any of you are going to RootsTech & FGS, be sure to let me know! If only my Y&SG other half Heather was going.

Catch ya on the flip side y'all!

PS. I'll be the one at the conference wearing the cat ears headband.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Does this couple in Missouri own your relatives on Find a Grave, too?

Finding this was accidental, I swear!
One of my favorite actors is David Tennant, and during an interview he once told the story of a man who asked him for his autograph... in the shower. David Tennant signed the autograph simply to get back to what was left of his shower in peace, but not before making a point I have always remembered.

If you have to explain to someone why their behavior is inappropriate, are they really going to understand it?

Nevertheless, I'm going to go ahead with what I'm hoping can be a moment of constructive reflection for everyone who reads this. And if you're guilty of anything like what I'm about to describe, I want you to take an honest look at yourself. Realize that you are no different than the guy asking for someone's autograph while they're in the shower, and you simply don't know it yet.

A Disturbing Discovery

My husband's father just passed away, and we returned to our neighboring hometowns to visit with family and participate in the funeral. We are both genealogists, and we take what we do seriously. In the grand southern tradition from whence we both descend, we didn't bat an eye at taking a picture of the body in the casket. I made sure I got two shots of the pall bearers, so we could see all six of them. I kept extra programs and funeral cards. Suffice it to say, we need no assistance when it comes to remembering our dead.

His funeral was on Monday. I asked my husband if he wanted me to create the Find a Grave memorial on Tuesday. I created it on Wednesday after we arrived home--only to discover that one had already been created for him last week.

I couldn't believe it. I showed the memorial to my husband. He told me he didn't like the picture, and I recognized it instantly as the one his mother had given to the newspaper. He didn't need to tell me. I watched him tear our house apart looking for the perfect pictures to bring to the funeral. I watched him edit family photos for more than two hours to bring as a perfect offering of his father's memory.

I had to be the one to tell him that his father's memorial page was owned by Lyle & Marsha, a couple in Missouri he has never met. I watched the anger spell out in unspoken words across his face, as it dawned on him that total strangers had taken one of his father's most public memorials away from his family. I had to explain that we would have to ask them--ask them!--to transfer the memorial to us, and they would be under no obligation to cooperate. As his wife, I saw his anger smolder into quiet disgust with the human race. It was the last thing on earth I wanted him to feel after losing his father.

Upon closer inspection, I discovered that Lyle and Marsha created the memorial with the information published online in my father-in-law's obituary. Someone else then came along with the copied image from the newspaper, and added it to the memorial. The obituary is posted in its entirety on the memorial, which I have never liked for aesthetic reasons. The end result is a memorial that neither of us had any control over, and is in no way what we would have wanted. Which is ironic, given that Lyle and Marsha's stated goal is to "present a memorial that will please the family."

I would ask how they could ever hope to do that, given that they don't even know us. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Why should this couple be allowed to create memorials for people based on what is printed in obituaries, before the body is even buried? From a genealogical standpoint, this is unadulterated sloppiness on their part. How can they know what was printed in the obituary was accurate? I have half a dozen obituaries that have incorrect burial information on them, and I shudder to think what someone like Lyle and Marsha could have done with them.

How many memorials have they created with false information on them--simply because they have never met the family, they do not live in the area, and have no clue what they're talking about?

And more to the point, the last time I checked the website was called Find a Grave--not Find an Obituary.

So who are Lyle and Marsha?

I've been watching this couple very closely. I've watched their number of memorials created/managed continue to skyrocket. Find a Grave publishes their user statistics on their public profile. In 3 years, 11 months, and 3 days they have created 71,106 memorials. That's roughly 18,186 a year, more than 1,500 a month. This translates into 50 memorials created each day.

I want to draw attention to a few elements of their public Find a Grave contributor profile. They reveal so much more about themselves through their own words than I could ever hope to do with mine.

"If we have done a memorial for one of your loved ones, feel free to request their memorial. However, we transfer according to FAG guidelines. Please be kind when requesting. We will not reply to hateful, demanding requests. This is a hobby that we enjoy, and we will not allow anyone to add stress or aggravation to something we enjoy."

Clearly, Lyle and Marsha have been this intrusive, offensive, and disrespectful to other people's grief before. It isn't in the nature of sane, rational people to be angry with strangers. If this is an experience they find themselves having frequently, it means they're doing something that needs to be corrected. The appropriate response is NOT to minimize the the feelings of people they've hurt by accusing them of being "hateful" or "demanding." By saying they refuse to feel "stress or aggravation" over the pain they cause, they're pretending like they've done nothing wrong. They're saying their feelings matter, and those of others simply do not.

They demand respect, but they give none.

Let's talk for a minute about the Find a Grave guidelines they say they strive to uphold. This is the policy Find a Grave follows in these disputes over memorials.

If the memorial in question is a direct relative within four generations (siblings, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents) to you and the original submitter is not direct family, then they must transfer the memorial. If they refuse to transfer your relative to you, and we will work on it for you.

Lyle and Marsha are not direct relatives of my father-in-law. According to the guidelines, they are required to transfer the memorial to me and my husband. Seeing as they manage almost 80,000 profiles, I don't see them getting around to my transfer request any time soon. Maybe they'd have a little more time for courtesy if they weren't trying to inflate their statistics fake internet points so aggressively. So I've already escalated the matter to Find a Grave. They've transferred my case over to their partners at, and I'm *in the process of working together with them to have the memorial deleted.

By putting us into a situation where we have to reach out to them, on their terms, Lyle and Marsha intruded on our peace of mind. They are no less oblivious and selfish than David Tennant's naked autograph seeker. They could not have imposed on us more--even if they showed up to our hotel room, walked in on my husband in the shower, and asked for his autograph. The result is identical. To invade on someone's private, vulnerable space, for the sake of a record that doesn't even belong to them--that's what they've done to our family. Whether they will acknowledge their wrong or not, that is how they have made us feel.

While there is no law or user agreement that may forbid what they're doing, it's certainly against common sense and basic human decency. If nothing else, I hope they will ponder on the immense joy they clearly feel using Find a Grave, and recognize that they have taken that away from my husband. That may be the only way for them to comprehend their actions, because reason and user agreements certainly cannot help them.

What I Have Learned

Because of this entire situation, I've come up with some personal guidelines for how I'm going to create Find a Grave memorials from now on. I went through all of my created profiles and saw I had the presence of mind never to do any of these things. But I will still treat them as my personal policy from now on.

I will not create profiles for adults who have been deceased less than a year. For infants, children, and minors, I will not create a memorial until they have been deceased at least five years. I want to give ample time for families to grieve, and hopefully create the memorial themselves.
Wherever possible, I will not create memorials for my family based solely on information provided from obituaries or death records. I will find the testimony of someone who has been to the cemetery, seen or photographed the headstone, was present for the funeral, or visit the grave myself before creating the memorial. 
Any memorial I create for someone else's family will be from a visit I made to a cemetery, not from printed records. 
If an obituary names living people, I will not post it to a memorial. Just because someone's name was included in an obituary does not mean they want their names associated with the deceased. While this wasn't the case with my father-in-law, it definitely was with my own father. Some people are also concerned for their privacy, and it's no one's place but theirs to decide how their name is used on the internet.
I will not withhold memorials from living family members for any reason.  
I will remove a memorial if they ask me to do so, without argument or requiring an explanation.
I will respond to any requests made of me by living family within 24 hours, wherever possible.  
I will not copy photos from other websites to publish to Find a Grave, unless I have permission or they are public domain images.

Have you had any crazy experiences with Find a Grave volunteers? What are your personal policies on how you contribute to Find a Grave? Let us know in comments!

*UPDATE: Thanks to the fine folks at Find a Grave/, Lyle and Marsha's memorial has been deleted. I said on Twitter this morning that Find a Grave staff are so awesome, they deserve costumes and a theme song. This was what immediately came to mind...

When Marsha and Lyle
tryna cramp yo' style
Who you gonna call?
 Find a Grave!

When they swipe yo' dad
 Make you really mad
 Who you gonna call?

Find a Grave!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Genetic Genealogy for Beginners, Part 1

As many of you recall, I took the AncestryDNA test a while back and I'm still trying to make it work for me as much as possible. I said I was going to follow up on the experiences I've been having at, which so far has been a great experience for me. Although I still haven't made any amazing discoveries in terms of matches, I'm well on my way to making that happen.

The more I've learned about genetics, the more I realize that I needed someone to explain the important fundamentals to me--information that, in my experience, is not easy to find.

Because of that, I've decided to make a video series on the basics of genetic genealogy. Be sure to Like, Comment, Subscribe, and Share!

If you're thinking about taking a DNA test, regardless of the company you test with, there are some important things you need to know. I cover these in my Part 1 video in more detail, but here are some of the facts you most need to understand before (or after) buying a test.

  1. You need to start with at least two tests, one for you and one for another person in your family. Why? Because DNA does not come pre-color coded according to what came from your mom or dad. If you want to have any clue at all about which side of the family your cousin matches come from, you need to know which parts of your DNA are maternal and paternal. Have one of your parents tested with you. If that's not possible, try another close relative (grandparents, cousins, anyone who can clearly comes from one side of your family.)
  2. If you think a cM is a centimeter, or a SNP (pronounced "snip") is a haircut, you're in a lot of trouble. These are the two most important concepts in measuring how someone is related to you. Never heard of 'em before? Check out my video above to get started.
  3. There is no royal road to cousin matching. You have to learn science, do calculations, and study up on what it all means to do genetic genealogy. You have to learn about your matching tools and how to use them. Your testing companies may match you to other people, but until you know how it all works it's all going to be Greek to you. If you want to solve your family mysteries, it doesn't just happen like a shaky leaf hint. It takes work. If you don't want to invest the time to learn and collaborate with other people, genetic genealogy is not for you.
And as a final piece of advice: start a new tree and get rid of the privacy settings. Your test alone isn't going to tell you very much. You have to work together with other people, comparing notes with them and trying to figure out how the two of you are related. They can't help you if they can't see your tree or communicate with you. And while you're creating a second tree, try to forget everything you thought you knew about your family. Follow the biological lines as far as you can. Don't put in step parents or adopted parents anywhere in that tree. It will only make your life--and the lives of those who want to help you--more difficult.

Have any questions about where to get started? Leave them in comments and I'll answer them as I continue to genetic genealogy series!

UPDATE: Part 2 and Part 3 are available now!