I recently read an entertaining post by John Patten titled “Who Do You Think You Are Annoying?” about his impressions of how the NBC series “Who Do You Think You Are?” may be dumbing down the process of research shown to viewers for the sake of entertainment value. Hop over to John’s blog to read the whole thing. I basically agree with what he’s saying.

After scraping together bits of the UK series on the web while they were available (since I can’t get BBC TV on my set here in the USA) I was excited to hear that a US version was being produced and was fairly pleased with Season 1. I had just come off of watching “Faces of America” with Henry Louis Gates, which while an excellent and interesting production, was not what I was looking for from a genealogist’s perspective. I think it was summed up when in one minute Gates was walking around China and the next he was handing Yo Yo Ma 1,000 years of his family tree. I was thinking “What? How’d we get there?!”

WDYTYA in Season 1 was much better for me in that way — at least it seemed like those celebrities were doing a little more legwork (even if led around a bit from behind-the-scenes professional genealogists). What I’ve seen of season 2 so far, while entertaining enough for a Friday night, has lost even more of the behind the scenes chase for elusive records that makes family history so worthwhile. It’s now become more of game to guess when that researcher is gonna flip around the laptop all loaded up with Ancestry.com and say “Ok put in your ancestor’s name and – Voila! You’ve got all these record hits!” It could become the family historian’s geeky equivalent of a college drinking game where every time they mention or show the Ancestry logo you have to take a drink (what is the approved drink of the genealogist anyway? Is beer too pedestrian? Red wine better? I don’t know).

Since my background is marketing & advertising, I do understand all the work that goes into any kind of production (whether TV, print, or web) and that there is a lot of content that has to get excised to fit any medium’s format (not to mention designed in a way to keep people awake for 1 hour). I also applaud what the show and the promotional backing of NBC and Ancestry has been able to do to raise awareness of the great passion that is genealogy. I guess I’d just like to see a little more of the nitty gritty of how they get from A to B so I can relate it more to helping in my own ancestor quest, rather than just a voyeuristic look at celebrity’s family origins. Oh and I’d also like someone to send ME all over the country (and possibly world) to get at those records that are too distant for a reasonable car ride!

BTW, wondering what the connection here is between genealogy and technology? I became aware of John Patten’s post (who is quite a way away from me in Melbourne, Australia) via a Tweet by @TwigsOfYore after checking out the #WDYTYA hashtag for the show!

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Usually I like to write new original blog posts, but I came across a great post on Susan Petersen’s “Long Lost Relatives” blog on how you might use your Kindle ebook reader to good genealogy use besides reading your favorite books. For example:

“The Kindle actually functions as a high capacity USB drive that can be connected to the USB port on your computer. Adobe PDF files are one of the many file formats that are compatible with the Kindle. That means that any file that can be converted to PDF can be transferred to your Kindle.”

It’s the kind of intersection of genealogy and technology that I like to write about, so take a peek at Susan’s blog for the full story.

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I stumbled across an interesting web page which seems to be making a bit of a buzz in the design circles and since this blog is about the intersection of genealogy and technology I had to share it. Industrial designers Huang Jianbo, Zhao Ting, Wang Yushan, Ran Xiangfei & Mo Ran came up with an innovative and hi-tech way to reach out and touch someone from beyond the grave (in a thankfully non-zombie-ish way): the E-tomb.

etomb3Posted on the Yanko Design site, this grave marker of the future has it all: the ability to store your personal web pages, blog, facebook profile, photos, videos and more for easy access by a mourner or genealogist’s bluetooth-enabled smartphone. Better still, the smallish memorial is topped with a heavenly layer of solar panel silicon to power the information terminal. I guess you could see the whole thing as a little spooky, but on second thought I rather like the idea of preserving the bits and bytes of my life in-perpetuity for future generations to browse. Maybe someday this blog will be enshrined on a chip in my tombstone.

Better yet, maybe someday a digital facsimile of my consciousness will be embedded into an e-tomb memorial so that I can call out to future relative passersby of my cemetery plot and virtually guide them through the family tree research I so painstakingly compiled in my lifetime, like a genealogy version of McCoy Pauley, “The Dixie Flatline,” in Gibson’s NEUROMANCER.

Other than the fact that the e-tomb is currently only a proof of concept design (near as I can tell), the only bone I’d pick with the designers is that in all of their careful attention to the “e” aspect, they forgot to include the option for some good ol’ analog inscriptions on that e-tomb tombstone! Maybe that’s for version 2.0…

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Like people, it’s no secret that from the moment a cemetery is “born”, it is already dying. Initially land for plots is plentiful and revenues roll in to maintain and improve the facilities. But for most, the space for selling new plots eventually runs out (especially in urban cemeteries) and perpetual care fees even if invested well can’t keep up with the cost of maintenance. Each cemetery faces an inevitable decline into obscurity and neglect without infusions of cash.

Aside from the family members of those buried in one of these “lost” cemeteries, this situation pains no one more than genealogists — not only do we depend on well-maintained cemeteries for access to records, but also for providing a safe environment for our wanderings. That’s why I’m pleased when I find a examples of how some cemeteries are finding innovative ways to reverse the downward spiral of decay.

JCCem-WebsiteOne such place is the Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery. Founded in 1829 and serving as the final resting place of many Jersey City, New Jersey founders as well as for soliders from the Revolutionary War to the present day, the cemetery has a rich history but also a checkered past. Declining revenues and financial mismanagement by past trustees caused the cemetery to fall into disrepair by the turn of this century and finally abandoned in 2008. But a new cemetery board of trustees made of caring volunteers is turning things around with a mix of community events and Internet technology.

JCCem-FacebookFunds are needed for clearing the detritus of years of neglect on the grounds. Ongoing maintenance of the grounds and buildings are needed and the deteriorating cemetery records need restoration and preservation. The cemetery built and launched a modern website to serve as the communication hub for all these fundraising efforts. They use email marketing to keep people aware of upcoming events and they have an active Facebook page with over 750 fans. I haven’t found a Twitter account yet or any YouTube videos, but I’m sure those will come along eventually if they help spread the message and aid fundraising efforts.

The Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery uses these channels not only to solicit donations directly, but also to promote innovative community fundraising events including:

“Ghost of Uncle Joe’s Halloween” costume ball and rock show
“Old Time Wakes” – Oral stories by legendary storyteller Bob Leach
“Shakespeare at the Cemetery” – a theater performance

JCCem-The Ghost of Uncle JoeTo some, the idea of of holding concerts and theater performances in a cemetery may be anathema, but I think its a great way to get the community invested in the preservation of this cemetery and making its records more accessible to those that need them. The “spooky” draw of it all may help get kids into learning about genealogy and history instead of defacing it. It also harkens back to the “garden cemetery” movement of the 19th century when cemeteries were as much park & recreation facilities for the public enjoyment as they were utilitarian places to bury the dead.

It’s hard to say where all this social media and internet tech will take the Jersey City Cemetery but I can’t help but think its a positive model for other struggling cemeteries — embrace the future to help preserve the past!

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Your Past Homes Can Live On

If you work at family history research long enough you soon realize that there’s a lot more to it than just recording the plain facts of names, births, marriages and deaths. At some point we need to become more informed about the times in which these people lived — what their lives were really like — and one of the biggest things influencing our ancestors’ lives were the places in which they lived. So many of life’s events took place within the walls of the family home — good and bad — and we want to know not only where they resided, but what did the place look like then? What does it look like now? Does it even still exist? Understanding and cataloging our ancestral homes is critical since every day new development destroys the old to put up the new.

Now there are a few places on the Web where you can preserve and share the memories of these homes as they were. Three I’ve become aware of recently are History of Homes, That’s My Old House and Archiplanet.

History of Homes

Despite a rather dry sounding name, this one is actually my favorite of the group — very slick, yet approachable and seemingly (I haven’t signed up yet) easy to use. You can catalog the details and images of the places your ancestors lived and connect to a network of others doing the same thing. It’s like social networking with drywall and doorknobs. It’s like FindaGrave.com, only for houses!

That’s My Old House

This site sports a more interesting moniker, has lots to read about, and the ability to submit stories about your own ancestral homes. However, to some extent this works against the site with the home page feeling a bit jumbled. I was overwhelmed with everything going on there.


If you’ve ever used Wikipedia, this one will be familiar to you, in fact it runs on the same software. You can search and view thousands of buildings and architecture firms around the world, so as a resource for learning about the history of architecture this site could be a great help. Maybe not so much for the humble abode of your forebear, though.

This is far from an exhaustive list and all three sites have their merits. For my money though (actually all three are free), History of Homes edges out the others for its community building tools that don’t rely on submitting information for someone else to post on your behalf. The gratification is instant and the site’s technology fades into the background letting you easily connect and share with others. To me that’s what the social media revolution is all about.

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Nearly everything these days is mobile and less and less people are using their mobile phones just for the mundane purpose of making voice calls (imagine!). So why not make the most of your mobile doo-dad and take care of some genealogy where ever you happen to be? Of course the iPhone and to a lesser degree its sibling the iPod Touch continue to be the rage, so I set out to see what kinds of applications (apps) are out there to make mobile genealogy possible.

iPhone Therefore I Am

Put that Apple device to use as a portable tool for researching your ancestors. There are actually plenty of genealogy applications for iPhone/iPod Touch and most are free or low cost from the iTunes Store:

Genealogy Apps

GEDCOM Viewers

Photo Sharing

  • FamCam share family photos with this app by Family Link.

Black Eye for the BlackBerry?

For those who love their Blackberry devices, sadly, I could not find any Blackberry applications specifically for genealogy, but one person on a message board claimed the Bolt Browser for smartphones could, among other webby things, access Ancestry.com family trees. Give it a try and keep your fingers crossed.

Are you An Android?

Next to iPhone users, users of phones with Google’s Android operating system have it a little better, genealogically speaking. A free program called AGeneDB is available, though it seems a bit rough around the edges in its “Alpha” development stage. For something more polished you might try Family Bee, which costs $10 and allows importing GEDCOM files. Its also been tested reliably with over 30,000 name databases.

Windows Mobile

If your mobile device is of the Windows Mobile variety, you might try My Roots. The program allows you to view and modify data and can import/export GEDCOM data. It even runs on some older Windows mobile systems such as any handheld running Microsoft® Pocket PC 2003, Windows Mobile™ 2003, Windows Mobile 5, or Windows Mobile 6 or later.

That’s pretty much the short list, though there are probably some I’ve missed. Most I have never tried personally, so use at your own risk and enjoy!

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Genealogy research has changed dramatically in the last 16 or so years since the Web was born: we’re now able to search more records from our home computers, create electronic trees and post them to web sites, scan and post old photos to share with family members and more. But this has come at a price. Instead of our work becoming more durable, our increasing reliance on digitized documents has made everything more ephemeral than ever. This was never more clear to me than when I came back from a vacation last summer after working on some family history research. As I prepared to boot up my laptop to back everything up, nothing happened. After a week of attempting to wrest my data from a damaged hard drive I was forced to give it all up for lost and had to restore everything from a two-week-old backup. If it hasn’t happened to you yet you might be tempted to think “not me” but here are a few sobering statistics:

  • Computer hard drives are rated for 3-5 years MTBF (that’s Mean Time Before Failure). Unless you’re buying a new computer every 2-3 years and barring any rough treatment, sooner or later your drive WILL fail.
  • 6% of all PCs will suffer an episode of data loss in any given year. Given the number of PCs used in US businesses in 1998, that translates to approximately 4.6 million data loss episodes. The number is probably even higher today. [1]
  • 31% of PC users have lost all of their files due to events beyond their control (fire, flood, lightning, etc.) [2]
  • Simple drive recovery can cost upwards of $7,500 and success is not guaranteed.[2]

But you can take measures to protect your precious research. USB Flash Memory “thumb drives” are easy and portable, but impractical for large amounts of files. For relatively recent computers with a CD or DVD drive that can write (“burn”) as well as read disks, regularly writing a backup disk of your precious files is a must. This method is great for having an instant snapshot of your data that you can easily restore or move to another computer, but it can become tiresome.

I tried to stick to a schedule of backing things up every 2 weeks, or when I made a major addition to my genealogy files. In the case of my post-vacation disaster, it turned out that two weeks was not frequent enough — I lost everything I did while on vacation! It can also become an issue of space. Making backups on standard “write-once” optical disks like CD-R or DVD-R is relatively cheap, but even if you only fill one CD or DVD each time and back up once a week, where are you going to put 52 disks after a year? Or 104 disks after 2 years? My needs require at least 3 DVDs per complete backup cycle — 156 DVDs per year!!

Instead, I chose to use rewriteable optical disks. I now rotate between 2 backup sets with these DVD rewriteables: each time I back up I overwrite the oldest set and this ensures that if something happens to the most recent backup, I at least have another no more than 2 weeks old. It also puts less “wear and tear” on the rewriteable media since these do have a limited number of rewrites before they will need to be replaced.

So CD/DVDs are a good, solid backup plan, even if a little cumbersome depending on how often you back up and how large your file storage needs are. After my computer crash, and wanting something to supplement my disk media backups, to be a little more frequent, and less work for me, I began to ask myself “what else is there?” It turns out there are a surprising number of online services (both free and for a monthly fee) that will remotely back up your computer for you. Leave your computer on, log into the service with a password and it will back up the files you designate via your Internet connection. The beauty of this is the potential for much more frequent incremental backups which you can restore to any computer wherever you can access the Internet. Here’s a sampling of some of the major online backup services out there:

iBackup www.ibackup.com 5 GB, 15-day free trial
Mozy www.mozy.com 2 GB FREE, subscription plans for more capacity available
iDrive www.idrive.com 2 GB FREE, subscription plans for more capacity available

Check out this PC Magazine review of various services: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2288745,00.asp or just Google “online backup” and you’ll see lots of options.

After some research and assessment of my storage needs, not the least of which was the desire for a 100% FREE solution, I settled on iDrive. It supports both Macintosh and PCs and provides handy software for connecting to the service and restoring your files should you need to. You can also easily set up automatic backups on a schedule. And best of all if you refer 10 of your friends to iDrive, they will bump up your free storage allotment from 2 Gigabytes to 12 Gigabytes. (Note: Your friends don’t need to join, you just enter their email addresses and iDrive sends them an invitation.) Once you use up your storage allotment either purchase more storage space or erase the online backup completely and start fresh. It is a good idea to permanently back up files that never change to CD/DVD and only use the online backup for files that change regularly.

If you share files with others regularly another service I’ve become fond of is DropBox. For free you can get 2 GB of live storage that behaves like another drive on your computer. Once installed, drop files into the Dropbox folder and it also copies them to the Dropbox server where they are backed up. You can also designate a shared folder and invite others to access it, creating a virtual shared hard drive you can access in real time. Very handy.

Ultimately you must decide for yourself how often and by what methods you back up those precious genealogy files, but for me maintaining a 1-2 week CD/DVD backup cycle along with a remote backup service every other night in case I slack off on the CD backups or they become damaged seemed about right. If none of this sounds workable for you however, there’s always the original low-tech backup method: paper. Just start saving up for that climate controlled, fireproof warehouse!

[1] “The Cost Of Lost Data,” David M. Smith. Graziadio School of Business & Management, Pepperdine University. Accessed 3/29/2010.
[2] “Data Loss Statistics.” Boston Computing Network. Accessed 3/29/2010

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