Saturday, April 21, 2012

A partial review of Michael Sharpe's Family Matters: A History of Genealogy

While I was attending the annual conference of the Ohio Genealogical Society in Cleveland last weekend, I had the pleasure of browsing the book offerings of Maia's Books & Misc in the vendor hall. I rarely buy physical books these days (the last one had been in 2011 and was the latest edition of Stephen Fishman's The Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs to Know).

But I was immediately taken with a new book on a unique topic, the history of genealogy itself. This book, Family Matters: A History of Genealogy, by Michael Sharpe, published by Pen & Sword in 2011, represents an impressive bit of research into the origins of genealogical resources and organizations. So if you've ever wondered where pedigrees originated, how the Society of Genealogists developed, or what process led to the modern National Archives (TNA) in Kew, England, you'll certainly know by the end of the book. I finished it with a great deal of enjoyment and a feeling that I better understood this history.

However, I do feel the need to take issue with a few points made in the book. First, the title itself is somewhat misleading. It is essentially a book about the history of British genealogy, although it does briefly discuss such American aspects as the NEHGS, as well as some items related to worldwide computing networks. Perhaps a book on the topic of the history of American genealogy remains to be written.

Because I am no expert in British genealogy (or its history), I take at face value the presentation of that history, but because I've been involved in technology since the late 1970s, I feel comfortable in making some observations about the book's presentation of computing as part of genealogical history.

To be frank, I was somewhat distracted (if not annoyed) by the author's use of "internet" and "web", instead of "Internet" and "Web". While I realize that the capitalization of those terms is not universal in writing, I come down strongly on the side that points out that the two words are proper nouns (there is only one "Internet" and only one "Web"), and as such, should be capitalized. Before anyone out there tries to point out that you can have other "internets" or "webs", I will suggest that there are many "white houses", but we still capitalize "White House" when referring to the one in DC.

Another spelling glitch was in referring to AOL as "America-on-Line". I was a charter member of AOL in November 1989, and the service used the spelling "America Online".

At this point, you may be wondering if my primary criticisms of the book are purely about spelling and capitalization. I also was bothered that the index was lacking (many of the names and computer-related terms don't even appear in the index).

But books about history should be criticized primarily about misrepresenting the facts of history (or at the very least, misinterpreting the available information). In the chapter about the impact of computer technology on genealogy, the author refers to the creation of the Usenet newsgroup net.roots in 1983, and goes on to say "It was named after Alex Haley's Roots...". His source is an online article written by Margaret J. Olson in which she states "About 1983 in the early days on the net, a newsgroup named net.roots came upon the scene, named presumably because of the popularity of Alex Haley's book, Roots." So we have already gone from one author claiming that the name "presumably" originated due to Haley's book, to Sharpe making that claim even more strongly.

Because I had written an article several years ago about the history of genealogy on Usenet, I was familiar with the earliest origins of the Usenet genealogy newsgroups, and I refreshed my memory about it by reviewing the source material. In September 1983, Bob Stekl proposed a group named "net.geneology" (yes, with the misspelling). Others immediately agreed with the need for the group, but pointed out Bob's misspelling, and suggested alternatives "" or "net.genes". It was Richard L. "Rich" Rosen (on October 3, 1983) who pointed out that "net.genes" might suggest genetics rather than genealogy, and that "net.roots" would make for an easy-to-spell alternative. Rosen makes no mention of the Haley book.

The use of the word "roots" in reference to one's ethnic origins has been around since at least the 1800s, and you'll find any number of newspaper articles published prior to Haley's book that use "roots" as another way of referring to genealogy. For example, a January 1976 article in the New York Times (Haley's book was published in August 1976) has the headline "D.A.R. Aids Families In Tracing Genealogy; Preoccupation With Roots Tracing Not Easy".

Regardless, I highly recommend the book, and I look forward to future books that take a look back at how genealogical research got to where it is today.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The 1940 census - Who will be in it?

Given that tomorrow is the "big day" (at least insofar as American genealogy is concerned), I thought I would consider who I will look for in the 1940 U.S. Federal census. Both my parents should be in it (single, as they married in 1943). So I'll be looking for Dad in Newark, New Jersey (this may be tough given the size of the city), and Mom in Newberry, South Carolina (much easier, as it was a small town and I know where she was living 10 years earlier). All 4 of my grandparents should be in it (Dad's parents in Newark, Mom's parents in Newberry), as well as both of my paternal great-grandmothers (probably both in Newark). After those essential 8 individuals, I can look for a large number of aunts and uncles and cousins. UPDATE: It looks like I'll want to be looking at ED 25-73 and ED 25-76 for Newark, as their border runs along Chambers Street, where a lot of my Smith ancestors lived.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Patents - Your Inventive Ancestors

Did your ancestor invent something? You might be surprised if you've never previously searched the U.S. Patent Office database for your ancestor's name. My brother Jeff and I have recently been discussing our Smith ancestors, who operated a large glass bending and beveling company in Newark, New Jersey during the late 19th and early 20th century. Jeff discovered that our great-grandfather, Charles Henry Smith, had a patent for a glass-beveling machine (Patent #673298, issued April 30, 1901). I decided to see if great-granddad (or any of the other Smiths) had any other patents associated with the business, so I searched using Google Patent Search at, and discovered an earlier patent (#373695, issued November 22, 1887) for a glass bending and annealing furnace. If you've discovered a patent among your ancestors, why not tell me about it in a comment?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Citing sources on a blog

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity last Monday to present a webinar for the folks of the Georgia Genealogical Society on the topic of using a blog as a genealogical research log, and the questions asked by attendees (where there wasn't enough time to answer them during the presentation) were sent to me by Linda Geiger, so that I could address them here on my own blog.  So here we go:

The question was asked whether or not one would cite sources on a blog.  Absolutely!  You could do this in one of two ways.  You could either do it somewhat formally by following an accepted standard (such as the one documented in Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence Explained) and including that at the end of the posting (or parenthetically in the text of the posting adjacent to the fact being cited), or somewhat informally by providing the details for the citation as part of the discussion of the information and its source.  Because the typical blog posting is generally only about a screenful in length, either method would work.  What is important is that the reader can accurately link the citation to the information provided in the posting. You don't want to run the risk of the information getting separated from its source.

For instance, I might talk about my great-great-grandmother Mary Ann Reilly Smith, and refer to some facts about her life in this way: "I recently learned some new information about my great-great-grandmother from an article entitled "One Woman's Work" in the (Newark, NJ) Sunday Call, September 28, 1890, page 9, column 3.  It said...".  Even better would be to include a link to the source or to include the image of the source itself in the posting.