Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Genealogy Rule #326: Watch What You Say and How You Say It

Recently, on the Cyndi's List Facebook page, on an unrelated topic, the following two statements were made:
"Be careful with the LDS thing. Very little documentation."

"Yes, my ancestors on one side joined when the church first began - lots of wrong, wrong, wrong info on them on the LDS site!!! No verification of information at all. It's like going on Ancestry and just grabbing family trees without documenting the info!"

I was disappointed with the very general, broadly condemning, generic statements that were made about an invaluable resource to genealogists worldwide. And I was disappointed that the statements weren't more specific with verifiable facts. This is something that we, as genealogists, should attempt in all written communications. Therefore, I have a few points to make about these statements.
  1. When people refer to the "LDS site" they are generally referring to FamilySearch located at http://www.familysearch.org. FamilySearch is made up of numerous resources for genealogical research, including:

  2. Clearly the "LDS site" has a lot of great records and documentation available, as well as other information that will help you in your research. And you do not have to be a member of the church in order to reap the benefits of their dedication to genealogy.

  3. When people are talking about that "LDS thing" and "very little documentation" they are actually referring to the lineage-linked databases hosted at FamilySearch. Those are the Ancestral File, the IGI, and the Pedigree Resource File. And here is where I get a bit picky about language and broadly painting these databases with a negative brush. Those three databases are not the only lineage-linked databases out there. There are similar databases hosted at RootsWeb, Ancestry, OneGreatFamily, and many others. See my page for Lineage Linked Databases for definitions and examples. Basically, the lineage-linked databases are a dumping ground where everyone can put a copy of their family tree. The problem is that most people who do so do it when they are relatively new to genealogical research. Sometimes they are also put there by people who don't really care about doing any research beyond talking to Grandma and writing down what she remembers. And often the family trees are generally just a collection of names and dates without verification and documentation to prove each of those items. Lineage-linked databases should be used with caution and used only as possible clues that point you in the direction you need. It is up to you to find the documentation to prove the data you will use in your research.

  4. Clearly, "very little documentation" is not something specific to that "LDS thing" at all. The cautionary statements should refer more specifically to all lineage-linked databases and all sites that contain a collection of names and dates without something to back to them up.

  5. There are a lot of things that go into being a good genealogist. One of the most important is that the statements we make—sentences, names, dates, research conclusions, proof arguments, and more—MUST be clearly written and factual. And when a fact is not known the statement must clearly indicate that a fact is not known. If a guess is being made it needs to be labeled as a guess. If an assumption is being made, you shouldn't be a genealogist.
I believe that the statements made on the CL FB page were misleading and wrong. I believe the intent was to point out that it is important to know that lineage-linked databases can contain unproven data. However, the statements pointed unfairly to the entirety of all LDS holdings for genealogy online. And in doing so they also indicated unfairly that all LDS research is something to be wary of using. I used these statements as an example to show that sometimes the intent of what we are saying isn't what ends up being said. I challenge all of us to be careful in what we write and be thorough in how we present our ideas and opinions.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Saving" Broken Links with the Internet Archive Wayback Machine

The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine gives us snapshots of web sites as they were on previous dates. This can be a very useful tool for people who are looking for web sites that they visited in the past. For genealogy, the archived web pages can serve as both good and bad research tools. A person's genealogical research naturally evolves over time. New information is found, mistakes are corrected, and data is edited. In theory, a person's genealogy web site should also evolve over time. So, a glimpse at an archived copy of a web page can help you see how the evolution of a web site—and through that the evolution of the research—happened. The Wayback Machine serves as a bad research tool if the reader forgets that they are looking at an old and possibly outdated version of the author's research. It serves as a good research tool for those who use it to help them track down the original author or use it as a lead for possible research avenues to follow.

I've decided to use the Wayback Machine to help me "save" broken links. In maintaining Cyndi's List, broken links are the bane of my existence. They create more than half of my workload. Links become broken when a person does any of the following:
  • moves their web site to a new address
  • deletes their web site from the Internet
  • changes or rearranges the layout, and thus the page addresses, of their web site
Cyndi's List is 14 years old. With more than 280,000 links, it isn't possible to avoid broken links. I started the site in 1996, so I've seen many web hosting services come and go. But most of them happened sporadically, giving me enough time to keep up with the address fixes. Recently, several popular hosting services have rapidly and completely gone away:
  • GeoCities (and Yahoo! GeoCities)
  • AOL Hometown
  • ATT Worldnet
  • MSN
  • Compuserv
  • Some, but not all, Prodigy sites
For all Personal Home Pages and Surname sites on Cyndi's List, I've done a mass-replace on the majority of that list of addresses to point to the Wayback Machine version for those sites instead. In doing this, users of Cyndi's List won't receive a broken link error for those addresses. Instead, they'll be redirected to an index for those sites on the Wayback Machine. For example, instead of this address: http://www.geocities.com/donmacnab/ they will be pointed to this address: http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.geocities.com/donmacnab/ From there, they can see versions of that web page dating from August 2000 through February 2005. All links on Cyndi's List that point to the Wayback Machine are clearly labeled.

In doing this I am solving two problems. First, it was a quick way to fix several thousand broken links all at once. Second, it "saves" the links for potential viewers. Instead of deleting them you will all have the chance to view what used to be online. Hopefully, this will help your research.

See also:

Friday, April 16, 2010

Uses for Facebook in Genealogy

Last Tuesday a reader on Facebook asked this question:
"Cyndi: Can you put forth some suggestions on how to use Facebook for genealogical purposes/research? Thanks."
Here's a quick run-through of ideas based on my knowledge of the features available with Facebook.
  1. Obviously, Facebook is a great way to network with other genealogists. You can make friends with fellow genealogists, learn from one another, and expand your genealogical horizons. When all else fails, you can always get a pick-me-up from your Facebook friends.
  2. Facebook is just one more way to publish information online. It gives you the opportunity to share what you know with the genealogical world. Create a Facebook Group page for a specific topic, location, surname, or ancestor. There are FB groups for genealogical societies, one-name studies, etc. Examples:
  3. If you have a genealogical "product" you can create a Facebook Fan Page. The page helps you spread the word and can do a lot for helping people to understand what your product is and what it can do for them.
  4. Facebook group pages and fan pages have a "Discussion" tab option. It works a lot like message boards on other sites. You can set up discussions on specific questions or topics. Discussions can be used for Q&A, for leaving queries, and for talking about research strategies.
  5. Facebook group pages and fan pages have an "Events" tab option. Events can be something that happen in the real world or in the online world of social networking, chats, and blogs. You can invite people to participate in events and host events for just about anything that will help get people involved.
  6. Facebook pages--individuals, groups, or fan--have a "Notes" tab option. Notes can be used to post longer bits of text than you might post in the comments field on a FB wall. You can use notes to share research notes, stories, or anything that is longer and more-involved in scope.
  7. Facebook pages--individuals, groups, or fan--have a "Photos" tab option. You can set up photo albums for specific individuals or families. This is a great way to share your ancestral photos. FB gives you the ability to label the photos and for others to leave comments about the photos.
  8. Facebook pages have a "Links" tab option. You can share your favorite online resources with others on FB. As you find web sites with helpful information, share the link.
  9. Third-party applications are available for everything you can imagine. If you're on Facebook you've seen the games and quizzes. But, there are some useful tools you might find for research purposes or sharing with fellow researchers as well. I've found them for polls, surveys, calendars, family trees, and many more. Examples:
If you have more ideas, let us know here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Links That Make Me Grumpy

Visitors to Cyndi's List can submit new links to be added to the site (http://www.cyndislist.com/submit/). Links are automatically added to the "What's New" section on the site (http://www.cyndislist.com/whatsnew/) and sent out to subscribers of the Cyndi's List Mailing List (http://www.cyndislist.com/mailinglist/). In doing so, links are also found to be included in the Google databases quicker because Google regularly spiders both Cyndi's List and the mailing list archives at RootsWeb. And all of this is free.

So, there is a lot of good motivation for people to submit their web site to Cyndi's List. As you might imagine, it also means that a lot of people take this free service for granted and abuse it. The new link submission script has been hacked, so it is bombarded every day with 50+ inappropriate links. Every night I have to "scrub" the page of the unsavory links. It has become very tiresome, but part of the routine.

The thing that bothers me more than the icky links are those that are submitted by fellow genealogists and are in one way or another considered by me to be inappropriate or bothersome. Sometimes I am deluged with requests by one person. Sometimes I am berated for not categorizing someone's link quick enough. And sometimes I am pestered by people who want to know when I will get to their link. There are several reasons that make the categorization process a lengthy one for me, the first being that I am doing this alone. These, in no particular order, are the links that make me grumpy.
  1. Duplicate Submissions
    Why do people think that submitting the link more than once is a good thing to do? Sometimes they assume it will get their link placed in a category faster. Sometimes they assume I won't notice the duplicate, thus giving them additional exposure for their site. Trust me, I notice quite often. And sometimes people just don't pay attention to what they do, so they submit the link over and over again. For me, duplicate submissions mean more work because I just end up revisiting them, then deleting them.
  2. Misleading Link Submissions
    Sometimes I get link submissions that have misleading titles or misleading descriptions. I assume the reason has to do with marketing and making the site sound wonderful to view. I always visit all sites before I categorize a new link, so what is the point in supplying a title or a description that doesn't match what I will find on the site? It is pointless, because I will edit the description to appropriately describe the contents of the web site.
  3. Not Quite Genealogy
    There are a lot of databases online for public records searches that are clearly created for current events and dates. And most of them require a fee. I have a hard time adding these to Cyndi's List. I think about them long and hard before I place any. I understand the need to find living cousins, but I don't want to be in the business of pointing people to current people finding sites, especially when I wonder about the quality of the data and the value for any fee paid.
  4. Sites by Anonymous
    Perhaps I'm suspicious by nature, but I don't understand why people publish a web site and don't publish who they are. Why the anonymity? What is there to hide? In some cases I know that some people remain anonymous because they publish numerous sites with different titles, many times just repeating the same content on each site. The purpose is merely to drive more traffic to their sites. So, when I run across an anonymous link I take extra time to determine what I need to do.
  5. Sites With No Contact Information
    Part of the problem is the anonymity as mentioned above. But to have no way of contacting the owner or author of the site makes me suspicious. At the very least an e-mail address should be supplied.
  6. False Advertising
    This is one of the worst offenses. I don't like any site that claims to be "the premier site..." or "the only site you'll ever need for..." and other such outrageous claims. First, the "premier site" for my German ancestors will not be the "premier site" for you and your Australian ancestors. And there is no one source available—online or offline—that any one of us can use to do all of our research.
  7. Links That Don't Follow My Guidelines
    I have a set of guidelines for link submission, all created in response to a variety of issues I've encountered through the years. I've always got a big SIGH waiting inside me when I find a new link submission that has ignored my guidelines.
  8. Links That Don't Work
    All links should be verified before they are submitted through the new link form. I'm confused as to why people take the time to submit the new link, but don't bother to carefully check them first to be sure that they work. A misplaced slash or hyphen, or a misspelled URL does make a difference in making the link work properly.
  9. Poorly Written Descriptions
    When I'm creating a new link myself I generally look at the web site for a description of the site. Most of the time I can easily find a description within the first few paragraphs on the site. However, many descriptions that are submitted with new links to Cyndi's List aren't well done. There are several problems that I end up editing myself:
    • Not enough description.
    • Too much description.
    • Misleading descriptions.
    • A description that just repeats what is said in the title.
    • No commas or periods.
    • No spaces between words or sentences.
    • Misspelled words.
    • Missing words.
    • No place names included in a description. Too often the site will be for the "Washington Cemetery" but the county/parish/state/province/country names are not included.
  10. Non-Genealogical Links
    Last, but not least. Spammers hit my list every day. Most seem to be non-English speaking, so maybe they don't understand the purpose of Cyndi's List. Nah, most likely they're just spamming for spamming's sake.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Social Networking for Genealogy

I started a new category this week: Social Networking for Genealogy. I am still building and tweaking it. It has taken me a while to create this new category because I had a hard time determining how to catalogue the links I was finding. Defining and categorizing "social networking" for genealogy isn't easy. Social networking online takes advantage of the latest technologies to offer interactive methods of sharing and publishing on the Internet. Genealogists have always been social-networking pros, since the early days of the Internet. We've used bulletin boards, newsgroups, chat, mailing lists, message boards, blogs, and more, all in an effort to collaborate. So, this isn't a new idea for us, we just have new options as technology advances.

Wikipedia defines Web 2.0 as "...commonly associated with web applications that facilitate interactive information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, and collaboration on the World Wide Web." Some people have referred to our use of this as "Genealogy 2.0" to indicate a special genealogical-slant on Web 2.0. Following are some of the definitions people give for the application of social networking in their web sites or services:
  • Genealogy 2.0
  • collaborative genealogy
  • lineage-linked pedigrees
  • pedigree databases
  • coordinating
  • networking
  • online genealogy software
  • online family tree creation
  • web-based family tree creation
  • web-based genealogy software and collaboration genealogy tools
  • collaborative family trees
  • family networking portals
  • online family tree building
Here I am with two dozen or more new links for web sites that all define themselves in this way. And yet, I find there are just as many differences between the sites as there are similarities in their purpose. Some of them offer the ability to create a family tree on their site. Of those, some are simple and some are complex. Many are for family history dabblers more than they are for full-on genealogical researchers. Some offer the ability to create photo albums, timelines, and communication platforms to keep in touch with families or networks. And some are free, while a few come with a fee. The only thing that defines them all is that they are interactive and collaborative and clearly a forum for social networking.

Actually, that isn't true. The other thing they all have in common is that they provide yet another platform to publish online. And that is what draws my attention more than any other thing. I doubt many users of the Internet consider themselves to be authors, much less publishers. But we are all just that. And while Copy & Paste are my best friends, they are also the enemy of quality in publishing online. It is far too easy to copy and paste and share information with others, which means it is that easy to share misinformation as well. I'm not saying that people knowingly spread misinformation. But, it happens often.

I've gotten off-track here. The issue today is how to properly define or categorize these types of sites. Normally I like to cross-reference my links as much as possible. However, there are so many options to cross-reference (photos, timelines, personal web sites, databases, etc.) and so many lines that are blurred in the definitions. When categorizing links I look at each of them as a type of publication, then determine the purpose and topic of that publication in order to properly place it on Cyndi's List. The sites I'm currently looking at have numerous purposes and numerous topics. And no two sites have the same features. So, I conclude that I will stick with "Social Networking for Genealogists" and use just a few general sub-categories, if any at all. And I will still be scratching my head as I try to properly and thoroughly catalog the sites.