30 May 2008

China to Canada

[Via Resourceshelf]: The Library and Archives of Canada just released a database for Chinese immigrants to Canada who arrived between 1885 and 1949.

28 May 2008

Google Books Genealogy Index

I don't know if you are like me, but there are times when I find the interface to Google Book Search to be somewhat awkward.

In order to alleviate this somewhat, I have started developing an index to books and journals of genealogical interest from Google Books. These are only the full view items (those you can read and browse in their entirety), since those are the ones I find the most useful. This is still a work in progress.

Right now I have almost completed the county histories for the United States (love those biographical sketches!), and there are some sundry other items I have found along the way thrown in.

Check back for more updates and more fine-tuning of the page. I hope to eventually have a sort of genealogy catalog of Googel Books!

You can check out the index here.

27 May 2008

Making the Moo(ve) to Remember the Milk

In the past I have heralded the advantages of using online to-do list todoist.com. I continue to use the application as a widget on my iGoogle page.

Lately, however, I have been giving Remember the Milk a chance, and have really come to appreciate how well it can work for organizing genealogy research.

Remember the Milk (also known as RTM) takes your gaggle of handwritten and jotted todo lists and moves them online, adding mobile functionality and a web 2.0 feel. It also is usable as an iGoogle widget or a Netvibes module, can integrate with Gmail, be used with your Blackberry or iPhone.... or can just be used as a simple online to-do list. I love the complexion of the site, and that it is simple enough for novice users, but can expand to the needs of power users.

Getting Started

Signing up for a Remember the Milk account is simple and requires the usual email verification. Once you login you can begin to create your to-do lists using the default lists (Personal, Work, etc.), or you can delete those defaults and create your own lists. Lists simply provide different sections under which you can categorize different tasks. I have chosen to create my lists by surname.

Here's a look at what my "Tasks" view currently looks like:

The lists appear as grey tabs across the top of the screen. Right now, we are viewing the "Byrnes" list, so the tasks associated with this list are shown beneath the tabs. Note that I was able to tag the tasks (see the words to the left of the task description, like "order" and "record"). These tags can be very helpful in organizing tasks, as I will show below. To add a task to a list, you simply click on the "Add Task" link clearly visible at the top of the to-do list.

Clicking on a task brings up a detailed view in the right-hand sidebar:

In this case, I have selected a task, and it now appears highlighted in yellow.

In the detail view you can see (and edit) things like the due date for the task, whether or not it repeats, add tags, a location for the task, associate a URL, or add notes.

I have found the tag, locations, URL and notes to be the most helpful for genealogy tasks, which tend to not be time-based (no due dates) but rather are tackled by priority and sometimes the will or whim of the researcher. Let's look at these items in-depth and see how RTM makes them valuable.


Tags, that hallmark of 2.0, are useful for RTM in that you can associate tasks in lists, but also use tags to aggregate them using other filters. For example, as I mentioned above, I created lists using surnames. I have chosen, however, to use tags which explain the nature of the task such as record (need to find a record or search an index), order (need to order something), or research (need to do some general research). Since these tags are searchable, I can locate particular tasks according to my needs. When I want to order a bunch of different records (after the payday check clears!) I can search out all tasks with the tag "order" (this is done by typing tag:order in the search field in the upper-right hand of the screen), and see a list of records I need to send off for:

The tasks come from a number of different lists, but all have the tag "order" associated with them. Again, you can search for all tasks with a particular tag by using the tag:tagname format in the search field. Substitute the tag you are searching for where it says tagname.

You can also save searches you perform, and RTM will create what it calls "Smart Lists"... lists which reflect all tasks found under your search criteria. What is great about these smart lists is that they are dynamic... items added or changed even after you saved your search will be included in the smart list!

For instance, if I want to create a smart list of all tasks involving obituaries, I can perform the search like so:

Once the search has been performed, clicking on the "Save" tab allows you to name this search and keep it as a Smart List:

We now have a smart list which I have called "Obituaries", and which will update as I add, edit, or remove tasks:

Note that all smart lists are shown with a blue tab, easy to locate and easy to use!


The locations feature is a very cool one for genealogists. I find the implentation by RTM to be a little clunky, but for the graphically inclined, it can be very helpful to associate locations with tasks and use the resulting information to plan where to apply research time. Here's a location view for my tasks as currently entered (just the United States view; the map will show the whole world if you like):

As you can see, the map shows me the number of tasks I have associated with each geographic point (in this case, cities I have entered). Looking at this map, I can see that my Charleston/Savannah area has 10 tasks associated with it, so I may want to focus my attention on those tasks in order to whittle down my list. Alternatively, those 10 tasks may show that I have been spending a great deal of time on my Charleston/Savannah families, and perhaps I want to focus on my California families for a while to get them some even time!

Clicking on the numbered balloon (which is color coded according the priorities I have assigned tasks with those locations) brings up a detailed view:

This way I can preview tasks associated with each location and then click on tasks of interest to be brought to their views within their lists. Very cool and very interesting way to visualize your research!


Another useful tool with RTM is the ability to associate a URL with a task. This can be a great way to keep together a task with the information you need to complete it, such as associating the URL for a Vital Records office along with the task of ordering a record from them. I have done just that with this task:

Now when it comes time to complete this task, I have the URL with all the information I need to order the record right there with the task listing!

Overall, RTM has some rough edges to be found (unlike with todoist, which is a bit mroe refined) but tools like the location mapping, and the generally smoother look of the site make it very enjoyable to use. Todoist, on the other hand, is able to handle much more complicated lists, with nesting and sub-lists, which RTM is not really designed to do.

21 May 2008

Quick Tip: Google Images

Did you know you can restrict searches in Google Image Search to show only results with faces? This can be a huge help when you are searching online for pictures of Great Aunt Tilly. Here's how:

From within Google Image Search, click on "Advanced Image Search", located next to the search field:

On the advanced search panel, enter your search terms in the top fields, then select the radio button next to "faces" to limit your results:

As a shortcut, you can add &imgtype=face after your query in the address bar.

20 May 2008

Best Web 2.0 Sites

Webware recently announced the 2008 Webware 100 winners, which lists the top web 2.0 applications as voted on by users and readers. Of note among the winners (for genealogists) are Remember the milk (an online to-do list which I will be covering more in-depth in another post), Wikia, which offers plug-n-play wiki functionality to any website, and Firefox, a browser I've touted continuously on this blog.

You can find the full list of winners here.

19 May 2008

Do You del.icio.us? (Part Two)

In our first post on del.icio.us, we covered the basics of setting up and getting started with del.icio.us. In this post, I want to talk about some more advanced-level tools that del.icio.us offers which may be of help to genealogists.

Bundling Tags

Tag bundling allows a user to create groupings out of various tags. This allows a user to bring a little organization to what can quickly become and unwieldy list or cloud of tags. If you are like me, and have ongoing research in multiple states, countries, counties, and cities, as well as huge time-spans, your links can mount to gargantuan levels.

To bundle your tags and get the mess under control, go to the Settings page of your del.icio.us profil, the select "Bundle Tags" under the Tags header.

Begin by creating a new bundle name. In this case, I am creating a Genealogy bundle:

Once your bundle is created, you can easily add or remove tags to the bundle by clicking on them. The tags will turn red to show that they are part of the current bundle. Tags that are already part of another bundle are outlined in red:

Note that tags can be part of more than one bundle.

What are the implications here? For one, organization. Below, on the left, is what my tag cloud looks like with bundles hidden. On the right, with bundles showing. As you can see, what was once a mess of words and labels has been organized into easy-to-access conceptual groupings:

Bundling could also be done to group links on a per-project basis, by family surname, or by time-period. The bundles can function much like folders used to do in browser bookmarking, but with the added flexibility of being able to add tags to more than bundle, you are able to organize your information in ways that are most intuitive to you. After all, the bookmarks you make are only as good as your ability to retrieve them later when needed.

Share and Share Alike

In the right-hand sidebar of this blog, beneath the post labels, you can find an example of a "link roll"... a very functional and spiffy way to share links on any website or blog. Link rolls can be designed to show all of your recent bookmarked links, or, as I have done on this blog, you can narrow the links displayed to only those with certain tags.

To create a link roll, go to your profile settings page, then choose "link rolls" underneath the Blogging header. You can make various choices regarding the amount of information you wish to show. To limit listings to items with certain tags, check the box next to "only these tags" and type in the tags you wish to use in the corresponding box.

If you know any CSS, you can tweak some example styling code to make your link roll fit in better with your site or blog's design. Link rolls can really come in handy for genealogy bloggers, as they allow you to provide dynamic content tailored to your particular subject.

Of course, del.icio.us is also designed to function as a social bookmarking site, so you can always share your bookmarks with other researchers in a number of other ways. One exceptional way to share bookmarks is by establishing networks. If you are researching in tandem with another researcher, say on a brick wall, you can share links of interest by joining each other's networks. In this way, all of your posts can be shared with another person, who can view them from their own profile's network page.

You can also create subscriptions, which allow you to subscribe to particular tags. For instance, subscribing to the tag "genealogy" will allow you to see every link posted by every user that has had the genealogy tag applied to it. You can narrow these subscriptions by subscribing only to tags from certain users, which could allow you to track very specific tag research from a colleague, fellow researcher, or friend. Subscriptions are also great ways to find other users researching the same topics as you.

Keeping Fresh

One other great tool worthy of mention is fresh del.icio.us, which automatically crawls your links for dead and defunct sites. The tool is an easy install, and works well, if not quickly. Much like spring-cleaning your house, using fresh delicions can help you get the cobwebs out and rejuvenate your links!

I hope you will give some of these lesser-known del.icio.us tools and functionalities a try, and move beyond simple bookmarking!

17 May 2008

Mapping Wikipedia

[Via ResourceShelf]: Live Maps announces a Wikipedia layer added to their mapping, which allows you to browse maps and see "pins" for Wikipedia articles associated with the geographic area you are viewing.

Even with the quality-variance in Wikipedia articles taken into account, I could see this tool as being a great way to explore new geographic areas that come up in research!

16 May 2008

Do You del.icio.us?

Today I am going to start a two-part posting on using del.icio.us in genealogy research.

If you already use del.icio.us as one of your online tools, you know what I mean when I say that it really revolutionizes the way in which you access, bookmark and organize sites of interest you find on the web. Established users will be more interested in the second post of this series, when I'll talk about some features of del.icio.us aimed at the intermediate user.

If you don't already use del.icio.us, or are still stuck on wondering what in the world I am talking about, then this first post is for you!

Learning about del.icio.us isn't too hard; they bill themselves as a social bookmarking site, taking all those links that people used to keep to themselves within the confines of their browser, and aggregating them together to create a user-defined bookmark (or favorite) list of the entire web. del.icio.us uses the tagging features which are one of the hallmarks of web 2.0 (more on tags below).

The nitty-gritty is simple: instead of bookmarking (or favoriting) web sites you find along your online travels using your browser, you post them to your account in del.icio.us. When you post those links, you add descriptive tags. Those tags, and all your links (unless they are specifically marked private) are then available to be searched and browsed by anyone else using del.icio.us. Posting to del.icio.us is made easy (especially for Internet Explorer and Firefox users) by the addition of a button to your browser's toolbar (more on that later).

Let's learn by example here:

1. The first thing you'll want to do is sign up for an account at del.icio.us! Install the browser extension for your particular browser, or drag the bookmarklets into your toolbar.

2. Next, save your current bookmarks as a file on your computer, so that you can import them into del.icio.us:

In Firefox: Bookmarks > Organize Bookmarks > File (In the File Menu on the pop-up window) > Export.

In Internet Explorer
: File > Import and Export > Click the "Next" Button > Export Favorites > Export to File or Address > Choose a location to save your file > Next > Finish. You should get a confirmation message that your favorites were exported.

3. Upload your bookmarks to del.icio.us. Once you are logged in to your account, you will see a link to your "settings" page. On that page, under the "Bookmarks" heading, choose "Import/Upload" and follow the instructions to upload your file. Once you're done, you should see your bookmarks on your page!

Let's look a little closer at the anatomy of a del.icio.us link:

First you see the title of the bookmark (which is also the link); this title is generally taken from the title of the html page bookmarked. (This is editable when you post new links). Next to the title of the bookmark are links which allow you to edit or delete the bookmark you have posted.

Below the bookmark link you see the tags which have been attributed to this bookmark (in this case, genealogy and research).

Clicking on one of those tags will take you to a page which displays all of the other bookmarks you have posted and tagged with the same term. For instance, clicking on genealogy beneath the link above, takes me to a page (actually 1 page out of 17) with all links also tagged genealogy:

All items with the word "genealogy" as one of their tags appear here, regardless of what other terms they are tagged with. Now, back to our link:

Next to the tags, beneath the bookmark title, you will be able to see how many other people on del.icio.us have also posted the same bookmark. In this case, del.icio.us displays a link which tells me that 238 other people have also posted this link. This is where the "social" comes into social bookmarking!

Clicking on the "saved by # other people" link, we are brought to a rundown of all of the people who have bookmarked the site, any notes they have made regarding the link, and the common tags they have used to tag the site:

Now that we've covered the rudimentary basics of del.icio.us, let's take just a moment to talk about what really makes del.icio.us useful, unique, and a standard bearer of web 2.0: the interactivity and the ability to obtain and share information in non-linear ways.

What do I mean by non-linear? Traditionally, if I wanted to share a set of links with you, I would write up something, perhaps a list, which would be ordered (and therefore prioritized) in some manner. Web 2.0 (and its various hallmarks) is sort of like that fuzzy strange school that gives out stickers instead of grades and has the students grade the teachers: it shuns hierarchy and calls for the user to generate his or her own path through any particular set of information. This is exemplified by the tag cloud:

Each user has his or her own tag cloud. If you were to come to my profile on del.icio.us, this is part of the tag cloud you would see. Clicking on any one of these links would take you to a page of the bookmarks I have posted using that tag. For instance, clicking on the tag "louisiana" would take you to a page with all of my links using the tag "louisiana". On that page, del.icio.us will also show you, on the right sidebar, a list of "related tags", tags which I have used often in conjunction with the "louisiana" tag:

From these tags, you can explore whole hosts of other links, while also exploring the subjects which I am interested in, and for which I often find and bookmark sites. Assuming you are interested in the same topics, chances are you will discover one or two sites that you never knew existed! When you multiply the amount of information and different ways of browsing through a user's tags by the number of del.icio.us users (over 2 million) you can imagine the sheer volume of information and links you can find.


You can also follow a more direct path to finding other links, by using the del.icio.us search bar, which you can find at the top of every page:

A search for genealogy brings up nearly 45,000 different links from all users!

I hope this post inspires you to give del.icio.us a try, if you haven't already. In the second post in this series, I will cover some of the features available through del.icio.us that will take your usage of the site to the next level.

14 May 2008

Finding Images in the Deep Web

[Via ResourceShelf]: The Association of College and Research Libraries presents a listing of some prominent online image repositories.

This is a perfect example of what lurks within the deep web!

12 May 2008

Reorder Your iGoogle Page Tabs

[Via GOS]: You can now reorder the positioning of tabs on your iGoogle page... a heretofore un-understandable and frustrating limitation of iGoogle. Useful knowledge if you are a type-A like me!

11 May 2008

Extra! Extra! Rethinking Newspaper Research

In my work over the past two years reading thousands of issues of 19th-century newspapers, I have become fairly well-acquainted with the typical layout and content of such, so I wanted to share some thoughts and tips with you today.

This post may be somewhat anti-technology for this blog, in that I think it admits a deficiency in today's OCR technology as applied to historic newspapers. Take it from me... there are prints, scans, fonts, fadings, scratches, lines, creases and tears lurking in all of those spiffy online digitized newspapers that are obliterating the abilities of even the best OCR programs. I would hazard to say that a huge percentage of names in any given issue of a historic newspaper are not properly read and indexed by OCR and search software. What does this mean? In short: if you've been relying on search functions in newspaper databases to do your research in newspapers, you haven't done your research at all.

Why It's Worth It, and What It Takes

If you haven't taken the time to really dive into the local papers available for the community of your ancestor, you are missing out on a fabulous opportunity to obtain a rich and textured understanding of your ancestor's world. This holds true in particular for newspapers from the mid- to late-1800's, when the era of local and community news was really at its prime, and papers seemed to follow very predictable ways of presenting and publishing their rags.

That said, if you're like me (and many others [see comments]) who are frustrated by the inadequacies of some digitized collections' search functions (and the haphazard OCR renderings which exacerbate such problems), going issue by issue through a particular paper in a given time-range may be your only option to locate information regarding individuals.

Know The Bones

This site has some good information on the basic structures of 19th-century newspapers, extrapolated out from a typified example (unfortunately this page seems to be on its way out of maintanence). I have found this structure typical of the four-page dailies or weeklies in a number of states, including California and Louisiana. A basic understanding of what you are likely (and unlikely) to find in a newspaper from a given time-frame is important. Styles of journalism and what is considered "news worthy" has changed over time and with massive population growth in many areas. Over one hundred years ago, news about divorce cases, drunk-in-public charges, and trips abroad made the newspaper. Today, unless they involve murder, incest or embezzlement, we are unlikely to hear about such things. On the flip-side, extended obituaries for individuals were much rarer in those days. Understanding the differences between old newspapers and modern newspapers can keep you from goose-chasing.

Items typically found in 19th-century newspapers include:

  • Births, marriages, deaths
  • Obituaries of more prominent people or people from "old" families
  • Obituaries or write-ups on deaths of the young, the old, or those who died due to accident or sudden/strange illness
  • Divorce cases
  • Spousal desertions or elopements
  • Murders, Suicides (Actuated or attempted)
  • Comings and Goings. Info on who is traveling where, who is in town visiting.
  • Local reports. Small correspondent columns from towns or areas outlying the town in which the paper is printed. Typically covered the major gossip in the town, including who died, was born and got married or divorced.
  • Court reports. Who got arrested, why, who's in jail, who got drunk and fined, etc. Also, information from probate and civil court cases.
  • Accidents and injuries. Horse runaways, train deaths and injuries, and gun accidents are always favorites.
  • Illness reports. Typical during the months when la grippe would be rampant, some papers would list who was sick with what level of severity.

Names and even biographical information show up in the strangest contexts, and in the weirdest ways. Probate case write-ups can mention birth dates and places, as well as death dates and places. Accident stories can include information on when a person moved to a particular town or county. Personal or comings-and-goings reports can include information on family relationships like the married names of daughters and the places of residence for relatives. The amount of information and the intimacy with which you can come to know the people of a particular town is really amazing. All it takes is a little background. Oh, and a whole lot of patience.

Have Patience, Young Jedi

Going through a newspaper issue by issue can be fascinating, but also exhausting. If you're looking for a particular item in the paper, your eyes can glaze over and your brain can sputter out. Keep the following in mind as you dig for specks of gold in tons of stone:

  • Things change. Just because the death notices, for instance, have been printed on the 2d page of a publication for the past 3 months' worth of papers you have scanned, doesn't mean you can be lazy and look only at the second page of all the papers for the next 3 months. Papers then, like papers today, moved things around to suit special features, special coverage, and ads ads ads. It's unfortunate for the weary researcher, but every page of a paper needs to looked at if you're searching for a particular item.

  • Places change. As towns grew along with the population, the papers often expanded to more pages, usually from four to eight, then with periodic twelve-page issues (usually Sunday). In consequence, the amount of information available in the paper doubles or triples. A typical case can be seen in my indexing of The Oakland Tribune. For 1875 I found about 650 instances of names with genealogically-significant information, from the entirety of each paper, for the whole year. Just fifteen years later, I indexed close to 6,000 names, just from the standard vital records notices. Oakland had grown, and its development as a "bedroom community" to San Francisco also meant that it received more cross-published notices from San Francisco. In fifteen years the amount of information of interest to a genealogist had grown at least ten-fold.

  • People change. Following from the above, you should be aware of changes in ownership or editorship at a paper. Changes of this sort are almost always followed by changes in format, typefaces, or coverage of the news. Papers often posted this information under the masthead for a period of time before such changes took effect, but not always. It helps to be armed with this information so that layout and type changes don't make you miss what you're looking for. This is particularly important as you get more acquainted with a particular newspaper and your scanning (naturally) gets more cursory. The font one editor loved to use for advertisements can be the font the next editor loves to use for the local probate and police court write-ups. If you haven't been aware of an editor change, you may scan over the court write-ups believing them to be the same old ads for dyspeptic syrups!

  • The only consistent thing is change. Sometimes changes just happen and are reflected in the newspapers for reasons we may not understand. A paper that one year prints hundreds of vital record notices may post less than a hundred the next. A paper may begin to print articles with the names of all individuals to whom marriage licenses were issued, only to stop a week later. Why? As your Mom always said, "Because."

It is said often, but newspapers really are a very under-utilized resource. As I have gone through issue after issue creating indices for various newspapers, I often marvel at the amount of information available on some people in different articles, and I get excited at the thought that the information printed in a few inches in a paper 150 years ago could solve the mysteries or brick walls of one of their ancestors today.

I also spend about 4 hours a day indexing and transcribing newspapers in my area because I believe, or rather KNOW, that people are missing out on valuable information because they are relying too much on the accuracy of OCR, a technology that is currently somewhat sub-standard to the task of rendering microfilmed newspapers. I hope this post encourages you somewhat to invest the time to really take advantage of newspapers as a resource.

If you're interested in reading more about digitization of newspapers, the LOC Newspaper Digitization Project has some interesting articles and links.

09 May 2008

How Did That Civil War Soldier Really Die?

Part of the ongoing Old School theme, taking it back to the paperbound resource! Here's a tidbit of interest from Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, by Bell Irvin Wiley... something to contemplate when considering how your Civil War-fighting ancestor actually died:

"It is a sad fact of Civil War history that more men died of looseness of the bowels than fell on the field of combat. The best available figures show 57,265 deaths from diarrhea and dysentary as against 44,238 killed in battle." (Page 124)

07 May 2008

Firefox 3 and Your Online Research

If you're considering making the move to Firefox 3 (currently still in beta, but nearing full release), be aware that there are still lingering issues with Ancestry and the Enhanced Image Viewer. Currently, users are having difficulty with the plug-in, or, as in my case, are unable to install the plugin at all and are forced to use the Standard Viewer (which, in case you don't remember, really leaves alot to be desired).

Zotero is also not currently functioning in the 3.0b5 version, (though it did function in earlier versions). Zotero says it will be fully compatible with Firefox 3 when it is finally released.

Google Notebook remains buggy and unstable in 3.0b5, (and virtually unusable) though it looks to be an issue for Google to resolve.

I'll update as more issues come to light.

06 May 2008

Trawling the Deep Web

When it comes to research, I am a firm believer that whatever I am looking for exists, and if it exists it is probably online (or will be at some point). Needless to say, I have alot of unbridled optimism, and infinite patience for the blossoming of the internet.

Along those lines, I was thinking about the "deep web" or "invisible web" which alludes to the gazillions of bytes of information out there on the internet that are not accessible via traditional search engine results. This includes, of course, things like information stored in databases... the life blood of the online genealogy researcher.

Some Resources

I found a great article from OEdb which provided some interesting links for exploring the deep web. Of special note are the following sites:

Some Rethinking

Ultimately, of course, we can't believe that a link to some deep, as-of-yet-undiscovered database will solve all of our research problems. The truth is that the deep web is not so much invisible as it is demanding... demanding that what can be wandering, aimless time spent on the internet take the same disciplined, goal-oriented approaches that most research resembles. The deep web reminds us that we must reassess and re-evaluate the ways in which we work online, in order to maximize both the efficiency and integrity of our internet research.

This article, from UC Berkeley, says it all, and provides a fabulous matrix for rethinking your approach to online research. My goal is to follow the guidelines set out here and re-research a current brick wall. Perhaps the issue is not that the information is not out there, but that only that I am unable to find it. Optimistic? Perhaps, but the only down-side is a more thorough understanding of what is and is not currently available online on a given topic. And that's not much of a down-side, now is it?