Using fillable genealogy PDFs to pass down family history

We got a great question from a prospective customer about the best way to get back into genealogy … and organize records for the next generation. She wrote:

“I am getting back into researching my family and need your advice on where to begin with the forms you sell. It’s been 20 plus years since I’ve been serious about this and I want to do it correctly so that my children and grands can benefit from my work. This pile of stuff needs cleaning up!”

She went on to say that she likes the idea of our fillable genealogy PDFs, but also likes paper. Here’s our advice:

  • For those who prefer typing but like paper, we recommend using our fillable PDFs and then printing out the results to share with family (preferably on high-quality, acid-free paper, not cheap printer paper).
  • The EasyGenie 6-generation fillable PDF is great because people can print it out on 8.5×11 paper at home, or pass the PDF to a printer for printing on larger 11×17 paper, for a poster effect.
  • We also have smaller 4-generation charts and family group sheet bundled in our large print PDF set. These two charts are also fillable (note: we always recommend using the free Adobe PDF Reader for EasyGenie fillable PDFs).
  • To go back further than 6 generations, we recommend connecting the charts using the numbered spaces and “notes” field on the larger sheet.

Here’s a sample of fillable PDF. Note that the blue fields do not show up when printing.

Fillable genealogy PDF sample

Genealogy binders: What goes inside?

genealogy binderAnother piece of advice: make binders to give relatives. With the fillable PDFs, it’s easy because customers can make as many copies as they need for personal use. Here are some tips related to making genealogy binders for relatives:

  • Common approaches for binders include: one binder for each family branch, or a summary set in a single binder for each grandchild.
  • Include the fillable PDFs, copies of vital records and family letters, and old photos of ancestors.
  • EasyGenie sells basic archival storage kits and expansion sets which include everything you need to get started, including small binders, document sleeves, photo holders, and gel pens for annotating the backs of photos or copies of important documents.

The prospective customer had another requirement:

“Some of my distant family had as many as four spouses with children, and I want to include all of the information.”

This gets tricky. We do have a special PDF set for families with multiple spouses. The pedigree chart has space for one additional spouse of each ancestor, and the family group sheet can handle up to three spouses for a single ancestor. But adding any more is impossible owing to limitations of the canvas – there isn’t enough room to have extra spaces for four spouses.

That time when Newton’s mayor blew off my email about the Fessenden School abuse scandal

My email to former Newton Mayor Setti Warren, dated May 10 2016. This was two days after The Boston Globe Spotlight team (the same group that uncovered the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal) released a report detailing the decades-long culture of abuse and cover-ups at the Fessenden School in West Newton. Here’s a complete copy of the email:

Dear Mayor Warren,

On Sunday, May 8, the Boston Globe published a Spotlight team investigation into pedophilia at dozens of private schools in New England. One of them, the Fessenden School, is located in West Newton. A group of former students have given statements indicating that not only were they victimized by pedophile faculty at Fessenden, but administrators downplayed their reports and failed to report abuse to police and state authorities, as required by law.

One of the faculty members, an assistant headmaster at the school, was brazen enough to brag in a message to his Harvard classmates that “my life seems to have been filled with 250 boys each year to … put to bed and to love” while another faculty member proudly displayed a Nazi flag and other Nazi memorabilia in his dorm room. A third was the school psychologist — the man whom some of the victims (as well as other confused or struggling young students) may have turned to for help and reassurance. 

Fessenden itself has sent a series of letter to alumni (see links below) admitting that 16 former students have come forward since 2011 to describe their abuse at the hands of “at least five individuals who were members of our community” in the 1960s and 1970s. These numbers do not include victims who reported sexual abuse or inappropriate sexual behavior before 2011 or taking place outside of the 1960s and 1970s.

It is important to note that not one person has ever been investigated for abuse of Fessenden students, or charged with any crime. Pedophile teachers may have been able to commit more crimes against children after leaving Fessenden in the 1970s and 1980s. At least two of them are still alive, enjoying freedom while their victims have suffered a lifetime of pain. I have heard that one former student committed suicide in the 1970s, and his classmates believe that he may have been abused by one of these men.

Further, there is evidence that Fessenden administrators failed to notify police and state authorities of the abuse when they learned of it. Up until the 1990s and perhaps later, the M.O. of the Fessenden administration was to settle claims out of court.

I would like to ask you about what reports, if any, did Newton Police or child welfare authorities receive from students, parents, teachers, or administrators concerning physical or sexual abuse of children at Fessenden’s Newton campus? I realize that state regulations require reports of abuse to be filed with state authorities, but I think it is conceivable that some local residents or students may have first approached the Newton Police.

I would also like to ask if the abuse of children, or the failure of private entities (including Fessenden’s administration, board members and legal counsel) to follow reporting requirements falls under any municipal statutes.

Finally, I would like to ask your administration to make a public statement condemning the great evil that occurred at the Fessenden School … and offering support to the victims as they seek justice.

Sincerely,

Ian Lamont
Auburndale

I never received a reply. There was no acknowledgement. There was no statement condemning the abuse. There wasn’t even a note in his newsletter pointing to the Spotlight revelations. I assume that there was no outreach to the legal department at Newton City Hall, or the Newton Police Department.

We now know that during this time period that Howie Leung, a faculty member at the Fessenden Summer ELL program, was allegedly grooming students participating in the Fessenden program. It apparently started in 2015 with a 13-year-old girl, and was about to happen again in the summer of 2016, according to an investigation that took place several years later. This is despite Fessenden’s repeated promises that it had turned a new leaf and was doing everything to protect children under its care. Quoting former Fessenden Headmaster David Stettler in 2011, the safety of students was the school’s “highest priority.”

Here’s the initial report about Leung in the Concord Monitor, dated April 17, 2019:

When he was a teacher at Rundlett Middle School, Howie Leung wrote a letter to a 14-year-old student that police said was “very expressive and emotional.”

“I love you,” Leung wrote, and admitted, “I was pressuring you and you didn’t want to let me down.”

The letter was written to a former Concord student who Leung is accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting at Concord’s middle school and at the Fessenden School in Newton, Mass., a five-week boarding camp for girls and boys ages 9 to 15. The letter was uncovered as part of an investigation by police in Concord and Newton.

… The report says much of the abuse occurred while she was an unpaid helper at the Fessenden School, which provides an overnight English Language Learning summer program to help students gain skills in speaking, writing and reading English.

The victim said Leung assaulted her repeatedly in his office, in the tunnels of the school buildings where the campers were playing tag, and in her own dorm room, assaulting her approximately 20 times over the course of two summers, the report said.

leung booking photo fessenden case

Leung was actually caught, investigated, and charged not because Fessenden School reported it, but because some of Leung’s grooming activities took place near Concord (NH) High School. That school district also dropped the ball, and recently settled with victims. But Fessenden is not party to the agreement:

The experiences of both former students were detailed in an investigative report prepared by attorney Djuna Perkins, who detailed years of inaction by school administrators to numerous red flags and boundary violations between Leung and female students.

In the most recent settlement agreement provided to the Monitor this week and dated Feb. 7, the school district agreed to protect the identity of the former student. The payment was made to the student who witnesses said Leung was kissing in a car near Concord High School in 2018. Despite the school district’s internal investigation, Leung was allowed to remain on the job for three and a half more months before any action was taken against him. However, that report led to Leung’s eventual arrest by Concord Police.

The agreement notes that the Fessenden School in Massachusetts is not released from any claims through this settlement agreement. It also specifies that Leung is not released from any claims in his capacity as an individual.

Even though the Concord school district failed to take action for months, investigators in NH apparently notified their counterparts in Massachusetts. In 2019, This led to charges of

aggravated rape of a child with a 10-year age difference, two charges of aggravated indecent assault and battery on a child under age 14, and two counts of aggravated indecent assault and battery on a person age 14 or older.

I wonder now what would have happened if Mayor Warren had done something in May of 2016, after the Spotlight report came out. Issued a public statement condemning what happened at Fessenden over many decades. Directed his law and police departments to examine relevant statutes, and their historical handling of such cases. Maybe even notified Fessenden that it had to do more to ensure no child under its care would ever experience abuse again.

As far as I know, nothing happened. Which is strange, considering his active participation in the discussions just a few years earlier surrounding Steven Chan, a Day Middle School teacher arrested for child pornography. Here’s how the Newton Tab described his address to concerned parents:

Mayor Setti Warren opened by saying that he had just two things to say to parents.

“Public safety is a priority to this community,” Warren said. “We take it very seriously. I believe that he (Chan) should be prosecuted to the extent that the law allows.”

Warren also told the crowd that his [daughter] began kindergarten today.

“I feel confident as mayor that not only will she get a great education, I am confident she’s safe.”

What about the safety of children at Fessenden? Did they not matter?

Or maybe Warren was focused on other things. I’ve written about him before, in connection with reforming Newton’s real estate development, taking control away from city councilors and giving it to a developer-friendly planning department. Over the objections of Newtonville residents and their city councilors, he was instrumental in getting developer Robert Korff of Mark Development what he wanted at the Orr Building on Washington Street in Newtonville, which later became Trio Newtonville. He also made it possible for developer Dinosaur Capital to lease prime land in Newtonville for the equivalent of just over $10,000 per year. Units at 28 Austin Street now require people with incomes measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Warren’s term ended in 2018, and he ended up Harvard Kennedy School, where he is now executive director at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.

His successor, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, hasn’t once mentioned the Fessenden School even though the Leung case came to light during her first term.

Leung faces trial in Massachusetts in 2023.

To date, Leung has been the only teacher ever charged with abusing children at the Fessenden School, despite decades of reports and the arrest of two teachers in the 1970s for assaults that took place outside of Fessenden. In the 1970s, Fessenden administrators lied to the media and to investigators about abuse on campus by teachers there. At other times, they never reported claims of abuse to authorities. When the older cases came to light in 2011, Stettler claimed the school had changed, but its failure to monitor one of its employees in the years that followed shows it was lip service.

 

 

What happened when Dean Shinagel tried to remove “In Extension Studies”

In 2010, the then-Dean Michael Shinagel tried to change the names of Harvard Extension School degrees to remove the ridiculous and insulting “in Extension Studies”. I recall Shinagel had been talking about it since 2007 or 2008 at various HES events, and was even giving hints to media outlets such as Harvard Magazine. This tidbit appeared in January 2010:

A Century…and Change. Harvard Extension School having attained a landmark age (see “Extension School Centennial,” September-October 2009, page 47), it is considering updating its name. The proposed new title, the Harvard School of Continuing and Professional Studies, would recognize its dual mission of providing both liberal-arts and career-oriented courses and degree programs. If the Faculty of Arts and Sciences approves, the school will confer degrees such as the “Bachelor of Liberal Arts” and the “Master of Liberal Arts” and “Master of Professional Studies,” succeeding the current, but fusty, degrees “in extension studies.”

Although I did not agree with Shinagel on certain HES policies, I recognize that he was a true champion of the Extension School and its students. He was also a Harvard insider, and when it came time to push for change on the “in Extension Studies” issue, did things the Harvard way: Back-room lobbying followed up by a proposal to the faculty.

FAS also took the classic Harvard approach: They punted, and did nothing. Here’s the summary from the March 26, 2010 Crimson follow-up:

“Though the Faculty decided to postpone the vote to approve the name change for the following meeting, the proposal did not make the agenda for the last few meetings.

Dean of Continuing Education and University Extension Michael Shinagel said in a statement yesterday that the University will continue to evaluate suggested name changes, but is not prepared to make a decision at this time.

‘Any proposal to change the name of any Harvard school or the name of any degree awarded by the institution warrants thorough study and consideration,’ Shinagel said.”

Shinagel tried his best within the University’s decision-making framework, but at the end of the day he could do no more. That issue and a few others aside, he accomplished a great deal for HES (I urge those who are interested to read his book about the Extension School, “The Gates Unbarred”) and retired not long after.

Since then, we have had two deans and some people within the DCE administration who have vacillated between inaction and outright hostility to students pushing for a degree name change, judging by DSO trying to rig HESA elections a few years back to exclude a certain student activist and others like him. It’s clear the powers that be don’t want to rock the boat, and don’t want to advance students’ interests.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The only way to get FAS, Mass Hall, and the rest of the University to actually do something about the degree name is through sustained public awareness (which ESRI has done very well) and visible public demonstrations that highlight the second-rate treatment given to Harvard Extension School students. This is how marginalized groups on campus get better treatment, as demonstrated by the recent grad student demonstrations and unionization drive.

If FAS doesn’t listen, turn up the volume a notch. If they still don’t listen, turn it up two more notches and expand activities to Mass Hall and other decision-making groups. Don’t give up or trust anyone in power until the deed is done and these three ridiculous words – “in Extension Studies” are removed from ALB and ALM degrees.

What are “census substitutes”?

census substitute definition

Over the weekend, I was catching up with research on some Irish branches and re-read parts of the the excellent Genealogist’s Handbook for Irish Research by Marie E. Daly. The book mentions a useful concept that can help genealogists and family historians break through brick walls: census substitutes.

A census, such as the sample above, tallies the population of a particular area. It’s often conducted by a national, regional, or local government. The basic idea of a census substitute is to provide an alternate list if an official census is unavailable or incomplete.

Consider the 1890 U.S. census. Most of the paper records were destroyed in a 1921 fire in a Washington, D.C building. The census records are therefore not available on Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, or anywhere else.

However, a genealogist trying to verify whether an ancestor lived in a certain town in rural New York might turn to a map of property owners in that county published in a state atlas the following year. While the 1891 atlas doesn’t duplicate the data on the 1890 census, it provides enough information for the genealogist to verify the head of household as well as his or her address, which may provide clues for further research.

map of census substitute

In other cases, a census substitute may provide information that was never tallied in any census. Such is the case for a list of military-aged men residing in a region of the Scottish Highlands in 1696, as well as the Virginia Slave Birth Index from the 1850s and 1860s, a period in which the U.S. federal census did not record the full names of African-Americans who were enslaved.

In Ireland, the first official census started in 1821, and were carried out every 10 years for the next 90 years. However, urban combat in Dublin during the Irish Civil War in 1922 resulted in all of the paper census records from the 1800s being destroyed. It was a huge, seemingly irreplaceable loss.

irish census records 1922 destroyed ucd archive

That is, until genealogists and historians determined two census substitutes for the destroyed 19th-century Irish census records:

  • Griffith’s Valuation – provides detailed information on where people lived from the 1840s through the 1860s.
  • Tithe Applotment Books – compiled between 1823 and 1838, they serve as a survey of land in each civil parish to determine the payment of religious tithes. Unlike Griffith’s Valuation they do not cover cities or towns.

I have already used Griffith’s Valuation to determine the exact place of origin of one branch of my family in County Mayo. The next step: Digging into the Tithe Applotment Books. These census substitutes can provide answers in the absence of official census records.

Ancestry Survey: Only 53% of Americans know all 4 grandparents’ names

This was a shock: An Ancestry survey of 2,113 Americans published in March found more than half (53%) can’t name all four grandparents.

What could be behind these numbers? Ancestry didn’t say. But looking at pre-COVID survey data from a better source, the Pew Research Center, provides some insights:

Pew family survey 2004In 1960, divorce was not common, and could even be forbidden by family pressure or religious authorities. Women were more likely to stay at home raising kids, and less likely to have careers, outside of a limited set of professions such as nursing and teaching.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a huge social and family shift that continues today. As the number of “traditional” two-parent families declines – from 87% in 1960 to 69% in 2014 – there are tens of millions of Americans who grow up with one parent. We believe this explains why some children are less likely to know the grandparents from the other side of the family.

The Pew data had another chart that’s worth examining:

Pew family structure

In the Pew survey, “two parent” families can include two parents through remarriage, or other parenting arrangements. This means that some children may have more than four grandparents, including step-grandparents. Others may live with grandparents or other relatives, or may live in foster homes and not know any biological relatives.

Family is a complicated topic. Everyone’s family tree includes families that were not traditional, or involved separation, remarriage, adoption, or other special relationships. (We recognized this fact with the creation of some truly unique genealogy charts for adoptees and blended families).

It’s also important to recognize that while families today may not have the same structure of yesteryear, helping younger relations understand family history is a critical mission for any genealogist. Indeed, the Ancestry survey also mentioned that 66% percent of respondents they want to learn more about family history and over half (51%) want stories about when their ancestors were young and what life was like at a moment in time.

Newtonville residents sue city over Newton Senior Center (updated)

(Updated) Neighbors For a Better Newtonville (NBN) announced on June 3 it is suing the City of Newton over the proposed Newton Senior Center on Walnut Street. There’s a lot to unpack. Here’s the documentation that NBN prepared. Here’s the press release:

Neighbors For a Better Newtonville sues city Newton Senior Center

A couple things stood out to me, such as insufficient parking. NBN states that the city’s proposal:

Has 31 parking spaces when it needs 97 according to the feasibility study and 210 according to the zoning guidelines

The report by the traffic engineer hired to assess the Newton Senior Center lays out the usage challenges (peak demand depending on the program schedules, staff needs, etc.) but concludes with a hand-wavy solution around NewMo picking up the slack, seniors carpooling, or people walking from the Austin Street lot or street parking on Walnut Street.

As someone who regularly drives Newton seniors to appointments and hears a lot about seniors’ concerns about traffic (Auburndale was recently put through the ringer by city planners and southside ward councilors over the unsafe removal of the traffic light at Ash Street and Commonwealth Ave) this is wishful thinking at best, and dangerous at worst.

For instance, parking on Walnut Street has become more treacherous since the street was narrowed, with less visibility and reduced reaction time for drivers when people cross Walnut street or open car doors. I know this because my small business has dropoffs every week at the UPS store. It’s dangerous as a driver, and it’s dangerous for anyone who needs to step into the street. As noted in the NBN release, the city’s proposal:

Requires seniors with canes and walkers, who are not dropped off or able to park on-site, to walk a block or more from the Austin Street parking lot or nearby streets, to access activities.

NBN is absolutely right on this point. Carpooling or the NewMo car ride app is not a magic solution for seniors who can’t walk far, or who worry about COVID, or have trouble downloading, using, and updating an app.

Newtonville residents are clearly concerned about the Newton Senior Center plans. Quoting from Newton City Councilor Tarik Lucas (Ward 2, representing Newtonville) in his February 25 newsletter:

In December 2021 Neighbors for Better Newtonville (NBN) led a petition drive to collect signatures of Newton residents who would like to see the site landmarked. Last month they collected over 500 signatures and issued a press release which you can read here. As a result, on January 28th I co-nominated the Senior Center site for local historic landmarking. I was joined by Ward 3 Councilor Julia Malakie, the Chair of the Newton Historic Commission Peter Dimond, Newton Historic Commissioners Amanda Stauffer Park, and Mark Armstrong.

This approach failed, as evidenced by the lawsuit.

Newton’s northside residents ignored by Mayor Fuller

Another things that’s clear from reading the NBN press release and other materials prepared by the Newtonville residents: They clearly feel misled and let down by the Fuller administration. Local people were promised the building would be preserved, and now they’re being told that’s it’s not going to happen.

Should anyone be surprised? In Newton’s northside villages, including Newtonville, The Lake, West Newton, Auburndale, and Newton Corner, residents are regularly promised something and hear soothing words that the mayor is listening. At the end of the day, their concerns are ignored, the promises are broken, and the planning department and luxury developers end up getting what they want.

We saw it with Riverside in Auburndale (with developers ripping up an agreement 3 times in order to realize their demands). Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s response? She doesn’t want to “push a developer away” so projects “become uneconomic.” Then there was Mayor Fuller’s farce of “listening” to local concerns about developing Washington Street which ended up with a plan that seems tailor made for Robert Korff and Mark Development.

Newtonville has been especially impacted by large building projects that line the pockets of developers, despite the concerns from local residents. Consider the 99-year lease granted to 28 Austin Street developers Dinosaur Capital for just $1,050,000. Or Mark Development’s luxury Trio development on Washington Street, which had visible cracks under the sidewalk overhang and pieces of building material peeling off the structure less than a year after opening (See Substandard “luxury” housing construction, from New York to Newton).

What will happen with the Senior Center? It obviously needs to be modernized and made more accessible, and many seniors support a completely new design. NBN’s leadership acknowledges that the current facility is outdated and insufficient:

“The petition asks only to preserve the historic exterior,” said Fred Arnstein, president of NBN, in a letter. “Within and beyond that exterior, we agree that the city needs an updated facility to better serve our senior population.”

I don’t know if the lawsuit will be successful, but it will force the city to pay attention.

UPDATE 6/7/2022: Someone pointed me to former Newton City Councilor and mayoral candidate Amy Sangiolo’s newsletter from this morning, which notes the multiple public construction projects in the city of Newton currently being handled by NV5:

NV5 was recently selected as the Owner’s Project Manager, OPM, for the Horace Mann Elementary School project by the Designer Selection Committee and the Mayor. According to this announcement from Building Commissioner, Josh Morse, “NV5 has a tremendous amount of experience managing school projects throughout the state, but they also have ample Newton experience as the OPM for Angier, Zervas, Cabot, and the project to replace the Newton Senior Center. They have worked with our project design firm, Raymond Design Associates, RDA, on several projects, and they’ve helped manage many occupied addition and renovation school projects.”

UPDATE 6/12/2022: Rightsize Newton asks in its newsletter, “Why does the Mayor claim to support historic preservation but oppose any attempt at landmarking the building?”. RSN goes on to note:

On Monday, May 13, Peter Dimond, Chair of the Newton Historical Commission, received a call from Barney Heath, Director of Planning & Development. Peter was informed that his term on the NHC had expired the previous Friday and the Mayor had decided not to reappoint him. In short, Peter Dimond was no longer a member of the NHC.

A few months earlier, Jennifer Bentley was informed by the mayor that she would not be reappointed to the NHC when her term was up in May.

Why would Mayor Fuller “clean house” at the NHC?

Peter Dimond has a theory.

A few weeks ago he wrote to his former colleagues on the NHC the following:

Peter Dimond Newton Historical Commission forced out

The mayor pretending to “listen” to experts and passionate residents about issues that are important to them, then turning right around and dismissing those views (or dismissing the experts) should come as no surprise.

The mayor, a Chestnut Hill resident, has been hammered for years by complaints that she doesn’t listen, particularly from residents of northside villages disproportionately affected by development plans, including Newton Corner, the Lake, Newtonville, West Newton, and Auburndale. For instance, she was put on the defensive on this point in the past, as the Newton Tab reported in 2019:

“We are listening,” Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in response to questions about whether the community’s feedback will be taken seriously. “We all care desperately about Newton. We care about this site. I, too, want the right size here,” referring to the green “RightSize Riverside” stickers distributed by the Lower Falls Improvement Association’s Riverside Committee.

I’ve also criticized the mayor on this blog for putting on a charade of listening and then doing pretty much what she, her consultants, and luxury housing developers seek to have built:

Another side of this trend is the tactics used by some of our own elected officials and the city planning department to steamroll opposition and discussion. A few years back, it was holding neighborhood feedback sessions (“Hello Washington Street“) in which the mayor, planning department officials, and highly paid consultants made a big show of listening to local residents in West Newton and Newtonville about the plans. After the sessions were over, they promptly turned around proceeded to ram through the high-density plan that they and big developers wanted all along.

Then there’s the issue of the Fuller administration not even bothering with “stakeholder input,” as local businesses in West Newton and Newtonville discovered last fall when hundreds of parking spaces along Washington Street suddenly disappeared to make way for bike lanes.

My project to design fillable genealogy PDFs with cursive fonts

I am working on an exciting project related to one of the most-requested features for EasyGenie fillable PDFs: cursive fonts.

Customers who have purchased EasyGenie fillable PDFs in the past know that the standard Helvetica font that appears when you type is easy to read and print. Here’s an example:fillable genealogy PDF helvetica fontBut some customers asked for something that looks nicer. Owing to limitations of the PDF file format and the Adobe software used to design fillable PDFs, it’s not possible for customers to change the font on their own, like you can do in Microsoft Word or Google Docs.

Further, there are design considerations for creating PDFs with special fonts, including:

  • Embedding new fonts leads to larger download sizes
  • Incompatibility with non-Adobe applications
  • Wider or taller characters can get cut off or limit the amount of typed input
  • Printing issues

Ian is working through these issues now, including evaluating new cursive and calligraphy fonts and printing tests. Here’s an example:

fillable genealogy PDF cursive

The sample above uses Monotype Corsiva in the large-print four-generation fillable pedigree chart. We hope to have something that customers can download in July from the EasyGenie genealogy PDF page.

Ancestry’s indexing experiment with firms in China

I follow genealogist Michele Lewis on TikTok. She recently found an unusual Ancestry.com transcription from the 1820 Federal Census. Check out the handwritten first name. What does it look like to you?

ancestry index outsource to china

Now, I get it that a 200-year-old handwritten scrawl can be hard to read. But how could a transcriber even consider “Elizabether” in this case?

I think I know the answer. In 2008, I worked for an online technology publication, The Industry Standard (no longer online). I interviewed Tim Sullivan, CEO of The Generations Network, which was Ancestry.com’s official corporate until 2009. The article was published on October 3, 2008, on the website of The Industry Standard (see image below).

In the interview, Sullivan noted that computers were “not even close” to being able to read handwritten records, especially those from disparate sources such as census records which have many different styles of handwriting.

So Ancestry turned to human transcriptionists. Paid transcriptionists, not volunteers like on FamilySearch. Sullivan told me:

“The vast majority of the investment we’ve made in the last 10 years is not in acquisitions costs or imaging costs, it’s in the indexing costs.”

At the time, Sullivan said Ancestry was paying $10 million per year to transcribe old records. To cut costs, Ancestry hired overseas partners in China where English was not widely spoken, but they can get census records transcribed for less money:

So how did The Generations Network import the data from millions of old census forms into its online database? Sullivan says the company spent about $75 million over 10 years to build its “content assets” including the census data, and much of that cost went into partnering with Chinese firms whose employees read the data and entered it into Ancestry.com‘s database. The Chinese staff are specially trained to read the cursive and other handwriting styles from digitized paper records and microfilm. The task is ongoing with other handwritten records, at a cost of approximately $10 million per year, he adds.

If you have ever tried to read old handwriting in an unfamiliar language, I am sure you can appreciate how difficult this task would be. But the lack of quality checks and nonsensical transcriptions is stunning. Keep in mind that Ancestry charges customers lots of money (up to 25% more as of January) but its main focus is generating profit for a string of private equity firms. Its current owner is a Wall Street PE firm, Blackstone Inc. It’s not clear if Ancestry still outsources its transcriptions to overseas firms, or if the OCR technology is good enough to hand off the task to computers.

Regardless, what’s especially frustrating is Ancestry customers have attempted to correct this particular error. The actual name is “Christopher Orr.” They’ve added the correct annotation multiple times, but Ancestry still shows the name from that 200-year-old census return as “Elizabether Orr.” Lots of people searching for this ancestor will never find him, thanks to Ancestry’s cost-cutting moves 15 years ago and lack of quality checks to correct such errors.

As Lewis notes at the end of her video, “Maybe you’re going to have the hand-search the indexes one at a time” to determine what the actual name is.

Archive of “Google stays mum on plans for public documents, Ancestry.com points to OCR hurdle.” By Ian Lamont. Published 10/3/2008, The Industry Standard.

ancestry china outsource index transcription 2008

 

Inspired by the Harvard Extension School Spirit Awards (and surprised!)

One sign that the Harvard Extension School community is really coming together is the first annual HESA awards. The Harvard Extension School Student Association has been a part of campus life for decades, but this year decided to recognize the many undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, officers, and clubs who are integral to supporting students and building community. Only students could nominate or vote. Here’s the list of winners:

Harvard Extension School Awards 2022

I urge you to watch the announcement of the winners (Zoom recording) which was really quite inspiring … it was a chance to recognize and celebrate these achievements, and hear some of their stories. I recognized many of the names, including my former ALM proseminar instructor from nearly 20 years ago, Doug Bond.

You may notice a familiar name toward the bottom of the page. I did not know that someone nominated me until last Friday. I unfortunately could not participate in the ceremony on Sunday as I was on the way home after attending IBPA Publishing University in Orlando, but I did send a statement:

Sorry I am unable to participate in person owing to work-related travel. I am truly honored that current Harvard Extension School students chose to nominate me for “Most Active Alumni.” I’ve been blogging about the Extension School for more than 15 years, ranging from sharing my own journey as a history ALM concentrator, to highlighting the University’s long-standing second-class treatment of HES students. One thing that’s changed in that time is there is now a palpable sense of Extension School student spirit and pride … and a desire to come together to lift ourselves higher. Congratulations to the other nominees in all categories, and many thanks to HESA for organizing this event.

In all the years I have been blogging about the Harvard Extension School (and tweeting on @HarvardExtended) there has never been any public acknowledgement from any official group associated with the University or the Extension School. I was truly touched to be named the winner. Thank you students, and thank you HESA.

 

 

Using genealogy books to answer “why” questions about immigrant ancestors

Today I am writing about genealogy books. One of the holy grails for family historians is answering crucial “why” questions about ancestors and the decisions they made:

  • Why did the Pinnix branch of the family move from North Carolina to California?
  • Why did my great-great-grandmother Hanora have a different last name on her son’s marriage certificate?
  • Why did Jonathan Gould list a completely different occupation in the 1880 census?
  • Why didn’t Valeria Rodriguez have her parents’ names listed on her death certificate?

The list of such questions is endless. That said, unless you’re fortunate enough to contact a living relative who knows the details, or good documentation (such as a family letter or a newspaper account) it can be very difficult to find answers.

That’s why I pay very close attention to research published in genealogy books or by local genealogy societies about families or places that have some connection with our own family history. Such genealogy books are huge time-savers, as they let genealogists answer questions that would otherwise take untold hours to research.

genealogy and history books

I am reading one such book now – For the Grass of a Cow: Marion Tiernan’s Irish ancestors from County Meath to Saint Lawrence County, New York, 1820–1999.

The author, Charles M. Carletta, was seeking to answer “why” questions about his own ancestors, and share the answers with his family and descendants.

However, his research also touches topics of interest to anyone with 19th-century Irish immigrants and ancestors who settled in this remote area of northern New York. He addresses crucial “why” questions that apply to our own research:

  • Why was this area so sparsely settled compared to other parts of New York State?
  • Why did immigrants from a particular area of Ireland – County Meath – choose to settle here before 1830, even though it was a frontier wilderness?
  • Why did so many immigrants from Ireland land in Canada instead of New York City before the Famine?

The author’s easy-to-understand answers apply directly to two branches of my family. The book also answered some of the basic “why” questions above, including the one about occupations in the 1880 census (the author notes census enumerators in 1880 were professionals for the first time, and as a result got more accurate answers). Carletta, a retired professor, also included extensive footnotes listing specific shipping and land records, as well as other books and historical resources to follow up with.

Where can you find genealogy books and articles that relate to your own family’s ancestors? Amazon has some titles, but we’ve found that specialty publishers and genealogy societies have books and journal articles that can’t be found elsewhere. I have found some great genealogy books at the NEHGS bookstore.

I have also had luck with the local history rooms at town libraries, as well as small-town historical societies. If you’re planning a genealogy road trip this summer, make plans to visit these repositories!