Friday, June 1, 2012

The Summer Genealogy Season

Here in the Northland, our summer days are long, but our summers are short. Our big Genealogy Season is winter, when the days are short and the cold snaps are long. There just isn't enough time for genealogy. People tend their gardens and send the kids to camp in the summer.

But, hey, genealogists need summer camp, too. Some of you will be heading to Birmingham in about a week for the ultimate genealogy summer camp at Samford. It's too late to sign up for IGHR, but there still might be a few spots open at the new GRIP institute in Pittsburgh.  I'll let others who know more about GRIP pitch it, but I want to remind you of a couple of other great summer time genealogy opportunities.

At the top (or the front) of the list is the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree next week in Burbank. I will be attending for the first time, and am excited to be offering three lectures. I'll be talking about finding Grandpa's land on maps, tricks to finding pre-1850 ancestors, and testing the veracity of family lore. I am having a great time preparing the family lore talk. Using the case of John Fawkner's three previously unknown wives, I will be showing how family lore can be partially true, exaggerated or incomplete. If you haven't already registered, get yourself to the Jamboree website (

Next on my agenda is the 2013 Federation of Genealogical Society conferences in Birmingham in August. So you can't get to IGHR? You can still do some genealogy in Birmingham. I will be presenting a version of the Fawkner story there, plus offering a Society Day talk on defining mission and standards for society journals. Learn more at

The most urgent beginning of summer news is this: Registration opens Saturday, June 2, for next January's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. I will be there leading a case study exercise in Course 10 -- the genealogy practicum course coordinated by Angela McGhie and Kimberly Powell. This course opened to rave reviews last January. The other instructors for the 2013 are Tom Jones, J. Mark Lowe, Stefani Evans and William Litchman. But, there's more. Yes, there are 10 other courses to choose from. And, if you get your homework done early, you can hang out in the Family History Library two blocks away.  Afterall, it will be January -- a great time of year for some indoors genealogy exercise.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why do Editors ask You to Write?

That clever old journalist-genealogist, Harold Henderson, has a knack of cutting to the chase. In his Midwestern Microhistory blog this morning, he mused about why more of us don't raise our hands when journal and newsletter editors beg us to write. I'm going to tackle the problem from another direction.

Why do the editors ask?

Actually, they wish they didn't have to ask. They are busy people. They don't enjoy begging. But, they have deadlines to meet, and they really don't want to use fluffy filler stuff to fill up the last two pages of this month's issue. You can make them very happy by pitching an idea for an article.

But, really why do they ask?

They ask because they and their societies think you probably have something to offer. It might be a research article that models good analysis and writing. It might be an article that shares your expertise about a particular, underused record set or an overlooked library or archive in your area. It might be an account of a memorable research trip or discovery that will inspire readers. If you're not sure what the editor is looking for, ask. And, be sure to take a look at past issues of a journal or newsletter to see what kinds of articles it prints.

But, why do they want to publish a journal, anyway?

Too often, it is because that's what their society has always done. But, there are, in fact, good reasons for publishing a journal in these days of rising costs. Part of a society's mission is to help its members become better family history researchers. A modest journal, well done, can do two things. First, It can teach by showing. A good article gives aspiring writers something to aim toward. In almost every talk a give, I encourage beginners to write for the same reasons Harold Henderson does. Writing is a test of our evidence and our logic, and thus part of the genealogical analysis process. Good musicians learn by listening to music -- and practicing. Good writers learn by reading -- and practicing. 

Second, just like anyone else, writers respond to recognition and reward. Reward your writers by giving them a place to publish. Most will never publish their genealogy in the top-tier academic journals. State and local journals and newsletters give them another option. I have not yet met a writer that hasn't been excited to see their article in print.

Oh yes, there is one more reason editors ask you to write. It's a dirty secret: They like to edit. O.K., there is probably a less threatening way to say that. Let's try: They enjoy helping writers get the articles ready for print and making writers look good. Your editor is your ally. You and the editor have the same goal -- a readable and enjoyable product for the reader.

So, Harold is right when he says that the editors are going to be "so happy" to hear from you. As managing editor of Minnesota Genealogist, I know look forward to hearing your ideas for articles. And, there's a bunch of editors around the world who would agree.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Genealogy Journals need Writers and Readers

This morning Dick Eastman again did what he does so well. He focused attention on an issue that has potential to reshape the genealogy world. He asked: "Are genealogy journals too expensive?" (Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, 27 April 2012). It is a question I've been thinking about as managing editor of the Minnesota Genealogical Society's quarterly journal, Minnesota Genealogist.

Minnesota Genealogist is a 2nd- or 3rd-tier journal that has been produced for many years as a membership benefit. Apart from rent for our library and offices, it is one of our largest single expenses, costing about $10 per member per year to print and mail. (Authors, editor and proofreaders are not paid; we do pay a small stipend to a layout and design editor).

Eastman made a strong pitch for converting society newsletters and journals to digital distribution. There is no doubt: digital distribution is cheaper than paper and post distribution. MGS went digital with its newsletter a couple of years ago. An electronic newsletter makes sense on more than cost grounds. A newsletter deals with news, and requires timely distribution. An electronic newsletter takes much less time to prepare and distribute, making on-time monthly issues possible.

Our journal fills a different niche. I think of it as a contribution to our genealogical education mission. While we include some society news in the journal, it is mostly devoted to research articles, teaching articles and other features that help our members be better genealogists. As part of our education program, it is reasonable to invest in its production. But, it does cost money.

How much it is worth may depend in part on how many people read it. If only a small percentage of members read more than one article, it might not be worth the cost. We have talked about a couple of options. First, we could go digital and reduce annual dues by several dollars (perhaps still delivering a print copy to those who opt to pay a small surcharge). Second, we could unbundle the journal from our membership benefit package, and distribute it only to individuals (members and non-members) who find it worth subscribing to.

But, it is important to think about more than money. I think there are other good reasons to publish a journal. A quality journal reflects well on a genealogy society. It says: "we know genealogy and you can get help here." And, I think there is merit in giving researchers a place to publish, and thus disseminate and preserve, their research. We want people to write up their research, and the chance to publish may give a little motivation.

It all comes down to knowing why you are publishing a journal and what it is worth to your genealogy society. With answers to these questions, you will be prepared to choose between print and digital publication. These are hard questions, and their are no cookie-cutter answers. I will be leading a discussion on these questions at the Federation of Genealogical Society conference in Birmingham, Alabama, in August. I look forward to seeing many of you there.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Genealogy as a Conversation-starter

As we pulled away from Gate G15 at MSP, I pulled out my copy of Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity and Community by Eviatar Zerubavel. Some of you might recall that it created a bit of a stir in the genealogy community when it was published earlier this year. The middle-aged businessman in seat 35A looked over and said, "That looks interesting." I said, "Yes," and explained that I was a genealogist. He actually knew what genealogy is. He proceeded to tell me that he had traced his Visser family back to the area of Sneek in Friesland. How interesting, I thought, and told him that I was flying to Yakima to give a couple of talks on Dutch and Fries genealogy. He thought that was pretty cool. He said he was flying home -- he had grown up in Whatcom County, Washington. "Oh," I said. "I know where that is. I've got some Dutch-Frisian relatives in Whatcom County. But, I couldn't remember the name. I started going through the alphabet, starting with "A," trying to think of familiar Dutch-Frisian surnames starting with each letter in hopes of recalling the forgotten name. When I got to "Z," it hit me: Zylstra. "Zylstra!" he said. "I went to school with some Zylstras." Well, that's cool, I thought. I started to remember more. "I think my Dad's cousin had twins," I said. The guy in 35C says, "I had a friend named Peter Zylstra. I think he had sisters who were twins." Yep, the guy in 35C was a schoolmate of my Dad's cousin's kids in Sumas, Washington. The Zylstras moved from Sioux County, Iowa, to Whatcom County, Washington, about 1920, as I recall. The guy in 35C says, "Oh, then they were the 'Old Dutch'." He explained that, in Whatcom County, the "Old Dutch" came before the Depression; the "New Dutch" came after. It turns out the nice guy in 35C lived for several years in Sioux County, Iowa, where my Fonkert relatives lived. Andy Visser still works for a company in Rock Valley, Iowa, but he commutes back and forth from his home on the Olympic Peninsula across Puget Sound from Seattle. Oh yes, about the book: the Zerubavel book is provocative. It's not really about genealogy as we know it, but more about how people identify in regards to race, ethnicity, and nationality. I'm going to blog about the book in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dutch Treat: Finding Dutch Ancestors

I've been brushing up on my Dutch and Frisian genealogy in advance of my lectures next weekend at the Yakima Valley (WA) Genealogical Society. I love Dutch genealogy mostly because I'm Dutch (My wife and I dance in wooden shoes), but also because the research resources are so great. Today, I'd like to endorse three great sources.

First, my friend Rob van Drie recently published an English-language guide to Dutch genealogy research. Rob van Drie and Suzanne Needs, Dutch Roots: Finding Your Ancestors in The Netherlands is available as an e-book from (may soon be available in the Apple Store). This richly illustrated book covers both the basics -- civil registration, population registers and church records -- and more advanced sources like military, guardianship and court records. Rob is Deputy Director of the Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie in The Hague.

Did I say Dutch genealogy is easy? Well, the basics really are. If you don't believe me, check out Genlias. At Genlias, you can not only learn about Dutch civil registration records, but search for your Dutch ancestors' birth, marriage and death records. Although civil registration began a bit earlier in some southern Netherlands areas, it began in most of the country in 1811, with the arrival of Napoleon. Civil registration records are especially productive for genealogists because both marriage and death records commonly give ages, birth places, and parents' names. With a little ingenuity, you can identify ancestry back to the late 1700s.

Finally, I urge you to check out Digital Bronbewerkingen Nederland and Belgie (Digital Resources Netherlands and Belgium) at This site will link to you an amazing number of Internet resources for Dutch and Belgian genealogy. Just pick a province and start exploring.

So, put on your wooden shoes and take a Dutch genealogy hike. And, let me know what you find.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Sources and Cargo Ships

If you've attended many genealogy workshops or conferences, you've heard people talk about different kinds of sources, evidence and information. It can all sound a bit academic at times. If you want to get to the bottom of this, you will want to visit Elizabeth Shown Mills' new website, Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation and Source Usage (

I especially want aspiring genealogists to think about the difference between sources and information. As genealogists, we prospect for information about past lives and events that we weren't around to witness. We must rely on accounts or records created by those who were there. The sought-after information may be about birth dates, addresses, family relationships or life events. The information that we find may or not be accurate.

That's the information. Think of genealogical information as precious cargo transported to us by a source. A source -- be it a document, photograph, gravestone or other artifact -- is a vehicle that carries the information through time to us. A source is an information-transport vehicle. I like to compare a source to a cargo ship transporting raw material to a factory. The factory adds value by using energy to mix the raw materials and mold them into a marketable product.

In the genealogy industry, the genealogist is both factory and factory manager. The genealogist unloads raw information from sources, applies mental energy, and recombines the information as evidence that can support a marketable product: a genealogical conclusion.

Just as a steel factory manager worries about the quality of the ore he receives, a genealogist worries about the quality of information he or she receives. The steel factory manager needs to know where the ore was mined and how it was handled. Similarly, the genealogist wants to know about the provenance and quality of the information. Who provided it? Did the informant have primary knowledge of events? Could the informant be trusted? Was any of the information lost or altered during transit?

This is what genealogy is all about: finding and evaluating historical information and recombining it to answer a genealogical question. If you use good raw materials and process them with care, you will produce a valuable family history product.