On Relationships

Relationships, eh? Time was, relationships for family historians were all so simple: Ancestor “A” met Ancestor “B”, they married and begat Ancestor “C” and probably “C.2” to “C.5” as well. Nice and easy on the family tree. (Unless we’re talking of my great-grandfather Edward Parsons who had two families on the go at the same time)

But it’s not so easy now, is it? Relative “F” may be living with Person “Q”, and possibly Person “P” before that, but does that make them part of the family? Do they warrant an entry on the family tree? After all, they may have lived together longer than many of the marriages that have been recorded.

Now, obviously, if “F” and “Q” were to add Relative “R” to the World’s population, then “Q” would qualify for treedom, legal relative or not. But if they were no children, I guess “Q” has no blood or legal connection and thus wouldn’t be part of the family in the genealogical sense. After all, if the requirement was simply co-habitation, what would be the minimum qualifying period: a month, year, seven years?

I think I’m going to leave this to the genealogists of the future to unravel.

Making sure my data is readable in a hundred years

Having spent some twenty years researching my family history, I obviously want to make sure that the fruits of my work are accessible to the generations that follow, so how do I ensure that it is all readable in a hundred years?
When I started my research, in the days before PCs, Macs etc, a colleague invested in a Philips Videowriter – basically a huge CRT-based box with built-in thermal printer. It could perform just one task – word processing – using a proprietary format and a 3.25″ (yes, 3.25, not 3.5″) drive. Within a couple of years, it died and could not be repaired. The disks were unreadable and, worst of all, all the hard copies had faded as thermal prints are wont to do. All the data – years of research – was lost. I am determined that this won’t happen to me.
The first thing to do is define what sort of data I am talking about. I think it can be divided into two categories:
Hard copy media – printed copies of research, certificates, old photos, etc
Electronic media – scans and source files, photos, databases, research notes etc
Hard Copy Media
Preserving old documents is a science in itself, so apart from scanning, covered below under electronic media, I won’t attempt to discuss that here.
However, I have produced a book containing biographies, research notes, images, photos and family trees – can I assume that it will survive? The problem is, modern toner-based laser prints on re-cycled, generic photo-copy paper are intended to be quick and cheap, not durable. No one really knows how long the toner will remain stable. Ten to twenty years shouldn’t be a problem, but beyond that?
Electronic Media
This subject has two specific aspects: format and storage.
Twenty years ago, the standard word processor was Word Perfect and images were stored as 8-bit GIFs. Now, it’s more likely to be Word and jpegs and, along with Adobe’s PDF format, it is probably no exaggeration to say that there are literally billions of jpegs, pdfs and docs in existence, so even when the standards are superseded, it is likely that those files will be readable, even if only by libraries or specialists. Similarly, the family tree databases are also likely to be readable. Although each family tree program uses a different format and structure which can change from version to version, there is an industry standard specifically for family tree databases managed by the LDS(1). The format, GEDCOM, is ASCII-readable yet maintains names, facts and relationships.
The media on which it is stored, however, is a different matter.
A few years ago, 3.5″ and 5.25″ discs would have been the norm, but now few people could read either. Since there are probably billions of CDs and DVDs in existence, it is likely that readers for them will exist in the future (even if only in libraries etc), but dye-based CD and DVD ROMs were never intended to last beyond ten years and it is thus unlikely that they will readable in a hundred years – I have already had some fail after 12 years.
PATA and SATA hard drives are already being replaced and USB2-based drives will die off for USB3 which will, in turn, go the way of SCSI, PCMCIA and Firewire. I also doubt that flash memory such as Compact Flash, SD etc will survive as a mainstream format for more than 20 years. Online storage, either using cloud-based virtual drives or hosting research on resources such as Ancestry are great…for as long as you pay the subscription or as long as the hosting company exists. Even if Ancestry survives a hundred years or, more likely, some other online repository is created in its place, how will anyone know our data is there?
It is clear that there is no perfect solution. For data formats, sticking with widely used standards makes sense, and I would encourage genealogists to regularly back up their databases in the Gedcom format. However, the only solution that is truly future-proof is to continually port the data into the new formats and media as they emerge.
(1) LDS – (The Church of JC and the) Latter Day Saints – vast resources employed in genealogy making them a key mover in genealogy technology – perhaps less so since the introduction of paid-for services such as Ancestry etc.

No more Censuses… Censi?

There was an interesting article in some of yesterday’s papers which suggested that next year’s national census will be the last. There seemed to be three reasons given:

Firstly, Britain’s population is now highly dynamic, with economic migration perhaps likely to become more prevalent. Secondly, there seemed to be concern that, whether due to paranoia, deception or the great British sense of humour, there were too many false or joke responses in recent censuses. Remember back to the 1991 census at the height of the Poll Tax fiasco when we feared our census returns would be cross-checked against our tax declarations? Then, in 2001, we were asked for the first time to declare our religious beliefs – 390,000 of us (yep, I do mean “us”) declared ourselves as “Jedi”.

The third reason given was that there are now many better ways of judging the size and make up of the population. Simply asking Tesco’s for their Club Card data would be start (although I doubt the State could afford to buy it from them), while a bit of data mining on Facebook or the viewing figures for X Factor would help.

So, all this got me thinking about the implications of discontinuing the censuses on future genealogists. Censuses have been taken in the UK since 1811 but only those from 1841 were kept. 1941 didn’t happen because of the war and 1911 is the latest one to be released for public research. Online resources such as Ancestry and Find My Past have fully indexed searchable database of all the accessible censuses and they are the most fabulous window into our ancestors’ lives – telling us where they lived, their family structures as children were born, grew up and left home, their occupations and where they were born.

In a hundred years then, what will our descendents be able to find out about us after the 2011 census? Think about it, our medical records will soon be available on the NHS network, and will no doubt be published in a hundred years, as will criminal records and pretty much all public records on which we appear.

What about our online personas? Facebook already retains profiles for people who have died. While I doubt Facebook will be around in 20, much less 100 years, what will happen to the data? Even if it was taken offline, the data won’t (probably can’t) be destroyed. Will genealogists force its custodians to release the data under Freedom of Information? What about the other companies or agencies that hold databases on us – Tescos, Google, O2 et al, MI5? How about our blogs?

So, yeah it looks like future genealogists will have plenty of information on us with or without the national census. Scary, isn’t it?

How to be a genealogist

Don’t get me wrong, I love “Who Do You Think You Are?”. It has done a huge amount to promote genealogy as a hobby which, in turn, has generated the market for sites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast to make a wealth of historical records online. It has shown millions that genealogy doesn’t have to be about lines of lineage stretching back hundreds of years but can be about what our fathers or grandfathers did in the wars – where and how they lived and what made them who they were.

I just want to check, though… hands up who thinks it’s as easy as it is on WDYTYA?

Anyone? Good.

I’m sure that, if you had the BBC’s resources and budget, you too could arrange for the curators of guilds and museums to greet you with open arms and to just happen to have a stack of records just waiting for you to “discover” them.

No, the reality is much harder, but getting easier all the time.

Genealogy is now one of the world’s most popular, and fastest growing past-times. Consequently, things are changing very fast with more and more books, magazines, TV programmes, websites etc dedicated to the subject, so please bear in mind that what follows may get out of date very quickly.

In the last ten years, the Internet, much as in everyday life, has become the primary tool and source of information for the genealogist… or should that be family historian? Is there a difference? If there is, I’d suggest that a genealogist is concerned with finding names, dates and places going back as far as possible – essentially, generating a pedigree. Meanwhile, the family historian is less concerned with going back a long way than they are concerned with finding out about their ancestors’ lives – where they lived and worked, war records, school days etc. Ultimately though, there is no difference. Most researchers start looking for names and dates and only begin to “flesh out” their stories as it gets harder to find anyone new.

There are three phases in the family history process, and I will describe each in turn. But first, a handy hint: record every search, positive or negative and document every scrap of information and every source. One thing about this hobby is that nothing happens in a hurry. If an ancestor is dead, he will still be dead in six months and scraps of information can take years to grow into a coherent story.

Phase 1 – Memories and shoe-boxes
The single most valuable sources of information are the memories of relatives and they should be exploited for all they are worth, but keep in mind the following:
• Do it now, before the memories are lost forever.
• Remember that names and relationships may be recalled accurately, but dates must be treated with caution
• Don’t expect Aunt Hilda to just tell you all she knows. Write out a series of questions beforehand, preferably ones which lead up to important details. Remember that some of this may be painful to her.
• Names and dates are all very well, but what you really need are anecdotes and photos. Remember to annotate photos straight away.
• Old family books, particularly bibles, can often be a good source of data as can wills, service records, passports and that old shoe box stuffed full of letters.

Phase 2 – Certificates and Censuses
It is important to have documentary proof before you can be certain about a relationship. The best of these are undoubtedly the General Records Office (GRO) certificates:

Birth certificates give name, birth-date, place of birth, parent’s names (including the mother’s maiden name) the father’s occupation and the parent’s address.
Marriage certificates reveal the names, father’s name and occupation for both parties. Also, an address at the time of the wedding.
Death certificates give the name and date plus the age of death and the name of the spouse. These rely on the testimony of whoever registers the death so must be treated with caution.

These certificates do not exist before 1837 when Lord Melbourne’s government introduced legislation under which all births, marriages and deaths had to be recorded and appropriate certificates issued. Copies of the records were kept locally at parish register offices and centrally at the GRO. Most, but not all, births, marriages and deaths were recorded until 1875 when it became an offence not to register an event.

FreeBMD is an ongoing project to index all the GRO registers. This makes it very easy to search for a year, quarter, volume and page reference for the event which can be used to order a copy of the certificate from the PRO online or through Ancestry.

Ten yearly censuses have been taken in the UK from 1801, but the 1841 census was the first to be kept for posterity. It is, however, incomplete and does not always record much more than the name of the head of the household and the number of people living there. Ages are usually rounded up to the nearest five. From 1851 onwards, however, the information is far more complete, giving the names, ages, occupation and place of birth for all people present at an address on the night of the census (usually during the first week in April). Households were visited by census enumerators to complete the census forms on the families’ behalf. This means, however, that we are at the mercy of the enumerators’ handwriting and spelling. The most recent census in the public domain is 1911.

Ancestry and FindMyPast both offer online, searchable indexes to all censuses up to 1901 (only FindMyPast holds the 1911 index) and it is very easy to find ancestors and download an image of the enumerator’s forms. In this respect, the 1911 census is different as it is the actual form, completed in the householder’s hand, which is available. Bear in mind, however, that to add to enumeration errors, there are a considerable number of transcription errors in the indexes.

Phase 3 – Everything Else
So, what happens when you have found all the ancestors born, married or who died after 1837? No more birth certificates, no more census returns and definitely no more personal recollections.

There are many possible sources of information, ranging from prison records, records of those transported to the colonies, lists of Catholics and Huguenots etc. The main sources are likely to be:

International Genealogical Index (IGI)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, aka the Mormons) believe that everyone who ever lived should be baptised as a Mormon, although to avoid controversy they keep to those already dead and not in a position to object. It follows that they spend a lot of time searching for individuals to baptise. They do this by transcribing local parish records into a massive database called the IGI which contains details of about 39 million individuals from England alone. As you might expect, some of the more conservative parishes have refused access to their records and the database is thus incomplete. For example, Essex is believed to be about 33% complete whilst Sussex is nearing 100%. The database can be searched on the Internet at www.familysearch.org. For a baptism or christening, the IGI gives an individual’s name, the date, the parent’s names and the church where the event took place. In the case of a wedding, the parent’s names are replaced by the Spouse’s name. From personal experience, it appears that entries can be found from about 1500 to around 1860. This is a very valuable source and I have found many ancestors from the IGI but it is definitely worth confirming anything with the original parish records.

Parish Records
Parishes were typically villages with a church and larger towns and cities would contain several parishes. Records of British baptisms, m
arriages and burials have been maintained by law since 1538 but not all clergymen kept proper records in the early years. The early baptism, marriage and burial records were usually jumbled together and some of them were written in Latin but by 1732 all registers were required to be written in English. For the first 200 years it was normal to record only the father’s full name and that of his child in baptismal. Most original parish registers are now available to view in County archives and have been microfiched. Some, but certainly not all, parishes are available online and some are available to buy on CD Rom. From 1598 the clergy had to send a copy of their entire year’s parish register to the local bishop. These copies, known as Bishop’s Transcripts are also available in County archives.

A note of caution is required here. Parish records, and consequently the IGI, do not record births – they record baptisms. Usually, children were baptised within a month of their birth but not always. It was also common to have a communal baptism. As an example, my second great-grandfather was baptised with four of his siblings in 1841, five years after he was born. Remember also that the most parishes were Anglican. Catholic, Jewish and later non-conformists churches collected their own records.

Commercial sites such as Ancestry are competing with each other to put more and more records online, such as military rolls, workhouse records, parish records from the London Metropolitan Archives, phonebooks and passenger records. These are incredibly valuable for fleshing out our ancestors’ lives. They also encourage members to upload their own trees but be aware that some genealogists may not be methodical as they should be, so don’t rely on other people’s research – check it yourself.