Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thoughts on Researching Family Histories from the Harford Airport

I am writing this from my gate at the Hartford airport as I wait to get on my plane to Columbus, Ohio. (Or actually to Philadelphia – even though the flight isn’t that far, I still have a layover.) This weekend is the Ohio Genealogical Conference. It should be an intense, fun weekend.

The official conference starts tomorrow, but this afternoon and evening, a series of two-hour workshops are offered in addition to the conference for (generally) a $15 fee. I will be presenting one of these workshops entitled “Researching and Writing Your Ancestors’ Stories” at 4:30 p.m. I hope my flight isn’t late!! Saturday morning I will give a presentation called “Crossing the Ocean with the Internet” about immigration research, before hopping on my plane to come back home. I have glanced at the rest of the schedule and it is packed full of interesting

I love talking about doing the research to write full and interesting family histories. I often have people express to me that this is what they love about family history – not just discovering names and dates, but coming to understand their family – what their lives were like, etc. I talk about three mains ways to do this:

1) Dig Deeper in the Records. Often, the “basic” records have more clues than we realize – if we take the time to thoroughly study them.

2) Rely on the Personal Accounts of Others. Even if our ancestors didn’t write anything about their lives, we can still glean those insides glimpses by reading first-hand accounts written by their family members or friends – or complete strangers that experienced similar events and circumstances in their lives.

3) Create the Historical Context. We understand a lot about our ancestors simply by understanding the time and place in which they lived. What kinds of homes did people live in? How did they dress? What did they eat? How were family role expectations different?

In fact, even just typing this now makes me feel a flutter of impatience. I love talking about doing the research to write something – but I love actually doing the research and writing even more! And I have an exciting project underway that I haven’t had time to work on for a while. I am looking forward to life slowing down a bit so I can get back to work on it.

Actually, I think I may end my post and go do that right now…(or maybe I should glance at my lecture notes again….)

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Weekend in DC

We just returned last night from a long weekend in the DC area filled with conferences, family, and sight-seeing. What more could you want?

We drove down (about seven hours plus on I-95) on Wednesday night, arriving around midnight since the last supposed 15 minutes (according to our GPS that fails to recognize traffic lights) took close to an hour. Then we were up bright and early on Thursday morning. I had grand plans of getting in line early to get tickets to go up the Washington Monument and to watch money get printed. We were in one line at 7:30 while my brother and sister-in-law were in another. It was about forty degrees with drizzling rain. (What nice relatives I have – I don’t think they were all that interested in seeing either the monument or the money, but they still stood in line in the cold rain for an hour to get tickets.) Due to the misery of the weather, we easily got tickets since anyone with any sense had stayed inside. Here's a picture of the National Mall and the Capital as seen from the Washington Monument.

We had planned to take a peddle boat out on the tidal basin and see the cherry blossoms – but we were forced to reconsider. Or I should say I was forced to reconsider. My children BEGGED to go still, but even their pleading could not persuade me to climb into a boat filled with puddles of frigid water. Here’s a super cute picture of my brother and son walking next to the tidal basin under the cherry blossoms and then a picture of everyone together.

We did still walk over to get a look at the White House, which somehow in all our trips to DC, I had never laid eyes on. We couldn’t actually go inside since you have to get your Congressman to get tickets for you months in advance and I wasn’t that organized. Here are the kids in front of the White House.

By then, we were more or less ice cubes, so we headed for the American History Smithsonian where we saw the original Star-Spangled Banner. I had actually seen it before, but it still gave me chills. It even impressed my kids.

Friday morning, we spent a couple hours at the Air and Space Museum before driving into Old Town Alexandria for lunch. Then, George and I did the kid-switch (he had been at a conference), and I headed to my conference.

I spent Friday evening and Saturday at the Fairfax Genealogical Society Spring Conference. Friday started with consultations. I found it so fun to talk to other people about their research problems which ranged from basic immigration questions to complex records and methodology questions with family stories of Germans immigrating to Argentina, German Russians coming to the US and others. I did one lecture that night then joined some of the conference planners for a late dinner. It’s a fun group of people in Fairfax and I enjoyed the dinner. I did four more lectures on Saturday, mostly focused on immigration and European research again.

Saturday night, we had dinner with some cousins. The next morning we made the long drive back to Massachusetts, with a quick stop for lunch at my brother’s house in Forest Hills, NY (in Queens).

When we got home last night, my husband asked the kids what was their favorite part of the trip. After seeing the White House, Roosevelt Island, the Jefferson Monument, huge spy planes, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, and many other amazing things, as well as playing with all kinds of cousins on Saturday, Sarah Ann (age 5) remarked instantly, “seeing the deer cross the street on the way to Uncle Tim and Aunt Chris’s house.”

I’m so glad we spent 15 hours in the car for that.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Glamorous Job Writing About Western European Civil Registration Records

The other day I was checking out at the grocery story and for some reason (I can’t remember exactly), the clerk asked what I do for my job. I told her that I write for magazines.

“Oh, wow,” she said, her eyes wide. “That sounds so exciting….” I could see her looking at me - wrestling my toddler, with my hair tied in a knot on the back of my head - trying to figure out how I got such a “glamorous” job (people have actually even used the word "glamorous" before). “So what kinds of things do you write?”

“Right now, I’m working on article called ‘Using Civil Registration Records in Western European Research,’” I told her. I could have just said, “I write for history and family history magazines,” and left it at that, but I just couldn’t resist.

She stared at my blankly for a minute – maybe to see if I was kidding. When it was obvious I wasn’t, she said, “Oh.” Her moment of being impressed with my glamorous job was now over. Suddenly, it didn’t seem too exciting anymore.

But, it IS exciting! I submitted my article yesterday morning and absolutely thought it was interesting. So I wanted to share a few things I wrote about here with other people who might also think civil registration records are exciting and glamorous! For a full account, you’ll have to wait for a forthcoming issue of Internet Genealogy Magazine. (I’m sorry to leave you in suspense until then.)

Here’s some random (and interesting) tidbits about civil registration records in Western Europe:

1) Civil registration records usually don’t go back nearly as far as parish records, but some do date back fairly early. For example, in France they begin in 1792.

2) Napoleon brought civil registration to many of the countries he took over, but these countries weren’t so sold on the idea. As soon as he left, most of them quit recording the information. But many places have these brief, early records sometimes written in French – and possibly using the French Republican Calendar.

3) In the Netherlands, civil registration records are the most important records for post-1811 research. And, they are coming online at Genlias (a fee-charging website).

4) Civil registration records began at different times in different states of Germany and Italy since these countries didn’t form until relatively late.

5) The Scandinavian countries do not have very good or very useful civil registration records.

6) Scotland has great civil registration records that begin in 1855 and can be accessed at ScotlandsPeople.

7) Civil registration records can often be more complete than parish records, and in many areas are indexed (sometimes even with ten-year indexes).

8) I haven’t written anything here about English civil registration records, because I find them annoying. (Don’t worry, I did include them in my article – and I didn’t say I thought they were annoying). You can find the indexes several places online, most notably FreeBMD – which is, surprise, surprise, FREE. But, the records are not open to the public and must be ordered. And if you have tried using these indexes and have an ancestor with a name like James Harris like I do, you will understand why they annoy me. That said, civil registration records provided the key to unraveling a mystery on my family. But that’s a story for another day. Here’s the record that did it though:

Now, if that’s not glamorous, I don’t know what is.

Tomorrow we leave for the DC area. I will be speaking at the Fairfax Genealogical Society Spring Conference on Friday evening and Saturday. I will be giving a total of five lectures and doing some consultations too. I’ve never done five different lectures all at once like this. I’ve done four a number of times. I’m worried about all that information fitting in my brain at one time….But, I’m excited for the conference. And I’m excited to be a tourist with my kids on Thursday. We’ve been to DC a number of times before, but there’s always more to see. (I’m not excited about spending seven - or more - hours on I-95 on Wednesday night though...)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

One Lovely Blog Award

In my last post, I mentioned the "One Lovely Blog Award" I had received. Here are the rules for acceptance:

1. Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who granted the award and their blog link.
2. Pass the award on to 15 other blogs that you've newly discovered.
3. Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

So, here is my list of 15 blogs that I'm passing the award along to. Some of them are newly discovered, and some are blogs I've followed for a while.

1. Renee’s Genealogy Blog, by Renee Zamora - lots of great info for the Utah genealogy scene (including FamilySearch updated) and beyond

2. Greta’s Genealogy Bog, by Greta Koehl Her blog post from March 11 has got to be the funniest one I have ever read!

3. Nutfield Genealogy, by Heather Rojo

4. AnceStories: The Stories of My Ancestors, by Miriam Midkiff I wrote about Miriam’s blog in an article some time back in Discovering Family History called “Genealogy Blogs You Need to Read.”

5. The Accidental Genealogist, by Lisa Alzo

6. FrustratedGenealogist, by FrustratedSue – This one is brand new.

7. Amy’s Genealogy, etc. Blog, by Amy Johnson Crow

8. Life from the Roots, by Barbara Poole

9. Granite in My Blood, by Midge Frazel

10. Growing Up in Willow Creek, Mary Nunn Maki

11. Musing by Linda, by Linda Woodward Geiger

12. Clue Wagon by Kerry Scott, She starts out with “My name is Kerry. I like dead people.” How you can you not like a blog with this beginning?

13. What’s Past is Prologue, by Donna Pointkouski

14. The Educated Genealogist, by Sheri Fenley

15. BeNotForgot, by Vickie Everhart

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Family Skeletons in the Closet

Before I write on the topic at hand, I have a comment first. You may see at the side that I have been award the “One Lovely Blog Award.” Actually, I got nominated twice. How fun! I want to say thank you to Lisa Swanson Ellam from the Faces of My Family blog and to Ginger Smith at Genealogy by Ginger’s Blog. I will be passing the award along to fifteen recipients in the next week, so please check back here for a listing of them coming soon.

Okay – but on to skeletons in the closet. One of the lectures that I give often lately is called “Writing a Page-Turning (But True) Family History.” In this lecture, I walk everyone through a step-by-step process describing how to write an interesting and accurate family history. One of my slides is entitled “Be Sensitive.”
My four bullet points for this slide are:
• Protect your family’s privacy.
• Be tactful – but truthful.
• Consider the feelings of others.
• Don’t reveal your family’s “skeletons in the closet.”

I only spend a few minutes covering this – it is not one of the main themes of the talk. But it seems that inevitably it is the topic that gets the most comments and questions – both during and after the talk. It seems apparent to me that many people struggle with this - where to draw the line between being open and honest and being sensitive in their written family history. So, I am going to share my opinion. Now, keep in mind, this is just my opinion. Other people may certainly feel differently – and I have heard lectures where other people put forth a different opinion. But, here’s what I think:

For the sake of time, I am not going to talk about protecting privacy of living people. Instead, I want to focus on skeletons in the closet. I often have people share stories from their families with me that include events such as illegitimate children, severe mental illness, incarceration, extramarital affairs, and so on. What do you do with these things on your family tree?

First, keep in mind that none of us have a perfect family tree. We all have dirt under our tree so to speak. So, don’t despair. Second, I think we should differentiate between skeletons in our ancestors’ closets and skeletons in our own (or our living family’s closets). Now before I go further though I want to add a disclaimer. Each situation is unique just as each family is unique. I will share some general thoughts, but you must make your own decision about what to include in your family history based on the specifics of your individual situation.

My general opinion is if we are talking about events that happened a long time ago that do not involve living people – then put them in the history. There is nothing to be gained from hiding the fact that your great-great-great grandfather committed a crime or secretly had a second family or whatever else he did. I am not a believer in only painting our family in the best light. We need to be truthful (which is not the same as dwelling on the negative). This may bother some of your family members, so you may want to discuss it with them. If it bothers them because is involves their mother or father or someone they knew and loved, then we are moving into a gray area (possibly involving the scenario discussed in the next paragraph). If it bothers them just because it is embarrassing to admit that their ancestors were not all honorable – well, I think it’s time to move past that.

When we are talking about skeletons in the closet that include living people, then I think we should rely on sensitivity and discretion. I do not believe that a family history is the place where grandchildren should first hear that their grandmother (who is still alive) spent years in an institution for mental illness or that their grandfather committed a heinous crime. Now, if this information is freely discussed in the family and family members are comfortable with it – then by all means, put it in. The purpose of not putting it in is not to hide that it happened. It is to demonstrate sensitivity. There may be a time – further down the road – to include this, but a family history is not where it should be first revealed. We have to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of writing this family history? Hopefully it is to preserve our heritage and increase our family’s awareness of their history – but also, to draw our family together. Announcing a family secret that others are not ready to discuss is not an effective way of bringing families together. Sometimes it’s not a question of whether or not to include it, but how much to say. For example, you can certainly acknowledge that your father had a drinking problem without sharing horrific stories of his drunken behavior.

One closing comment: Please do not misinterpret my advice to mean that we should hide bad behavior in our families. I am not a psychologist and am not saying that we shouldn’t discuss and deal with these problems openly. I am only addressing family skeletons as they relate to a written family history. Also, I am not suggesting we write untruthful, glowing reports of family members whose behavior was far less than glowing in reality. I am just suggesting to be tactful when considering which bits of “truth” to include. Of course, you must also keep in mind who your audience is. If you are just sharing the family history with your own children then you have more latitude (you can feel confident including more of the “secrets”) than if you want to pass it on to all of your ninety-three second-cousins.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Why I Do This

I mentioned I had some thoughts and analysis from my trip to Utah to share. I really can’t stand sentimentality (the chicken-soup-for-the-soul approach to writing), but at the risk of being sentimental, here goes anyway.

On the way home from my Utah trip last Sunday, Christian fell asleep about thirty minutes into the second flight. This left me in the position of trying to hold as still as possible for the next couple of hours so as not to disturb him. It sounds simple enough – but it’s not. Any position on an airplane with a twenty-three pound toddler draped over you gets uncomfortable quickly. I was much too uncomfortable to sleep. I had brought a book (One Year Off: Leaving it All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey With Our Children by David Elliott Cohen – I like to pretend I am someday going to follow in his footsteps…) but after an hour or so I was too uncomfortable even to read (balancing the book and supporting Christian at the same time was giving me arm cramps). This left me sitting there with nothing to do except ponder the meaning of life – or at least ponder the events of the last week or two. Specifically, it left me pondering why I do this (referring to writing and genealogy research, not sitting on airplanes with toddlers draped over me).

I’ll tell you up front it’s not for the money. I’m sure this doesn’t come as surprise to any of you, but neither genealogy or writing as a career path is likely to make you wealthy. If you are wise with your choices in your genealogy career you can make a decent amount of money and if you are wildly talented or lucky (or probably both), you can make an absurd amount of money as a writer. But in general, there are more efficient ways to get ahead in the rat race. Maybe I overestimate myself, but I feel fairly confident that I could make more money doing something else.

It is because I enjoy doing it? Well yes – I do enjoy it. I love writing and I love doing research. I find it exhilarating to speak to groups about writing and doing research. But for all those wonderful moments, there are plenty of moments of frustration, rejection, and just plain exhaustion. I don’t think enjoyment really explains it either.

It would be nice to say that I do it in order to do something that matters in the world. I feel like helping families connect to one another and learn about their heritage is important. I had people during the week tell me that my book had inspired them to want to learn about their families. That was wonderful to hear. But I’m not sure if I am altruistic enough to be solely motivated based on this. (Although maybe I should claim that I am…)

As I was thinking about the week, my mind settled on one experience that I think best sums up why I do it. It’s an experience I mentioned briefly in my last post. I was sitting in the West Jordan bookstore last Friday at a book signing at Seagull Bookstore. And although I probably shouldn’t admit this, let’s just say book signings are definitely not the reason I do this. I hadn’t been there very long when a woman came up and introduced herself. She had emailed me before and mentioned that she might come to my signing – but truthfully, in all the hustle and bustle of the trip and lectures and preparations, I had forgotten.

This woman was a descendent of Georg and Mina Albrecht, the couple on the cover of my book, also – a distant cousin of mine who I had never heard of before her email. We talked about the book for a while and about her memories of the family.

She said, “Well, you’ve certainly done a lot of work on this. A LOT of hard work.”

And I answered with my ready-answer that I say whenever someone says this. “Yes. It has been a lot of work. But it wasn’t hard work. I enjoyed it. I got so much out of it.”

Then she asked, “So, I just want to know. Why did you do it? Why did you write this book? You could have written about so many other things – even so many other ancestors. Why them?”

It had been so long since I had thought about that. Lately I think about pitches and sales and conferences and newspaper articles (and sometimes even overdue blog posts). I don’t think anymore about why I did it.

I sat there for a while and then I said. “I don’t know.”

She looked perplexed by my answer. Finally I added, “Maybe because they had a story that needed to be told. They had a story that I didn’t know.”

Then she leaned closer to me and her eyes got watery. “I just want you to know how much this book has meant to me.”

And that’s the scene I thought of on the plane as Christian made my right hand go tingly from smashing it flat against the arm rest and cutting off the circulation.

If the conclusion you came to after reading my experience is that I do this for my ancestors (to tell their story) or for this woman (because it meant a lot to her), then you are wrong on both counts.

What I realized is that I do this because of the way I felt right at that moment in the Seagull Bookstore. I suppose I do it because of the meaning it brings into my own life. And that’s why I’ll probably continue doing this (despite claiming on a regular basis that I’m going to find another profession…).

Unless of course I find someone who wants to fund sending my family on a year-long trip around the world… In that case, I would happily switch to being a professional traveler – at least for a year.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Conferences, Lectures, and Book Signings. Oh My!

I just returned last night from my whirlwind eleven days in Utah. It was fun to arrive in the airport last night and see my kids. I missed them so much!

But I had a great trip. Here’s a run down of the last few days of my trip:

On Wednesday, the Cache Valley Historical Society hosted a book lecture. It was in the beautiful historic county courthouse in Logan. It was well attended and lots of fun. I was born in Logan, but moved when I was a baby, so although I don’t know many people in Logan, it still has a “home” feeling to it.

Thursday I had two book signings – at the Logan Seagull Bookstore and then at the Harrisville store (near Ogden). Although this seems to surprise people, I get more nervous for book signings than for lectures. I really enjoy speaking to groups of people – I find it energizing. I love to talk to people who come up to talk to me at book signings. But, authors are also encouraged to greet people who come in the store – hand them a postcard and tell them about your book. This is what I find a bit uncomfortable. These are people who did not come to the store to talk to me. Some are excited about my book and end up buying it. That’s great, of course. But some of them don’t even stop walking and make it clear that they want me to go away. I try not to take it personally.

Thursday night, I spoke at the Ogden Regional Family History Center. When I visit Utah, it’s hard not to feel jealous of these family history centers. In addition to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah also has these large regional family history centers that are open long hours, have lots of wonderful resources, and are staffed with people available to answer questions for those starting out.

I headed from Logan down to West Jordan for a book signing on Friday afternoon. This was my favorite book signing up until then. I had barely arrived when I met a woman who told me some fun family stories and bought my book. I noticed another woman standing in the background waiting to talk to me. It turned out that this woman, Kathy, was a distant relative who had seen my book in the Seagull catalogue and recognized the pictures on the front as being her relatives! It was wonderful to talk to her about the family and the book. Because she comes through a different side of the family, Kathy has stories and memories that I haven’t heard before. We arranged to talk later so I can record some of these. Here’s a picture of Kathy, Kathy’s granddaughter, and me at my signing.

Towards the end of the signing, a friend I hadn’t seen since high school and an old college roommate (if you’ve read the book, this is the friend whose wedding I went to in Salt Lake City in the Swedish section) arrived at the signing too. It was fun to catch up a little.

Friday night, the Utah Genealogical Association hosted a talk at the Bountiful Arts Center. They told me they had expected about 25-30 people, but 110 showed up. That was a fun surprise due partially to the fact that Kathy Palmer, the organizer of the South Davis Regional Family History Fair, sent out an email notification of the event to all those registered for the conference, and partially due to an article that ran in the Davis County Clipper (click on the link to read the article) about my book and the talk (thanks to my husband’s aunt who contacted the paper!). It was a lively audience and I very much enjoyed the presentation.

Saturday, I attended the South Davis Regional Family History Fair. This was my first experience with the fair and I was very impressed. It was HUGE! It was held at the Bountiful High School, with the various lectures taking place in the classrooms. I taught three classes: The Journey Takers: An Inside Look at Immigration Research, Eight Ways to Cross the Ocean, and Writing a Page-Turning (But True) Family History. The whole conference appeared to be packed. Each of my classes had every seat filled and some had people sitting on the floor. I heard people commenting that every class they went to was top-notch. I didn’t get to attend any other classes, because I taught three in a row, signed some books, then headed for my next event. The conference also had a large exhibit hall with all sorts of vendors. If you live in Utah and haven’t attended this event in the past, be sure to watch for it next year. With free registration, it’s the best deal around!

That evening I had a book signing at the Seagull bookstore in Centerville. Besides talking to people I’d never met and signing some books, I also had two relatives and one of my best friends from graduate school stop by. It was great. But by this time, I was so wiped out that I had a hard time standing, smiling and greeting every person that came in.

Sunday, I packed up and Christian and I headed back home. The plane trip was tiring, but we made it! I appreciated my parents who watched Christian while I was at all these events.

I have some thoughts and analysis from my Utah trip, but I will save that for the next blog post!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Amazing Phone Call Follow Up Part One

A few weeks ago I wrote about the phone call I got from a distant cousin who had letters and photos of the Albrechts. We arranged to meet at my lecture in Provo on March 1. Well, that was yesterday so I wanted to follow up.

By the time I got to the Provo City Library, Toni and Dave Walters were already there. Toni showed me two big, clear envelopes filled with papers and pictures. My heart started to thump as Toni began to pull out the contents. I have only begun to look at the things inside. I’m sure this will be a process that takes months. But, I have already discovered some treasures and I know there are many more. On the cover of The Journey Takers are pictures of Georg and Mina Albrecht. I had these remade from negatives that another distant cousin, Steve Taylor, sent me. Toni had the original. Here’s Toni and Dave with that original picture.

A few of the photos are labeled, but most aren’t. I’m super excited to post some of them here, but I will have to wait until I get home because I don’t have a scanner here. I tried to take pictures of them with my camera, but it’s not working out very well. It’s going to take some serious detective work to track down who these people are! (A note to all genealogists: LABEL your pictures!)

Perhaps even more exciting is a stack of letters and documents written in beautiful German script. Some of the documents are dated before 1880 when the Albrechts came from Germany to Utah. I’ve already seen some letters dated post-1880 and labeled from places where I know the family lived before they immigrated. I am guessing these are letters sent across the ocean between the Albrechts in Utah and the Albrechts still in Germany. So, you may be thinking, don’t I have the letters? Shouldn’t I know what they say? The answer is: I will know what they say - eventually. But it will take me a while. They are written in the old script and my German is rusty. I feel like I have the hidden family story right here in my possession now and it’s of course very frustrating that I can’t just sit down and read it. But, genealogy requires patience sometimes, doesn’t it?

A few of the letters are in English and are, of course, easier to read. One is a four page handwritten life history of Henry (Heinrich) Albrecht, the son of Georg and Mina Albrecht - the German journey takers. It tells a little about the family's life in Germany including a story of when Henry's little brother fell in an icy lake head first and Henry saved him by grabbing him by the feet and pulling him back out. There is also a letter that describes in detail the death of Sarah Harris (the daughter of the Edmond Harris and Karsti Nilsdotter - the other two journey takers).

I will report back in another week or so with more details – and some scanned images to share.

Tonight, I will speak to the Cache Valley Historical Society (and anyone else who would like to attend) at the Historical County Courthouse in Logan, UT. Then, tomorrow I have a signing at the Seagull Bookstore in Logan, a signing at the Seagull Bookstore near Ogden (in Harrisville) and then I’ll give a lecture at the Ogden Regional Family History Center. It will be a busy day.

I am on day 6 of this 11 day trip. It has been fun, but I am really missing my three kids at home (Christian came with me). They put 11 envelopes in my suitcase before I left – one to open each day that I’m here. Isn’t that cute? They have letters, pictures, and origami. Every time I open one, I just miss them more though!

Enough writing now though. I’ve got to go start trying to read those letters!