Monday, 31 December 2018

Doing family history online ...

As I've written both on this blog and my other website, I've been spending time on family history tracking down some unanswered questions I had about my antecedents.

Before I started on this quest, my images of amateur genealogists was that of people wearing tatty grey cardigans sitting hunched over an old computer surrounded by piles of mouldering scribble covered printouts in some dim and dismal corner somewhere, and not at all like these slightly glamorous ones you see on tv shows like Who do you think you are?

I don't own a grey cardigan, and my computer may be overdue for replacement, but I've come to realise that it's actually quite an interesting little research hobby to keep the grey cells firing.

That is, if you do the legwork yourself.

There a quite a few sites out there that want to provide you with an end to end service and make it easy for you to trace your ancestors, and I guess, if they were scattered across the world and you really didn't know anything about them it might be a start.

These services are however very reliant on existing digital archives of birth, deaths and marriages, not to mention newspaper archives, plus archives of useful things such as military records.

The assumption also is that your ancestors hail from somewhere with a reasonable functioning public records system that goes back a reasonable time in the past. As I found while researching the story of Robert Burns Clow, this can sometimes mean only to early last century. Paper burns, or people make unwise decisions about retaining information.

So, broadly speaking, your ancestors need to come from the UK, Ireland, Australia, NZ or the US and if you are looking for ancestor from much before 1850 you've really got to hope that the parish registers have survived, and even then it is not always an easy guess where they might be. Despite living his whole life in Dundee, my grandfather's first marriage was registered in a rural district of Angus, presumably because that was where Catherine's (his first wife) parents lived.

Likewise, I discovered, that as well as his sister Annie, he had another sister, Lizzie, but she was a schoolteacher in Perth.

In other words, you have to know the geography of the area, and also have search skills, such when I tried to work out whether there had been a farm at Clocksbriggs, only to discover it had been a rural railway station that closed in 1955. Google maps and Streetview didn't help, but fining online digitised copies of nineteenth century maps did.

However, based on my limited experience of working with a single family, my mother's, all of whom hailed from a fairly circumscribed area of Scotland, you can do it yourself without resorting to the expensive paid for services.

Scotland's People, the Scottish Government's genealogy site, charges to download copies of register pages, but the cost is quite modest, a little under A$3 a document, and then you have the fun of deciphering nineteenth century handwriting - usually straightforward, but sometimes less so.

The National Library of Scotland doesn't charge for access to its digitised town and post office directories, nor does Historic Environment Scotland charge for use of its Canmore database of historic sites and images.

The British Newspaper Archive, run by the British Library, doesn't charge to search its indices, only to view an article. The cost of forty prepaid page views is again quite modest, around A$35. (If you are looking for entries in Welsh newspapers, remember that the national Library of Wales's Welsh papers online archive is free and comprehensive.)

Given that newspapers really didn't take off until the mid nineteenth century as a mass medium, the practice of putting hatched matched and dispatched notices in the local paper didn't really become common until after 1860, and even then only the aspiring members of the middle classes did it.

If you're family was simply hardworking people trying to get on, they probably won't feature in the local paper unless they were someone in the community such as a minister, a bank manager, or a member of the kirk session - that is unless they were arrested for public drunkeness, theft, violence,  or some other misdemeanor.

The only other reason they might feature is if they had an advertisement - one example I've come across is a music teacher advertising their services - all these Victorian children being taught to play the piano - the other is if they had a shop.

Otherwise no, not unless you come from what Jane Austen would have called quality and other people genteel folk.

So, you don't need to use one of those paid for heavily advertised services. In fact it may be cheaper not to, as well as being more fun.

Keeping track of everything is a problem.

About the only decent software package I've found is Gramps, and as I've said it's not the most intuitive, but its worth persevering with - I started from a position of loathing to move to one of grudging respect - it's powerful.

However you also need to use something such as Evernote to organise all your suppletmental material - as you would with any research project, plus some sort of notekeeping solution - Evernote will do both.

There are other solutions, J's cousin, who is an amateur genealogist and a former museum cataloguer still uses 6x4 record cards, for the absolutely killer reason they are easy to reorder if some new information changes the order they should be in. A wiki would also let you do this if you want to be high tech about it.

So, it's fun, easy to do online if you have ancestors that conveniently came from the right place. Like any hobby it's going to cost money, but it doesn't need to be so expensive if you work with the primary sources yourself ...

Friday, 28 December 2018

Digital family history

Over on my other blog I've been writing about what I've been doing over the holidays delving into my own family history.

Now, it's probably not terribly interesting to anyone other than myself and a few nephews and nieces. but one of the most important aspects of this work from a digital archiving point of view is that I've been able to do it using only online digital resources and do the work from my study on the other side of the world.

And this of course is because the National Record of Scotland (previously the National Archives) has done a tremendous amount of work in scanning and indexing the births deaths and marriage records, and in work done by both Historic Environment Scotland in digitising the online records of Scotland's archaeology and environment, and the National Library's digitising old maps, not to mention the work by regional archive services, and the sheer range of material available via Wikipedia - I'm saying via, because it's often the external links that add value, rather than the content itself.

I often used to dream of a world where resources were easily discoverable and linkable , and with the aid of tools such as Evernote and OneNote we seem to be getting close - at least as far as Scottish family history is concerned.

My only real frustration with the process is the Gramps genealogy tool - it's clearly very powerful but for whatever reason, I don't find it totally intuitive, but, for the moment it does the job.

Given the multithreaded nature of the material and connections probably starting a little private wiki with both context pages and links to the documents would be the next step - that way I would end up with shareable living revisable document ...

[update 29/12/2018]

Ever the experimenter, I took a look at one of these online ancestry sites, in this case MyHeritage, in comparison with Gramps, and certainly the interface was slicker, it had a nice consistency checker and it had a good set of prompts for building and populating the family tree details, plus rather a nice way of building a biography for each person in the tree.

Once you'd put in enough details it also scurried off and tried to find a match to the people you'd listed in other family trees - I know because it found a family tree that my brother had started and abandoned three or four years ago.

Nice features.

Also it would let you import data in GEDCOM format. but crucially not merge it into your existing tree, nor export your tree using GEDCOM.

Certainly, it was definitely slicker and easier to use, and the matching with data in other trees was quite good but I didn't like the way it locked you in, nor the way, despite being run on a freemium model, it continually touted signing up to a paid subscription, which admittedly it claimed gave you access to a whole range of online resources, which I'm sure it does - as I havn't signed up I can't comment on the breadth of resources signing up gives you access to.

I don't want to seem totally negative about them - they've done a lot of work on building histories of tribal peoples in PNG, and as an Israeli company, a lot of work constructing the family histories of holocaust survivors.

However, since I'm having fun learning how to do genealogical research from primary resources, I already  have access to most of the resources I need, and I prefer the pay for use model that Scotland's People have adopted, I've decided not to continue with them and will plough on working with Gramps.

What I will do, is that once I've done as much as I want with it is upload the material I've assembled to let other people reuse it as they wish

Saturday, 8 December 2018

An android wifi wierdness ...

I came across a really weird problem the other day.

My Alcatel pixi tablet that I bought in 2015 for note taking no longer sees our home network,

Other android devices  (mostly Samsung, but including the no name android tv decoder) see it just fine.

Over the past few months I've done two things

1) swapped the home router but kept the name and password the same
2) locked the 2.4GHz network to channel 13 to solve a problem with our Fetch box

otherwise nothing.

So I turned the router on and off. Still no connection.

I then reset the tablet back to the factory defaults. Still no joy. Strangely it doesn't even see the wireless repeater we have in the lounge room suggesting that it's some really odd driver problem.

It will however see the Huawei portable internet router, and works just fine.

Interesting J's old  (like 2012) Lenovo Ideapad doesn't see the home network either pointing to it being some wierd driver problem that affects some older versions of Android - maybe they just can't see channel 13...