Monthly Archives: December 2010

Yad Vashem’s Quest

An article in the Ha’aretz newspaper in Israel reports that Yad Vashem has collected the names of four million Jewish Holocaust victims, two thirds of the estimated total. While no one expects them to complete the list (due to lack of records or lack of witnesses), they have made some impressive progress in the past decade. Yad Vashem says that fully one and a half million names were added in just the past ten years. Many of those names were added by Russian Jews, perhaps due either to the many Russian immigrants to Israel in the past two decades, or due to the opening of communications with Russia during the same time period.

Vad Vashem has always had a kind of quest to complete the list of victims. It’s not just a technical issue, but an issue of remembrance. Some people perished along with their entire families. Who will remember that they existed once?

I wrote previously about Yad Vashem’s Pages of Testimony and how important it is to fill out Pages of relatives you know perished in the Holocaust and also know are not in the Shoah Names Database. If we don’t tell the stories of those family members of ours that died in the Holocaust, who will tell their stories? I’ve never surveyed my family tree about this, but certainly among the information I’ve collected from other family members it is not uncommon to find relatives that died during the Holocaust. It’s always interesting to see how this is recorded in genealogy records, as some people just list the death as taking place during the war, while others write ‘Murdered by the Nazis,’ or simply ‘Holocaust’. In other peoples’ records, there is no reference at all to the person having been killed in the Holocaust, and if it was an elderly person who died in the early 1940s, who would necessarily think that they were murdered? Sometimes you jump to conclusions based on where they lived, how old they were, etc. but it may or may not be true.

I’m the last person to tell someone to write something without sources. Sources are another topic I hope to cover in this blog in the future, but for now let me just say that it’s important to provide evidence for everything you do in genealogy. I do think that if you know your relatives perished in the Holocaust, you should make an effort to go through your records, fill out a Page of Testimony for each relative, and then submit them all to Yad Vashem. No one should be forgotten.

Giving Back Through Indexing

If you’ve done any genealogical research in past dozen years you’re probably amazed at how much information is available online. The Internet has certainly changed how genealogy is done, even if the number of records online is still a tiny percentage of what records are actually out there in the real world. Yet, have you ever wondered how all this information made its way online? Certainly finding a hand-written birth certificate or census record of your distant ancestor in the 19th century is not something that happens without a human being spending the time to decipher the handwriting and enter all the relevant information into a database. Yet how do these databases get created?

In the world of Jewish genealogy, probably the biggest project to index records is JRI-Poland, which has put indexes of over four million Jewish birth, marriage and death records from Poland (and places that were once part of Poland) online. JRI-Poland doesn’t actually put the records online, but an index to those records. Usually the information in that index contains the most important details that you would find if you could view the actual record, such as the name of the person, sometimes the names of the parents, associated dates, etc. although on the flip side, without seeing the actual records you can never be sure that all the information is 100% accurate and you don’t know what was left out (sometimes records have notes written on them that contain information important to genealogists). JRI-Poland works by locating relevant records in archives across Poland, figuring out how many records exist for each town covered in the archives, then soliciting donations for the indexing projects for each town. The idea is that if you know your family is from a specific town, then you’ll likely contribute to have the records indexed for that town. In their favor, if a town has a lot of records to index (thus costing more to index) there are usually more descendants of those people to help contribute to the indexing projects. Once the money is raised for a town project, JRI-Poland makes copies of all the index pages from the archive and then pays people in Poland to create the electronic indexes of the records. Why use locals instead of crowdsourcing the indexing like other sites do? I think the main issue is that records from Poland from the 19th century and the early 20th century (when most of these records come from) can be written in a mix of Polish, German and Russian. It all pretty much depends on who was in control of the particular town at the time the records were created. Poland was divided among the various empires in the area multiple times the same town might have been under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which generally used German for records) or Russia (which obviously used Russian for records). Finding descendants of the people from those towns that speak those languages and is difficult to do. In order to make the indexing easier and to insure there are fewer mistakes, JRI-Poland finds local Poles who know the languages they need, and pays them to do the indexing. So your contribution in the process is fairly simple, pay the money.

There are other ways that online databases get created. Sometimes individuals or groups take it upon themselves to put either records or indexes of records online. Sometimes people just post their contributions on their own web pages, sometimes they contribute them to existing online projects (like JewishGen) and sometimes they coordinate their efforts through sites set up for such projects, like USGenWeb or the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild (ISTG). These sites help volunteers to coordinate their efforts and bring records online, where a set of local vital records on USGenWeb, or a ship passenger manifest on ISTG. Sometimes these kinds of records are difficult to locate, so indexes to the indexes pop up, like Census Finder.

One very good example of a volunteer site is GenTeam.at, which indexes Austrian records. As a group they have indexed over 2.7 million records from across Austria, including hundreds of thousands of Jewish vital records. The records are all indexed by volunteers and the site is free to use (although you must register first).

Another way databases or indexes of records get created is by companies that make money from making the records available online. These companies spend a lot of money in acquiring records, scanning records and creating indexes of these records so that they are searchable on their sites. These companies either have experts in their employ who create the indexes of the records, or pay people to do the work for them (usually overseas where labor is cheaper). Examples of web sites that do this are Ancestry.com, Footnote.com (recently bought by Ancestry.com), WorldVitalRecords.com, etc. Footnote.com, for example, made a deal with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to gain access to many of the files they have (such as naturalization records) and make them available online. Sometimes these sites will let you search their records for free, but if you want to actually see the records and the information in them, you need to join the website and pay a membership fee. There obviously is money to be made in this area as the large companies each have over a million subscribers each paying them money monthly or annually. In these cases, your membership money goes towards their indexing efforts, but not in a directed fashion of course. You’re not contributing to an indexing effort as much as the company’s bottom line, but in the end you do get access to new records.

I won’t go into detail now about the role of genealogy in the Mormon Church, but needless to say it is important on a religious level, and the church has invested a lot of time, effort and money into collecting records from all over the world. They have collected billions of records from countries across the globe, generally on microfilm, and keep those microfilms in a secure underground archive in Utah. From the original microfilms kept in that archive, copies are made available in their Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, and in Family History Centers (FHC) across the US and across the globe. For decades the only real way to access these records was to go to the FHL in Salt Lake City, or go to an FHC near you and request access to specific microfilms, which if they didn’t have they could borrow from the FHL. Accessing these records were difficult for another reason, which is that if you didn’t speak the language the records were written in, you would need to hire someone who spoke that language to go to the FHL or an FHC and sit in front of a microfilm reader and find th records you were looking for (if they exist at all). Obviously this was (and still is) an expensive proposition.

Of course, with those billions of records on microfilm it was only logical that people would start asking to make the records available online. The problem putting them online is not only to scan all those microfilms, but to have people create the indexes that will make the records searchable. The Family History Library’s online presence is known as FamilySearch.org, and it is through that web site that Mormons as part of their religious duty collaborate in creating their own family trees, but also where the Mormon Church has started to make those billions of records available online, for free. With such a massive undertaking, FamilySearch.org had to come up with a way to find help in creating the indexes for all their records – what they came up with is FamilySearch Indexing, where they allow anyone who has access to a computer and Internet to help them index their massive collection of records. FamilySearch claims that over 300,000 volunteers have indexed over 7 Million records since 1996. This year they were trying to index 200,000 records (with only a few days left in the year they’re around 185,000 records).

To help out yourself, you start by signing up on their site, and then downloading a computer program which lets you do the actual indexing. The program lets you specify the difficulty of the records you’re willing to work on (easy ones are recent records typed or written in block print, harder ones can be handwritten in a fancy script and be written a hundred of fifty years ago when handwriting was different than it is today) and what languages you can understand. Once you’ve set up the program it runs your through some easy sample records so you get how it works, and then you can start indexing records by downloading them in batches. Batches are collections of records that make up a kind of work unit. You work on all the records in the batch and when you’re done, you can submit them for review and get another batch of records to work on. A single batch might have only a few records to transcribe if they’re difficult, or perhaps dozens of records if the records are all listed on one page and are easy to read.

As you index more and more batches of records, you earn points. Generally, easy records earn you one point and harder records can earn you more points. Mainly, the points are just a way to keep track of how much work you have contributed to FamilySearch Indexing. The site does offer a Premium Membership to volunteers who earn more than 900 points in a calendar quarter. This gets you a Premium Membership for the rest of that quarter and the whole next quarter. FamilySearch estimates one would earn 900 points a quarter by spending about half an hour a week working on indexing. What does a Premium Membership get you? Well, it seems that while FamilySearch.org owns a lot of the records they put online, they don’t own ALL of the records they make searchable online. In some cases they need to pay the owners of these records whenever someone accesses the image of the actual record. As such, in order to see those records, you need to be a Premium Member, either because of your records indexing or because of membership in an organization that sponsors FamilySearch.org (such as the Mormon church). If you do find a record that is restricted to Premium Members only, you could of course index 900 records that calendar quarter to gain access to it, although sometimes you may find that the record exists elsewhere and just knowing it exists is enough to send you to another site to find the actual records without doing that much work.

I would say, however, that if you use FamilySearch.org, which for what you can access is always free, you should think about contributing to their efforts by doing some indexing yourself. It doesn’t cost you anything but your time, and the next time you find a record on FamilySearch.org that is connected to your family, just remember that the file was probably made searchable by a user like you who contributed their time to indexing.

As one of this blog’s focuses is Jewish genealogy, and there has been some controversy with the Mormon Church and the Jewish community concerning the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism of their ancestors (some of whom were Jewish), and even the posthumous baptism of people not related to the church members, in particular famous people – including, for example, Anne Frank, who has apparently been posthumously baptized at least nine separate times, I want to point to an overview of this whole topic at JewishGen: The Issue of The Mormon Baptisms of Jewish Holocaust Victims And Other Jewish Dead. The issue is going to come up eventually, so in the context of discussing FamilySearch in this post I figure now is as good a time as ever to bring this issue up. I’m not going to dwell on the whole issue, except to point out that even though there have been several attempts between Mormons and Jews to resolve this issue, it continues. There are voices on different sides of the issue – those that believe that the very idea of posthumous baptisms of Jews is sacrilegious, and those who view the religious rites of a different religion as irrelevant to their own. This fight has engendered strong words on both sides, and frankly I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Certainly many Jewish genealogists have worked hard to make sure whatever information they have on their family is not made available online (such as on public family tree web sites) in order to prevent the possibility that their research might lead to one of their ancestors being baptized posthumously. In this way Mormon genealogy efforts have made Jewish genealogy more difficult due to the added security and protection many Jewish genealogists have implemented with their family trees, yet on the other hand FamilySearch.org has made many very useful records available to all researchers for free, and that has helped all genealogists, including Jewish ones. I think every non-Mormon needs to make a decision on their own what they feel about this issue, and how closely they want to deal with FamilySearch considering that it is a branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints. As I’ve shown above, I don’t think there is a problem to use FamilySearch.org to search for records, and I’ve encouraged people to give back by helping index new records, but beyond that interaction, each person needs make up their own mind about sharing additional information with FamilySearch.org and their parent organization, the Church of Latter Day Saints.

The Search For…Books.

In my youth I was avid book collector. I spent a good dozen years working on building my collection of books, finding books in stores across three continents. The books I was collecting dealt largely with the British Mandate of Palestine, during the years between WWI and when Israel became an independent country in 1948. From bookstores in big cities to a bookstore I used to visit inside a barn that would only open in the summers, from Boston to New York to San Francisco to Jerusalem, I visited a lot of stores to find books. I even remember searching the basement of a large used bookstore in Hay-on-Wye in Wales, during the Hay Festival many years ago. I actually found a number of good books which I had to ship back to the US, which took months to get to me as book rate shipping was slooowww.

Things have changed a lot since then, with the Internet being the main cause of the changes. An interesting anecdote illustrates the point. Before I moved to Israel, I used to visit a couple of times a year. Each time I visited I would try to visit a series of used bookstores scattered around Jerusalem. Usually I would make a day of it and walk to all of these bookstores one at a time. One store was located right in the center of the city, run by an older man. He would buy whole collections of books from families in Israel and would sometimes have books I was looking for after such a purchase. After visiting his store for a few years I asked him if he had an e-mail address so I could contact him occasionally to see if he had gotten any of the books I was looking for in stock. He laughed at me, of course he didn’t have a new-fangled e-mail address. The following year I visited the store again and lo-and-behold he had an e-mail address on his business card. Progress. The next time I visited his store, he had a computer on his desk. Not only did he have a computer, but he was searching eBay for items to sell in his store. I don’t think he was yet selling items on eBay back then, but now he has a large ‘Ebay Store’ where he sells items online.

The above story is fairly typical of the evolution of small bookstores in the age of the Internet. On the one hand, in the old days you could find real bargains on books if you found them in a store that didn’t know anything about the particular book, on the other hand it was also very difficult to find specific books. Booksellers would offer search services, where I guess they contacted other booksellers and asked about the existence of the book in other stores’ inventories. Today the Internet has changed how used books are bought and sold. If you’re looking for something very specific, you’re unlikely to find a bargain anywhere. Every small bookseller out there, even the one in the barn that only opens during the summer months, is hooked up to the Internet. The bookseller may not have a web site where they sell their books directly, but at the very least they know how to price specific books based on the prices for the book elsewhere on the Internet. Booksellers upload their entire inventories to bookseller network sites like alibris.com and abebooks.com, which handle the web site selling, and allows customers to search across thousands of tiny booksellers and see all of their inventories in one search. You can even search across these different network sites by using a site like bookfinder.com. Chances are if you can’t find a book on bookfinder.com, you won’t find it in any store anywhere (at least for the languages it supports). That is a very different environment from the days when I originally went from bookstore to bookstore searching for books. Today it’s not about searching for a specific book, but more about figuring out which ones you can afford to buy online. Something is lost in the translation of course, and searching online is not the same as wandering the aisles of used bookstores, smelling the aging books, finding books one wasn’t really looking for, or finding the one amazing bargain you could never have imagined. Progress.

Specialist used booksellers would publish paper catalogs of their books. Usually they would send out these catalogs to their customers a few times a year, showing new acquisitions. Can you imagine the costs involved in such a practice? How many booksellers do you think mail out hard copy catalogs today? I still get e-mail catalogs from these some of the same booksellers that used to send me paper catalogs, even years later, which is a smart way for me to look at their new inventory. I imagine if e-mail didn’t exist, I would have been dropped from these booksellers’ mailing lists a long time ago, for not buying books recently.

Of course, no discussion of the change in finding books would be complete without discussing the impact of Google Books. Google has made deals with libraries across the world, and worked with them to scan millions of books and put them up on the Internet. For books out of copyright, the whole books are posted online for viewing. Google has built, for lack of a better analogy, the world’s largest library. You can even download PDFs of the books for off-line viewing. For books still covered by copyright, Google works with the publishers to restrict what parts of the book the publisher wants people to be able to see, and directs people to buy the book if they want to read the whole book. Google’s recent move into selling eBooks will blur the lines between library and bookstore.

So what does all of this have to do with genealogy you’re asking? Well, strictly speaking this blog is not solely about genealogy. The truth is, however, that there are a lot of books on the topic of genealogy that you can find free on Google Books, or you can locate physical books through many of the various search sites I mentioned above. You can preview the books on Google Books, or sometimes on Amazon (when the publisher has added a preview) and then search online for the best price on a used copy. Amazon also lets you buy used books, but checking the other sites will give you more buying options. Amazon owns AbeBooks.com, chances are the used book results on Amazon and the results on AbeBooks.com will be fairly similar.

I still find it hard to pass by a used bookstore and not wander the aisles for a few minutes, even if I don’t end up buying something I enjoy look for books, I enjoy the smell of the books, I enjoy the very fact that there is a small business dedicated to selling books. Searching online is not the same, although it is gratifying when that one book you’re looking for shows up after a 30-second search online instead of spending years looking for it in dozens of bookstores. Happy hunting.