Tag Archives: basics

Don’t Trust What You Find on the Internet, and Cite All Your Sources

When you do research into your family, you need to cite your sources. Without sources for all the names, dates, etc. that you put into your family tree, your tree doesn’t really mean that much. Let me explain why this is the case.

There are millions of people worldwide who are actively researching their family trees. Some people consider it an occasional hobby, and others spend all their waking days looking into their families. No matter which side a researcher finds themselves on, or anywhere in between, the quality of the research done by these people varies greatly. In other words, some people do quality research, back up everything they find, and cite the sources for everything so they can go back and tell you how they determined the year a particular person was born, or what their name was before immigrating to the US, etc. Other people do lower-quality research, don’t record where they found anything, and just enter the names and dates they find into a database on their computer, or directly to an online family tree. I would venture to guess that there is little correlation between how much time someone spends on their family tree, and whether people are quality researchers or just name collectors.

So why is it a problem to just collect names and dates and throw them into a database? Well, primarily the problem is that you will make mistakes. I don’t mean that quality researchers don’t make mistakes and sloppy researchers do make mistakes – I mean everyone makes mistakes. There will always be times when you find a record of a person and you think it is the brother of so-and-so or the father of this-or-that cousin, and it really isn’t.

A good researcher will cite the source for the record, and most likely recognize that without more information they cannot conclusively say that the person is who they think it is. The good researcher might not even put the person into their tree, but put them in a folder for unconfirmed relatives until such time that they do find more information. If you don’t cite where you found out a piece of information, then when you do find more information, you will have no way to compare your new information with the old information.

For example, if you first calculated the birth year of a person by their age listed on their grave, but later find another record with the birth year on it, how will you know the relative strength of the new record versus the old record in terms of determining the birth year. Will you remember ten years later that you determined the age from a gravestone? What happens if you ended up recording the age of the wrong person? How would you confirm that without knowing your original source? Maybe you recorded the name of the person’s niece of nephew that shared the same name. How would you be able to tell?

Imagine a researcher just records names and dates as they find them. They don’t double-check anything, and couldn’t if they tried since they don’t know where their information originated. Using an example where someone recorded a nephew instead of the uncle, let’s say that same person finds a tree of the nephew online (which they identify since the spouse is the same). They copy and paste the new information into their tree, except it’s under the uncle instead. Now you have a branch of the family which is completely wrong. What does this researcher do next? They post their tree online with no sources. The next person comes along and finds someone who matches in their tree and copies the rest of the tree into their own, propagating the mistake.

There are really two lessons to be learned here.

First, don’t trust anything you find on the Internet, without independent confirmation. If you import a tree from a web site, make sure to check it out first.

Second, cite the source for everything you record in your own family tree, so you won’t come back years later with a new, different, piece of information and not know which is correct.

How To Cite Sources

When you were in high school or college you probably remember having to format your sources according to a citation style guide like the Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA Handbook. These guides defined where the title of the book or article went, how the author’s name was listed, etc. with examples for different types of citations – like newspaper articles, published books, unpublished dissertations, etc.

In the world of genealogy, there are many more types of evidence that one might need to cite in their research, since a scribble on the back of a an old photo, a listing in a commercial online database, the inscription of a gravestone, vital records of all kinds from all countries, etc. can be cited – all for the same person. The bible of genealogical citation is Elizabeth Shown Mill’s Evidence Explained. The book contains over a thousand citation models for just about any source you can think of that you will come across in your genealogy research. For example, do you know how to cite this blog entry? According to Evidence Explained (pg. 812) it could be formatted something like this:

Trauring, Philip, “Don’t Trust What You Find on the Internet, and Cite All Your Sources,” Blood and Frogs: Jewish Genealogy and More, 27 February 2011 (http://www.bloodandfrogs.com/2011/02/dont-trust-what-you-find-on-internet.html : accessed 27 February 2011)

It gives a two more options for different types of blog citations. It also has citation models for tweets, chats, discussion forums, podcasts and other Internet-based content that probably wasn’t listed in the MFA Handbook or Chicago Manual of Style the last time you used one of them. I’m pretty sure that even today you won’t find a citation model for citing a gravestones in the Chicago Manual of Style. Coming in at over 800+ pages, Evidence Explained is a much bigger book than those other style guides.

There has been an effort by some to try to standardize genealogy citation models around those in Evidence Explained, and indeed some genealogy software programs have offered the ability to use Evidence Explained citation models when citing sources in your program. I think that it’s good to have a standard for citations, and I hope all the major genealogy software companies adopt Evidence Explained as their citation model. If there isn’t a standard for citations, then sharing citation between programs becomes difficult.

The Debate

While there is no debate in the world of genealogy that there is a need to cite sources, there is a big debate over how to cite sources. Do you really need to follow strict citation standards like those advocated by Evidence Explained? Therein lies the issue debated amongst genealogists, how important is it really to use a citation model? Isn’t it just important to convey the information to find the source cited? Do you really need to follow an 800+ page book explaining every possible citation model you could need?

I’m not going to go into this debate in depth. I’m simply going to give my opinion that as long as you convey the correct information in an understandable way, the style is not really important. I think it’s great to use a system like Evidence Explained if you can, but if there’s a chance you won’t enter the source because it takes too long to figure out the right citation model for the source and you think you’ll get back to it later (which you won’t) then just enter the citation however you want. As genealogy programs add better source citation tools, this won’t become as big an issue and it will actually be easier to cite them properly when it is automated.

Jewish Genealogy Basics: Ancestral Town (Shtetl) Information

One of the first steps to doing genealogy research is to find the town that each person in your tree was born. For most Jewish researchers, this means tracking back to towns that may no longer exist or have not had any Jewish population for generations. Certainly the Holocaust was the cause of many of these disruptions.

A Jewish ancestral town is sometimes generically referred to as a shtetl, which in Yiddish simply means town. Shtetl is sometimes used more specifically to mean small towns in Europe with large Jewish populations. Finding your ancestral town is a different topic (or rather there are many topics related to finding one’s ancestral town), and an important one, but for the purposes of this article I will assume you already know the name of the town from which your family originated.

So you’ve found the name of the town, now what? I think the first step in doing research on the town your family came from is to find out where the town is, and what it is/was near. This might seem simple, but many of the towns Jews lived in in the past had the borders switch around them amid the wars and dealings of the empires (Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Prussian/German) that ruled them.

There are several resources that can help you find out more about your town. Two important databases on JewishGen are the Communities Database and ShtetlSeeker. These two databases are not the same, and I’ll explain the differences.

JewishGen Communities Database

The Communities Database contains information on known Jewish communities across the globe. If your town is in the database, there is a page that contains a lot of basic information on the town, as well as links to other data on the town. The resultant page is largely generated automatically. It will show you which country and region the town existed in during different time periods, as well as which towns are nearby. Knowing which towns were nearby is very important, because while you might only search your town, your relatives might have moved to the town nearby and there might be records in that town for your family that you could miss. It’s always worth looking into the nearby towns, searching the JGFF and searching for records in the nearby towns, as you are likely to find you family didn’t all live in one town.

The Communities Database does not let you search using an exact match, so it will show you results on all similarly sounding towns. If you’re searching for the first time and you don’t actually know the modern spelling of the town’s name, this can be very useful. If you know the exact current spelling of the name, then you’ll just need to scroll through the results until you find the correct name.

For example, if you were to search for ‘Kanczuga’ you would get results like the following:

JewishGen Communities Database Search Results

There are six results, from several countries. If I had specified Poland as the current country then there would only have been two results. Of course, you may not know which country the town is in currently, so if you are not sure then do a broader search to see all the possibilities. Only one result has the exactly spelling I searched for, which if you know the spelling means it’s easy to figure out which one is correct. Also note the other information shown in the results. It gives you the district the town was in during different periods and the number of listings in the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) database.

If you move your mouse over each town name, you’ll see a pop-up box giving you basic information on the town:

Mouse-over pop-up details

This can be useful if you’re not sure which town is the correct one. When you click on a town name, it will take you to a page summarizing information on that town:

JewishGen Community page for Kanczuga

If you click on the image above it will load it full size and you can see my annotations showing what to look for on the page. The key things you should notice are the alternate names for the town (useful when searching for records in databases that don’t know alternate names – like on Ancestry.com), the country the town was in during different periods (so that while you know the town is now in Poland, you now know for example to look for ‘Austria’ as a country in records because it was in the Austrian Empire), a direct link to the JGFF search, a list of nearby towns ordered by distance, and a list of other resources. Some of these pages will also link to the town’s ShtetLink page if one exists, although for some reason this Community page does not. ShtetlLinks is discussed below.

JewishGen ShtetlSeeker (Update: as of Aug 2011 this is the JewishGen Gazetteer)

The ShtetlSeeker is a bigger database that contains information on towns everywhere, even if there is no known Jewish community that existed there. It also contains geographical names, such as the names of mountains and streams. Whereas an open search above for ‘Kanczuga’ returned 6 results, an open search on ShtetlSeeker returns 303 results including Kamchikha, a section of a town, Konchuga, a town, and Kunzhuga, a stream. If the place in the list is also in the Communities Database, it will have a small flower icon next to the name of the place, and you can preview the town info with a mouse-over and click on it for more information like in the Communities Database search itself. In this case only four results have the icon next to them. Why aren’t there the same six results from the Community Database before? I have no idea.

The information in the search results is also a bit different in ShtetlSeeker. For example, this is a portion of the Kanczuga results:

Part of ShtetlSeeker search results for Kanczuga

If you take a look (you can click on the image to enlarge it) you can see the flower icon next to Kanczuga, indicating that it is in the Communities Database.

After the name is a column defining the name as a ‘populated place’, or as a stream, mountain, etc.

Next is a column showing the map coordinates for the location. This is actually a link that will take you to a Resource Map for that location. The Resource Map is a very useful map that shows you what resources (such as records in JRI-Poland, names in JGFF,  etc.) exist on the JewishGen site for everyone in the immediate area. This is very useful, even more so if your town is not in the Communities Database, as you will be able to see what towns with known Jewish communities existed nearby, and you can then see what resources exist for those communities.

Kanczuga-area Resource Map

In the map above, I’ve selected Kanczuga and it has popped up a bubble showing what resources exist for Kanczuga. If I had selected any of the other little tree icons around the map, it would show me similar information for those. If you look along the top of the image, you can see that you can select what type of resources you want to see on the map, although the default is to show everything.

Going back to the search results page, the next column has links to various mapping web sites, showing you the location on each site. The mapping sites include Expedia, Mapquest, Microsoft Bing Maps and Google Maps.

Next the search results who you the current country the town is in, it’s distance from a reference point (usually a large nearby city) and a bullseye button that will take you to a new set of search results that show all towns within a 10 mile radius of the town on whose line you press the button. 

JewishGen ShtetLinks (Update: As of Aug 2011 this is now KehilaLinks)

ShtetLinks is a large collections of town-specific web pages developed by real researchers who know about the town. You can think of them as the hand-made version of the Communities Database. Depending on who worked on the ShtetLink page for your town, it might be a simple one-page site with a few links, or it could be a full-blown web site with multiple sections, photo albums, historical documents, etc. It all depends on how much time and effort were put into the site by the volunteers who put together the pages. Sometimes a page was developed by someone who is no longer involved, and it hasn’t been updated in years. In these cases sometimes the administrator of ShtetLinks will post that pages need new administrators to the JewishGen e-mail list.

If you town does not have a site as part of ShtetLinks, you can of course volunteer to create one yourself. This is a great way to give back to the genealogy community.

Virtual Shtetl

JewishGen is not the only organized source for information on Jewish communities. Another site is the Virtual Shtetl, a project of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is currently under construction and planning to open in 2012 in Warsaw. The site contains basic information on over 900 towns, but is meant to be a collaborative effort to collect information on the towns. Users can upload documents on the towns to share with others, and they can ‘like’ a town, similar to how someone ‘likes’ a page on Facebook. Users with interest in the same town can communicate anonymously through the site.

As the site is intended to be used both by Polish people, as well as their descendants, it is available in several languages. Some content is not yet translated into all languages, so you might find a town’s information only in Polish. Information on towns can include history, synagogue info, cemetery data, places where people were killed in the Holocaust, legends, stories, memories of the town, as well as contemporary information such as transportation, hotels and restaurants.

The Virtual Shtetl is a work in progress, and most of the resources are not yet in English, but by the very nature of its location in Poland and the attempt of the hosting museum to attract many local Poles to the site, it has a lot of potential to be a unique resource on towns in Poland.

Other Sites

There are many many other sites online with information on specific towns, regions and countries. Many people have created their own web sites with information on their ancestral town, or started a Yahoo Group or Rootsweb mailing list for their town. Try searching for your town name and seeing what you find. Use the alternate names from the Community Database in your searches as well, as you never know which version of the name a person used online. Keep in mind that some of these groups and mailing lists may not have a lot of people, or a lots of message traffic in them. That could be good or bad depending on your perspective. As long as there are knowledgeable people on the lists, it doesn’t really matter how often people post to it, as long as there is someone who knows how to answer questions posed on the list.

Figure out which region your town was in, as there may be regional sites as well. Kanczuga, the town I used as an example above was in the Galicia region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before WWI. That means the Gesher Galicia organization is a great place to look for information. Gesher Galicia even has a sub-group for the specific region of Galicia Kanczuga was in, the Kolbuszowa Region, which has its own web site. On Rootsweb there is an Austro-Hungarian-Jewish list, and on JewishGen there is a Gesher Galicia mailing list.

Google, beyond the straight web site search which you should do has two other sites that you can use to research your town. Google Books contains the scanned contents of millions of books from all over the world, and will show you which books mention your town. If the book is out of copyright, you may even be able to download the whole book. If it’s still in copyright, you still might be able to search inside the book and find out information, depending on what the publisher allowed Google to do. Google News Archive is a site for searching news sites including some that you will need to pay for if you want to read the whole articles. Again, this is useful just for seeing where your town may have been mentioned.

There are also some web sites with lists of location-specific Jewish genealogy links. Some of those sites include Cyndi’s List, Jewish Genealogy Links, and Genealogylinks.net (for some reason the Europe link isn’t working right now but here are links for Poland, Belarus and Hungary).

Helping Out

Once you find which sites contain information on your town, see if there’s a way that you can help. Do you have photos or documents from that town that your can contribute? Are you a web designer that can improve the look and function of one of the sites?

If there is no site for your town, consider starting one. Starting a group on Yahoo is a good way to organize researchers from the same town, and allows you to share photos, documents, links and other information is a neat organized way (and doesn’t require any web design skills).

Genealogy Basics: Historical Newspapers

There is a wealth of genealogical information buried in the stacks of old newspaper stored in various libraries worldwide. Depending on whether you live in the same place as your ancestors, accessing these archives could be exceedingly difficult, and of course physical newspapers don’t have a search button. Nowadays, however, there are a number of initiatives to digitally scan and make accessible newspapers large and small from across the world. Some of these efforts are commercial and require payment to use, while some are funded through non-profit organizations or universities and are free to access online. In the past there were efforts to index obituaries, and while obituaries can contain many genealogical clues inside, these new fully searchable newspaper databases can contain much more information.

It’s been my observation that if you had family living in a small communities, then these searchable newspapers can be even more useful. Small community newspapers tend to cover a lot more of what is going on with people in the community than larger community papers that cover news on a much smaller percentage of people in the community.


On of the best resources I’ve found for searching newspapers across the US is GenealogyBank.com. It is a commercial service, but they earn their money by constantly adding new content to the site. They currently have over 4500 newspapers online. It costs about $56/year for the service (go to their subscribe page, then try to close the page and it will offer to a 20% discount bringing the annual price from $70 to $56) which I think is quite reasonable. You can also try it out for 30 days for free. In addition to newspapers, they also have some historical books, documents and their own version of the Social Security Death Index (SSDI).

A newspaper with red box around relevant article

Annotating a PDF

The best part is once you find a newspaper page with something relevant to you, you can simply down the page as a PDF to your computer. What I do when sharing a page with relatives is I open the PDF and use the built-in annotation features of the program I use (I use Preview on the Mac, but Adobe Reader should be able to do the same thing) to create a red box around the part of the page that contains information on my relative. The reason this can be important is that if you’re sending a large newspaper page it can be hard sometimes to find the part of the page that contains the information you’re trying to relay, especially with older newspapers that can be very dense and hard to read. See an example to the right.

Naming Newspaper Images

Another tip when dealing with organizing these pages is to prefix the file name with the date it was published. I use this technique on many types of documents, but it is particularly useful for newspapers. In the case of one family group, I found about 50 newspaper articles that mention them over a span of 70 years. When I download the newspaper page I name it something like:

19171119 Aug Chron – Pinkey Silver app for citizenship.pdf

First you have the date, formatted as YYYYMMDD which is easily sortable. I then add the newspaper name – in this case the Augusta Chronicle (from Georgia) and then a short summary of what is in the article. Thankfully we’re not restricted to something like FILENAME.PDF like in the old days. As you collect newspaper articles from different sources, you can put them all in one directory and see them easily sorted by date of publication, see which papers they came from and who is mentioned in them. It makes finding the article you’re looking for much easier later on when you want to send that one relevant article to a relative.

Other Newspaper Sources

GenealogyBank.com is not the only game in town. There are other commercial services, some larger genealogy websites like Ancestry.com also have newspaper archives included in their databases, but more interesting I think are the smaller initiatives that you need to really search for in small towns and on the state level. For example, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is a project in the state of Georgia called the Digital Library of Georgia run by the university system of Georgia. The site contains digital archives of several local Georgia newspapers, searchable and viewable using the DjVu plug-in. You need to install a DjVu plug-in for your browser in order to use these archives, but once you install it it’s fairly easy to use. It’s not as easy as being able to view the newspapers online and then download a PDF, however. You can download the DjVu files (which are very small) or convert them to TIFF files (which are absurdly large in this case). If you do have the DjVu plug-in convert the image to a TIFF, keep in mind that it does not use compression. Simply opening the TIFF in an image editor and activating LZW compression for the TIFF will save a lot of space, and won’t affect the quality of the image.

Selecting LZW compression for a TIFF

In Preview on the Mac all you do is open the file, select Save As… from the File Menu, select LZW from the Compression menu as shown in the image on the left.

You can also save the image as a JPEG or whatever format you want. I would suggest perhaps converting the image to a JPEG when e-mailing the image to a relative, but you may find it is not as readable asit is as a DjVu or a TIFF image, because the DjVu is highly compressed (much more than JPEG) and when you expand it out to a TIFF you still have all the artifacts left from the DjVU compression. When you then re-compress it as a JPEG you get new compression artifacts, which mix with the DjVu ones.

Another similar newspaper archive effort I’ve come across is the Northern New York Historical Newspapers project run by the Northern New York Library Network. I’m sure there are many more.

Wikipedia has a List of online newspaper archives which is worth checking out.

Google operates a newspaper archive search where you can many articles, some of whcih you need to pay to read.

The Library of Congress has a project called Chronicling America where you can search historical newspapers between the years 1860 and 1922.

You should also try searching for newspaper archives on your favorite search engine. New ones seem to pop up all the time, so if you don’t find one now, try again another time.

Jewish Newspapers Online

For Jewish researchers I will point out a few interesting examples of newspaper and magazine archives I’ve come across.

There is the Southern Israelite, covering the year between 1929 and 1986, part of the previously mentioned Digital Library of Georgia. Note that while it was published in Georgia, it does cover some other southern states, so if your Jewish family lived down south, you might find some news listed in this paper.

There is also the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, which includes three different Jewish community newspapers published between 1895 and the present.

The Ohio Memory project has put up The Ohio Jewish Chronicle, covering the years 1922 until 1994.

For Chicago, there is a local Jewish paper called The Sentinel, covering the years 1911 through 1949.

One very interesting project is run at the National Library of Israel, called the Historical Jewish Press. This project currently includes twenty newspapers, some going back to the mid-19th century, including over 400,000 pages. The languages of the papers include Hebrew, French, Hungarian and English. The only English newspaper in the project right now is the Palestine Post, the original name of what is now the Jerusalem Post, and it covers the years 1932-1950 (the years before it changed its name to the Jerusalem Post). The French papers include one from France, but also papers from Morocco and Egypt. The Hebrew papers include ones from Israel, but also papers from Tsarist Russia and one published in Prussia, Poland and Austria.

Please add what you know or what you find to the comments

Please, if you know of other good online newspaper sites, mention them in the comments. You can also share your success stories in the comments.

For an example of how the information in these types of records are not always reliable, read my earlier post People lie, and so do documents which discussed confirming information found in two obituaries which I found through one of these online newspaper archives.