Genealogy humor: “Only a Genealogist regards a step backwards as progress”. While amusing, it also points to an interesting issue faced by many people interested in genealogy.
Many people who research their family are very focused on going back as far as they can. Perhaps the thought is that if you go back far enough you’re bound to find someone famous (or infamous) you’re related to, some royal blood, family that lived in a famous town, or lived through famous events in history.
There are actually a few different directions you can research your family. You can, as mentioned, research up your tree. You can also research down your tree, taking your oldest known ancestor in one line and researching all of their children, grandchildren, etc. (not just the line that leads to you). You can also research sideways, researching collateral ancestors, like the siblings and spouses of your known ancestors. Each of these techniques is useful, and indeed you will likely need to try all of them when doing your research if you want to be successful.
Let me give a good example of why researching your non-direct lines is important. Let’s say you’ve tracked back to your great-grandfather who lived in Poland or Russia in the 19th century before moving to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. That fits the profile of a large percentage of American Jews. Now if you’ve been able to find out about the great-grandfather but haven’t been able to get back further than that, we call that a brick-wall.
Maybe you only have information on your great-grandfather from after he arrived in the US, and you haven’t been able to find the name of the town where he was born in Poland.
Maybe you know which town he was from, but it’s a large city and he has a common last name, which makes research nearly impossible.
In this case you’ve researched up your tree to your great-grandfather. The next step is to research down your tree from your great-grandfather to find all of his descendants, your aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Even if your goal wasn’t to document these branches of your family, you need to realize that just like you have certain information on your family and where they came from, your extended family likely has different information, some small piece which might help you in your search. Mapping out all of the descendants of your most-distant-known-ancestor can frequently lead you to additional information about that ancestor.
In my own family research I was looking for records in the wrong town for many years because that’s where my grandfather said our family was from originally. It was partially true. His siblings had been born in that town, as had some of his father’s siblings. It was, in fact, one of his father’s siblings’ records which led me to the town my gg-grandfather was from originally. If I had only been searching directly up my tree, I would never have discovered this fact, since my great-grandfather’s birth record (which took much longer to find in any case) did not name the town where his father was born. Even though it might seem a waste to look for records on all the siblings of the people whom you are primarily searching for (you can think of this as searching sideways), remember that they share the same parents and grandparents, and thus any information you find will help your search.
An important point is that it turns out that cousins of mine knew the town my gg-grandfather was born in long before I discovered it. Had I been in touch with these distant cousins earlier, it would have saved me a lot of pointless research.
Another way to search sideways is to contact cousins that you may not have figured out quite where they fit in your tree. In the case above, it was actually a cousin whom I knew was related, but wasn’t sure how they were related. If I had in fact pursued the question of how we were related and asked where their branch was from, it would have led me straight to the town from which my branch also originated.
Also, if you find references to relatives in family letters and don’t think it’s worth figuring out who those distant relatives mentioned are, think again. If you’ve hit a brick wall, those distant cousins, or their descendants, may be the ones that can help you knock down that wall.
Those distant relatives may also have photographs of your common ancestors. Another example from my own family concerns family photographs. I received portrait photographs of ancestors of mine, but without labels showing me who they were. After contacting a distant cousin and having him send me family photographs in his possession for me to copy, I found other copies of the same portraits with the names labeled on the back. They were, in fact, my ggg-grandparents, the in-laws of the gg-grandfather mentioned above. Many years later, someone contacted me through the JewishGen Family Finder (read my earlier article on JGFF if you’re not familiar with this amazing resource for Jewish researchers) and he turned out to be a 4th cousin of mine, descended from the same ggg-grandparents. Now, because I had received the portraits, and another cousin had labeled alternate versions of the same pictures, and this cousin from the other side of my family (he was a descendant of the sister of my gg-grandmother) had found me through JGFF, he now had photographs of his ggg-grandparents. This is why it’s so important to seek out your distant cousins, because you never know who has what information (or what photo).
So when searching for your relatives, even your direct ancestors, always remember to look for other descendants, some of which may know much more (sometimes just that one tiny important detail more) about your ancestors than you. Feel free to share your stories on finding information from distant cousins in the comments.
US Nationalization records can be great sources of information for someone doing genealogy. All post-1906 records should contain the town of birth for the person naturalized, and some pre-1906 records may also contain this information (although pre-1906 records are not standardized and are much less likely to have the exact town). For purely historical value, they are interesting documents and should always contain your relative’s signature on them.
However, finding US Naturalization records is complicated, and getting copies of those records can be even more complicated. There are a few ways to go about finding records, but one very good resource is the National Archives which has an online ordering system that some people don’t know about. You can order copies of US Naturalization records for $7.50 each, and receive them either scanned onto a CD, or copied onto paper. Records usually ship in less than two weeks. Records exist from as early as 1790 and as recently as 1992, although not all locations have records from all years.
One frustrating aspect of the National Archives site is that you have no way, in advance of logging into the site and beginning the order process, to know whether they have records from the place and year you are looking for, which means you might spend time going through the login and ordering processes only to find out they don’t have records from the year you need.
In an attempt to make this process a little bit easier, I’ve created a table listing all the States and Cities for which Naturalization records can be ordered from the National Archives, and have listed the ranges of years for which records are available. You can now go to the Naturalization page on this web site to see the complete table of Nationalization record holdings at the National Archives.
Note that each of the general resources I have created on this site now have their own tabs across the top of each page, one each for Forms (the B&F Forms System), Search (B&F Enhanced Genealogy Search) and now Naturalization.
In future I hope to enhance the Naturalization page with other resources specific to accessing Naturalization records. Let me know what you think.
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.
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.
[Update: This article was written in 2011, and I launched the B&F Compendium of Jewish Genealogy in 2016. If you’re researching specifically Polish shtetls, definitely check out the Polish Cities list in the compendium with more than 25,000 resources for over 1400 towns in what is now Poland (this includes towns that were in Germany before WWII and are now part of Poland).]
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
It might seem strange that you could have an address for a relative, but not their name. It’s not as strange as you think. Addresses require a level of accuracy that names historically have not had.
For example, I know that my gg-grandparents lived in New York under my gg-grandmother’s surname and not my gg-grandfather’s surname. That has caused no end to problems in tracking down evidence that they lived in New York at all during the years I know they lived there around the turn of the last century. The fact that they lived under my gg-gradmother’s surname indicates perhaps that there were other reasons not to list their real name. Perhaps they did not arrive legally in the country. I don’t know the answer to that question yet. I’ve tried without success to find reference to them in the censuses that happened while they lived in New York, but have never found them under either surname. Searching by name on the commercial databases like Ancestry.com works very well these days, so if they were in the census records under either name I should be able to find them, yet I haven’t found them yet. It could be that they used even another name, that their name was transcribed incorrectly, or that they’re just not in the census records.
This brings up what used to be the way people searched census records, before they were indexed by name. You would find where your ancestor lived, then based on the address figure out the enumeration district that address would be in, then go through all the pages of the census for that enumeration district until you found the address, and then look for your relatives.
Recently I found a document that listed my gg-grandfather’s address in 1902 in New York. Now, of course he could have moved there just before listing that address, but it was sufficiently close to 1900 for me to look into that address during the 1900 US Federal Census.
So how do you go about doing that? First, you need to figure out the enumeration district in 1900 for the address. In this case the address is 60 Cannon St. in Manhattan. This address doesn’t even exist today, as the streets downtown in New York have changed, but you can get around that fact by looking at old maps of the city.
For New York luckily there is a street atlas from 1899 that has been put online by the New York Public Library. If you go to the link, you’ll see thumbnails of the pages in the atlas. You can’t search the atlas by street name, but there is an index page that will tell you the page number to look for:
If you click on the index page and zoom in, you can find Cannon St. and see which pages it shows up on:
As you can see, numbers 2-104 (even) and 1-105 (odd) are on page 15. Now actually figuring out which thumbnail is page 15 isn’t so easy, but if you search for ’15’ it will come up as one of the options and a little trial-and-error will get you to the correct page:
Unfortunately the zoom function for this particular site is really not so easy to use. It makes you look at a very small section of the page, and move around by bumping the view left, right, up or down a bit. However, once you zoom in on Cannon St. you can look for #60:
As I mentioned, the zoom function doesn’t work so well so you need to look at what you can identify easy, such as the big 328 for the block, and then zoom out so you can see the cross streets:
Now we know that the cross-streets are Rivington (above the block) and Delancey (below the block). Why is that important? Because the next step is to figure out the enumeration district, and those cross-streets will help.
As you can see in the image, I’ve selected 1900 at the top, then New York for the state and Manhattan for the city. I’ve then added the three streets from the block. If I had just entered Cannon St., the list of districted would have been very long. By adding three streets it should come down to one or two districts. In this case as you can see it has determined two districts, 288 and 291. Why are there two districts for one block? The reason is easy to figure out – Cannon St. on that block must have been the border between two districts. In one district we should find odd number addresses, and in the other we should find even number addresses.
So where do we go to look for the census images for these districts? There are a few options, but I’m going to show how to do it on Ancestry.com which is what I use for census images.
Ancestry.com allows you to search by name, but as I described that didn’t help me in this case. If you’ve used Ancestry.com to look at census images, you may not have noticed that it also allows you to browse by enumeration district:
In the above image I’ve already chosen the 1900 census to search exclusively. On the left side is the search interface that most people use, but on the right side (in the red box I’ve added) is a panel that allows you to browse by enumeration district. You can see I’ve selected New York for the state, New York for the County and Manhattan for the township. It then lists all of the enumeration districts, and I can select which one to view.
If you were to select enumeration district 288 first, and scan through the pages to find Cannon St., you would notice that all the addresses are odd numbers. That fits with my guess on the street being the border of an enumeration district. If you skip over to enumeration district 291, you will see that the numbers are all even. Oddly there are a few street numbers from Cannon St. at the beginning of the census file, then it jumps to another street, and then back to Cannon St. later.
Up until now I’ve been showing you how to take an address and find the census records for that address. The second lesson I want to teach here at this point is to keep your records organized an to always refer to your notes before jumping into a research project like this. If I had done so I would have noticed that I have another document from 1901 (a Declaration of Intent to Naturalize) that lists a different address. In fact the 1903 Petition was also in an entirely different address, so three addresses in three years. I guess they moved around a lot. If I had not jumped into the research before looking at what other documents I had, I would have saved a lot of time. It still makes for a good example for this blog, however, so I hope it was helpful.
To end the post I should add that the address from 1901 was on the other side of the same block (i.e. the next street over) on the same map page I found for Cannon St., and the address showed up in enumeration district 288, the same one that had the odd street numbers for Cannon St. (this address was even numbered) and unfortunately also came up empty. Considering they lived at different addresses in 1901, 1902 and 1903, I guess it’s not too surprising that they lived someplace else in 1900 as well.
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