Sunday, June 09, 2013

The New New FamilySearch: a first look

There have been several changes to the FamilySearch web site over the years. I'll refer to different versions that I will call:

  1. the Old FamilySearch
  2. the Old New FamilySearch
  3. the New New FamilySearch
The Old FamilySearch (1) allowed you to search the IGI, and transcripts of the 1880/1881 US, Canadian and English censuses, and the Ancestral File. It allowed you  to download Gedcom files of what you had found, which was very useful for quick 'n dirty research.

This was updated to the Old New Familysearch (2), which included more records, but lacked the facility for a Gedcom download. Most users did not like it much, and thought that more effort had gone into making the user interface look pretty than making it useful to genealogists.

Now there is a New New FamilySearch (3), and I've been having a quick look at it, and my first impression is that it is much improved. It has been available to LDS Church members for some time, and I gather that they have been beta-testing it, but now it is open to the general public.

The best news is that you can once again download data from it, though it not the raw data like the census transcripts of the old FamilySearch, but rather information in online family trees. To download the data you will need a third-party program, Get My Ancestors from Ohana Software. Get My Ancestors is free, but is also part of a larger program called Family Insight, which costs $US 25.00.

Get My Ancestors is described as follows:
 Get My Ancestors is a stand-alone program that will allow the user to download linked pedigrees from FamilySearch, family tree (aka, new FamilySearch) in a .paf format. Download either a pedigree that starts with you or the pedigree of an ancestor. You indicate the ancestor by entering their personal identifier from FamilySearch family tree. You must be able to register for FamilySearch family tree to successfully use Get My Ancestors. The individual information downloaded is the summary information of basic events: birth christening, death, burial and marriage but not ordinances.
It also doesn't appear to download sources.

In order to get the most out of the New New FamilySearch, you need to create an online family tree. I've found most of the online family tree sites I've looked at distinctly underwhelming, and so I need quite a lot of persuading to get me to do such a thing. I looked at and its little brother Mundia, at My Heritage, and They all seemed to be clunky, and they seemed encourage the entry of wrong data and make it difficult to correct. Data entry and maintenance was difficult, and the presentation was usually ugly.

The New New FamilySearch is a vast improvement over the others in all these departments, and in addition it is free.

The user interface is less cluttered, and the information is presented in a much easier-to-read way.

It's not perfect by any means, and no doubt as I continue to use it I will discover some flaws, but it's a lot better than anything else I've seen in the way of online family trees.

Like many of the others, it asks you to start with yourself, and enter your parents and other ancestors. As you enter them, it suggests possible ancestors entered by other people, or as part of the source material extracted from church and civil registers, census records and the like. You can add some of these entries as source references to an online tree, but you will not be able to download them with Get My Ancestors.

Another advantage is that you can contact other users directly. If you disagree with the information provided by another user, you can click on their name, and up pops their e-mail address, and you can mail them. In most of the commercial programs you can send an internal message. They say that this to "protect privacy", but the real reason for it is that they want users to keep coming back and to be dependent on them. Yes, you can leave a message, but the person will not get it until they next log into that site, and they might not do so for several days if they are busy, or for several months if they have lost interest, and perhaps not at all if they have forgotten to pay their subscription.

Are there any drawbacks to the New New FamilySearch?

Yes, there are some -- unlike the Old FamilySearch, it won't let you download transcripts of source records, and though you can download data from other family trees, some of which are based on sources, the source record itself is not included in the download.

So though in some ways it as not as good as the Old FamilySearch, it is a lot better than the Old New FamilySearch, and as far as online trees are concerned, it's one of the best I have seen.

This is just a first impression based on a quick look at it. Perhaps I'll have more to say about when I've used it a bit more.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Find-A-Grave growing rapidly

When I tried to enter my great grandparents into Find-A-Grave, I couldn't do so because the town where they died was not listed. I sent an e-mail asking that the town and its municipal cemetery (Queenstown, Eastern Cape) be added, and it was within a couple of hours.

Then I added my great grandparents, William Matthew Growdon and Elizabeth Growdon. He was number 111610917, and she was 11181795, which means that 122 other entries had been made in the five minutes or so it took to enter her information.

Obviously the bigger such a database is, the more useful it is to researchers, and the more useful people find it, the faster it will grow. I recently found a great deal of useful family history information because someone had taken the trouble to record the gravestone inscriptions and cemetery registers at Omaruru in Namibia, which is a long way from where I live. So Find-A-Grave is growing fast, and becoming more useful to researchers every day.

About 25 years ago the Genealogical Society of South Africa embarked on a cemetery documentation project, where members tried to record inscriptions from gravestones in as many cemeteries as possible. Some of these may still be found on NAAIRS, the computer index to the South African archives. The Worldwide Web did not exist then, and sites like Find-A-Grave are doing it in a slightly different way, and, with new technology they also make it possible to display photos of the monumental inscriptions.

We took photos of the Queenstown graves when we were passing through, so we only had time to record those of our own family. But we noticed that many graves in the cemetery had been vandalised, and that seems to be a widespread problem, so documenting them where possible is quite important.

So I'd like to encourage everyone to enter details of graves they know about in Find-A-Grave and similar sites, and, where possible, to join together with others in trying to make a complete record of local cemeteries before they are vandalised. And if anyone reading this lives near Queenstown, get busy! There are a lot more graves to record.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Family history research in Namibia

On a recent trip to Namibia we did some family history research, which you can read about here and here. We spent two days in the state archives, which have moved to a spacious new building since our last visit 20 years ago, but did not find much that we didn't already know.

We had arranged to visit the Lutheran Church archives, but the archivist was away, and a retired archivist came over to help but was not able to find anything useful. Where we did find useful material that was new to us was in the library of the Scientific Society of Namibia, which had photocopies of the early Lutheran Church registers, and transcriptions of several more. We were interested mainly in the period 1840-1900, and we did not have time to look at everything properly, and so ended up madly photographing pages of the church registers to look at when we got home.

Once we have sorted out the material we have from this trip, we may possibly try to plan another, and allow more time for looking at the things we were not able to see properly this time.

Two people who were very helpful to us were Werner Hillebrecht of the State Archives, and Gunter von Schumann of the Scientific Society of Namibia (which is open to the public only in the afternoon).

The State Archives has deceased estate files, similar to the South African ones, and are probably the thing that most researchers should begin with. We had dealt with most of these in previous visits, which is why we did not find so much this time. There is a computer index, but, unlike NAAIRS in South Africa, it can't be consulted on line. With an online index you can go to the archives with a list of the records you want to consult, which saves some time. But the Windhoek archives index can only be consulted using terminals in the reading room, which meant that we had to spend 2-3 hours making lists of the things we wanted to look at before getting a chance to look at them. The archives staff were very helpful in showing us how to use the index, and how to order material (requisition forms have to be filled in in duplicate).Not all the material in the archives has been indexed yet, but what has been indexed was useful. Again, you can see some examples of what we found here.

Namibian National Library and Archives, Windhoek
The State Archives only has the older deceased estate files, which means that those for people born after about 1890 can only be found in the office of the Master of the Supreme  Court, and we didn't have enough time to go there.

The Scientific Society is also working on the publication of early written material. Some recent publications have been the papers of Swedish explorers and traders, which had previously been published in Swedish, but are now being translated into English.and republished to make them more accessible.

There is more information about the Scientific Society of Namibia here and here.

There is more information about the State Archives (part of the National Library of Namibia) here.