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Archive for February, 2011

The WDYTYA Drinking Game

Genealogists really love Friday nights since the return of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are (WDYTYA) . Well, knowing our crowd, we loved Friday nights even before the show’s return, but this makes the start of the weekend even more fun.  We like to watch it, we like to criticize it, we like to blog about it, we like to tweet about it, we like to discuss it.  Face it – WE LIKE IT! To add to the fun, I offer the WDYTYA Drinking Game.  Unlike most stunts, you actually are encouraged to try this at home rather than while you’re out!  The rules are simple – just before showtime grab a glass, can, or bottle of your favorite beverage.  If one of the following events happens during the show, take a swig of your favorite swill:

* The celebrity finds new information and remarks, “Well, I guess I have to go to <insert town, state, or country> now!” – one drink

* The celebrity goes back several generations in two minutes or less – one drink for each generation

* There is a plug for Ancestry in the show – one drink if Ancestry is accessed by a researcher, and two drinks if by the celebrity

* The celebrity finds a photograph of their ancestor in a library or archive – one drink, two if it’s a tintype

* During the commercial break, there’s a commercial for Ancestry – one drink, and get up to refill during the other commercials

* White gloves are used to handle a document – one drink

* White gloves are NOT used to handle a document – two drinks, three if you tweet The Photo Detective or footnoteMaven to complain about it

* The celebrity says, “Wow!” after a find – one drink (Caution notice: after seeing the coming attractions for the Rosie O’Donnell episode, make sure your DVR is set if your beverage of choice is alcoholic, because you might be passed out before the show is over.)

* The celebrity compares the ancestor’s life story to their own – one drink

* A genea-colleague tweets, “Hey, I’m related to <celebrity’s ancestor> too!” during the show – one drink, two drinks if you are related too, three if you call in to Geneabloggers Radio to talk about it

* While watching,  you think “I could have found that!” – one drink, two drinks if you can formulate a proper source citation for it while drinking

* The celebrity takes notes – one drink, two drinks if they use a computer.

* A genea-colleague tweets, “Hey, my ancestors are from <celebrity’s ancestor’s location> too!” during the show – one drink, two drinks if yours are from there too

* You know the librarian, archivist, or genealogist who is helping the celebrity on the show – one drink

* You are the librarian, archivist, or genealogist who is helping the celebrity on the show – buy a few cases of beverages and host a party for the rest of us

Enjoy the show tonight, and remember – do try this at home!  Add your own suggestions in the comments…

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As an author of one or two blogs and a reader of, well, a whole lot of blogs, I started to think about readability. Things like font and background colors have an obvious affect on how easy – or hard – it is to visually read a blog. But there are other less obvious choices that we make as bloggers that may not come to mind.  Here are my thoughts on five ways to make our blogs more “reader friendly” – what are yours?

Make Your Blog Mobile Ready

With the proliferation of internet-capable mobile devices, a lot of blog reading is done on a rather small screen instead of a large computer monitor.  Therefore, help your readers out by making your site mobile ready!  What is the difference, you ask?  If your blog isn’t mobile ready, it appears on a mobile device the same as it does on a computer, which means it is either “squished” or you can only see a limited portion of text without scrolling horizontally.  Without the mobile ready setting, this blog is difficult to read on a mobile device:

When your blog is mobile ready, it will appear on a mobile device in a format that is easier to read:

How do you make a blog mobile ready?  WordPress bloggers can go to their Dashboard, Appearance, Extras.  Check the box next to “Display a mobile theme when this blog is viewed with a mobile browser”.  Click on “Update Extras” and you’re ready for the small screen.  Users of the Blogger platform must log on to draft.blogger.com instead of the usual Dashboard in order to see this setting.  Then under Settings, go to Email & Mobile and select “Yes, On mobile devices, show the mobile version of my template.”  Click on “Save Settings” and your blog is ready.  No matter which blog program you use, choosing the mobile ready option does not change the way your template looks on a “regular” computer.

Tell Them Who You Are

Sometimes I’ll find a new blog and want to send the author an email, but I can’t find any contact information! Whether you use your own name or a pseudonym, you’ll have more authority if you let your readers know something about you.  Most bloggers recommend using an “About Me” page to provide your readers with some background information or credentials.  For genealogy blogs, an “About Me” page can be useful to also provide information about your surnames and/or locations of research!  Most importantly, have an email address so that readers who are shy about commenting publicly have a way to get in touch.

Make it Easy to Comment

If you have a blog, you love to get comments, right?  Comments let bloggers know that someone is actually reading what they write!  Unfortunately, many everyday readers are not active participants or commenters because commenting can sometimes require too many steps.  To a computer-savvy blogger, using “Open ID” is no big deal.  Neither is word verification (although personally I find it rather annoying).  But to an ordinary reader, these steps make can make commenting not worth the trouble.  If you use word verification, review comments before they appear on the page, or don’t allow anonymous comments because you’re afraid of spam cluttering up your posts, consider using a spam catcher plug-in instead.  It solves the spam problem but let’s readers comment more easily. Recently there was a huge comment discussion after a great post by Amy Coffin at We Tree Genealogy called Genealogy Blogs: A Comment on Comments (psst – be sure to read the comments!)  Also see Amy’s follow-up post Genealogy Blogs Part 2: Readers Weigh in With Comments (this overlaps with my “Tell Them Who You Are” note above as well).

Give Feedback

Now that you’ve made it easier for readers to comment on your posts, don’t forget to respond!  It isn’t necessary to respond to each and every comment left on your blog, but responding does let readers know that you care about their feedback.  It is especially essential to comment back if a reader asks a question.  Taking the time to comment back to your readers allows your blog to become an open discussion forum – your readers will appreciate your feedback as much as you appreciate theirs.

Offer a Full Feed RSS

This can be a point of contention in the blogging world, but I think that providing a full RSS feed to your blog is more useful to readers.  The cons: 1) readers won’t actually visit your site, and 2) splogging or scraper sites will steal your content.  Let’s discuss the visitor issue first… Every blogger want readers to visit their site and see the hard work you put into your design or fancy widgets or other blog “bling”.  I love my site’s design and the header I designed, and I want others to see it.  But, the reality is – there isn’t always time to visit every blog, every day. Blog readers allow us to read a multitude of blogs without having to visit every one. Also, if you are reading blogs on a mobile device, it may be slightly more difficult to switch back and forth between a blog reader and a web browser.  My favorite reason for using full feeds is because my employer used to block all Blogger and WordPress sites, but Google Reader was allowed.  Every day at lunch I could get caught up on my blog reading, but I could only visit the actual sites if I bookmarked them for later. Reading blogs this way doesn’t mean that I don’t ever visit actual blogs – I do!  When a post captures my attention, I usually want to visit the site to comment.

As for the sites that turn Really Simple Syndication into Really Simple Stealing, they are out there and always will be.  There are a few things you can do to make it harder for these unscrupulous sites to steal your content, including adding a copyright notice at the bottom of every post and using Google Alerts to “find” your content online.  The genealogy community has been successful in going after splogging sites in the past.  But, if content theft is really a source of contention for you, then stick with partial RSS feeds – just realize you might lose a few readers along the way.   If you want to learn more about dealing with content theft, see Thomas MacEntee’s Resources on Blog Content and Copyright Theft and Lorelle VanFossen’s The Growing Trends in Content Theft: Image Theft, Feed Scraping, and Website Hijacking.

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Imagine yourself as an immigrant to America in the early 20th century.  You are happy with your decision to leave your homeland for a new life in America. Perhaps after a few years you saved enough money to send for your wife and children to join you. You have found a job, and you have found a house to live in. Perhaps you don’t yet understand the English language perfectly yet, but you are slowly learning. You may not get much practice with English though, because  your neighbors and co-workers speak your native language. One day someone knocks on your door – they are from the government, and they ask all sorts of official questions. “Who lives here?” “What are the names of your family members?” The questions were dutifully answered.

Fast forward eighty or one hundred years. Descendents of those immigrants pour over online or microfilmed images in search of answers about their ancestors. Families are found! But…is the information correct? Most of the time, it is correct. But not always, at least not in my family. Ignoring the numerous name spelling errors, the most unusual census mistakes in my family involve relatives that were counted twice!

All My Children

The first example of this was in the 1910 census for the family of Joseph and Antonina Pater (which is listed as “Potter”, or how Pater sounds in Polish).  In 1910, most of the family was living just outside of Philadelphia in the Bucks County borough of Attleboro (today known as Langhorne). Because Antonina’s mother had recently arrived and she was the oldest family member, she is listed as the head of the household (F. Annie Pluta indexed as F. Amie Theta…seriously, it’s a wonder I find anyone in the census!).  The 70-year-old F. Annie is followed by Joseph and Antonina and their six children (although there is some confusion as some are listed as grandchildren of the head of the household and others as children). The only problem? The two eldest daughters, Frances and Eva (listed as Francesca and Edna), were already married with children and living elsewhere.

Frances’ husband Paul and their son Edmund may be enumerated as a separate family underneath the Pater clan (listed under equally mangled and hard-to-read names). Eva, her husband Edward Süsser, and their children Edward and Anna are all enumerated on the census in Dover, Morris County, New Jersey (as the “Züsser” family).  In this case, only Eva is counted twice since I did not find another listing for Frances.  I believe that the married children who were not actually living with their parents were listed simply due to a language mis-understanding when the census taker asked for the names of their children.  By 1920, the Pater parents only list those children still living with them (Walter and Victoria).

By Any Other Name

A more curious case of double-counting happened in the 1930 census.  My Piontkowski ancestors, John and Rose, had been living in the United States for 25 years, so I would have assumed they had a better understanding of both the English language and what the census-taker wanted after having participated in two other federal censuses. The couple leaves out their daughter, who by this time had married and left the family, but counts their teenaged son, James, as well as their married son Joseph, his wife Catherine, and their daughter, Josephine. The entire family lives on N. Front Street in Philadelphia.

I knew that Joseph Piontkowski later used the surname Perk, but I never thought to look for Joseph Perk on the census.  Why should I? I had already found him living with his parents.  Only he really wasn’t living with his parents in 1930! I recently got in touch with my cousin, Joseph’s daughter, who had been researching her family.  When she wrote that she found the Perk family listed in the 1930 census, I did a double-take.  Sure enough, they are living on Hancock Street in Philadelphia about a mile away from his parents.  Listed are Joseph Perk, wife Katherine, daughter Josephine, and daughter Jean – who, based on the age of 0/12, had just been born!  Anyone without knowledge of the name change would certainly think that these were two different families, but they are the same.

I wonder how inflated the census numbers are/were due to difficulties with immigrants understanding the questions? Oh well, Eva Süsser, Joseph, Katherine, and Josephine Perk may all have been counted twice in one census or another – but at least that makes up for my grandmother Margaret Bergmeister not having been counted at all in both the 1920 and 1930 census!

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In my last post, Not Worth the Wait, I complained about my research experience with USCIS, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  Sometimes I complain for effect – that is, to get a response.  This time I was just publicly venting for no reason other than to post about my mysterious letter and lack of photographs.  So I was surprised when I received an email from USCIS’ Chief of the Historical Research Branch. Apparently word gets around (I didn’t realize the Department of Homeland Security read my blog)! 

I was very happy that they took the time to contact me, so I’d like to present what they had to say as a follow-up to my previous rant post.  The first error was my own.  I complained that I had the file number all along and didn’t need the index search.  But, apparently if I had looked a little more closely at the information on the USCIS web site, I would have realized the index search was not necessary at all.

Next, USCIS apologized for what I referred to as their “amusing letter”.  The letter used a “boiler plate” format, and two reviewing offices missed the grammatical errors.

But the biggest surprise of all?  USCIS did have a copy of the letter I previously received in the DoJ FOIA request years ago, and they emailed me a much more legible copy of it.  The email explained that this should have been included in the file they sent me.  USCIS said:

The omission of the letter from the copy sent to you by Genealogy was our error.  I am currently reviewing all record request procedures with the Genealogy supervisor to ensure the same error does not occur again.

When a naturalized citizen was convicted of a crime, the court would notify the cognizant INS office.  The office would then investigate to see if the person had committed any crimes in the five-year period prior to their naturalization.  In my great-grandfather’s case, his record was clean and this was his first offense. Now that I have a legible letter with a conviction date, I can investigate further.  And maybe, like Sheri suggested in the comments of the last post, find my missing photo.  Unfortunately it will be a mug shot, but a photo is a photo!

USCIS said, “We do our best to learn lessons from experiences such as yours to improve the USCIS Genealogy Program.”  This is great news to genealogists everywhere!

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Update 2/8/2011 – see the follow-up to this post for more info!

Sometimes waiting to receive copies of records is worth the wait.  But sometimes it’s not.  Such was my adventure with USCIS, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  As I wrote in The Waiting Game in September, I requested a copy of my great-grandfather’s naturalization info. I did this despite the fact that I already knew his naturalization date and had a copy of the papers. But I was curious if there was anything else in the “file”.  I had two goals in mind.  First, I wanted to see if there was a photograph.  Many naturalization records contain photos, but my great-grandfather’s did not.  Did I have the complete package?  Since I only have one photo of him, it was worth finding out. Next, I had a mysterious addendum to his naturalization that I received from another agency – would the USCIS file contain it?

Let me start at the beginning.  Early on in my research, circa 1989-91, I found the naturalization papers for my great-grandfather, Louis Pater, at the Philadelphia City Archives.  He was naturalized in 1925 at the local level in the Philadelphia Quarter Sessions Court.  These local naturalizations were not available at the National Archives (and still aren’t, nor are they available online).  The City Archives had a file of index cards, and the archives’ personnel would photocopy the Declaration of Intent and the Petition for Naturalization for any name you found.

For reasons I can’t quite recall, in late 1992 I submitted a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the Department of Justice, where the naturalization information was then held.  Perhaps I was looking for that elusive photo.  I didn’t get a photo then, either, but I got the previously received declaration and petition.  The difference was that this time, the birth dates of Louis’ children listed on the petition were blocked out for “privacy” concerns as the data was considered “personal”.  In addition to these two documents, they sent me a comical series of papers that was supposed to be Louis’ passenger arrival record…only every line on the manifest was blocked out.  This included his sister and brother-in-law’s lines above his.  If you are familiar with passenger arrival records, you know that if a family is traveling together, the persons listed underneath the first person usually get ditto marks for the repeated info.  Without the first family member, Louis’ passenger arrival record was a bunch of ditto marks.

I should point out that in 1992 when I received this, all five of his “children” were deceased anywhere from 20 to 50 years.  In fact, some of their birth dates were publicly available in the Social Security Death Index, one of the few sources of online information back then.  And, even though the Ellis Island web site was not yet operational (nor was Ancestry), the passenger list was fully available via the National Archives.

But I digress…  The DoJ file contained one additional piece of information – a barely legible typewritten letter from 1940.  It seemed to indicate that my great-grandfather committed a crime and was sentenced to two to four years in prison.  I can’t quite read the entire letter, but it was apparently meant to let the naturalization service know that they may have give citizenship to an unsavory character.  I assume that if he had committed further crimes, they would have deported him.

It was my inability to read this letter that led me to try the USCIS search.  After all, they talk about receiving a “file” so I didn’t know what other information might be included.

First I paid for an index search, which was unfortunate since it turned out that the “index number” was his naturalization number, which I already had.  But they don’t really tell you that and make it seem that the index search must precede the file search.  The index number cost $20 and took five months to receive.

Once I received the number, I submitted a Record Copy Request for $20.  Two months later, I received the “file”.  I received the Declaration of Intent, the Petition for Naturalization (shrunk to 8.5” x 11” or half the size of the original document), and his certificate.  The children’s birthdays were also blacked out on the Petition.  I had also received the certificate from the DoJ, but this copy was easier to read.  No photo.  No mysterious letter about his arrest.

With the above, I also received an amusing letter explaining that they “completed the review of all documents and have identified 3 pages that are We have reviewed and have determined to release all information except those portions that are exempt.”  I’m an employee of the U.S. Government, too, and we actually use spell-check and grammar-check.

The letter goes on to say that “certain pages contain marks that appear to be blacked-out information.  The black marks were made prior to our receipt of the file.” Which makes me wonder…where did they get the files from?  And where are the originals?  Apparently, the City Archives has unmarked copies, but the federal agencies do not.  Do the originals exist?  If the new USCIS agency (part of the Department of Homeland Security) does not have the file that the Department of Justice had, where did those files go?

I end my quest seven months later and $40 short.  My great-grandfather didn’t need a photo for his naturalization, and I received no additional information.  Are you looking for your ancestor’s naturalization?  If I were you, I’d stick to either online resources like Ancestry or Footnote.  Or, it pays to find out if there are naturalizations at the local level.  In my case, 2 of my 3 great-grandfathers were naturalized in the Philadelphia Quarter Sessions Court.  These records are kept at the City Archives.  There is an index, but it is not online.  In fact, it’s not even computerized on site – at least not twenty years ago when I was there.  It pays to review the courts used in your area and looking at the federal courts that have been indexed.

USCIS may still be worth it to some researchers, however, because in addition to naturalization records they also hold alien registration files and visas.  Even if your ancestor was not naturalized, alien immigrants were required to register with the Government in the early 1940’s.  I still may pursue this for some of my non-naturalized relatives.

As for my hard-to-read letter detailing the alleged incarceration of my great-grandfather, I never would have known about it if I hadn’t tried the FOIA request years ago.  But where those files are now is anyone’s guess.  Since scanning has improved in the last two decades, I will try to scan the photocopy and see if I can sharpen the faded text to uncover the next part of this mystery.

For more information on Naturalization Records:

 

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