What Kind of an Historian Are You?

As you may know I am coming off an intensive month of conference planning for the 2014 OGSA (Ostfriesen Genealogical Society of America) Family Reunion.  The conference culminates in a banquet where we honor our attendees and volunteers for the year.  This year I volunteered to present some thoughts to the group as a whole.  They are presented here in almost the way it was presented.

Comments to the 2014 Ostfriesen Genealogical Society Annual Conference Banquet

Delivered 6 August 2014;  based on the book The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide by Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris.


What kind of historian are you?

What is your reason for being at this conference? …to have access to the Ostfriesen Library collection? …to meet with Ostfriesen friends? …to learn something new about Ostfriesen culture or genealogy? Each of us attended this conference for different but similar reasons–but ultimately to deepen our understanding of our ancestors and their Ostfriesen culture and customs.

The ties that bring us together every two years are strong as we make new and renew friendships. I hope that you have met some new Ostfriesens these past few days–I know I have, but what ties us together in-between conferences is our common love, some times obsessive passion for, the deeper understanding of our ancestors. It is our sense of that historical string that ties us, not in a genetic sense although that is real, to those who came before us.  And like us our descendents will continue the connection. It is by understanding the customs and traditions of the past that we understand better the discussions of today.

This makes us not just genealogists but historians.

But, what kind of historian are you?

Remember when you were in high school and you took history tests? My goal was to memorize the dates and places and be able to give a sentence (at most) about why that event was important. But the “whys” were just another fact to memorize. I did history because I had to.

Think of that as a Stage 1 Historian. Is that you today? A genealogist at this Stage would gather the dates and places to fill out the pedigree chart and be done.

Or, are you a Stage 2 Historian–one who sees that history of your ancestors, and of the events that shaped their lives, as a sequence of events over time. You are beginning to see how your ancestors might have been influenced by history. But, ultimately you wish the historians would just decide on what happened when and tell us! I mean, certainly there is only one version of history and they should just teach it. And can’t it all be reduced to a tidy timeline?

The genealogist at this stage will record the facts but also realizes that other documents may be of interest and seeks them out. They are interested in those court cases where one brother sued another or what the experience was as a Civil War soldier. but interpretation of those events is seen as just too much speculation and not worthy of deep thought. A genealogist sees that they have information that conflicts but doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

A Stage 3 Historian instead sees history as a complex conglomeration of events and is so complex that you cannot see where to begin to make sense of it. At Stage 3, we now understand that history can be taught with an economic overlay, or focused on religion or on the societal impacts–and they all may be right–and all different. History certainly isn’t like the mathematics or chemistry where there are theorems and those theorems are not broken.

This stage is interesting because we, as genealogists, are more confused and feel like we lack more knowledge than we did in the previous two stages. In other words–we now know what we don’t know–and it’s intimidating. But, we also now are starting to understand how macro history issues can directly influence the decision making of our ancestors–or our personal microhistory.

We see that there are different points of view and each historian is conveying a unique point of view. We are starting to be critical thinkers and have what I call, the ability to do “mindful analysis.” We start to unravel and re-assemble those conflicts and see that we can identify errors in documents and understand why they may have been made.

But, there is a Stage 4, — where we start to see that the historian is interpreting history in their own writings. The writer-historian picks some things to write about and discards others; sees that some events are more meaningful than others. He then interprets those events into the context of the time and the decision making of people of long ago.

At this conference, we have had the luxury of hearing about the fate of the poor, and the Dutch emigrants of the 16th century while sitting in the comfort of a nice hotel in Minnesota—will that 16th century perspective change how we feel now about the poor and the immigrants of the 21st? Should it? Will we read our newspapers with a question that asks—”I wonder what the writer is not telling us?”—as we now know that this question is just as important as reading what he IS telling us.

Our understanding of our ancestors and the events that shaped the decisions they made is deepened by the swirl of historic events around them just as we, too are being shaped by the events which swirl around us.

This year I challenge you to write some portion of your personal story or to write about your ancestors. There is no single act you can do that will influence your microhistory for your descendants than that simple act. In the process, I guarantee, you will move from one stage to the next on your own genealogical, –and yes, your personal historical journey.

The question really is not “What kind of an historian you are?” but rather “What kind of an historian do you want to become?”

Genealogy as Pastime and Profession: comments upon reading

Jacobus bookI have been doing research in vintage genealogy journals and have run across several articles by Donald Lines Jacobus. These have intrigued me for a couple of reasons. Mr. Jacobus was an early advocate and is considered an icon of the movement in genealogy to raise standards to a scholarly level. Milton Rubicon in the introduction to the book and an icon in his own right, describes Mr. Jacobus as “the ‘father’ of scientific genealogy.” And who can resist reading the words of the author of an article titled “Confessions of a Genealogical Heretic”? [1]

To satisfy this curiosity I read Donald Lines Jacobus’s Genealogy as Pastime and Profession, originally published in 1930. [2] As a tribute to its appeal over the years, the book was revised in 1968 and reprinted in 1971, 1978, and 1986.

Let me allay your fears — this is a very readable book. Jacobus himself describes the advent of the the book — “I can still recall sitting before my typewriter one of the hottest evenings of that summer,….clad only in jockey shorts, and with an electric fan playing on me, pecking out a chapter in two-fingered style…” [3] I can feel the heat of that day!

The book is a combination of great wisdom and excellent examples. While the book is east-coast and colonial centric (e.g. “Early Nomenclature” only describes naming patterns of New England settlers), the examples are as topical today as the were 85 years ago, pointing out how creative thinking and wide knowledge is necessary for successful genealogical outcomes. [4]

Jacobus organized the chapters in the reverse order one often sees in other books professing to initiate the individual into genealogy. While the stated goal of the book was to provide a “readable introduction to the topic,” the chapter titled “How to Trace Your Ancestry,” was the last chapter of the book and only five and a half pages long. The earlier chapters prepared the reader to begin their own familial investigation and introduced some of the complexities associated with genealogical research. These lessons are not lost on any genealogist of today.

Mr. Jacobus did not suffer genealogy fools well. Scattered throughout the book are unflattering references to those who leap too quickly to an undocumented answer, accepting another’s word, written or otherwise, as truth. He discounts those who seek out only the famous in their family lines as he recognized that the rogues are often hidden from our view. He also recognized that most ancestors probably fell into the category of “passably good citizens, mediocre and common-place.” [5]

We have all heard the quote:  “Genealogy and chronology have been called the hand maids of history.”  That was penned by Mr. Jacobus. [6]

Here are the characteristics of a good professional genealogist:

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Ability to grasp and retain an infinite amount of detail
  3. Imagination
  4. Special knowledge
  5. Accuracy
  6. Not opinionated [7]

These are true today. Thank you Mr. Jacobus.

Donald Lines Jacobus was born 1887 and died 1970. He was the publisher and editor of TAG and its predecessor for 43 years. He was the first person inducted into the Genealogy Hall of Fame and a Fellow of The American Society of Genealogists.  The Donald Lines Jacobus Award is awarded annually to the individual who best exemplifies the high level of scholarship which Mr. Jacobus encouraged and practiced his entire life. [8]

Happy Hunting (and reading)!


What I have done since the last posting:  Spent 10 hours of my life on a plane and 10 hours driving in Chicago traffic!  I attended a conference for University Architects (I used to be one) and had a great time; drafted two blogs including this one; met with William Briska, historian, from Elgin, IL who kindly gave me a tour of the Elgin Historical Museum and the Elgin State Mental Hospital where Dirk resided for 27 years.

[1] a blog about this article is coming.  Stay tuned!

[2] Donald Lines Jacobus, Genealogy as Pastime and Profession (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, Co., 1930, revised 1968, reprinted in 1971, 1978 and 1986).

[3] Ibid, 5.

[4] Ibid, 76-88.

[5] Ibid, 18.

[6] Ibid, 27.

[7] Ibid, 42-44.

[8] Wikipedia.com, search for “Donald Lines Jacobus.”


BCG: What is on my monthly to-do List?

clock 1As you know I went “on the clock” (OTC) in May.

So, what have I done to advance my portfolio?  It seems like almost nothing!  :-)  But, as I write down what I have done–I am ok.

  1. I have worked on my Dirk article about my great grand uncle who spent from 1872-1905 in three different insane asylums in Illinois.  It is a kinship determination project, but is not one I am submitting for BCG.  By writing it, I have learned a lot about the different numbering systems and put the principles in practice.  I have also figured out how to make Word behave so I can have a + sign, a numeral and a roman numeral all line up vertically in the same line with the text.  Yea!
  2. I attended Warren Bittner’s class at NGS 2014 on writing well.  He is such a fabulous writer.  I am studying his approach to writing, by re-reading my notes and the syllabus and articles he has written.  I am extra lucky that his Büttner article, which won the NGSQ writing award in 2012, was our NGSQ Study Group article for June.  Zola, the leader, formulated great questions about the article to aid our reading and we had a lively discussion.
  3. I have scheduled monthly readings.  I will be reading the BCG rubrics, The BCG Standards Manual, Genealogy Standards and the first two chapters of EE once a month.  I just do not think I can put those in front of me enough times. (Besides, I have heard that the most common reason for not “passing” is that the individual didn’t follow directions.)
  4. I have turned in my assignment (the last) for ProGen, completed and submitted my presentation proposals for NGS, FGS, and OGS. and completed the presentations and syllabi for WSGS and OGSA.
  5. I attended the SCGS virtual conference.  Great presentations.  Some of the best speakers. Since I am a member I will be able to review those, including Warren Bittner’s presentation on writing proof arguments.
  6. Worked on my resume–it did need updating.
  7. Worked on the BCG provided document.  My ProGen experience really helped me here.  when we were transcribing in ProGen I identified some formats I particularly liked.  It was nice to have an example of a format I was comfortable with.

I don’t think that is too bad actually!  Next? –probably the transcription of the document that I provide.

I am also done with the Dirk article–5000 words.  I am fairly pleased with it.  I see some gaps, but I suspect most authors do.  I may be able to fill a couple of those gaps the end of this month when I visit Elgin Hospital and have a tour of the facility by the resident historian.  It should be interesting talking to him.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting (see above):  If you didn’t listen in on the SCGS free webinars you missed out on some very good presentations.  Warren Bittner’s presentation on Proof Arguments is still available at http://www.JAMB-Inc.com (session S-421).  It was presented at NGS in 2013.

[1] Rubrics can be found at http://www.bcgcertification.org/brochures/BCGNewAppRubrics2014.pdf

[2] Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (New York: Turner Publishing Company, 2000).

[3] Thomas W. Jones, editor, Genealogy Standards (Nashville: Ancestry.com, 2013).

[4] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, Inc, 2007).

Where do I search for “context?”

Uw websiteAn interesting question was posed by a friend who stated she didn’t do too much context searching as she found it too overwhelming.  I got to thinking about her question and she is right…there is too much out there so the question is not only WHERE to look but HOW to sift through all the responses to get to the “good stuff.”

Here is the approach I take….and I would appreciate if readers would share their favorite “go-to” sites.

  1. What is context?  I have blogged about this before (See What is Context Anyway?, 10 February 2014). ESM stated in a presentation at NGS 2014—that “context” is not about what car they drove or the latest dance craze of the era.  It is not “scenery.”  I suggest it is the historical forces (externalities, if you are an economist) that motivated our ancestors to make the decisions they did.  The context ties your ancestor’s decisions to the events of the day.
  2. What do I search for?
    1. People searches:  These are not the people you are related to, but rather people who might have lived at the same time in the same place and felt compelled to write about their experiences.  To the extent that their experiences parallel your ancestors–you can infer that your ancestor experienced the same. these are usually found during locational or key word searches.  Once these related (by time and place, not genetically) are identified I search on their names.
      1. example #1: Dirk Bode left no written documents of his experience in the “insane asylum”; however, two women wrote diaries and another individual was important enough that a biography was written about him.  So what information can I draw from these that might apply to Dirk?  It takes careful reading.  If the women rarely saw men, I can infer that Dirk probably rarely saw women. I found the authors of these diaries by doing a more general search on the specific insane asylum.
      2. example #2: Jens Dahle was imprisoned in Salisbury Prison during the Civil War and left no record of that experience. At the same time an individual from Pennsylvania wrote a diary of his daily experiences in the same prison at the same time. I inferred that the experience of one is not too dissimilar of the experience of Jens.
    2. Locational searches: This is the search most people do–looking for the location in a variety of places to see if anyone has written about it. It is where I start.
    3. Key topic/word searches: To determine my keywords, I think of all the topics that could possibly relate to what I am writing.  These key words then form the list of topics I will search.  If the paper is short, I may have only one or two key words.  If there are multiple issues, I might check out 15 books and download 20 articles (e.g. Sweden as it begins the 19th century). Typical topics are the law at the time, property law and women, immigration, geography, health, education, ethnic group, literacy, reformation, religion etc.
  3. Where do I search?
    1. For me, access to an academic library is a must.  I am an employee of the University of Washington and so I have full access to the library and its inter-library loan program.  I have found the following locations to be terrific.  My list of “go-to” sites is increasing. These are in priority order.
      1. JStor: a site that catalogs individual articles from professional journals.  I always look here first.
        1. example: the Salisbury Prison diary noted in 2.A.ii above.
        2. example: an article on the history of Swedish literacy noted in 2.C. above.
      2. Books/WorldCat:  a card catalog of books and some e-journals in the world.  I access this through UW and so I am automatically also looking at HathiTrust and some others of that ilk.
        1. I have checked out right now seven books on Sweden ranging from myths and religion to the history of agriculture.
        2. I also check out methodology books.  Most recently I checked out a book on using the Register system of numbering and writing for the Register by Henry Hoff.
      3. ABC-Clio:  a new find which I am still testing to see if it yields good results.  This is a database of journal articles solely related to history and American life.  It looks very promising.
  4. What do I do when I get 10,000 hits?
    1. Like you (I suspect), I tend to only look at the first 3-5 pages unless I am still getting interesting results.  On the agrarian history of Sweden I stopped at the end of the first page….the suggestions started identifying locations other than Sweden and I already had a good book.
    2. I do not look at the Book Reviews except in the most cursory manner–I assess quickly if the book is pertinent to my topic or not.  I do not read the review until I determine if the title and the short description relates to what I am looking for.
    3. If it is a journal article, then I open up the article.  Standard scientific format puts an abstract at the front of the article.  I read the abstract and that tells me if I ought to download it to my Good Reader app on my iPad.  If I do, I catalog it under Genealogy/Research/Topic name
    4. If it is a book, I check the book out.
      1. When it arrives, I  skim it quickly.  If it still is of interest, I keep it; otherwise, it is returned.  Because of the academic nature of the library I can renew the books almost indefinitely.  (How many folks are researching the history of agriculture in Sweden at any one time?)
      2. I then reread the book and place post-it arrows at the chapters/sections/paragraphs of interest.  I then write the paper; and later review the post-its, and then using the book, formulate my citations.  I work back and forth–to the books and journal articles, to the paper and back again.  For me (your mileage will vary), I find this helps me keep the flow of the paper going smoothly  Basically I try to get the concepts I need to support my thesis from the book, write the paper, use the book for citations.
      3. If I find that I have written something that I cannot find where I got the information, I either continue looking for the source or write it out of the document depending how critical it is to support the hypothesis.
      4. I keep a list of all sources reviewed for any given paper.

I also use Google Books and Google Scholar.

These are just some of the sites/techniques I use.

Which sites do you use?  These are just my top 3; am I missing some good ones?  Any special techniques you use?  I admit that my access to the UW Library system is a huge benefit of my employment.  And it is not a negative that I know three of the librarians very well, two of whom are genealogists.

Happy Hunting!


Things I have done since the last posting: Had a wonderful dinner with the small group of our Genealogy & Family History class.  Heather is off to Europe, Sandy’s daughter just got married, Carole is contemplating a trip to SLC and Heidi is taking a Coursera course in reading medieval Spanish documents.  Amazing group.

image:  photo taken by the author, 19 June 2014.

What’s new in the ‘Hood: Seattle Municipal Archives

SMA LuciApproximately 25 people attended the tour of the Seattle Municipal Archives (SMA) on June 5th, the fifth in a series of eight tours of repositories in the Seattle area sponsored by Historic Seattle.  The tour is part of Historic Seattle’s “Digging Deeper – Built Heritage” series. I have signed up for the series but there are several of the series that I could not attend.

The SMA is located at 600 4th Ave. on the 3rd floor and contains the archives of the City of Seattle.  This includes City Council proceedings, past budgets, committees and their activities.  Their holdings on the parks of Seattle are particularly extensive. As Luci Baker Johnson, organizer for Historic Seattle (seen on the left), stated in her reminder to us, “Holdings include over 12,000 cubic feet of textual records; 3,000 maps and drawings, 3,000 audiotapes; hundreds of hours of motion picture film; and over 1.5 million photographic images of City projects and personnel.”

Holdings are cataloged by record groups.  House historians and genealogists may find the project photos of infrastructure improvements of interest.  Often these projects are located in the neighborhoods and our homes are captured in their project photos. You never know when a fire hydrant project photo might include your house!  Plans of these infrastructure improvements might also be in their holdings.

SMA internetThere were three parts to the tour.  Julie Kerssen gave an overview of the website.  Like many governmental agencies their site is a wealth of information and digitized documents.  The site is the portal to over 16,000 images and is little used by house historians and genealogists– and should be used much more.  It has some fascinating information about their collection and is available on line.

You can find them at http://www.seattle.gov/cityarchives/

SMA city charterWhen we were in the Frequently Requested Items vault, Steve Cline, City Archivist noted that Denny Park, Seattle’s first park used to be the cemetery.  The City recorded all the graves which were relocated to other locations by name and final resting place. This document is in SMA.  Also, at the archives is the original charter for the City.  (see photo left with Steve)  A thick red leather bound book  with beautiful calligraphy contains the governmental outline of we what we Seattleites wanted to become.

Before you visit, the staff has some recommendations:

  1. Search their website for what might be pertinent to your search.
  2. Call the office to discuss your research with a staff member who can offer deeper assistance
  3. Let them know when you are planning on visiting so they can pull the documents for you and save you some time.

If you wish to read about the others repositories I have attended:

Patsy McKay Library, Historic Seattle: What’s New in the ‘Hood–House History Style.

Special Collections Division, University of Washington:  What’s New in the ‘Hood–House History Style.

Next up (but sadly, not for me!): Thursday, June 26,
Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library, Downtown Seattle

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting:  Worked on my certification– I will have some comments about that in the near future.  I am reading Donald Lines Jacobus’s Genealogy: as Pastime and Profession.  A very well written genealogy classic written in 1930 and still fresh today (if a little Colonial NE centric!)

Donald Lines Jacobus, Genealogy: as Pastime and Profession (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, Co., 1986) First published in 1930.

What are some resources of help for writing the KDP?

BCG materialsI found some good templates from the New England Historical & Genealogical Society website.  For those of you embedded into the NE this may be old news but I found that some of the templates potentially very helpful:

  1. a research log that actually might work for me, i.e simple and doesn’t “try too hard”
    I have struggled with finding a research log that is easy enough to use that I actually–use it!  This might be the answer.
  2. a template for Register style genealogical summaries in Word (!)
    I know we all struggle with how to put the Kinship Determination Project (KDP) information in the proper form.  (actually Word is just a little TOO helpful and assumes too many things resulting in one (usually me) fighting with it to have it do things like number the children correctly. ) NEHGS has developed a template for you to use to assist in writing.  This is set up for Register style which is too bad that the Q does not do something similar for the Q style.
  3. an editorial style sheet
    I had read about style sheets but had forgotten about them.  An editorial style sheet is your “cheat sheet” for your writing, in this case the case study and the KDP.  It includes rules for capitalization or title point size or how to handle birth names.  It can also include words you commonly use but misspell and commonly used citation formats.  I am definitely going to spend some time and get this set up.  I share what I end up with.

I got my BCG packet the other day and this is a photo of what I received.  Only item included in the packet but not shown  in the photo is the BCG-supplied document.  I did declare my area of interest to be late 1800’s Midwest, which is where I have done all of my personal research in the US.

I have also put a tickler on my calendar that every month I will reread the rubrics and the Application Guide (not the samples).  This will keep me on track with fewer (I hope) diversions.  One of the major reasons for not obtaining certification is the failure to follow the rules.

Here is the link to the website for the templates above and others that you might find of use.


You might also find this article about writing the family history (KDP-ish) interesting:


Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last post:  Cleaned up a lot of other things including completing SGS newsletter, doing some deep research on Sweden in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s (geopolitical history, literacy standards, agrarian standards etc.), listened to some CDs from the NGS conference that I bought, listened to my NGS Live Streaming sessions that I bought, read and re-read Numbering your Genealogy by Crane, Curren and Wray (it’s a “gotta have.”), commented on my ProGen cohort’s assignments of the family histories (all very interesting), finished my presentation on GPS #5 and the worksheet etc. and posted it on my blog (also notified attendees of the GPS #4 that it was available), finished up my presentation on my case study on Grietje Wientjes, submitted seven presentations to FGS and have Ohio’s ready to go, and completed the presentation and submitted the syllabus for WSGS Self Publishing presentation in August. I am, for some reason, procrastinating about the work on the OGSA conference and I HAVE to give it some attention.

Alan R. Jacobson, 1921-1944

1944 0919 Rpt Jacobson AlanMemorial Day….

Alan Jacobson filed a MIA report for a fellow pilot on 9 September 1944. [1]  Just two months later, he was shot down over Oeschelbronn in Vaihingen, Germany and died. [2]

He was buried in the Oeschlbronn cemetery with other Americans.  After the war was over the family requested his remains be returned; he was re-interred in Evergreen Cemetery, Britt, Iowa. [3]  I visited Oeschelbronn in the 1980’s and was shown the site by a person who as a child remembered the plane crash. The site where Alan’s plane crashed was near a present-day soccer field.

Wishing you all a holiday of good and perhaps some sad remembrances.

Remember your ancestors, so you can learn from them.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done this weekend: A genealogy marathon–submitted 7 presentations to FGS; prepared 7 presentations for Ohio GS (will submit in June) and finished up the presentation for Washington State Genealogical Society and syllabus (also be given to the Ostfriesen Genealogy Society of America conference).  Syllabus is due 1 June.  Submitted my assignment for ProGen (family history narrative, similar to the KDP), and commented on three of the cohort’s assignments. Went to the Folklife Festival with hubby where we listened to bluegrass for a couple of hours and then played a round of Par 3 golf with a friend.  Redid my Kanbahn wall which had gotten very out of date and cleaned up my desk.  Even recorded my expenses for the NGS conference on my spreadsheet!

[1] Thank you Fold3 for your free weekend!

[2] United States Department of Defense, “Report of Capture: Alan R. Jacobson (23 November 1944,)” in personal possession of Jill Morelli.

[3] Alan R. Jacobson, “Obituary,” unknown newspaper but probably the Britt (Iowa) News-Tribune. after Fall 1944.