Friday, March 25, 2011

Thank You; I am Honored

The Ancestry Insider is one of the 40 best genealogy blogs of 2011, according to readers and Family Tree MagazineI’m so amazed that an ordinary guy like me has fallen into the position I am in, having so many of you read my blog.

Thank you, all, for your kind greetings at conferences. And thank you, all who honored me with your votes in Family Tree Magazine’s “2011 40 Best Genealogy Blogs” awards. I’m honored to report that you have chosen me as one of your five favorite technology blogs.

“On this blog,” wrote Sunny Jane Morton for Family Tree Magazine, “you'll find an insider's perspective on genealogical data giants and FamilySearch. Having been employed by both organizations, the anonymous writer generally supports what they do, but is the first to comment (in a funny way) when things could go better.”

This award is extra meaningful because it comes from you, my fellow genealogists. One of you wrote, “I don’t know what I would do if [this blog] wasn't around; it gives the best info on what is happening.”

Thank you.


For more information, see Family Tree Magazine articles “2011 Family Tree 40” and “Meet the Family Tree 40 Panel.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Utah South Area Gets Online Film Ordering

FamilySearch Film Distribution Center
FamilySearch Film Distribution Center
Image Property of Intellectual Reserve
Family History Library (FHL) online film ordering became a reality yesterday for many residents of Utah. Like the new FamilySearch tree, online ordering is being rolled out gradually to family history centers (FHCs) in the United States and Canada. Starting yesterday, patrons of FHCs south of "Point of the Mountain" were given the ability to place orders online. Point of the Mountain divides the Salt Lake Valley on the north from Utah Valley on the south.

The film ordering website is .

Anyone can place an order online after they sign up for an account. The website uses the same FamilySearch account as (the new website), the new FamilySearch tree (, FamilySearch Indexing, and the FamilySearch Wiki.

Films are not delivered to the patron's home, but to a family history center or library with FHL film-loaning privileges. The patron must choose a center before submitting an order.

Once online ordering is available to the area served by an FHC, the FHC will no longer accept in-person orders. Patrons can place an order from any computer with an Internet connection, such as those at home, work, a public library, or an Internet cafe. To avoid liability issues, patrons are not encouraged to use FHC computers. When FHC computers are used to place online film orders, to avoid identity theft, patrons should take care that staff members and other patrons are not watching.

An "Ordering Help" icon is available on the website. The available help resources include a User's Guide.

A credit card or PayPal account may be used to pay the rental fee. Payment must be made online. FHC staff can no longer accept payment.

Once submitted, the website provides status. The status can be:

  • Pending - The order has not been submitted, or payment could not be obtained through the account specified.
  • Processing - Payment has been received, but has not been released to Distribution's warehouse for shipment.
  • Cancel - The order was cancelled. The website states that you have 24 hours to cancel an order.
  • Requested - The order or item has been received by Distribution.
  • Backordered - The item was not available in inventory, so the request has been forwarded to the Granite Mountain Record Vault for production. The order may take upto six weeks.
  • Shipped - The item is inroute to the designated FHC. The patron will receive an e-mail alert at this time.
  • Received - The designated FHC has received the item. The patron will receive another e-mail alert.
  • Returned - The item has been shipped back to Distribution.

Rental fees (currently $5.50 in the United States) are expected to increase at some point because of the escalating cost of microfilm stock. FHC staff in one training meeting were told that because only one manufacturer still produces duplication film, the price is going up quickly.

The rollout of online ordering to the rest of the United States is expected to be complete during 2011.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Frankenstein Genealogy

Yesterday I pointed out that as our research extends further into the past, we must rely on multiple records to create a “complete picture” of an ancestor. By complete picture, I mean we must gather together enough information about an ancestor to reach correct conclusions about the ancestor’s identity and family relationships.

A principal skill required of all genealogists is the ability to examine two records and determine if there is enough evidence to conclude that both are the subject of the same person. Just as putting together two overlapping photographs requires sufficient overlap between the two, likewise two records must have sufficient overlap in names, dates, places, and relationships.

Careless combinations lead to Frankenstein monsters built partly from the identity of one person and partly from the identity of another.

I illustrated such a ’stein yesterday by combining three celebrity photographs (left), into one (right).

From Angelina Jolie I took eyes and lips
Charleton Heston provided forehead, bangs, mail, scarf, cheek and beard
Tom Cruise gave sunglasses, nose, chin, jacket, and rooster tails
Frankenstein genealogy results from incorrectly combining records

How did you do? Were you able to guess any of the celebrities?

Now comes a much harder question. Think in terms of coming across such a ’stein in my online genealogy. It has Charleton Heston’s father, Angelina Jolie’s mother, and Tom Cruise’s child.

  • Who of the three is the real one, the one I was aiming for, the one that was corrupted by the other two? (Or is it none of the three?)

Give yourself one point for each of the three celebrities you identified correctly.

Give yourself a zillion points for answering the last question correctly.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Chasm

Last Wednesday in “Three Reasons Vendors Get It Wrong” I gave three reasons why unwise product managers produce genealogically unsound products: 1. personnel turnover, 2. the deceptive complexity of genealogy, and 3. a chasm that separates time frames 2 and 3.

I was a bit vague about that last one. (Maybe I ran out of time and couldn’t finish the article… Or maybe I wanted to pique your curiosity… Yeah… that’s it… That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.)

There are three time frames or stages of ancestral research. Think of them in this fashion:

1. When we start, we fill our pedigree with people we know. It is easy.

2. We extend our pedigrees with people we know only through vital records. Vital records provide a complete picture of an ancestor. Genealogy is still mostly easy.

3. As we push further back, things take a distinct turn for the worst. Research becomes like something from the Truman Show movie.

Truman constructs a likeness of Sylvia's face

Truman doesn't have a photograph of the mysterious Sylvia, so he clandestinely tears scraps from magazine advertisements to recreate her likeness. One ad provides eyes, another her mouth. Gradually he builds a complete picture.

That's a bit like what we must do as genealogists once we push beyond vital records.

Each genealogical record is like a photograph fragment that contributes to the picture. The careful researcher must find fragments that overlap—names, dates, places, and relationships in common—lest we merge photo fragments from the wrong person. Fragments must also add to the picture. It is a painstaking process. Worse, unlike Truman we don’t know beforehand what an ancestor may look like.

SillyFaceThe careless researcher merges photo fragments with the barest of overlap, sometimes amalgamating fragments from multiple people into a picture that bears no resemblance to an actual person.

Let me illustrate. Observe the reconstructed photograph to the right. I've put together parts from three different celebrities. The result is hideous indeed. (Can you guess who the three celebrities are? I'll give the answer tomorrow.)

Genealogy in the third stage is distinctly different. Before, genealogy was simple. Genealogists searched for people or for nearly complete photographs of people—vital records that served as people surrogates.

Now, genealogy is tough. Genealogists search for records, not people. The people we reconstruct may or may not look like the individuals they are meant to be. If we carelessly frankenstein several individuals together, the result may bear no resemblance to anyone. In essence—and I know I'm going to brew some disagreement when I say this—in essence, we are no longer searching for ancestors; we are searching for records.

Okay, maybe that is overstating it. How about this statement? Would you concede this point? The records we use are more real than the reconstructions we create from them. That's not to say that every record is completely true... or even partially so. But the record itself is real. It is something we can touch or view on our computer screens. The reconstructed person, on the other hand, is only conceptual. There is no person that we can see or touch or speak with. Any genealogical conclusion—any reconstruction—is subject to revision.

The Chasm

I submit to you that a chasm separates the record-based paradigm in the third stage from the people-based paradigm of the first two. Hardly realizing it, we accept a new reality that is altogether foreign to pre-chasmites. We no longer interpret our pre-chasm experiences in the same way. (Genealogy was never easy; we just lacked necessary rigor.)

The chasm is so wide and the mindset change so gargantuan, we speak and think differently.

With pre-chasm product managers, we push the rigor required post-chasm. They conclude that genealogists make genealogy harder than it needs be. The pre-chasm product manager dismisses what we say. We grow frustrated and more strident. Product managers see this as further evidence that genealogists are unreasonable and must be ignored. The cycle deepens the chasm until pre- and post-chasmites hardly communicate.

Until post-chasmites remember how to speak pre-chasmese, it will always be so.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Three Reasons Vendors Get It Wrong

“We have failed
to recognize
the chasm”

Image used with permission.

I am obsessed with explaining a phenomenon I’ve witnessed for 30 years. When it comes to tree management software, why do unwise product managers re-make the same mistakes over and over? (As I’ve said before, these observations do not apply to wise product managers in the industry today.)

I’ve written of two theories. Today I wish to add a third.

Genealogical Maturity

One theory is that personnel turnover limits product maturity.

The name, genealogical maturity model, reflects my scientific background. A scientific model simplifies—perhaps grossly so—something more complex. The idea of maturation is that of natural and normal progression.

The genealogical maturity model, then, is a highly simplified model of the perceptions and practices that I and many other non-professional genealogists go through as we advance in knowledge and experience.

It is most useful as a self-improvement program. But it also may explain why some vendors produce immature products. Personnel turnover may cycle out experienced product designers before they have progressed much beyond levels 2 or 3. New personnel start over at the bottom. Products, then, never reflect greater genealogical maturity.

(For more information, see my article, “Genealogical Maturity Model” or the FamilySearch Wiki article, “Genealogical Maturity.”)

Genealogy is Deceptively Complex

Another theory is that genealogy is deceptively complex.

To the unlearned, there is no obvious reason why growing a family tree should be difficult in any way. The unwise product manager dismisses the combined learning of tens of thousands of practitioners who have advanced the state of the art for over a century. By adhering to the belief that genealogy is easy, the unwise have no choice but to conclude that such practitioners make genealogy unnecessarily hard.

Sadly and ironically, by ignoring the complexity rather than dealing with it, it is the unwise product manager who is making genealogy unnecessarily hard.

(For more information, see my article, “Genealogist-ologist-ologist.”)

Today I wish to add a third observation to these two.

Three Time Frames

My theory is that ancestral research proceeds through three historic time frames, a chasm divides the last two, and product managers rarely make it across the chasm.

This theory will also explain why genealogical maturity occurs among ancestral researchers in the order it does. And it will explain why new product managers incorrectly assume genealogy is simple.

Ancestral research begins with yourself and proceeds backwards through the three time frames. The three time frames are:

Time Frame 1.

In the most recent time frame a new genealogist is taking known people and dropping them into their proper places on a pedigree. It is easy. Dates, places, and records are not necessary to identify someone you can easily pick out of a lineup.

A new genealogist can complete three generations in this manner: himself, his parents, and usually his grandparents. That is seven people on a pedigree, in four families, totaling perhaps 20 people. Throw in a second marriage or two and you can complete a lot of genealogy for people in this time frame.

Time Frame 2.

As a genealogist’s research pushes beyond living memory, vital records are often available that unambiguously identify another generation or two of ancestors. The genealogist continues putting people into their proper place on his pedigree. It is still easy.

In actuality, the genealogist is now dealing with records instead of people. As long as the genealogist is fortunate enough to deal with records that uniquely identify his ancestors, then his person-based paradigm continues to work and continues to be easy.

Somewhere before time frame 3, a product manager concludes that genealogy is easy. What he has proven to himself—by his own experience—will be hard to disabuse.

Time Frame 3.

Not only has the genealogist never met these ancestors, no unambiguous record identifies them.

A chasm exists between time frame 2, where the product manager quits, and time frame 3, where the genealogist works. Genealogists have failed to recognize the chasm exists and prevents us from speaking the same language as pre-chasmites.

Next time, “the chasm” and time frame 3. Stay tuned…

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Select RootsTech Presentations Available Online

FamilySearch announced today that select presentations from this year’s RootsTech conference are now available online.

The Insider is an Official RootsTech 2011 Blogger

The available sessions are:

For my other reports on RootsTech 2011, see:

To read the complete announcement from FamilySearch, see “Relive RootsTech 2011,” FamilySearch ( : dated 11 March 2011, accessed 14 March 2011).

Monday, March 14, 2011

Monday Mailbox: Edit Warring

Dan Lawyer’s comparison of NFS to a moldy refrigerator struck a chord with many readers. Here are some of their comments.

Dear Ancestry Insider,

"You’ll be able to reject the change with one click of a mouse." - So what's to prevent edit warring?


Dear Readers,

In case you don’t already know what an edit war is, Wikipedia describes it thusly:

An edit war or revert war is a situation that sometimes arises on websites which are run on wiki principles, such as Wikipedia, where users repeatedly re-edit or undo or reverse the prior user's edits in an attempt to make their own preferred version of a page visible. With the ability for anyone to edit a page, and older versions of pages stored in the edit history, edit warring becomes possible as long as there is little or no control over the editing.

Ron Tanner, new FamilySearch Tree (NFS) product manager, has said that he wants NFS to have a dispute resolution process like Wikipedia. Edit wars occur constantly on Wikipedia, but the community has evolved rules for handling them.

I think the Wikipedia community has evolved since the last time I looked into their dispute resolution practices. Administrators can still protect pages from changes. But the old system, arbitration, no longer makes decisions about whose information is correct. The community has developed procedures to help disagreeing parties reach mutual agreement before resorting to arbitration. Parties are urged to use the discussion feature. Informal and formal mediation can help combatants reach mutual agreement.

Only when a user become uncivil is the old arbitration process invoked. According to the arbitration policy, the arbitration committee can apply sanctions including:

  • User X is cautioned against making personal attacks even under severe provocation.
  • User X is limited to one revert per twenty four hour period on article A.
  • User X is prohibited from editing group Y of articles for a period of Z.
  • User X is banned from editing Wikipedia for a period of Y.
  • If User X edits group Y of articles, they may be banned for a short period of time of up to one week.

Stay tuned to see if Tanner gets what he wants, or if FamilySearch is able to create a community that can rule itself.

The Ancestry Insider

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

South Davis Fair in the Aftermath of RootsTech

Will RootsTech overshadow other conferences? Like the St. George Family History Expo, attendance at the South Davis Family History Fair is way down in the wake of RootsTech, a new national genealogy conference. Two years ago 1,700 people attended the fair. Up against NGS in Salt Lake last year, attendance dropped to 1,100. This year, less than 800 people pre-registered and walk-ins were unlikely to exceed 200.

The South Davis fair will almost certainly survive. It is a non-profit, all volunteer enterprise sponsored by several stakes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The same cannot be said of Utah conferences produced by the for-profit Family History Expos company. They are suffering from a double whammy. Just days before last year’s St. George Expo, they lost their server in a fire suppression accident. The server contained a mailing list of interested attendees that had taken years to build. Hard on the heels of the loss came back-to-back national conferences in nearby Salt Lake City, Utah: the 2010 National Genealogical Society Conference and the 2011 RootsTech Conference. Attendance of subsequent conferences has decreased greatly. As a personal venture of Holly Hansen, financial losses are devastating.

Different conferences have different personalities and fill different needs.

RootsTech had glitz and expensive production values. The rock music each morning before and after the general session set the energy level for the day. By contrast, the South Davis Family History Fair prelude was conservative Mormon hymns followed by a lay minister’s welcome and invocation.

NGS and FGS conferences are four day marathons with a  deczon tracks and 200 classes taught by paid industry experts. The locations move each year among cities with genealogically significance: long histories or major genealogical holdings. With travel costs, four days lodging, four vacation days,  and two-hundred dollar registration fees, the conference mainly attracts professionals, vendors, presenters, die-hards, and locals.

By contrast, conferences by Family History Expos are inexpensive, overnight events within the budget of beginning genealogists. Industry luminary, Dick Eastman, pointed out their unique value proposition in “Wrap-Up: Family History Expo 2008 in St. George, Utah.” Registration costs are kept low by cutting expenses in every way possible. Smaller cities are used to cut venue costs and provide attendees with cheap, overnight lodging. Attendees receive a plastic bag instead of an embroidered cloth carrying bag. Presenters are not compensated for either travel or speaking and provide their own projectors.

Industry pundits are already wondering about the effect RootsTech may have on the national genealogical conferences of the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the National Genealogical Society. (See “NGS and FGS: Rethink your policies in light of RootsTech.”)

In my opinion, the future of RootsTech itself is not beyond question. (I don’t know anything you don’t. These are just my own speculations.) Did sponsors see enough value for their investment? In particular, I wonder how much FamilySearch subsidized the conference and what the value proposition is for them.

Stay tuned…


The NGS 2011 Family History Conference will be held in Charleston, South Carolina, 11-14 May 2011. The FGS 2011 Conference will be held in Springfield, Illinois, 7-10 September 2011.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

South Davis Fair: Selective Blindness

Not all visitors to will be able to see all images. Photograph used with permission of During his keynote at the South Davis Family History Fair, Dan Lawyer mentioned scenarios allowing different groups of people to see record images on FamilySearch negotiates contractual agreements with record custodians to photograph, digitize, and post records online. In addition to those Lawyer mentioned, I’ve added others I’ve heard publicly.

Sometimes record custodians (archives, governments, libraries, companies, and so forth) have no problems letting FamilySearch publish images online for anyone to use without limitation. But sometimes custodians will allow FamilySearch to acquire and publish records only with restrictions.

A custodian may need the revenue it might get from selling images of its records. FamilySearch might negotiate rights to publish an index for the benefit of its visitors. In exchange, FamilySearch provides links to the custodian’s website where visitors pay the custodian to see images.

A record custodian may feel their custodial duty requires some degree of control over use of the records. The obligation might even be statutory. The control can result in these scenarios:

  • Even though the images are available for free, a custodian may not allow FamilySearch to host them. A visitor searches an index on the FamilySearch website and then follows links to freely see the images on the custodian’s site.
  • A custodian may wish to curtail wholesale piracy by requiring FamilySearch visitors to identify themselves through registration before freely accessing the images.
  • A custodian may allow FamilySearch visitors to see images but not download or print them.
  • A custodian may allow FamilySearch visitors to see images if at a family history center.
  • A custodian may allow FamilySearch visitors to see images if the visitor’s contributions qualify him or her for premier status.

Premier status is granted to a FamilySearch account holder for

  • Indexing 900 points during a calendar quarter. Premier status continues through the end of the following quarter.
  • Belonging to a sponsoring organization. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints currently funds all FamilySearch operations.
  • Additional methods may be available in the future. If volunteer hours in a family history center is not one of them, I will be very angry.

The good news is, FamilySearch has been able to use these image access restrictions to open records that were previously closed.

The bad news is, it will take FamilySearch some time to create the technology to implement these scenarios. FamilySearch has not announced any timeframes or collections involved, but software development always takes longer than a non-programmer might expect.

Stay tuned…


For more information about image viewing and restrictions, see:

Monday, March 7, 2011

South Davis Fair: NFS is Like a Refrigerator

NFS is like a refrigerator. This photo of a stuffed refrigerator is used by permission of “The new FamilySearch Tree (NFS) is like a refrigerator,” said Dan Lawyer, “with a rule that you can only put stuff in; you can’t take it out.” That produces some really rotten stuff. While there is some really good stuff, the view is tainted by the presence of the bad stuff. “We’re working on that,” said Lawyer. “We’re going to fix it.”

Lawyer made the comments during his keynote at the 14th annual South Davis Family History Fair.

“We failed to understand what it would take to build this system,” said Lawyer. Changes are underway to make it possible to correct anything and totally get rid of bad information. You will be able to attach artifacts showing evidence of what is correct. You can automatically monitor a person for changes. You’ll receive an email anytime a change is made showing who made the change, when it was changed, and what was changed. You’ll be able to reject the change with one click of a mouse. You’ll be able to communicate with the person who made the change.

FamilySearch has several goals.

  • Make it so you don’t have to be a genealogist to do genealogy.
  • Make it easy to receive (and give) assistance.
  • Make the site genealogically sound so that even advanced genealogists will want to use it

Some of the changes have been made. Monitoring changes and communication features were added in the last two releases. Other features are on the near horizon.

“Hopefully in the very near future new familysearch [the tree] will just become a feature of” Lawyer likened it to a bridge built by the side of the freeway and moved into place when completed.

Concerning the search filters that FamilySearch pioneered in the Record Search Pilot, Lawyer said “in a month, or two at most, this feature will be there.”

Dan Lawyer gave the keynote address at the South Davis Family History FairI wasn’t the only one in the room with an alternate identity. Dan Lawyer, FamilySearch employee, accepted the invitation to present the keynote at the South Davis Family History Fair. But it was Dan Lawyer, former FamilySearch employee who presented. Lawyer now works as Chief Product Officer for Paul Allen at FamilyLink. He alerted us to the change and informed us that he had decided to go ahead with the presentation he had prepared as a FamilySearch employee.

Stay tuned for more coverage of the fair…

Friday, March 4, 2011

Laissez Faire Indexing

FamilySearch has been immensely successful in assembling a large, volunteer workforce of indexers. Yet digitizing microfilm images still outpaces indexing by many orders of magnitude. Many, many more indexers are needed. How long FamilySearch can continue to grow its indexing workforce is unknown.

I think there is a better way to harness the capabilities of the genealogical community. I call it laissez faire indexing. It uses what I call the Amazon model.

The Amazon Model

The Amazon model is to leverage normal user actions to gain information that can be given back, enhancing the user experience. From almost their first day did business, they added value for customers with a feature that told you “People who bought this book also bought…” is successfully utilizing the Amazon method to give users additional value by gleaning information from users attaching records into their trees. If some other user attaches a record to a person in a tree, then you get notified that there is a record available for that same person in your tree. Similarly, if you view a record, you are alerted to other records that are associated with that record because both are attached to the same person in someone’s tree.


Think about microfilm. What do you do normally? You crank through the film, figuring out the lay of the land. You look for indexes. You figure out how the records are arranged. You find indexes (or lack thereof). You find page numbers, or ranges of pages for dates or letters of the alphabet or record types. You locate pages of interest. You finagle meaning out of bad handwriting, mold, mildew, book worms, blurs, and ink spots.

Altruism aside, if you could leave yourself some breadcrumbs, wouldn’t you? How cool would it be if you could bookmark the start of a volume, the start of the index, the start of the index for the letter “N” (you’re researching the N’Siders, of course), and each page where that surname appears? If some page numbers were illegible, but you figured them out by going back and forth through nearby pages, wouldn’t you want to save yourself—and other researches (we don’t have to be totally non-altruistic)—some trouble in the future? If you figured out some names that were tough to read, wouldn’t it be handy to tag the name to remind yourself what you figured out? Wouldn’t you bookmark pages with names you wanted to revisit later?

Sure you would! I know I would. (I’m OCD, so I might get sucked into bookmarking and tagging the five pages intermixed with the 20 pages of interest to me. Forget helping others; it would drive me crazy if I didn’t. But I digress…)

Laissez Faire Indexing

While bookmarking pages and tagging information isn’t possible on microfilm, it is possible with online digital images. As the name suggests, Laissez faire indexing lets indexers choose when and what they index without the control of or dependence on a central authority. Indexers choose which collections, which records from the collection, and which fields from the record to index.

I include bookmarking in the concept of laissez faire indexing. Bookmarking is the establishment of a browse structure into a collection., Inc. offers tagging on its website, but calls them annotations.

Footnote supports tagging of names, places, dates, and other text

Build laissez faire indexing around the Amazon model and I think you have advantages over the current practice of bulk indexing.

  • It captures the normal work of researchers that otherwise goes to waste. Judging from the scratches I find on microfilm at the Family History Library, at lot of people have already used the films I use. Each subsequent user redoes some of the work done by previous users, finding beginnings of volumes, locations of indexes, and deciphering information.
  • That last point is worth expounding. Normal collection users don’t have to “index.” They continue doing what they do now with the added convenience of going to the Internet instead of going to Salt Lake or Germany. And with the added convenience of bookmarking and tagging, indexing just happens.
  • I dismissed altruism earlier, but the truth is that the genealogical community is rife with it. The community constantly and consistently “pays it forward.” Laissez faire indexing lowers barriers, catalyzing indexing throughout the community, if only a little bit, as researchers go about their research.
  • Just as a free market economy self optimizes better than central planning, laissez faire indexing prioritizes work better than a central authority. Indexing occurs in the collections, records, and fields that are used the most. This returns the greatest value to the genealogical community.
  • Dedicated indexers choose the collections that interest them the most. High interest motivates indexers to work more, and to work more productively.
  • Societies and historical organizations can self-organize indexing projects. Indeed, ad hoc groups can self-organize around indexing projects, forming new societies and strengthening existing ones.
  • The same infrastructure needed for laissez faire could be used for user corrections and entry of alternate opinions, name variations, and maiden names.

Laissez faire indexing would have disadvantages too, of course.

  • Collections, names, and fields that are seldom or never used might never get indexed. Tools would need to be developed to allow dedicated indexers to identify and fill gaps.
  • Creating a search experience that effectively integrated indexed results with non-indexed possibilities would be challenging.
  • Novices, in particular, might be demotivated by search failure and the need to dig into and understand records. Effective training would need to be woven into the user experience. (On the other hand, records needed by the most novices would get indexed sooner, providing a better first experience than currently provided.)
  • Relinquishing control is difficult for an organization and introduces considerable risks: Implementing laissez faire is expensive. The benefits are unproven. The results are non-deterministic.
  • History has shown that successful online communities depend on small, subtle factors and features. Building a successful community requires agility, flexibility, and plenty of trial and error. I wonder if we are up to the challenge. FamilySearch is not known (yet) for its agility. And while genealogists are flexible, some of us are adverse to trial and error when it comes to website changes.
  • Creating indexing templates would be inconsistent and building consensus among users could be divisive. Building tools to solve this problem would be expensive.

What do you think? Continue indexing as present? Make the leap of faith into laissez faire indexing? Fine tune what we have? Or do something entirely different?

Next week I’ll give you my recommendation.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What is Tagging?

Many websites support “tagging,” which is nothing more than assigning a word or phrase to something on the website such as a photograph.

The National Archives is promoting the concept of the citizen archivist and recently gave recognition to a Flickr user, TVL1970, who has assigned over seven thousand tags to NARA photographs on Flickr.

Tom 'indexed' a NARA photograph by tagging it

For example, Tom (TVL1970’s real name), tagged one photograph with the words of a sign in the photograph. Search on NARA’s website for “Bernie’s Bait and Tackle” and you will not find the photo because NARA has not indexed the text in all its photographs. But search on Flickr and you will find it because of Tom’s tag. (See the illustration, above.)

“A tag on a photograph provides the opportunity to connect a photo, especially the people, places and experiences it captures, to the past and the future,”  Tom said. “The significance of many photographs is in danger of being lost as time marches on.  Providing a tag, to me, is a means of historical preservation.  Tags … I feel that in the digital age, they are tangible signposts for those who might seek answers in these photos in the future.” Tom enjoys the sense of accomplishment he feels by discovering the people and places in the photographs, and then making that information available to others.

Facebook supports smart tagging. Tag a friend in a photograph and it will show up in their photograph list.

Facebook supports smart friend tagging supports photo tagging, but they don’t call it tagging and I don’t think the notes are searchable. supports photo tags, but calls them notes

Next time I’ll talk more about the role I see for tagging in genealogy.