Google Wave Will Revolutionize Collaborative Genealogy

Google is going through a process of inviting 100,000 “early adopters” of to their new offering, Wave. It may be a few months before just anyone can sign up.

To see what’s in store, you could watch the 80 minute video that they admit themselves is “loooong.” Or, you could watch their 8 minute video, with a brief summary of the product.

Google Wave is a tremendously powerful platform that will change the way genealogy and family history are done. Users of Wave create “waves,” which are something between conversations, e-mail messages, collaborative authoring sessions, video and picture sharing, blog authoring, and so many more things.

The key technology involved in Wave, though, that makes it better than every other available product for collaborative authoring is that it allows for near real-time communication. If I send you an e-mail, I have to wait for you to read it. If I write a blog entry, and I’m collaborating with another author, I have to save my draft, then tell them to take a look. Even if I’m “instant messaging,” I still spend a good portion of the time waiting for a response and staring at a message that say something like, “So-and-so is typing.” But with Google Wave, I can see my correspondant type at the same time that I’m typing. The conversation is not serial, but parallel — we are both talking at the same time. It’s more like an actual conversation. When we work together on a document, we can each make edits wherever in the document we need to, and this can happen simultaneously as fast as we can type.

So why will this matter to genealogists? If you are working with a distant cousin on a difficult problem in the family history, you can put together your evidence and be able to evaluate it, and each of you edit it at any time. You can also roll back the conversation to any point in the history of it. You can capture the conversation at a specific point and export it to another Wave. You can add other members of the Wave, and they can see the whole history of the evolution of the conversation or document. Images can be added through drag and drop. The system can perform simultaneous word-by-word translations into a number of languages. The contextual spell checker knows that “icland is and icland” should probably read “Iceland is an island.”

For genealogists, this will be a powerful environment for working together on common research, for working on the bylaws and standing rules of the local genealogical society, and for authoring real-time collaborative blogs. Don’t be surprised if the 2010 or 2011 NGS Conference Blogs are written in Google Wave and then posted using the Bloggy robot in a standard blog format.

Google Wave will also be a way for professional genealogists to share the notes they make on the way to their reports with their clients.

And don’t be surprised if, when working with a researcher searching for Grahams in the same county in Southern West Virginia you are, you find yourself not bothering with e-mail, but instead invite them to discuss it over Google Wave.

Graham, et. al. v. Graham, et. al.

My most intractable genealogical brickwall is the parentage of Rebecca Martha Graham (1831-1880).

Rebecca’s mother Jane Graham (1811-1854) is dismissed by her brother David Graham (1821-1914) in his “History of Graham Family” (1899) with the following sentence: “Jane, the second daughter of Joseph Graham, died unmarried” (80).

On Google Books, however, I have found documentation for a case that might lead to the missing father of Rebecca Martha Graham. The case is “Graham, et. al. v. Graham, et. al., Decided May 1, 1880, The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.”

As I mentioned, Rebecca was the daughter of Jane Graham and some unknown paramour. On 1 Nov 1853, Rebecca married Henry Lake Miller (1817-1900). Around the time of this marriage, Rebecca inherited $3,000 from her father (I presume this was mainly land) who died in Missouri.

in 1854, Jane died a violent death, for which her brother James Graham (1813-1889) was put on trial and acquitted.

Litigation on the Graham v. Graham chancery case began in 1859, and the case did not make its way completely through to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals until 1879, being decided in 1880. Unfortunately, Rebecca died one month and 11 days after winning her judgment. She died of dysentery.

But what was the case about? Rebecca Martha Graham’s grandmother, Rebecca Graham (1786-1876) had received “property” (land and a slave named Dinah) in the will of her father, James Graham (1741-1813). The relevant portion of the will reads:

I give unto my Daughter Rebeckah Graham and her children, that plantation where she now lives known by the name of Stephensons Cabbin [sic] also I give unto her and her children my Negro girl named Dinah, the Land and Negro never to be disposed of out of the Family nor the increase of the Negro if any she has.

Because the elder Rebecca Graham was married, her husband Joseph Graham had “ownership” of this property. After he died, his widow sold the two children of Dinah (Ira and Stuart), and the bulk of the remaining children sued for a portion of the proceeds.

Whether or not this case yields the name and any particulars about Rebecca Martha Graham’s father, I’m sure it will be a case that reveals a great deal about rural antebellum West Virginia.

The main reminder here, however, is not to forget key sources, such as court cases. While not as often used as some other sources, such as vital records or census records, the records of court cases can be quite revealing.

Dr. Anna Julia Cooper

Dr. Anna Julia Cooper
Dr. Anna Julia Cooper

“The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class — it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.”

— Dr. Anna Julia Cooper

At the NGS Family History Conference on Saturday, I was lucky enough to attend the Wake County luncheon.

The conference includes several opportunities to hear speakers over lunch for a fee. The fee includes the price of the lunch and also serves as a fund raiser for the organization that has put together the event. These are almost always lectures, and while the lectures are more entertaining and light than those offered at the rest of the conference, they are lectures.

The Wake County Genealogical Society (of which I am a not-very-active member) chose to do this differently. Instead of having one speaker, they had a troup of actors performing a play tailored for the occasion. The play was based on the lives of historical personages of Wake County. While there were some rough edges to the performance, with some dropped lines, it was a very powerful performance. Especially of note were the portrayals of Joel Lane, founder of Raleigh and Dr. Anna Julia Cooper. Of these, the presentation of Dr. Cooper was the most affecting.

Dr. Cooper was an educator and writer. She was the fourth African-American woman to receive a doctorate degree, and did so at the age of 65, shattering barriers of race, gender and age. She was born in slavery and lived to the age of 105, dying in 1964. She lived American history from the Civil War to Civil Rights.

To read more about Dr. Cooper, see the Wikipedia article on her life, or read her most famous book, A Voice from the South on the University of North Carolina’s DocSouth website.

Image © University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text. Cooper, Anna J., 1892, A Voice from the South, Xenia, Ohio: The Aldine Printing House, Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000, http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/cooper/.

Kindle DX E-Book Reader

Last week, Amazon announced the impending release of their third generation e-book reader, the Kindle DX. (See the New York Times article on the announcement.)

The Amazon Kindle has created somewhat of a sensation with what are thought to be “iPod-like” sales numbers. (Amazon has so far succeeded in keeping the actual sales numbers private.) Amazon does say a couple of interesting things, however, about the number of books that Kindle readers buy. According to Amazon’s figures, purchasers of Kindle e-book readers buy as many traditional books as they did before, and are supplementing their purchases of books on paper with purchases of e-books.

Stepping away from the hype, the Kindle comes in for considerable criticism, mainly around the issue of digital rights management. Just as with early versions of the Apple iPod, the Amazon Kindle has been created with very tight digital rights management, which limits customers from sharing their books with other Kindle owners, giving their books away after they have read them, donating them to a library, and so on, which are standard ways people think about books. Not only is a Kindle owner prevented from downloading and reading a Kindle book on any Kindle they do not personally own, if Amazon ever stopped supporting the Kindle, there is no clear method to allow anyone to read the books they have “invested” in.

There was also some misguided flak from the Authors Guild about the computer voice that can “read” books to you on a Kindle. The novelist, e-book proponent, and Kindle critic, Cory Doctorow wrote an illuminating piece in The Guardian about how wrong-headed the Guild was in opposing the “read-to-me” feature of the Kindle (which also exists on every computer with a recent version of Adobe Acrobat Reader).

“But why should genealogists care?” you might ask. While there are 275,000 titles available, very few of those are specifically genealogical in nature. The main market for the Kindle and its readers is contemporary best-selling fiction and non-fiction. While there’s some overlap there, with some novels illustrating the time periods of our ancestors’ lives, and some non-fiction best sellers being excellent volumes of history, the connection seems tenuous.

The real benefit for genealogists in the Kindle is that its platform is not entirely closed. In addition to reading books formatted for the Kindle itself, it can also read books from the public domain converted into Mobipocket format. Tens of thousands of these books are available on several sites including Gutenberg.org, Manybooks.net and Feedbooks.com. But, since these books are also mainly not of interest to genealogists, a more compelling feature of the Kindle is that (in its first two versions) it can convert PDF and Word documents to Kindle format. The conversion is not perfect, though, and some files simply don’t work.

Kindle DX and Genealogy: Here’s where the Kindle DX comes in. The Kindle DX reads PDF files natively. This means that genealogists will be able to download any PDF file they have access to, whether it’s a public domain PDF of a local history from the 1890s downloaded from Google Books or their genealogical society’s newsletter, and take it with them in a device that is about the size of a piece of paper and 1/3 of an inch thick. Since the device has 3.3 GB of storage, there’s plenty of room for books. The Kindle is nearly instant-on (try that with your Vista laptop!), and less of a strain on the eyes than a computer monitor because it’s not backlit. The Kindle also allows for easy bookmarking, highlighting and copying of portions of text. It keeps track of where you were the last time you opened any document.

So, you heard it here first, the Kindle DX will be an attractive addition to the genealogist’s gadget bag, limited only by its $489 list price.

Top 10 Genealogy Websites

Today, Randy Seaver posted to his blog Genea-Musings his list of top 10 favorite genealogy websites.He mentions that he’s taking off from a trend we’ve seen on Facebook, of the “5 items I have” known, seen, met, and so on. And, of course, list making is a long and honored tradition.

Without too much further rambling, I’ll share my own top 10 list of genealogy sites.

This list, like any “best of” list will change from day to day. What it looks like today will certainly not be identical to how it would look tomorrow or would have looked last week. All the relevant list caveats apply. So, here goes:

  1. Ancestry.com ($, portions free) (including rootsweb.ancestry.com ) — The amount of data here is vast. As are the tools, from their genealogy software, FamilyTreeMaker, to DNA research.
  2. Footnote.com ($, portions free) — The folks at Footnote simply understand Web 2.0 and provide something between Ancestry, Flickr, and Facebook. Meanwhile, their partnership with the National Archives continues to reap rewards for users of the site.
  3. FindAGrave.com (free, with a donation model) — This site is weirdly compelling. It’s a powerful way to gather data, with the vast majority of information contributed by “caretakers” of the family records, and yet these adding up to virutal graveyards.
  4. FamilySearch.org (free) — An amazing and ambitious portal into LDS records and genealogy tools.
  5. Steve Morse’s One-Step Website (free) — I find the search algorithms here very helpful to break through problems where I don’t know enough to search a site directly (or don’t know what particular misspelling is in my way). Steve’s site runs multiple searches behind the scenes so that you don’t have to do them all in a manual fashion.
  6. EOGN — Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter ($, portions free) — Dick Eastman inhabits the center of the space where genealogy and technology intersect. If you’re interested in that overlap, and you happen not to have seen this blog, you really ought to take a look. Eastman keeps me up-to-date on technology I can use in genealogy.
  7. GNIS (free) — The USGS Geographical Names Information System. This is very handy for finding out the location of streams, churches, and so on. If it was ever listed on a US Geological Survey map as a feature or place, it’s in this database.
  8. Linkpendium.com (free) — This is a locale-based listing of available sites. I find it helpful to look here when I start working in a new county or state. The site helps me find location-specific online resources I might not find any other way.
  9. WorldVitalRecords.com — Like Ancestry, this is a great site, full of powerful databases.
  10. GenealogyBank.com ($, portions free) — I’m really impressed with how the folks at GenealogyBank do simple things. For example, their free Security Death Index results you the birth and death dates, just as many other sites do, but they also calculate the age at death. Additionally, they use the “Last Residence” zip code to provide lat/long data you can use to quickly map the location.

But I’d be interested in knowing what’s on your list, and learning about new sites that will end up being on my list next time I compile one.

ScanCafe

Carl and Alice Jones, 1949. Photograph partially eaten by the family dog.

I recently used a service from a website called ScanCafe, and have to say I was impressed by the quality, speed and valueScanCafe is an image scanning and digitization service. You submit an order, then ship them a box of your photographs, negatives, and/or slides. ScanCafe then scans your images by hand and at a high-resolution. When they are done, you receive an e-mail and can go online to review the scanned images and choose which keep. You pay only for the images you keep, then they send back all of your originals as well as a DVD of the scans.

What I found impressive about the service was the care with which they deal with the photographs. White glove treatment is standard. Additionally, you can send them images in carousels and albums, and they will remove your images from the carousels and albums, scan them at their standard rates, and replace them, in order, before shipping the carousels or albums back to you.

Carl and Alice Jones, 1949. After ScanCafe

They guarantee your originals, and will pay $1,000 if your images or lost or destroyed while they have them. While our images are irreplaceable and invaluable, it’s still good to know that ScanCafe will feel some financial pain if they do lose your images.

ScanCafe’s process is perhaps a little unorthodox. You send your photographs to an office in the San Francisco Bay Area. In turn, they forward them to their offices in Bangalore (Bengaluru) India, where the actual scanning and restoration is done.

There are three key benefits I see in ScanCafe’s service:

  1. They only make you pay for the scans you keep. This came in handy for me, as there were some duplicates in the bunches of photos I sent. I found the images among them scanned best, and didn’t have to pay for the others.
  2. They provide best-in-class restoration services at a reasonable price. When your images appear on the customer area of the ScanCafe website, you can see their selection of images they think they can improve with their restoration service.
  3. Their commitment to quality and customer service is high and demonstrable. Take a look at the restoration they did of the snapshot of my parents at their wedding. The original was almost too painful to look at, having been underexposed, the partially eaten by a family pet, and finally, crimped and folded. ScanCafe removed all of these issues and got me the image pretty much as I always should have had it. (My only issue with this particular image is that I think that it’s now a little overexposed.)

Lifehacker

Lifehacker, a website devoted to simplifying work aligned with the “Getting Things Done” methodology of author David Allen, points to a time management tool called TimeEdition. I have tried the application out, and it’s as they describe it: Amazingly simple to use, and with a handy integration with the Google Calendar allowing you to see your status from any browser.

It will no doubt be a very handy tool for tracking my professional genealogy projects. I could also see some amateurs, who want to see where they’re spending their time, using this tool on a more temporary or periodic basis.

Their full article is on the Lifehacker website. TimeEdition is available for the Mac OS and Windows.