The Contemplative Genealogist ©™

Charters of Freedom Hall, U.S. National Archives, Washington. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division (public domain).

Charters of Freedom Hall, U.S. National Archives, Washington. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division (public domain).

U.S. National Archives Asks Public for Help
Comments requested regarding NARA’s partnerships with Ancestry.com and Fold3
By The Contemplative Genealogist©™

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has partnered, for just under a decade, with two online resources popular with amateur historians and professional genealogists alike – Fold3 and Ancestry.com. In July, NARA personnel announced plans to improve the agency’s agreements with those service providers, and are asking for the public’s input before August 21, 2015. In short, NARA personnel hope to:

  • Have more freedom in partner-related cost recovery/waiving of those costs;
  • Have the ability to monitor document embargo periods imposed by NARA partners; and
  • Be able to require those partners to start their “embargo clocks” sooner so that individual documents can be posted faster instead of holding publication until entire collections have been scanned (possibly speeding up access to documents for Fold3 and Ancestry.com customers by up to two years).

According to Onaona Guay, digitization partnerships coordinator at the U.S. National Archives, NARA records were viewed in June 2015 a whopping 2.5 million times on Fold 3 and 8.8 million times on Ancestry.com. “Digitization partnerships present an opportunity for increased access to historical government information through the increased availability of information technology products and services.”

But, as any family or military history researcher knows, it can take a long time for NARA partners to work their way through the myriad steps involved in preparing documents for online publication with their respective systems. With the way partnership agreements are currently structured, records that are usually publicly available can suddenly become unavailable while genealogy companies are engaged in scanning, indexing and other tasks. As a result, researchers may find themselves out of luck when visiting libraries because collections have been embargoed until a company completes its work.

* Note: According to NARA’s Principles for Partnerships to Digitize Archival Materials:

1. Agreements with partners to digitize archival materials will be nonexclusive. We will be open to multiple digitizing partners for different sets of materials, but a group of original archival materials will be digitized by only one party.

2. After an agreed-upon period of time, otherwise known as an embargo period, NARA gains unrestricted rights to the digital copies and the associated metadata transmitted to NARA by the partner, including the right to give or sell digital copies in whole or part to other entities, if NARA so chooses. If resources permit, we will try to make the digital materials available in our online catalog within the same year they are no longer in the embargo period….

4. To further the goal of full access and to achieve preservation benefits, partners will digitize full series or cohesive, substantial file segments of records, not just selected documents. This practice will allow for the removal of the original records from research room use….

5. Public access to publicly owned resources will remain free. Partners may develop and charge for value-added features, but access to the digital copies ultimately should be readily accessible and free. NARA acknowledges partners’ potential proprietary interest in the digital copies and to value-added features….

But, once digitized by NARA providers, it can be quite costly to purchase subscriptions to Fold3 and Ancestry.com in order to access the newly scanned documents online. (Although it may also be argued, that these costs are less than the expenditures of time and money one would incur in order to travel to individual NARA sites to access the range of records now accessible online from the comfort of one’s home or office thanks to these digital partnership agreements.)

For these and other reasons, NARA hopes that active users of Fold3 or Ancestry.com will take a few minutes to review the proposed changes to NARA’s partnership agreements, and then email their comments to NARA by August 21, 2015. To access the agreements, visit NARA’s web page on Digitization Partnerships:

To submit feedback, please email: digitization@nara.gov. Then, stay engaged, and monitor these and other partnership agreements as they come up for review at NARA.

Using Military Records to Get Better Acquainted with Your Ancestors
By The Contemplative Genealogist©™

The dad had been an ice skater as a teen, a hobby unknown to his youngest child – a daughter raised in a climate where ice skating was rarely possible for her father and his aging heart. Confident of his musical gifts, he had also described (on the same nondescript government form) his aptitude for playing the piano – listing it as a “talent for entertainment.”

That form was one of many sent to the daughter by the National Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Its completion had been required as part of her dad’s honorable discharge from the Seabees at the close of World War II.

As she worked her way through the inch-thick file, she also encountered mentions of her father’s parents and sisters, documentation of the training he’d been given during his time in the military, and copies of the various duty notifications he’d received.

And then she found the copy of his fingerprints. Taken upon his 1942 entry into the service, there they were providing an intimate link from the 21st century back to the champion hugger who had died nearly 40 years earlier. Although she could no longer hold his hand, the daughter shed real tears, feeling his spirit reach out to her across time as she traced the inky swirls of his fingertips with her own.

Accessing the military records of a parent or long-dead ancestor can be a profound spiritual experience for both novice and experienced family history researchers alike. Many still speak of the emotions stirred years after viewing scraps of paper – or the bare bones data commonly found in online cemetery records.

Today, thanks to the explosion of history-related websites, there are more ways than ever to uncover details about the lives of those who gave the last full measure of devotion. Free online databases have been created, for example, by the agencies which manage the cemeteries where a significant percentage of America’s veterans now rest. Many make locating a soldier’s gravesite as easy as typing his or her name into a search textbox. (See the Genealogy Tips – Going Sherlock section of this blog for links to these resources.)

Plus, fee-for-service research tools such as Ancestry.com and Fold3 are also proving helpful as searchers find not only the names of the veterans they are researching, but their dates of birth and death, the names of their spouses (via military pension records), the locations where individuals were residing at the time of their enlistment, the names of the commanding officers under whom they served (via muster rolls), and the specific locations where the ancestors were buried, as well as the names of the branches of service, units, and duty stations where they served (via muster rolls, transport ship ledgers, casualty lists, or burial cards from state veterans affairs departments).

But it is in the hard files found at national and state archive repositories where the real “meat” of veterans’ lives still lies – waiting – begging to be discovered. According to the National Archives (NARA) website, out of the roughly 1.4 million appeals made for military records annually to the agency, only about 10 percent ask for the complete files available for individual veterans. The other 90 percent typically ask only for honorable discharge paperwork and other separation documents.

And that is a shame. Because those who have obtained the full files for their ancestors (World War II to present day) will tell you that those compiled files are the equivalent of family jewels.

These files contain fascinating and important information related to veterans and their survivors, including social security and service numbers, dates of entry and release from active duty, character ratings by superior officers, and the names of family members designated as insurance beneficiaries. Military discharge records provide added data about whether or not veterans were ever granted leaves of absence, were ill or injured during service, their pay grades, ranks and promotions, and honors received, such as Purple Heart awards and ribbons earned for service in specific military campaigns.

The newest of military records, dating from 1917 to the present, are managed by the National Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and may be obtained by applying online or through the mail.

Older military service records are maintained by NARA in Washington, DC. These document the roles played by veterans from the volunteer state regiments which served in the interest of the federal government from 1775 to 1902 to those who served in the Regular Army (enlisted personnel from 1789-October 31, 1912; officers from 1789 to June 30, 1917), Marine Corps (enlisted personnel from 1798-1904; some officers from 1798-1895), Navy (enlisted personnel from 1798-1885; officers from 1798-1902), Coast Guard (Revenue Marine, the Life-Saving Service, and the Lighthouse Service from 1791-1919), and Confederate States (1861-1865).

NARA also provides access to bounty land warrant applications filed based on wartime service (1775-1855) and pension claims filed for federal military service from 1775-1916.

These pre-World War I records may also be obtained online or by mail.The cost generally ranges from $30 to $80, depending on the type of file and amount of research involved.

Your buried treasure is waiting. Don’t miss out.

Bringing Comfort by Documenting Burial Locations
By The Contemplative Genealogist©™

On a day of burial there is no perspective – for space itself is annihilated. Your dead friend is still a fragmentary being. The day you bury him is a day of chores and crowds, of hands false or true to be shaken, of the immediate cares of mourning. The dead friend will not really die until tomorrow, when silence is round you again. Then he will show himself complete, as he was – to tear himself away, as he was, from the substantial you. Only then will you cry out because of him who is leaving and whom you cannot detain.Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Online cemetery record websites, such as Find A Grave and Billion Graves, are popular tools for both hobbyists and serious researchers. Many, such as the cemetery enthusiasts who call themselves “gravers,” take pride in helping to preserve the history of towns across America by posting memorials online for each of the decedents interred at a single burial site. Others enjoy the opportunity to document, through their photography and legwork, unusual headstone carvings or the beautiful stained glass of crypts in distinctive cities of the dead.

Their work is deeply appreciated by beginning and experienced family historians who, for reasons of time and money, are unable to visit the many far flung cemeteries where their distant ancestors are interred. The memorials they create also often bring comfort to surviving family members when they realize that someone has taken the time to remember special loved ones.

Unfortunately, the work of a few gravers has recently come into question. Some, who are oddly competitive and termed by their fellow gravers as “hard core,” seem to be more concerned with racking up the largest possible number of posted memorials on their favorite websites, resulting in the creation of online profiles for individuals who have not yet been interred, as well as memorials for others who haven’t even yet died.

In addition, in their haste to post a cemetery’s worth of memorials, these overzealous gravers have failed to properly document the relationships between individuals buried in the same cemetery by taking the simple step of linking the online profiles of husbands to wives and of parents to their children. Some have even posted incorrect birth or death dates for decedents, causing confusion for genealogists, historians and members of the media engaged in research.

Still others have posted information about deceased individuals or photographs on memorials which have shocked and saddened surviving family and friends. Several gravers have taken the liberty of photographing their dogs sitting or standing on graves – graves of individuals to whom they are not even related. Others, not understanding the spiritual traditions of the dead they are documenting, place flowers or other materials on graves before photographing – in violation of a cemetery’s rules or a religion’s tenets.

A few years ago, one graver posted details on a man’s memorial about the woman who had killed him. With just a quick Google search beforehand, the poster would have learned, however, that the woman (also now deceased) was not a murderer, but had shot her husband that night in self-defense after he had first shot her in an attempt to take her life. She had suffered severe abuse at his hands for years before that fateful night, and had told police that the gun went off accidentally as she was trying to get the gun away from him to prevent him from killing her.

And sadly, another graver profiling a woman who had been shot and killed by her ex-husband in church chose to memorialize the victim not by describing her 30-year career as a beloved educator in a small town, but by writing about the man who had taken her life.

When asked by family members or friends to remove or revise their offensive online memorials, many of these seemingly hardhearted gravers have refused, citing a variety of confusing rules from online cemetery registries which allegedly vest them with the authority to post whatever they believe to be appropriate. Photos of graves posted online are perfectly fine, they say, because cemeteries are public places and they are simply trying to be thorough and accurate. Several have also claimed that it is acceptable for them to place whatever items they want on graves because they do not adhere to the same religious beliefs of the individuals they are documenting.

Most frustrating is that, when asked to transfer memorials to family members who wish to add additional information about their loved ones, several of these gravers have also refused to cooperate.

What is readily apparent to many who are witnessing this controversy play out in online forums is that much of it can easily be avoided in the future by simply asking, “If someone posted this about my mom or my child, would that upset me or someone else in our family?”

Just because we can post something about someone who has passed on doesn’t mean we should. It’s time that gravers hold themselves to a higher standard – and for the owners of sites like Find A Grave to ensure that they do.

Tips: 

  1. Be respectful. Know and adhere to the specific rules of each cemetery you are visiting. Jogging, for example, is not permitted at Arlington National Cemetery, and bicycles and motorcycles are not allowed elsewhere. Many cemeteries also prohibit the placement of balloons, candles, toys, and other tokens at grave sites, and restrict the planting of shrubs or trees. Still others regulate the placement of real and artificial flowers and the times when holiday remembrances may be left.
  2. Honor the spiritual traditions of those whose graves you are visiting. According to The Jewish Funeral Guide, “It is forbidden to treat the cemetery lightly and derive any kind of benefit from the graves … levity and undignified behavior, is unacceptable in the presence of the dead in general and in the Jewish cemetery in particular. The solemn atmosphere of the cemetery requires appropriate conduct from all visitors…. Eating and drinking is not allowed…. Sitting on a gravestone, which directly covers a grave is prohibited. One may, however, sit near the graves. One should avoid stepping on a grave, unless there is no alternative way to access other graves or to perform burials. It is customary to request forgiveness of the deceased if one must step on his or her grave…. Upon entering and leaving the cemetery, it is customary to wash one’s hands using a cup of water poured alternately on each hand.” And if “the scheduled visit falls on the Sabbath or on a Jewish Holiday,” adds the funeral guide “it should be rescheduled…. The Jewish custom is not to bring flowers or floral wreaths to the graves. Instead, when taking leave of the deceased, one should place a small stone upon the grave.”
  3. Leave Fido at home or in the car. Most cemeteries do not allow pets. Perhaps more importantly, while many family and friends of deceased individuals are dog friendly, a fair number would be distressed to learn that dogs have been sitting on or roaming over their loved ones’ graves. If you feel that it is not safe for you to visit a cemetery alone, bring a human rather than a furry friend. If this is not possible – or if you will be bringing a trained guide dog or other service animal to assist you, use a leash and keep your animal from wandering onto any graves. And above all, if you’re photographing a grave for a memorial site such as Find A Grave, do not take or post pictures of graves showing your animal on the grave you have been asked to photograph.
  4. Do not post data on websites such as Find A Grave for pre-need gravesites set up by individuals in advance of their death. Memorials for individuals who have not yet passed on are not permitted by many online cemetery registries for very good reason. “Gravers” jumping the gun can cause confusion for genealogists, news reporters and other researchers who may accidentally spread inaccurate information about someone’s passing, and may also cause undue worry for family members, such as nieces and nephews, who may be living away from a memorialized individual and shocked to learn of a favored aunt or uncle’s passing – when that individual is actually still alive and well.
  5. Wait a few days until after the funeral to post a decedent’s memorial on Find A Grave or similar websites. It can be difficult for grieving family to come upon online memorials created by someone who did not know the loved one, particularly if the content of the memorial is poorly written or contains data about the decedent which family members did not want published. In addition, family and friends of the deceased may be fellow gravers, working genealogists, or simply wanting to honor a loved one by posting the memorial themselves. They should be given adequate time to do so.
  6. Be truthful but kind to the memory of the individual you are memorializing – and also sensitive to the feelings of surviving family and friends who might come across your online memorial. When a child dies suddenly, it can take decades for parents to come to terms with their child’s passing. Photos taken of their child’s grave by strangers may feel intrusive or even disrespectful. If you are asked to remove the memorial, do so without argument or debate. It is simply the kind and decent thing to do for parents who are experiencing a pain like no other.
  7. Focus on the positive when creating online memorials. Whether an adult dies tragically as the result of a terrible car accident or at home in bed is not the issue. What matters is how the decedent lived. It is never acceptable to post gory details of a car accident or homicide – or to focus more on the batterer or murderer than you do on the decedent. Retell the positive to help surviving family, friends and others who may come across your memorial to understand who the decedent truly was.
  8. Go above and beyond the Golden Rule. Put yourself in the place of the family or friends of the deceased. Ask yourself if they might perceive your actions as honoring the memory of their loved ones – or as being disrespectful.

Preserving Pop’s Past while Making New Father’s Day Memories
By The Contemplative Genealogist©™  

Old war stories. Tall tales of the biggest fish ever caught. The love story of Mom and Dad. Perspective on dreams unfilled and the true meaning of life. Somewhere “up there,” tucked away in a corner of the brain of a father, grandfather, or elderly neighbor is a memory waiting to be discovered and preserved.

How many times have we attended funerals in the past several years, only to realize that we will never again hear the voice of, or feel a special squeeze hug from, a father or beloved uncle? Sad times when we feel a pain, unique in sharpness, that dulls but never truly dies with the passage of time.

But it is in the post-funeral period – in serendipitous moments when we learn new details about the lives of the deceased – that, perhaps, we feel our losses most acutely. We hear about surprising hobbies from long ago, a father’s bravery or sense of humor – or an uncle’s kindness in reaching out to community members down on their luck. We find ourselves wishing that those loved ones or colleagues were still around to tell us more, and realize with a certain poignancy that it is now too late to ask questions suddenly burning for answers.

Father’s Day seems like an appropriate time to sound a wake-up call. For those of us with aging family, friends, and neighbors, it is not yet too late to pick up the phone – or stop by for a cup of coffee with a splash of wisdom.

Dave Isay, author of the 2007 book, Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project (storycorps.org), makes an eloquent case for taking the time to not just talk with those we know and love – but to preserve their thoughts for future generations as recordings of what life was like for decent, hardworking Americans.

Isay reminds us that “we all want to know our lives have mattered and we won’t ever be forgotten,” and that, “if we take the time to listen, we’ll find wisdom, wonder, and poetry in the lives and stories of the people all around us.”

The book’s afterward provides an excellent primer on “How to Have the Conversation of a Lifetime.” With tips on everything from choosing a location and recording equipment to the types of questions to ask, Isay makes it easy for anyone, regardless of one’s level of experience in conducting oral history interviews, to mine families and neighborhoods for the veins of golden memories still waiting – begging – to be uncovered.

Personal histories really do matter. As gripping and inspiring as movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Memphis Belle were, the first-hand experiences of life on and off of the battlefield – told to a son or daughter looking with rapt attention into the eyes of a father – are far more compelling.

And no one can tell the story about how one’s parents met and fell in love better than the two people who actually did the flirtin’ and the kissin’.

So, grab a voice recorder, a laptop, or a notepad, and sit down with Dad or Grandpa – or even a resident of a local nursing home who might not have anyone left to tell his story. And do it before America loses any more of its “institutional memory.”

You’ll be helping us all remember what makes America great – and might just give yourself a gift – memories of one very special Father’s Day and a recording you’ll be able to play when you can no longer pick up a phone to hear the voice of someone who truly did make a difference.

Genealogy – Turning Heartbreak into an Opportunity to Inspire Others
By The Contemplative Genealogist©™

“Genealogy will break your heart.” That cautionary advice was given to me as a beginning family history researcher by one of the longer serving members of a state genealogy society where I was volunteering.

She was telling me that, while there would be many fun discoveries ahead, there would be breathtaking moments of sadness and disappointment – periods when I would wish that I could reach through the folds of time to grab an ancestor and shake him awake to make him change his bad boy ways – or bear hug a great-grandmother or grand aunt forced to bury yet another child.

The adventure has been an extraordinary one. Working on my own family’s paternal and maternal trees – as well as those of other family members, friends and clients, I have been struck repeatedly by the ways in which one simple piece of paper can make present day women and men feel as if they’re meeting centuries-dead relatives face-to-face and, in some cases, to help others finally understand why their own lives may have unfolded the way they have.

Distant relatives who were institutionalized. Civil War-era “fighting men” – really no more than boys who suffered through, and then died – at the infamous Andersonville Prison. Cases of domestic violence. Children who died in infancy of diseases that, only a few years later, would be easily treated. A mother, eight months pregnant, suddenly widowed when her husband was felled by a heart attack. A young boy sent to an orphange when that mother could no longer care for him.

These would seem to be the worst facts to uncover – the heartrending snapshots of ancestors’ lives about which that older, wiser genealogist had warned me.

But, with a willingness to dig for the details behind a single sentence found on an Internet cemetery records site or references on U.S. Census sheets to numbers of children born versus those still living, many of these hints at tragedy have turned out to be so much more.

Stories of courage, kindness, redemption, and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds that have the capacity to make today’s world realize that we, like our ancestors before us, are made of sterner stuff. That we are capable of surviving almost anything – and that all of us have it within us, as individuals, to change the world in our own unique and important ways.

So, if you’re reading this as someone who is researching your own or another’s family history? Be a Mensch. Try to uncover – and then share – the full story of the person you’re profiling (if it’s appropriate and okay with living family members). Present not only the factoid that someone did time, but the why of the crime.

Consider doing so even if you’re working on the profile of only a distant relative. You might be the one, single person who takes the time to uncover a gem of a story that hundreds of other amateur genealogists skipped, thinking it wasn’t relative to their own research efforts.

At a minimum, you’ll be demonstrating genuine compassion for the individual you’re profiling by portraying the person as fully and accurately as possible – and you might just end up with the opportunity to write a great human interest story for a larger reading audience.

And if you’re reading this as someone asking, “Why I am here? What is my purpose in life?” – and you aren’t quite sure where to turn for clues? Contact your friendly local genealogist for help in finding out how your ancestors may have answered those questions. You just might find that you have more to offer the world than you realize.

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