Current Affairs

Should Government Offices Store Paper Documents? or Digital Images?

I received an email message from a newsletter reader asking about a recent experience she had with a county records clerk. I answered her in email but decided to also publish my reply here in this newsletter because I suspect her experience is going to become more common with every passing year.

I deleted the name of the city, county, and state because I believe this is a nationwide and even international issue. It could have happened anywhere. Let’s focus on the issues, not on the location:

“Hi, Mr. Eastman

“I wanted to share this with you. I am researching genealogy for a friend of mine. He told me that his parents were married in {city and state deleted} and wanted proof of that. He did not have any more information than that.

“Today, I contacted the County Clerk to verify that they were married there. The clerk found the record. I asked how much would it cost to get a certified copy. She said that ‘I will mail the original to you.’ I said, ‘The original?’ She replied, ‘Yes, we do not keep original documents anymore. We scan them into the computer system and mail them to the nearest family member.’

Update: A Fire at the Aberdeen (Washington) Museum of History Destroys Much of the Museum’s Collection and a Genealogy Society’s Library

This is an update to the article I published yesterday at: http://bit.ly/2JKz3Mq:

I received an email message this morning from a newsletter reader whose name I will not divulge for privacy reasons. She wrote:

“I live in Aberdeen, WA. Just so you know, they have already started to recover items from the basement. They have been able to find pictures and documents, floating in water. Many of the pictures are already showing signs of mold. “

A Fire at the Aberdeen (Washington) Museum of History Destroys Much of the Museum’s Collection and a Genealogy Society’s Library

Here is a story that every genealogist, archivist, historian, and museum manager never wants to read: On Saturday, a fire destroyed the Aberdeen Museum of History in Kurt Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, which included items from his early life.

NOTE: The late Kurt Cobain was an American singer, songwriter, and musician. Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Cobain formed the band Nirvana with Krist Novoselic and Aaron Burckhard in 1987.

No one was in the building at the time of the fire, and no injuries were reported. It took 77 firefighters 10.5 hours to suppress the fire. The fire started from within the building, a cause most typically related to heating or electrical malfunctions. At around 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, firefighters from multiple agencies responded to the fire in the Armory Building. It spread through most of the building, and collapsed a majority of the roof. It caused serious damage to the museum and other organizations located inside like the Coastal Community Action Program, the Senior Center, and the Grays Harbor Genealogical Society research library.

Man, Presumed Dead, Returns Home a Year After the Family Cremated the Wrong Body

“Honey, I’m home”

“BUT YOU’RE DEAD”

“I got better”

A man in his 40s, who was reported missing last year, and later “found,” then confirmed dead by police and his family who had him cremated, has shocked his family by returning home alive and well.

Grave Robbers Steal Bones from Miami’s Historic Cemeteries

One has to wonder what motivate anyone to commit crimes like this. A rash of vandalism and an increase in trespassing at three of Miami’s oldest cemeteries has not only disturbed the repose of the deceased but complicated the struggle of protecting and preserving historic sites that have been neglected for years.

Thieves also steal American flags placed at soldiers’ graves.

You can read more about this sad story in an article by Linda Robertson in the Miami Herald web site at: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article212504519.html.

Muskegon County Genealogical Society Holds Ceremony and Provides Headstones for Children Buried in Unmarked Graves

Seventy-two children buried in unmarked graves in the Shady Rest cemetery in Muskegon, Michigan are receiving new headstones and will be remembered a special ceremony today.

The Muskegon County Genealogical Society over a year ago approached the county’s board of commissioner with the idea of making May Cemetery Awareness Month. When the board approved the request, the society quickly got to work restoring and cleaning up cemeteries and grave sites throughout the county.

“We are doing a cemetery project for the Muskegon County Genealogical Society,” said Bill Hansen, cemetery committee chairman. “We are attempting to map all of the cemeteries in the county into an interactive mapping system, and we have done seventeen so far, and as part of that we sort of unofficial adopted this cemetery to work on.”

Fire hits National Archives of the Philippines, No Critical Genealogy Documents Lost

The Juan Luna Building in Binondo, Manila, which houses the National Archives of the Philippines (often abbreviated to “NAP”), caught fire Monday morning. 30 firetrucks were deployed to the site.

The National Archives of the Philippines keeps more than 60 million official documents dating back to the Spanish era that can be used by Filipinos as primary sources.

Initial reports simply stated that a fire was raging at the National Archives of the Philippines. Obviously, the initial reports caused concern amongst archivists, historians, and genealogists. However, the fire did not touch any of the historic documents. National Archives employees said the office in Binondo is only used for administrative services as the actual documents are stored at a different location: the National Library at Kalaw Avenue, Manila.

National Archives of Australia to Lay Off 10 Staff Members

A “downsizing” at the National Archives of Australia has left it less able to give access to records, its boss David Fricker says. The agency that describes itself as Australia’s memory will lose another 10 staff this year after staffing cuts in 2017-18, he confirmed at a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday. It comes as the archives faces more applications from researchers to access records.

Budget papers this month showed the institution’s staffing would drop to 355 this year, compared to 429 reported in the 2013-14 budget.

You can read more in an article by Doug Dingwall in the Sydney Morning Herald web site at http://bit.ly/2IETqOE.

Caribbean-Americans Searching for Their Chinese Roots

The Atlas Obscura web site has published an interesting article by Eveline Chao about the search by Chinese-Jamaican-American or Canadians who wish to find their family history. Author Chao describes the good work done by Hakka Conferences and others to help each other find information about their ancestors.

It seems that many people originating in China with a distinct set of customs and a language also called Hakka left the country and moved to Jamaica in search of better economic opportunities. The British first brought Chinese and Indian workers to the Islands to replace slave labor on sugar plantations after Britain abolished slavery in 1834. (Initially, they used indentured servants from Ireland and Germany, but quickly turned East.) From 1853–1884, a recorded 17,904 Chinese—mostly men from Guangdong Province in southeast China—migrated to the British West Indies as indentured laborers, according to scholar Walton Look Lai. Some 160,000 migrated to the Caribbean overall (including Cuba).

Many Chinese immigrants intermarried with Afro-European-Chinese-Caribbean people. In later years, many of their descendants moved to the United States or to Canada. And you thought you had problems finding family records?

Hart Island, a Potter’s Field where New York City’s Poor and Unclaimed Dead are Buried

This sounds more like a Charles Dickens novel than it does about a 21st century news story. It seems that millions of formerly impoverished but now deceased citizens, along with many whose bodies were unclaimed by family, are buried in Hart Island. The 101-acre sliver of land in the waters far, far north of the Manhattan is the final resting place of more than an estimated 750,000 deceased persons. Hart Island is not open to the public.

Most of the graves are unmarked. The records of the coffin row-and-column placement are kept between five and 10 years, depending upon the effect of plot soil conditions on attempted disinternments. When disinternment attempts are no longer practical and appropriate, those plot burial records are turned over to the Municipal Archives.

‘Aboriginal’ Redacted from Australian Birth, Death, Marriage Certificates after Being Deemed an Offensive Term

Vital records worldwide are becoming more and more politically correct. A West Australian bureaucrat has deemed the use of the term “Aboriginal” may be regarded as offensive and exercised a little-known power to redact it from birth, death and marriage certificates. However, not everyone agrees with this decision.

It has shocked historians, who were unaware of the practice and say Aboriginal is considered by most to be an inclusive term. “Way back in the past people might have hidden their Aboriginality … it’s now a source of pride for many people of Aboriginal descent today,” according to Jenny Gregory, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Western Australia.

Some Genealogy Sites Closing Due to EU’s General Data Protection Regulation

The following is a message posted to the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies’ mailing list by Jan Meisels Allen:

The IAJGS Records Access Alert has written about the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) numerous times—including how in the Netherlands they are removing certain genealogically-relevant documents from their website due to the GDPR. The GDPR becomes effective May 25, 2018

In DNAeXplained-Genetic Genealogy by Roberta Estes she reports that several genealogical firms are also closing down due to the privacy provisions of and compliance with the GDPR:

Artificial Intelligence is Cracking Open the Vatican’s Secret Archives

The Vatican Secret Archives is one of the grandest historical collections in the world. Located within the Vatican’s walls, next door to the Apostolic Library and just north of the Sistine Chapel, the VSA houses 53 linear miles of shelving dating back more than 12 centuries. It’s also one of the most useless. If you want to peruse anything else, you have to apply for special access, schlep all the way to Rome, and go through every page by hand. It isn’t much use to modern scholars, because it’s so inaccessible. However, thanks to modern technology, access is changing.

Known as In Codice Ratio, a new project uses a combination of artificial intelligence and optical-character-recognition (OCR) software to scour these neglected texts and make their transcripts available online for the very first time. If successful, the technology could also open up untold numbers of other documents at historical archives around the world.

Thief Sentenced for Stealing Artifacts from the National Archives

The following is from the AOTUS Blog, written by David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States:

“By stealing World War II records from the National Archives and Records Administration and selling them to collectors, a thief victimized the American people and damaged the agency entrusted with safeguarding our nation’s records. Antonin DeHays recently received 364 days in prison and three years on probation, eight months of which are to be served in home confinement, along with 100 hours of community service, for the theft of records from the National Archives.

“DeHays, a private researcher, stole and sold identification tags and related items from files of American servicemen whose planes were downed in Europe during World War II, as well as other original records from the National Archives at College Park.

Never Throw Away Records of People!

The Home Office destroyed thousands of landing card slips recording Windrush immigrants’ arrival dates in the UK, despite staff warnings that the move would make it harder to check the records of older Caribbean-born residents experiencing residency difficulties.

Prime Minister Theresa May has apologised to Caribbean leaders over deportation threats made to the children of Commonwealth citizens, who despite living and working in the UK for decades, have been told they are living in the UK illegally because of a lack of official paperwork. The reason there is “a lack of official paperwork” is because the paperwork was destroyed by the government, not the fault of the immigrants or their children.

Libraries and Archives Canada Introduces Co-Lab, a Tool to Collaborate on Historical Records

Wikipedia defines crowdsourcing as “… a sourcing model in which individuals or organizations obtain goods and services, including ideas and finances, from a large, relatively open and often rapidly-evolving group of internet users; it divides work between participants to achieve a cumulative result.”

Crowdsourcing seems to be a great tool for genealogists to work together for the benefit of all. I have written often about the use of crowdsourcing in genealogy. See https://duckduckgo.com/?q=site%3Aeogn.com+crowdsourcing&t=hb&ia=web for a list of my earlier articles about crowdsourcing.

Now Libraries and Archives Canada is inviting everyone to “transcribe, add keywords and image tags, translate content from an image or document and add descriptions to digitized images using Co-Lab and the new Collection SearchBETA.”

The new project is described this way:

DNA Quest by MyHeritage Goes Global

The following announcement was written by the folks at MyHeritage:

Last month we launched DNA Quest, a new pro bono initiative to help adoptees and their birth families reunite through genetic testing.

The initiative, initially launched in the USA only, received an amazing response. More than 10,000 applications were submitted so far to receive free DNA kits, from the quota of 15,000 free DNA kits pledged by MyHeritage, worth more than one million dollars.

Being that the deadline for submissions is the end of April 2018 and there are still about 3 more weeks to go, and in light of the many requests we received from the community to expand DNA Quest worldwide, we decided to increase the scope of the project, as of today, from USA-only to global. This means that people are now eligible to participate in DNA Quest regardless of their place of residence and regardless of where the adoption took place.

Chicago Schoolhouse is being Built on Site of Estimated 38,000 Unmarked Graves

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.” – William Gladstone

A $70 million school is to be built on the grounds of a former Cook County Poor House where an estimated 38,000 people were buried in unmarked graves. Among the dead are residents who were too poor to afford funeral costs, unclaimed bodies and patients from the county’s insane asylum. Children, patients from an infirmary and a tuberculosis hospital, victims of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and Civil War veterans were laid to rest in what is known as the Dunning grounds, a 320-acre stretch on the city’s Northwest Side.

“I’m sure they’re gonna be on top of some graves, but this is progress,” Chicago Alderman Nicholas Sposato said. “It’s an economic boom for the community.”

Update: California sues the Trump Administration over the Addition of Citizenship Question to the 2020 Census

I recently wrote a brief article describing California’s lawsuit against the Trump Administration over the Addition of Citizenship Question to the 2020 Census. That article generated quite a bit of discussion. You can read the article at: http://bit.ly/2qawVVV.

Newsletter reader Ted Russell has written a response to the various discussions that strikes me as common sense. Here is his response, published here with Ted’s permission:

Yes, data on citizenship status will be of great use to future genealogists. And yes, the question is legal and constitutional. But it will likely have the effect of either driving undocumented immigrants further into the shadows, or exposing and deporting them, and this administration knows this very well. The Census Bureau is not supposed to share individual information with other agencies, but based on this administration’s disregard for the law, it would be hard for a Census enumerator to convince a respondent that the information will not be shared with ICE.

Caretakers are Restoring Life to Minnesota’s 5,876 Graveyards

A database has identified 5,876 cemeteries across Minnesota, but the number is likely much larger — in areas adjacent to rural churches taken by development, or in overgrown woods, or long-forgotten in farm fields.

A bill in the Legislature would require local governments to take responsibility for abandoned cemeteries if a veteran is buried there. It also would establish an adopt-a-cemetery program similar to the one used for highways and require the state Historical Society to update its inventory of state cemeteries, abandoned cemeteries and burial grounds.

You can read the details in an article by Mark Brunswick in the Star Tribune web site at: http://strib.mn/2HaSair.

My thanks to newsletter reader Polly Walker for telling me about this story.