Archive for December, 2014

The UK government recently debuted their own free site for their Probate Calendar, previously only readily accessible online on pay site Ancestry. It has been up for a bit, but made waves yesterday (December 27th) because the UK government issued a press release about it. I hadn’t explored the site until the new waves because I already use the Probate Calendar on Ancestry and had read reviews from some other researchers that the search engine on the UK government’s site was less practical if you were searching for someone with a common name, as it only allowed you to search for the surname for probates from 1858 to 1995, not the given name, location, or other limiting parameters. But after it made so much fresh news I decided to explore the site, partly because based on the press release and the buzz around it, I wasn’t completely clear that it was still the same site that had recently gone up, with capabilities just to search the Probate Calendar, until I searched myself and discovered this. The first thing I want to stress, because in my opinion the press release didn’t make this clear unless you read the “Notes to editors” bullet points at the end, and some people/sites who have shared it may have unintentionally added to the confusion, is that it’s still the Probate Calendar that’s free to view on the site, not original wills themselves. You use the site to find entries for wills/probates and then use the information you have found to order copies for a fee through the site’s ordering system.

In my test searches I wanted to start with people I already knew how to find, so I began with a 1919 death and probate whose probate I have yet to order. I plugged in the surname and the year he died (the only parameters allowed by the 1858-1995 search engine) and up popped the first page of the surname in the 1919 Probate Calendar. The site told me that there were 9 relevant pages total in 1919 and allowed me a few options – next page, next year, and zoom. I paged through until I found the right person in the Probate Calendar. It was surprisingly fast and easy for the surname Davis (perhaps the surname is more common here in the States by this point than it is in England), though since I already knew I would find what I was seeking, that may have influenced my opinion. In my searching I discovered something that I hadn’t personally seen anyone mention in their pre-press-release reviews – the Probate Calendar scanned on the UK government’s site includes notes, presumably made by staff into the copy that was scanned. It was particularly glaring on the first page that came up in my first test search because underneath a 1919 Probate Calendar entry, a handwritten note added, “Further probate granted 19 January 1934.” However, most of the notes are just numbers written beside entries, including beside the person for whom I searched in my first test search. I am not personally completely clear on what the numbers mean.

My first search had raised a question that I wanted to try to answer with my next test search. While the search engine says to plug in the year the person died, since the pages returned were that year in the Probate Calendar, I had a feeling that what you really needed to input was the year the person’s probate went through, and that any delayed probate wouldn’t show up if you inputted the year the person died rather than the year their estate was probated. This is particularly large an issue in cases like some I have had where a probate went through many years after the person died, sometimes after their surviving spouse finally died. But it could be a problem in smaller ways, too – say, for example, if someone dies in December and their probate isn’t processed till early January. So for my next test of this site, I decided to try one of the crazier cases in my tree, someone who died in 1903 and whose estate was probated a whopping 45 years later. As I suspected, plugging the year of probate (1948) into the search engine for “Year of death” turned up the relevant page. I then tried the actual year of death in the search engine, and was told that there were two pages for the unusual surname for that year, but when I went to the pages, they were only for other surnames that started with RED-.

I next searched for a Davis who died in December 1961 and their estate was probated in January 1962. Again, plugging in 1962 as the death date, even though the Probate Calendar entry was explicit that it was when the estate was probated rather than when he died, was what brought up the entry. This time there were 32 pages to wade through, and I was glad it was someone with a given name early in the alphabet.

These test searches were ones where I already knew the answer, so next I decided to try some searches where I didn’t know what the results would be. This is possible because the Probate Calendar on the UK government’s site goes to 1995 (with a separate search engine going from 1996 to a few weeks before the current date), whereas Ancestry’s Probate Calendar only goes to 1966. I first searched for another of the Redcliffe clan; she and her sister had never married, and her sister had died in 1965 with enough money to have a will. Alma died in 1978 and a search for Redcliffes with a probate in 1978 did not turn up Alma’s probate. With the unusual surname and the way the viewing is set up, it was easy to quickly click through the coming years to check to see if Alma’s probate was belatedly processed. I made it to 1982, when their brother William’s probate turned out to have been processed, before giving up on Alma. I had found their brother’s probate, which had been my next planned search, and I still can’t say for sure that Alma’s probate wasn’t belatedly processed, only that it isn’t on the Probate Calendar as far forward as I searched in this test. After this I searched for another woman who was born with an unusual surname but in this case died with a more common one. Finding Grace (Brimacombe) Davey’s probate was easy – she died in 1973 and her estate turned out to have been probated in 1973, and it only took a few pages of Daveys before I found her entry.

The way the system is set up, as far as I have been able to determine, you can only order 1858-1995 wills through the dialogue boxes that show up in the right sidebar after you perform a search. However, through my testing, I determined that once the ordering sidebar comes up, you can fill in anyone’s information to place an order, not just the person for whom you searched. So if you already have found folks in the Probate Calendar on Ancestry but haven’t obtained their wills yet, you can do a search for anyone and then plug in the information you already have to order the will(s) you want. While a calendar pops up when you go into the sidebar’s “Death Date” and “Probate Date” dialogue boxes, I determined that you can type in the date in the English style (day/month/year) rather than having to toggle through the calendar. Each will costs ten pounds and you can pay by a few different types of credit cards. If you don’t already have an account you will need to create one before you can place your order, but the process is fast and I found it easy to do. Once you place the order you are told an estimated digital delivery date; mine was listed as January 7th for every will I ordered, and the system isn’t clear as to whether it takes governmental holidays into account. The site warns, “You will have 31 days to download your copy of each will, starting from the first day that you log in to see it.”

If you don’t have an idea of the death date and/or are researching a common surname and/or think the person died by 1966, Ancestry’s Probate Calendar is a lot more effective to search since their index includes the given name(s), the death date, the theoretical death place, and the probate registry used. I say “theoretical death place” because in my experience, what they index is almost always where the person typically lived, regardless of whether the Probate Calendar is very specific about them dying somewhere else. If you know where the person’s usual residence was at the time they died, this is probably better since you may not know where they died; but either way, this difference is something to keep in mind while you search Ancestry’s Probate Calendar. But the UK government’s Probate Calendar is great if you do have an idea of the death date, are researching a less common surname or willing to search through many pages of results, and/or believe that the person died after 1966. Plus the UK government’s Probate Calendar is free for anyone with an internet connection, whereas for Ancestry you need to either have a subscription to their UK records collection or access Ancestry Library Edition somewhere that does. And most importantly, non-local researchers now have a way to order wills online, thanks to the new ordering system.

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Can American genealogical conferences and other events embrace diversity? Back in 2013, I attended my first fairly large genealogical conferences, a regional one and an international one. After the first one, I started a post of suggestions for American genealogical conferences, which I expanded after the second one but have never finished and posted it. Prompted by DearMYRTLE’s discussions on her blog this week, I wanted to pull the point that I feel is the most important from that draft – the issue of diversity in topics and attendees – and expand upon it. Before (or after, if you really prefer) reading my post, I suggest you read Myrt’s posts and the many comments to some of them. Here are the links to her posts:

Following was one of my suggestions for American genealogical conferences that I wrote in 2013 a week or two after attending the New England Regional Genealogical Consortium (NERGC) 2013 Conference, which had been decidedly lacking in seeming diversity both in attendees and topics:

Reach out to organizations that are specifically focused on the history and/or genealogy of people of color, religions other than Christianity, and other so-called “minorities,” trying to get more speakers and attendees from these groups. Most lectures at most if not all American genealogy conferences focus by default on the experiences of white Christians, and while of course I cannot judge the heritage of someone else, most attendees at most of them appear to be white. Even most of the lectures that were focused on various “minorities” at NERGC 2013 and at other regional events that I have attended were given by people who do not personally identify with the group on which they are speaking. This is not to say that someone can’t become experienced at researching people other than their own self-identification; if that were the case, only people with a completely homogenous background would be able to successfully research their own family’s history and historians would only be able to do good research on people just like them. But after attending many lectures, I believe that people who are a part of the group being presented bring a different perspective to a lecture than people who are approaching it from an outsider’s perspective, and I also think that the best presenters are fully cognizant of this. Part of why I think this would be such a great idea – beyond the obvious issue of diversity or lack thereof – is because you cannot judge someone’s research interests based on how they physically appear to you.

Since typing the above and failing to ever post my draft, I have attended many more genealogical and historical events, including a second conference, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies’ (IAJGS) 2013 Conference. I want to stress again that I cannot speak for others’ self-identification nor their heritage, but based on my perceptions alone, there were significantly more people who appeared to be persons of color at IAGJS than there had been at NERGC. There have also been more people who appeared to be persons of color at historical events I have attended that had to do with slavery in Massachusetts than there were at either genealogical conference, and as I noted in my most recent post, I think this speaks to the fact that if topics of interest are discussed and the event is advertised in a way where persons of color see it, persons of color will attend. This seems to me to be pretty basic, but based on my experiences as a white genealogist and the experiences of a number of genealogists I know from a variety of backgrounds and heritages, it seems to be beyond what the planning committees for many genealogical conferences/seminars and other genealogical events do.

In my humble opinion, these are some things that could be a good start at changing things for the better in the American genealogical world:

  1. If an organization hosting a conference/seminar/etc. comes up with themes or suggested proposal topics in advance, try to ensure that these include a wide variety of topics. While an organizer might think, “This topic wouldn’t be of interest to my intended audience” – how can they know for sure that it wouldn’t unless they try it? And how can they know what their future audience might potentially be unless they offer topics that attract a wide range of attendees?
  2. More widely advertise calls for proposals to reach a more diverse group, and take chances on proposals from speakers that aren’t already familiar to you.
  3. Similarly, advertise conferences, seminars, and other events in a wide variety of ways and places to reach as many potential attendees as possible. I feel that some genealogical organizations and groups create a self-fulfilling prophecy by trying to make everything appeal to their current or most recent attendees, so I feel that (1) and (2) are important for (3), because most people only attend things that they expect to find interesting and/or useful and which they expect to be worth the cost.
  4. As Eva Goodwin eloquently stressed in a comment on one of Dear Myrtle’s posts this week, the default in the American genealogical world seems to be that anyone who is a general genealogical expert speaker is someone who is perceived as white, regardless of the fact that most well-known white genealogical speakers are specialists in one or two “niche” kinds of research and despite the fact that, to use the specific example that Eva used in her comment, African-American genealogical research is difficult to do so anyone who is really good at doing it must also be really good at doing genealogical research in general. We need to work to change this – and by “we” I mean everyone in the American genealogical community.
  5. Please, please, please consider offering a discount on attending a single day of a multi-day conference. Many American genealogical conferences offer single-day registration that is nearly as expensive as attending the entire conference. How many more people could they be attracting if they offered reasonable single-day registration? Before you, dear reader, say “Then it would be overwhelmed on Saturday,” this August I attended the first-ever Celtic Connections Conference, which offered more affordable single-day registration, and there were a number of people who were more interested in Friday’s topics and only attended on Friday, so both days sold out in advance even though a number of people only attended one day or the other of the two-day conference. Without financially-reasonable options for people who are only interested in one day’s lectures or who work on weekdays and can only attend weekend events, an entire pool of people will skip a multi-day event entirely. And yes, I am already well-aware that “Genealogy is an expensive hobby,” to quote a common response to such suggestions. A lot of genealogists are at jobs whose paychecks help fund their genealogical hobby but which they can’t leave just to attend an event.

If we want to have a thriving American genealogical community, we need to embrace a diversity of people – from many different races, heritages, classes, religions, sexual orientations, and so on. The more voices we help to come through the din, the better our community will be for it and the better all of us will be as genealogists.

I want to thank Myrt for her posts as they prompted me to finally post and I also want to thank my Twitter friend who goes by The Descendant for encouraging me to finish and post my suggestions when she found out earlier this I’d been working on my original suggestions post – I’ve kept your encouragement in mind all this time, and hopefully you’ll feel this is better late than never!

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