January 3rd, 2012

Fascinated by Graveyards?

Sometime last year (or perhaps earlier), I stumbled across http://www.findagrave.com, which is a crowdsourcing site to collect burial places. The idea is to connect photos, GPS locations, information about the cemetery, a transcription of the stone(s), genealogical information and pointers to other entries of relatives. In practice, virtually all of this might be missing, and it's not obvious to me what support FindaGrave supplies for collecting the information (as opposed to supplying forms for entering information). There is some capacity to add information to existing memorials, which are owned by particular users accounts and which can be transferred.

Needless to say, what this all adds up to is a community project, and I think we all have a sense of how this can turn unpleasant. In case your imagination is failing you:


I use FindaGrave the way I use a lot of genealogical resources: I mine them for ideas. But just because someone carved it in granite doesn't make it so. This is how I got onto the John Veeder Plantz lied about his age kick. (And no, it wasn't a badly transcribed or difficult to read stone, either. Clear as could be.)

R. and I got to talking about whether either or both of us were interested in any graveyard visiting. We like them -- that's not the issue -- but it's more an ambiance thing than a fossil filing cabinet (so to speak). I have recently identified some cemeteries that I might be interested in taking photos/GPS/transcribing in for my own use, but I thought that before attempting this, I'd like to investigate what good "infrastructure" for such a project would be. I had in mind things like reflective screens to improve lighting conditions, which is a major complaint I have about headstone photos, and something to make it easy to manage the information.

I've also been attempting to surf through the genealogical blogging community, with intermittent success. Communities collectively know things and I'm trying to learn from this one. Today, I stumbled across a blog mentioning BillionGraves.


BillionGraves initially looked like a FindaGrave knockoff, but it isn't. It's a slickly produced set of software (website + iOS + Android apps) and backing databases put together by a Utah (surprise) corporation called AppTime, which apparently felt my concern about project infrastructure was worth pursuing (whatever they might think of photo quality issues). As you might expect, Dick Eastman covered the iPhone app release back in May:


And the comments thread does a nice job of covering the possible concerns (ownership, overlap with FindaGrave, Mormon post-mortem baptism, etc.), and (at the time I read it) ended with a pointer to this response from BillionGraves:


For my part, I'm finding this thing almost overwhelmingly tempting. There are several graveyards within an easy walk of where I live that have not yet had anything uploaded. Might make for a nice project to go with getting a tiny amount of additional exercise. Since (to the best of my knowledge) I have zero connection to anyone buried in these places, if I lose access to the work I do, at least it's not personal. And this paragraph from the BillionGraves blog suggests our values are tightly aligned:

"When our team first decided we wanted to work on a project to make gathering cemetery information more efficient and accessible, we attempted to contact Find a Grave to create a partnership: we’d provide a mobile app and they’d provide the website it integrated with. We never did hear back from the folks at Find a Grave"

Please, please, please, make it easy for me. Easy to contribute. Easy to consume. Feel free to charge me, especially after a vast volume of information has created an insuperable barrier to entry for competitors (don't be ridiculous, but I don't mind paying for _two_ ancestry.com subscriptions for my husband and me, so he can work on Drouin and I can use the search feature -- there's an unbelievable amount of information buried in that site. I have a high bar for ridiculous. Digital storage and access costs money and so do the people to manage it all.).

I also wholeheartedly approve of their outreach to FindaGrave, and their shout-outs in the blog to Names in Stone and Interment.net.

And now, before I return to reading about George Gilder's puppyhood and the 1964 Goldwater campaign or, say, trawling for fourth cousins in the Mohawk Valley, I'm going to go order some capacitative gloves.

a bit more about that society v blogger debate

Recently, I stumbled across this and mentioned it:


This is a response to something that was making the rounds of genealogical blogs; you
can track back at will.

One portion of this post really caught my attention:

"Moral support, yes–definitely. Research support, far less:

GeneaBloggers do not generally scour every cemetery in a specific county and publish full listings of the gravestones. Genealogical societies do.
GeneaBloggers do not abstract all of the obituaries of some small county newspaper from the mid-19th century and publish them. Genealogical societies do.
GeneaBloggers do not maintain genealogical libraries containing decades of work on local families. Genealogical societies do.
GeneaBloggers cannot go back to 1965 and reproduce the resources that were transcribed by the local genealogical society before that big hurricane or tornado hit and destroyed everything.

These resources can only remain available as long as we continue to support the societies that provide them."

I knew about FindAGrave for months; I stumbled over BillionGraves today, which in turn led me to Interment.net and Names in Stone. These are all efforts to herd genealogical cats who may or may not have it in them to join a genealogical society and, if they do, to participate in a society-led effort to document a graveyard -- but who maybe can produce some pictures of gravestones and cemetery entrances, possibly some obituary information, maybe some GPS coordinates, etc., and give them a venue to pour out their genealogical heart and soul. Given that the top 50 contributors to FindAGrave each seem to have over 100K memorials, there's some evidence that trawling the vast sea of amateurs can at least drum up volume. And honestly? Given the difficulty of identifying and finding genealogical societies in one's local area or area of research, a consistent web presence that is meaningful nationally and internationally is not to be sniped at. Is this something bloggers do? I don't know. But it's not something being sponsored by genealogical societies, either.

The obituary abstraction thing I'm still wrestling with. While there are for-pay obituary resources, they tend towards Really Really Recent. There was the short-lived Google Newspapers thing, and there are other historical newspapers archives, focusing on obituaries which have been OCR indexed (and boy, don't mock that. That is uber-cool. Fulton County, New York has a site of scanned newspapers that is amazing). Again, however, _finding_ the society product is non-trivial.

The library issue I'm lukewarm on. Access to this stuff is difficult, because there are few copies and you have to travel. The digitization process isn't being done by historical societies (and there has been some blogging about that, too) en masse, and to the extent that ancestry.com is providing tools to do so, societies are looking at a difficult choice in sharing that information through that mechanism.

I suspect that a lot of the people who really value genealogical societies and the work they have done over the decades (centuries?) are guilty of a kind of filtered or selective memory. I don't mean that they're forgetting the social stratification purpose served by many of these societies in the past (I don't think anyone has managed to forget that). I mean that societies have edited their collections and their work product over time as they recognized there were problems -- the result is a heavily curated mass of data with a lot of internal consistency and external validation (or at least that doesn't have a lot of external evidence that would invalidate it). What's going on in blogs and on websites like geni.com and ancestry.com and so forth has not had that kind of curation. The obvious errors rankle and make it hard to take it seriously as a research base.

Worse, the online stuff is amplifying the inaccurate printed genealogies of the past.

On the other hand, a lot of really good online work is happening: search engines make it possible to troll for ancestors and collaterals in material that would have been impossible to read through in any number of lifetimes. Armed with a sufficiently unusual name, it has become possible to track at least some people no matter how improbable their movements -- and to trace their activities in newspaper accounts of petty crime, not just their mentions as bearers at a funeral.

I'm still thinking about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the volunteer/local/small organization vs. the online individual + crowdsourced (volunteer) and/or corporate (whether for money or for religious purposes) infrastructures. I'll probably be thinking about this for a long while.

In the meantime, I signed up to do some transcription over at FamilySearch (that's the LDS non-profit) after realizing the ancestry.com operation required a PC (at least as near as I can tell). I should probably describe that, but I think the kids are about to arrive.