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Friday, December 13, 2013

The Cost of Public Records

The cost of birth, death and marriage records has gotten completely out of hand.  Having working in public entities most of my adult life, and having attended town counsel and city department head meetings more times than necessary to my job function, I can tell you that these prices have nothing, whatsoever, to do with the actual costs of providing them.

When I began sending for birth, death and marriage records, for my family history research, decades ago, most of them were $8.00 and were actual photocopies of the document.  At some point, the State of New York doubled that fee and what I received was an "official" transcription.

So, here's the deal.  The records are all there.  In some places, they've been indexed, in others they have not.  Indexing would facilitate retrieving specific records.

Here's what the process might be (a fantasy):

I fill out a form requesting a document (a death certificate, for instance).  The law is that these documents are private and unavailable for 70-75 years.  

I mail the request form with the fee to the Town or County Clerk, or State Archives.

If I know the exact date of death and have so provided it on the form and, if the records at that office are indexed, how long do we imagine it would take to retrieve the document?  Many are in ledgers and may be in a storage facility in which case someone has to go to that facility which is, hopefully, organized, and bring the ledger or box back to the main office for photocopying or transcription.

If the document is in a ledger, it is probably not removable for easy photocopying.  It is also unlikely that the Clerk's office (except perhaps the State Archives) has a photocopier intended to easily photocopy large books.  Perhaps moving from photocopying to transcription was done to prevent damaging ledgers.

If, however, the certificate is in a box of like certificates, photocopying would be easy and would take all of less than 5 minutes.

So, imagine how long it takes to transcribe a death certificate.  Transcription would be facilitated if the office has recognized the frequency of such requests and has designed a transcription form including all possible information from past documents.  Or, at least, the most pertinent information:  full name, date and place of birth, date and place of death, age at death, place of residence before death, full name of spouse, full name of father and mother, date and place of interment, full name of person providing data.  Looking at my maternal grandmother's death certificate, with or without a form, I'm guessing it would take me about 20 minutes to transcribe what I most need from the certificate.

So far we have a request for a death certificate with exact date of death.  The record is in storage requiring someone to go to a storage facility to retrieve it.  

Time of clerk receiving request to find out where the record is (assuming indexing) - 10 minutes - (at $20 an hour) - $2.00

Time of someone to retrieve the box or ledger - half an hour - (at $15 an hour) - $7.50 - plus gas to get to storage - $3.00

Time to photocopy a loose document - 5 minutes - (at $20 an hour) - $1.00 - cost of photocopy - probably $.15 but give them $1.00.

Time to transcribe a bound document - 20 minutes (at $20 an hour) - $2.00 - cost of paper/ink - $.15

Since good family historians know to send a stamped, self-addressed envelope with their requests, there's no cost to mail it back and, since mail is picked up once or twice a day from most public offices, there's no cost in mailing the fulfilled request.

So, we have a cost of roughly $16.65.  Maybe.  And, yes, some Town Clerks are paid $20 per hour and they deserve it.  They have many legal and fiscal responsibilities for which they are held legally liable and they have to put up  with the public, meaning us, who do not always behave well.

However, even this cost is too high for those of us who gain nothing financially from our research, yet need these documents and pass them on to historical societies and/or family members.  There has to be a way to reduce the costs of these documents.  They are, after all, public documents, belonging to the public.

So, here are a few thoughts:

Vital records have to be organized, indexed, digitized, and put online.  ASAP.  They should also be microfilmed and housed, paper and film, in monitored, fire-controlled, temperature-controlled facilities.  The digitized copies have to be mirrored, best practice I would think would be, on local, county and state servers.

Microfilming and digitizing are not cheap.  They both require either specialized equipment and staff trained to use them or they require contracting with someone who has both.

However, I believe that with the efforts of local historical societies and local genealogists, family historians and volunteers, some of the work can be done effectively and cheaply and the information and documents made more widely available.

I will try to look into this more, both how the actual process of fulfilling document requests and what can be done to make these vital documents more available.  It's given me an idea.

Now I have to get to the supermarket.  Have a great day.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Cradle to the Grave

I'm not a professional genealogist.  I believe I've said it before but I'll say it again and I'll continue to say it; I'm a family historian.  I am, however, a professional librarian with decades of library experience and decades of family history research experience.  I've made many of the mistakes that most people make when they start researching their family history.

It's good to begin with a goal in mind.  Maybe there's a family illness that you want to get more information about.  Maybe there was some change in the way your family lived and you want to understand what changed.  Maybe, as in my case, there's a family legend that you've grown up with and you suddenly realize that you have no idea if it's true or not.  And, maybe you just want to know more about the people who came before you.  It's good to begin with a goal in mind to aim for.

But, sometimes the desire to reach that goal makes us impatient and sloppy and we leap on the first new clue that seems to move us closer to that goal.  Sometimes, too intense a focus on that goal leads us to overlook information that initially seems unimportant and trivial because it doesn't tell us anything about what we're so intent on finding.  That can be a mistake that will cost months and years of time in backtracking to recover information we bypassed and ignored.

I began with a very specific goal and spent quite a few years moving along fruitfully toward that goal, in a straight line and up against a brick wall in my matrilineal family.  Along the way, I noticed other interesting things about other branches of the family and learned some things about my paternal families.  I decided to research ALL my families, maternal and paternal.  After years of research, having reached brick walls on every line, I realized I need more living relatives to tell me what they know and, since I'm not getting any younger, neither are they and time is a-wasting.

There are too many gaps in too many family branches; decades are empty when I can't find a particular family group.  Why?  Where were they?

So, I began a Cradle to the Grave research on each and every individual in my database, to fill in holes, not just for that individual but for their parents, spouses and children; because you never now where a bit of information has been documented.

Each of the individuals in my families database was born, lived a life, some had a family, and they died.  Each of those lives was filled with many activities and other people.  Tracking each of those individuals tells me something about that person and about the people around them.  It also places them in the context of geography and history.

It's very interesting following them through their lives.  They were born there and lived there how long?  Then, the family moved there.  Why?  What did they do for a living?  Sometimes they lived near other family members.  Sometimes they ventured off on their own.  Sometimes work or the military took them to new places.  Sometimes family tragedy changed the make up of a particular family.  Sometimes other family members merged branches of the family together.

You begin to see a pattern in the life of each individual, in their family group. You get a sense of the path they took.  Sometimes this helps when suddenly they disappear for a decade or more.  Sometimes you get a feeling where they might have gone, who they might have gone to.  Not always, but sometimes.

We're fortunately, me and my families, that so many were in New York State where, in addition to the federal censuses, taken every 10 years on the decade, there was, for many years, a state census, also taken every 10 years on the 5th year.  It's possible to get a snapshot of a family group nearly every 5 years for quite a few decades.  The missing gaps are always a mystery but part of the picture.  In following their lives, other members of the family come into view from time to time, revealing more information about the family as a whole and about those individuals as well.

It's a time consuming but rewarding practice.

Copyright, FamilyTracker, Lorraine I. O'Dell, 2013.  All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

In Memoriam

Harold Clinton Beismer
April 2, 1928 - November 5, 2013

With siblings

Sitting on Aunt Vivian's lap
Scowling front left

With sister, Mary

With brothers, Roy and Sim, Jr.

Looks like most of the family - Uncle Harold on right.

At various Wormuth/Hulse reunions

Uncle Harold in back, left - Dad on right - and me, back to camera

He got the prize for the oldest, I think, that year.

Uncle Harold with his guitar and Delilah Wormuth Babcock

Miscellaneous Photos

Clearly on Tripp Avenue

Retirement Photo

Happy Catch

Rest in Peace, Uncle Harold.  I wish I could have seen you one more time before you left.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Clarinda Oliver

Clarinda Oliver was the daughter of Ezra Oliver and Hester Crandall.  I last find her on the 1860 Census, in Windham, Greene County, NY, with her sister, Francis Victoria and her mother.  Francis was 18, Clarinda 14 and Hester 55.  I don't find Hester again and assume she died before the next census in 1870.  None of us has verified her last resting place.

Francis married a Charles Dougherty but I have no documentation for that marriage and there are many Charles Dougherty's in NY at the time.

What happened to Clarinda?

I do find a Clarinda Every or Evey in Middletown, Delaware County, age 26, on the 1870 census.  Could that be Clarinda Oliver?  I don't know.  If it is, she and her family disappear again as of the 1880 census.

Let me know if you find her anywhere.

My task now, as I've set it, is to trace each individual in my database from birth to death with as much concrete documentation as I can find, beginning with direct line ancestors but working through the entire database.  Quite an undertaking with over 3,200 individuals in the database.

Documentation:  I prefer to have 3 corroborating sources, particularly if there is anything iffy about any particular document.  Over the years, I've found so many oddities in documents, so many nearly identical individuals (names, places, ages, dates, etc.) that I begin with skepticism and work toward trust.

Clearly, many, many people were either completely disinterested in leaving evidence of their existence or worked to conceal it.

Clearly, many, many people are very poor spellers, have very poor penmanship (including myself) and seem shy about asking how to spell a name.

In any case, I highly recommend not jumping to conclusions in searching for relatives and ancestors.  You will be very surprised at the number of individuals with the identical name, born the same year, living in nearly the same place.  Do a web or Facebook search -- you'll be surprised.

  Keep in touch.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


Remember plasterware?


I found some possible contacts at the Minisink Valley Historical Society web site and sent them emails.

I also made a couple of contacts on Facebook.

I stumbled on some interesting items in the catalogs of the New York State Library which you can search online.  Just search on a surname.  You have to scroll through many listings but it's worth the time.  Of course, it means getting there to actually look at items but some might be available for Inter-Library Loan (ILL).  You can check with them.  Some are in manuscript collections.  It might take several visits to see everything that has potential value.

I'll be searching the catalogs of other libraries that might have useful items with valuable information.  I already know that the New York Public Library has a mountain of items I'd like to look at.  I was recently told that their 42nd St. branch is being remodeled and re-focused and that much of it's historic collection has been put in storage.  I haven't confirmed that yet but plan to investigate.  That branch was given much of the collection of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society including boxes of manuscripts and papers related to specific families.  I personally saw boxes for the Hulse and Odell families.

I also recommend that, at least once a year, you search on Yahoo or Google, or whatever other search site you prefer for each surname you're interested in.  I begin, in alphabetical order, with just the surname itself:  Odell, Wormuth, Hulse, etc., to see what turns up.  I scan through about 3 pages of search results to see if anything interesting turns up.  Often, you'll find an online query or an obit that looks promising, or a newly published historic list of some kind.  Depending on what I find, my mood and intuition, I also search on names of individuals or the combined names of couples:  Joseph Odell, James and Mary Hulse, etc.  This also turns up similar results from time to time or a family history web site.  Often, the results are things I've already seen but sometimes there's something new somewhere and I have a new bit of information.  

Also, search major online resource sites regularly.  They add information continually.  The amount of data online keeps growing.

Just a family photo to add some interest:

If I remember correctly, this is Mom, Georgiana Beismer O'Dell.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Online Resources - The Family Curator

I just discovered Denise Levenick's The Family Curator where she has wonderful information about preserving your family treasures and how-to webinars.  I'll be looking into all of that and passing on the information here and to other researchers I come across.

There are so many more resources online, stay tuned for more.

Be sure to check out our family groups a Yahoo, see the list on the right.  I'm also on Twitter.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Little Family History Highlight

This post relates to the Odell, Vandermark and Beismer families but also speaks to sloppy research and ways to do it a little better.  Information from this post will appear in the appropriate family pages.

Joe, Joseph, Odell, my great great grandfather, Dad's great grandfather, had a sister Rosa (Rose).  

Let's stop and digress right here.  

My great great grandfather's surname is recorded as Odell.  Our family line now uses O'Dell.

St. Patrick's Day just passed.  I thought, because of our current spelling of the surname, that the name is Irish and proudly displayed my "Irish-ness" when I was a kid.  There may be Irish families with the name but its origin is NOT Irish.

My research on the surname is cursory but I did find a few things.  Odell is most likely derived from Wodell which, in turn, is derived from Wodall, Woodhall and from Wood Hall Manor, Suffolk, England.

So, the surname is most likely British.

In addition, since we haven't traced the family past about 1830, Greene County, NY, it's very possible that was not the original surname.  If the Native ancestry stories are correct, it's very possible that the surname was adopted at some point in order to assimilate.

Also, just because a surname is traced to a particular nation or language, doesn't mean that is the origin of the family. Consider the possibility that an Wodell descendant went to Ireland and that family line stayed there for several generations. It's quite possible that an individual might have changed the name to O'Dell to blend in.  Most people like to conform to make their lives easier.

But, in our family's case, the name on the censuses was Odell.  My grandfather changed his name to O'Dell because he had a nephew with the same name and wanted to be distinguishable from him.  Many other family members use the apostrophe.  The names are not different because of the punctuation, in this case.

In my Beismer family, our immediate family uses that spelling.  I have approximately 2 dozen variant spellings. The family cemetery in Debruce, NY has headstones with 3 different spellings. The name is NOT derived from Bessemer.  It's not even pronounced the same.  Our surname is pronounced Beezmer.  Some individuals drop a soft i between the z and the m sounds; Beez i mer.  Bessemer, the steel maker's name, is pronounced Bess eh mer.  There's also another surname, Bazemore, pronounced Bayz more that's more likely related to the 'Beezmer' name.  I was once told by a professional genealogist that one surname is Dutch and one German (I can't remember which); one means Bee keeper (I assume Beesmer), one means broom maker.  There is also a Hungarian verb, beismer, meaning to admit, but it isn't pronounced the same.

In the case of names, the pronunciation of the name can be more important than the spelling.  

In looking at names, given names or surnames, spend some time thinking about them, how they're spelled, how they sound.

Back to the family:

She, Rosa Odell, married a Stoddard Vandermark.  Yep, a Vandermark.  Odell, Oliver, Crandell, Flower, etc. is my father's side.  Wormuth, Hulse, Beismer, Vandermark, etc., is my mother's side.  So, Rosa, from my father's family, married Stoddard, from my mother's side.  I imagine, it's not that unusual, but interesting.

Stoddard Vandermark is definitely related to Grandpa Beismer's mother, Eliza Vandermark Beismer.  Eliza's father was Simeon Vandermark, or in our family Vandemark.  Simeon and Stoddard might have been brother's, according to one researcher's records, or possibly nephew and uncle.  I have more research to do on that.  They were all in Livingston Manor.  

Let's stop again and look at something.

We have variant spellings of Odell, O'Dell - Beismer, Beesimer, Beesmer, etc. - and now, Vandermark.  Our immediate family spells it without the r, Vandemark, as often as with the r.  It can also be spelled Vander Mark, Van der Mark, etc.  How much does the spelling matter?  It depends on the family.  In many cases, the origin of the surname is the same.  In some cases, it can distinguish between branches of a family, making it easier to tell related but distinct family lines apart.  

It's important to be aware of both similarities and differences.

When doing the research, it's important to keep variant spellings in mind and keep your eyes open for more variations.  Sometimes they mean the difference between two, 2, different individuals with the same name, sometimes a variant spelling is just a variant spelling and the person is the same person.

Here's a list of some of the variables you have to consider in looking for individuals while doing familiy history research:

  • Surname variant spellings.
  • Initials.
  • Birthdate.
  • Age when first married:  what's usual in your family line? in mine it's between 15 and 25, usually.
  • Locations.  People didn't move so often or so far.  But, then there were those who did.
  • Middle names.  Some people preferred their middle name to their first name, as in my maternal great grandfather who was Thomas James but always called James.
  • There's almost always at least one other person with the same name, somewhere.  Don't jump to the conclusion that you've found the person you're looking for until you've found corroborating evidence.

I think my name is quite uncommon; it isn't.  I used to think the Odell surname was but I learned a long time ago, it isn't.  If you do an Internet search on your own name, you'll be surprised at how many individuals with the same name as yours there are, often with the same spelling - sometimes in the same state.

So, just because you see records of individuals with the same exact name, they aren't, necessarily, the same person.  You have to look at other factors - age, dates, locations, to decide if they are the same person.  The same is true if you're unable to follow a person through the census, he seems to just disappear for 20 years.  Where did he go?  Think.  What were his parents' names?  What was his wife's name?  What were his siblings' names?  What were his children's names?  It's disconcerting how much misspelling there is on the censuses.  Leave the last l off Odell, leave the r out of Vandermark.  If you search on Beismer but the name is spelled Beesimer on that census, you probably won't find it.

In addition, the indexing in the search databases isn't perfect.  I've searched and searched for an individual and not found them.  Then I search for their wife and find the entire family, with the spelling of the original individual exactly as I searched for it but didn't find it.  Why?  Because the electronic index missed him.

Don't give up.  Keep looking.  Think of all the different ways you can try to find someone, family members, relatives.

On one census, Rosa and Stoddard had a Herman Besimer living with them.  I have a Herman Beesimer in the family, a cousin of Grandpa.  Small world.   And, somewhere, I think I have a record of Charity Odell, Rose's sister, working for one of the Vandermarks or Beismers.  

Please try to be accurate and methodical in your research and don't post what you haven't verified in more than one document and cite your sources and note any questions or vagaries.  It makes a huge difference to others researching the same families and individuals.

I love doing family history research.  It's like being a detective or doing a large, complex jigsaw puzzle.