Episode 478 - Indexing And Artificial Intelligence At FamilySearch / Photo Projects In Time For The Holidays With Maureen Taylor

podcast episode Oct 23, 2023

Host Scott Fisher opens the show with David Allen Lambert, Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. Family Histoire News begins with the story of a contest winner. He’s the young guy who figured out how to translate dozens of tightly rolled scrolls burned in the Mount Vesuvius explosion in 79 AD. David will have more. Then, for families who have missing people in Florida, a special day is coming to help you find closure… and it involves DNA. You’re not going to like what David has to suggest concerning the diets of our ancestors. Then again, it was pretty healthy! Hear about this ancient staple. In Scotland, there’s been another haul of ancient coins. And there’s a real back story to this find! Visiting the US Capitol anytime soon? You can now take photos of the founding documents as long as you don’t use flash. Also, the National Archives is searching for indexers to help with the pension records of the Revolutionary War. And they want every word transcribed. Fisher then notes the passing of two employees of our friends at MyHeritage.com in Israel. Both young men, age 23, were murdered on October 7th at the NOVA concert. We send our love and condolences to our friends.

Ian James of FamilySearch then joins the show to talk about how FamilySearch is using Artificial Intelligence, and how it is gradually replacing the old human indexing system. But, hey, volunteers… don’t stop yet! They still need you as Ian will explain.

Fisher is then joined by Maureen Taylor, the Photo Detective. The two talk about holiday gifts of photo albums. There are a lot of ways to do them… and there’s still plenty of time… as Maureen explains.

David then returns for Ask Us Anything.


Segment 1 Episode 478

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Fisher: And welcome America to America's Family History Show, Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. Fisher here, your Radio Roots Sleuth on the program where we shake your family tree, and watch the nuts fall out. Well, we've got Ian James on the show today. He is a technical product manager over at Family Search International. And he's going to talk to us about artificial intelligence and indexing. Both are changing, both are merging. And if you are a passionate indexer, I know so many volunteers for FamilySearch are, just kind of like the FindAGrave people are, you're going to want to hear everything that Ian has to say. Plus, later in the show, we're going to talk to Maureen Taylor. She is the photo detective of course, talking about photo album gifts for the holidays, how to do them cheaply, how to do them correctly, how to do them fast, because the holidays are coming up on us. You'll want to hear everything that Maureen has to say about that later on in the show. Right now, let's head out to Boston where David Allen Lambert is standing by, he is the Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. Hello, David.

David: Hey, Fish. I'm delighted to talk to you. And you mentioned AI. Well, that's my first Family Histoire News story.

Fisher: Yeah, we have a lot of it going on these days. And I think kind of like when DNA really got rolling some years back, every week there was something about it. Well, it's going to be the same with AI now.

David: Well, a 21-year-old computer science student has won a global contest. He's actually the first one that's been able to read burnt scrolls from the Roman city of Herculaneum. Now, you've probably heard of Pompeii.

Fisher: Yeah.

David: Herculaneum was also affected by the volcanic eruption back in 79 AD. Well, there are hundreds of these texts from an old Greco Roman library. And they now with AI are able to read it using X rays to read layer by layer these burned scrolls and actually get the AI to read what the document says.

Fisher: Isn't that amazing? You can't unroll it, because it all falls apart. So they've had them for years and years waiting for technology to catch up. And now it sounds like it has.

David: You know, if you're in Florida, you have a missing relative. You might be interested in what's going on this month, missing in Florida day, to offer free genealogical tests of families of missing persons. There are 1000s of missing persons in the state of Florida.

Fisher: Yep.

David: And in fact, they're hoping that these John Doe and Jane Doe cases are solved. Be part of it and you can actually get a free DNA test to see if you match up with some of the missing persons.

Fisher: Yeah. You know, that's a really great idea. Somebody's thinking out of the box there. And I hope a lot of people take advantage of that.

David: Hey, what did you have for supper tonight?

Fisher: I haven't eaten yet.

David: Ahh, you should try some seaweed. It was good enough for our ancestors, should be good enough for you. A new study has looked at the biomarkers and dental calculus, essentially, the bones of the jaw and the teeth show that our ancestors were snacking on seaweed very frequently.

Fisher: Yeah, a lot of people say that that's a really healthy thing to eat even today, but that seems like an obvious piece of the diet, right, if it was so easily obtained back then.

David: Exactly. But I can tell you this, the next time I'm at the beach, I'm not going to snack on something that washes up on shore.

Fisher: No.

David: I'll have to wait for it to be cooked. You know I love it when people find a hoard of coins. But when there's a story attached to it. This case, 330 years ago, when the McDonald Clan Massacre took place in the Glencoe Valley in Scotland, one family kind of had an idea of something was going on, and buried a horde of coins in the fireplace, and they've just found it. Archaeologists are amazed by this collection. It's a pot of coins, and obviously hidden, so the soldiers involved in that massacre wouldn't take the belongings.

Fisher: Wow! We're talking back to the late 1600s.

David: 330 years ago, yeah. Hats off to Dr. Colleen Shogan, who is the new archivist at the National Archives in Washington DC. She has implemented a policy that you can use your camera in the rotunda. Yes. So you can do a selfie with the Declaration of Independence Bill of Rights and Constitution. Just don't use a flash.

Fisher: [Laughs] I remember when I took my kids there when they were really little and my son actually tried to sit on top of the Declaration of Independence.

David: I'm sure the guards were glad to help him off of the Declaration of Independence.

Fisher: Yeah, that was like 32 years ago, you know?

David: [Laughs] Oh good it wasn't last year.

Fisher: No, it wasn't last year. He'd have probably crushed it!

David: Well, you know, the National Archives has got a great program where if you want to index Revolutionary War pension files you can volunteer to do so. They're looking for all the words, not just the names to be indexed. And with the 250th of the American Revolution upon us, it's going to be a great project.

Fisher: Yeah, that is really fun. And if you've ever gone to a Revolutionary War pension record, first of all, it's not the easiest thing in the world to index word for word. But you kind of get and I'm sure you've had this experience, David, you kind of get this feel for the handwriting. And whereas it might be difficult at first to get some of the words, they just start to fall into place. And then you get the hang of it, and you get a roll going. And this can reveal all kinds of information about service battles people were in, when they got promotions, who they served under. These documents are priceless.

David: And the thing about it is, there are so many different hands in the writing, because you're going to have different people for different times writing different documents.

Fisher: Yep.

David: So you might not do well on one. You might be perfect on the next document. So, don't give up and muster up and help our American history get preserved.

Fisher: And you know, David, we cannot end Family. Histoire News here today without acknowledging the passing of two employees over at our friends at MyHeritage, which is based in Israel, Ron Shemer, and Elaine Nachman, both of them 23 years old. They were at that Nova concert when they were murdered by Hamas on October 7. So, you can imagine how that has impacted the people at MyHeritage and we send them our love and our best wishes, moving forward through this really difficult time.

David: My thoughts and prayers as well. Well, as we close, I do want to mention, if you're not an American Ancestors member, we'd love to have you join. And you can use a coupon code “Extreme” and save $20. I'll talk to you shortly, my friend.

Fisher: All right, for Ask Us Anything at the back end of the show. And coming up next, speaking of artificial intelligence and indexing, we’ve got them both in Ian James from FamilySearch. He's going to be talking about what they're doing there using this great technology and how indexing is changing. Coming up next, when we return in three minutes on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show.

Segment 2 Episode 478

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Ian James

Fisher: You know, just a couple of weeks ago we were talking to Dr. Blaine Bettinger about artificial intelligence and where we thought it was going. And of course, one of the things that came up had to do with FamilySearch and their use of AI for analyzing handwriting, most recently with a lot of records from South America. And we have one of the technical product managers from FamilySearch on the line with us right now to talk about this, Ian James. Welcome to the show Ian. It’s great to have you.

Ian: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Fisher: You know, AI for handwriting was kind of a holy grail that we talked about at RootsTech for years, and years, and year, and even before that. And now it’s here, and it’s doing a pretty darn good job. Not perfect yet, but then neither are the people who have indexed a lot of the records we’ve had over the years. 

Ian: That’s right. And AI has basically learned from those people how to do the tasks that it does. And the hope and the promise is that we can use AI to accelerate that work and that they will compliment what people do, in a way that lets us move everything forward a lot faster.

Fisher: Well, for people who are not familiar with indexing, this is a service basically a lot of volunteers do usually with FamilySearch. But there are other places too where you can go through and try to at least correct some of the records as they have been made available for indexes. But indexing has been a passionate project for an awful lot of people, kind of like a lot of people on FindAGrave, right? You get on there and you’re adding graves, and images, and names, and dates. They’re doing it by reading these old records. But sometimes they don’t get it quite right. But AI moves much quicker than the people. And I guess the question is, Ian, where are we right now with it? How much faster is AI able to work in indexing as opposed to individuals?

Ian: Many magnitudes of them faster.

Fisher: Wow!

Ian: We’ve replaced decades of human effort through AI so far and just been able to leap countries forward, multiple decades in how much indexed content that they have. But we still need humans in the mix because as you said, the AI does make mistakes, the same kind of mistakes that humans make and some new ones which are exciting. But rather than have people create records from scratch, which is pretty time consuming. We think we can make much for efficient use of their time simply by having them to review the places where we think the AI made a mistake. 

Fisher: And how do you know when AI has made a mistake?

Ian: That’s actually one of the things that FamilySearch is investing in, the smarts if you will, to be able to detect when the AI wasn’t confident, or when there are anomalous pieces of data that don’t seem to fit. There are several things that give us clues as to when the AI may have made a mistake.

Fisher: Such as?

Ian: Such as inconsistencies. Like when I say anomalies, what I mean is for example, all these records across all of these images all have these people show up in them. There’s a kid, there’s a mom, there’s a dad, and there’s this kind of event. Well, in this record over here, the dad doesn’t show up. But there’s this person who shows up that we don’t know where they belong. And we’d like somebody to go look at that and just tell us like, we think that’s probably the dad. But we need somebody to take a second look at it. Things like that.

Fisher: I see. So this is ultimately going to replace indexing as we know it, but there’s still a place for these volunteers right?

Ian: Correct. As we know it. That’s the right way to say it. Because instead of having to rely on indexers, and again, like, we stand on their shoulders, like the work that indexers had done over the last many decades, frankly 30 years or so, is what enables all of this to happen and to move forward. And so we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to all of our indexers. And moving forward, we want to accomplish the mission that they’ve begun. And we think that we can use people’s time and help more effectively and efficiently and make their efforts go longer and do more if we have them compliment AI by showing up the AI in places where it’s weak, as we’ve been describing.

Fisher: Sure. And will that improve the AI? Will it learn from that?

Ian: It does actually. That’s one of the things that makes FamilySearch’s implementation somewhat novel. In our team we refer to it as an AI growth loop actually. But what it is is because of the way Family Search is using AI to create indexed and searchable records, the edits that people make can be brought back in and applied to the AI to improve it.

Fisher: So that another name that may come up in the future that’s similar will be more properly identified?

Ian: Right. And so as the AI makes predictions, and then people fix those, and adjust them, and correct the errors that it makes, then those get fed back into the AI. The AI gets better and then the next time around there are fewer corrections that has to be made. And the longer that cycle stays up and working, the better the content gets for everybody, and the less people need to do at all in order for people to be able to use the content to create a stability. So, it’s kind of a win-win-win.  

Fisher: Boy, it’s so amazing. I’m just thinking about all the other countries out there that haven’t necessarily had as many records come out of it as we’d had here in the United States, such as South America. You can apply this to foreign languages too, right?

Ian: Absolutely. That’s where we spend most of our time actually, is applying it to foreign languages that historically have been a bit underserved at FamilySearch.

Fisher: Um hmm. And what countries right now are getting the greatest benefit from this?

Ian: Our focus right now is on Latin script languages. And so we have a big focus on basically the romance languages, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian.

Fisher: Wow! And it’s just bringing these in, in numbers that we’ve never before. So, if people are looking for overseas information, they almost ought to check in like every week, right, to see what might be there?

Ian: Yeah. Things are happening quickly. I don’t know if every week is accurate. It takes a little while to develop the capabilities. So it will kind of come in bursts that happen in cycles that are a little bit longer than that. It’s changing rapidly. I also should point out that there’s an entire effort going on specifically around the far eastern languages, Japanese, and Chinese, and Korean.

Fisher: Hmm.

Ian: And being able to read the Japus, which are the family genealogies in those languages, and to make those available on FamilySearch. There’s a lot going on with AI.

Fisher: And a lot of those trees have long been put together anyway so you could just absorb that and throw it out there, and suddenly it’s available to all.

Ian: Absolutely.

Fisher: So, let’s talk about the indexing experience right now. So many people have done this as you’ve mentioned over many, many decades and it actually was going on even before 30 years ago. It was under a different name that I can’t even remember right now. But I remember doing some of it, like in the 80s. How is it different now? Is there still some of the standard classic indexing that we’ve done in the past, or is it now all correcting the AI, or is it some combination of both?

Ian: It’s basically some of both. For content that the AI has gone through, the newer activities go with correcting the AI, those are present. But most of the place where the AI has been focused so far has been in Spanish/ Portuguese, so lots of Latin America, and then getting into Europe. There is however some new English content that appears in these new activities that we don’t have for indexing. So, indexing for quite a while has been somewhat starved of English content. I’m happy to say that there’s new English content coming to the AI opportunities to the volunteer space. One of the reasons for that is that about 50% of our holdings at FamilySearch are what we’d call top tier, which are images and records that fit really well into the indexing paradigm and have worked well as indexing projects. But the other 50% are not. They still have valuable information in them, peoples’ names, important dates, places, relationships, those sorts of things. But they just don’t fit the indexing paradigm very well. Well, the AI can help us make use of that. And make that content searchable and findable. And one of the places where we’ve been kind of getting into that is with a large collection that we have of United States wills, and deeds, and probates, and land records, and plantation records, and using the AI to make that contents searchable. That actually also includes the names of many enslaved individuals from the early United States, which is a really big deal. We’re very excited to be able to make those names searchable and findable as well.

Fisher: Wow. And so now as I understand it though, with indexing, people can actually kind of choose the experience they want to have by going through various records sets.

Ian: That’s right. So, because the AI goes first, we know a lot more about each image than we did with indexing projects. And so, instead of having to just kind of take whatever batch of indexing images FamilySearch happens to give you, we can allow our volunteers to search for names in places that matter to them. So they can search for like family names and places that matter to them, and go make sure that those names are accurate, and fix any errors that are there, and in some cases, probably create their own breakthroughs when it comes to their volunteer efforts, right, and so that’s a big add we think.

Fisher: And to actually be going through and correcting AI, it sounds like a much smaller task than the standard indexing effort that goes on now.

Ian: Absolutely. So, the tasks are much smaller. Instead of writing everything from scratch and having to key it in, it’s questions like, AI said that this name’s Henry. We would like a second opinion. Is this right? And that’s the kind of question I can answer in a few seconds.

Fisher: Sure.

Ian: And I don’t need like a whole desktop computer or even a laptop, I can do that on my phone. And so the tasks get a lot smaller, the form factor gets a lot smaller, and I can engage with it a lot more casually. And so instead of having to dedicate 15 minutes to half an hour in the evening, I can review some names while I’m standing in the checkout line waiting to checkout my groceries, like that kind of thing.

Fisher: Wow.

Ian: It’s a lot easier to do now.

Fisher: So Ian, where are we in five years with this?

Ian: In five years, the AI is moving fast enough that 100% of FamilySearch’s holdings are searchable by our patrons, and the bottle neck has moved from making the content searchable, to acquiring the content, and in some cases probably just acquiring access to the content to begin with. And so it moves the bottle necks around. For a long time we’ve been able to capture new images a lot faster than we’ve been able to index them. And that might invert where now we can index basically immediately. And it’s a question of hey, we need more agreements, with more archives, we need more images to be able to make this content available to patrons and we just take it for granted that it’s going to get indexed. It’s just part of the process. We don’t even think about it anymore. 

Fisher: He’s Ian James. He’s a technical product manager at FamilySearch International. And Ian, you’ve made our heads explode today. Thank you so much for all of this. We’re glad we have people like you doing this stuff.

Ian: Thanks. We’re all in this together.

Fisher: Yes we are. [Laughs] And coming up next, Maureen Taylor, the photo detective, talking about some projects you might want to take on as the holidays approach, when we return in five minutes on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show. 

Segment 3 Episode 478

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Maureen Taylor

Fisher: And welcome back to America’s Family History Show Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. It is Fisher here, your Radio Roots Sleuth. Hey, we’re coming up on the holidays. And of course, genies everywhere are scrambling to get something done for Christmas and all things good in December. And I’ve got Maureen Taylor, the photo detective on the line with me right now. You know Maureen, I’m thinking, a photo album is very doable in the time we have left.

Maureen: A photo album is the perfect holiday gift, as far as I’m concerned anyway, Scott. A lot of people say, oh, I really want to finish this family history or I really want the whole line done. That’s a bit much to tackle before the holidays, but a photo album, a themed photo album, you can do it. It’s possible.

Fisher: Absolutely. Yes. I’ve been busy making photo albums myself here this summer and I started in the 19th century and started scanning my old 19th century photos, repairing them with Photo Shop Elements, and then improving them with sharpener and then with colorization tools on My Heritage. And the nice thing is I can actually do this just using an old Word file. You can insert the pictures. You can make them any size you want and then you make the room for any stories or identifications you want to do there. And then you turn the whole thing into a PDF and you have a simple book pretty much at no cost. And I know there are other ways to do this.

Maureen: Oh sure, there are lots of ways to do that. So, you can of course use these online sites that let you create albums and I use Shutterfly or Snapfish, or whatever is out there, and put together an album.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Maureen: But, I will say that before you actually sit down in front of your computer, I mean, with a word file it’s easier because you can move things around like pages or whatever to tell your story one page at a time. But, I find that if I don’t, in my mind lay out the story that I want to tell and make sure I have all the photographs already improved, picked and all of that then it takes three or four times as long.

Fisher: Yes.

Maureen: I mean, you can do this in an afternoon if you’re organized.

Fisher: Yes, that’s true. But, organized means that you have to do all that pre-work, that’s half the time involved in the project to begin with.

Maureen: Exactly. If you want a caption for that photograph, if you want to put them in chronological order, or we were talking just a few minutes ago before we got on the call, about old photo albums and what are you going to do with them.

Fisher: Oh. [Laughs]

Maureen: So, here’s the thing. You can scan those pictures. You can of course create a digital album, but you could create an album, say you have several cousins and you’re all related to the same album, right?

Fisher: Yeah.

Maureen: But you have the original and they don’t. Recreate the album digitally using Word, using Shutterfly, using one of those other sites where you can create an album and send it out to your cousins and see what they say.

Fisher: Sure. Here’s the thing, I mean this is all about preservation and part of the reason for albums to begin with is the preservation of the images, which to me is more important even than the original photographs. We want the images to survive, even if somehow originals get thrown out in future generations. So that we can share them like you just said, make them shareable. Old photo albums you’ve taught and you’ve said it on this show before, are really fun because the order of the pictures that are put in there tell the story that the person who created the album wanted to tell back in the 1940s, back in the 1930s. The thing is about those times and those albums is they’re often a limited number of photographs. But, when you start getting up to the 60s or 70s, that’s when you really have to start choosing which ones really tell the story and how many are too many, right, to include in your effort.

Maureen: Right. So, when you think about the history of photo albums and they really date from about the 1860/ ’61 and they were a limited number of images. One on a page, two on a page, four on a page, pretty limited like that throughout the 19th century.

Fisher: Yeah.

Maureen: Then you get to the 20th century and you have those huge black paper albums where you could put twenty photos on a page and you a hundred pages.

Fisher: Yes.

Maureen: That’s a lot a lot of pictures.

Fisher: Yes.

Maureen: People were taking more pictures with their little Kodak cameras or Kodak knockoffs.

Fisher: It was still kind of a novelty at that time, right? And that’s why sometimes you have sometimes ten, fifteen pictures of the same thing, the same event. And it’s not necessary if you’re going to reproduce pictures to do every one of those.

Maureen: Right. But, here’s the thing I want to make everyone understands, don’t take your old photo albums apart because they tell a story as you mentioned.

Fisher: Yep.

Maureen: And they can tell a fascinating story. They can tell a story of the person who put it together. You can sometimes even figure out who that was. But, sometimes you can figure out the story of how that album passed down in the family. I had one just this past year where we were like working on the album for a while trying to figure out what the story was and suddenly it became apparent that there were three sisters. The oldest one had created the album, she died. She passed it to the next one who took some pictures out and put some pictures in, she died and passed it to the third one who tinkered with it some more.

Fisher: Wow! That is a story. [Laughs]

Maureen: It was incredible.

Fisher: Well, and you know, no genie alive today wants to see when they’re gone these old photo albums go away. The problem with the old photo albums though is many of them are just falling apart. And then we have the horrendous magnetic photo albums from the 70s and 80s, and it’s the same kind of thing, stuff falls out of them because the glue dries or it’s stuck to it and can never be removed. It’s a real challenge. So, that’s where the recreation comes in.

Maureen: Right. So, you want to be careful with your albums and the only albums that you should actually take apart are the ones that are the magnetic ones. And then if you put them together then you have the right to reorder those photographs.

Fisher: Sure.

Maureen: But if you didn’t, then I believe you should recreate the old the order because you don’t want to lose the story.

Fisher: Yes.

Maureen: I find albums endlessly fascinating because. It’s my favorite type of photo mystery to work on because there’s so much in there.

Fisher: Yeah, there’s no question.

Maureen: So many stories.

Fisher: Well, and the thing is going back going back to the old albums again, I would just like to be able to restore old albums. Like I had some from the 40s that my mother did, some pictures are missing, many are not labeled right and I don’t know who the people are. But when the pages are falling out or the strings come untied or the cover is missing, it’s like, okay, this is a candidate for the dumpster in future generations. I really want to restore this so that mom’s efforts survive and the story is still told and it becomes desirable again.

Maureen: Yes. And sometimes if you can find a local book binder and usually the larger towns have one.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Maureen: They can repair the binding of it so you don’t have to throw it out.

Fisher: So, we’re talking about what kind of binding though?

Maureen: It’s like a book binding. An album is like a book binding. It wouldn’t necessarily work with the black paper albums, but you should never take those apart anyway. Everybody wants to take them apart, don’t take them apart. Leave them alone.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Maureen: Leave them alone. I’m a broken record. Leave them alone.

Fisher: Exactly.

Maureen: You raise an interesting point where you say you have an album with missing pictures, and this often happens with the 19th century albums as well as they’re passed down in the family.

Fisher: Yeah.

Maureen: Somebody says, I don’t know who the rest of the people are, so I’m just going to take the one I know. Then you get a hole.

Fisher: Yep.

Maureen: That leaves us with a whole new photo mystery and a whole new challenge to try to find that missing photo and who has it.

Fisher: Yeah, if you have any idea at all. And I would assume the only clue you could have is if somebody wrote on the album page underneath where the photo had been, the name of that person.

Maureen: Oh, sometimes there are albums with names underneath all of the slots that are missing pictures and you think, wow, wouldn’t it be great to be able to find those?

Fisher: Sure. Well, it’s an inexpensive project. It’s something that can be done before Christmas time, and I think there’s a lot of great thoughts here Maureen, as to preserving the photo albums we have, also creating new ones or restoring old ones. I mean, there’s just a lot of different things that can be done.

Maureen: And don’t forget to create a digital album as well, using your digital photo organizer, or for preservation purposes something like Forever.com, or Permanent.org.

Fisher: And that’s the other thing too, you digitize all these things. You want to post them on Family Search. You want to post pictures on Ancestry. You know, I always think to myself, what would happen if this was lost in a fire or it was thrown out? At least the images survived digitally and that to me is the number one thing, more important than anything else. Maureen thanks so much for coming on. She is the photo detective Maureen Taylor. You can follow her at MaureenTaylor.com and on Facebook. Always a pleasure my friend!

Maureen: Always a pleasure Scott.

Fisher: And coming up next, David Allen Lambert returns for Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show.

Segment 4 Episode 478

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Fisher: All right, welcome back. It's America's Family History Show, Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. And of course, at this section of the show each week, we do a little thing called Ask Us Anything where we answer your questions. And our first question today comes from Kathy in Great Neck, Long Island. And Dave, she says, “I'm about to retire and want to really get going on family history. Where do you guys suggest I start?” Well.

David: Ooh, well, I mean, I think you're the experienced one on this.

Fisher: Oh, oh, yes. That's true. I’ve been retired for a looong time. Three years, actually from the full time stuff, but I still do this and I still love it, so I don't really tell people that I'm retired! But the bottom line is Kathy, if you're going to start on family history you’ve got to start with what's around the house. And that can really entail then several projects at the same time, right? Because having downsized and gone through the process of unloading, like two thirds of everything I possessed, because I made it a rule that when we moved and we downsized, we wouldn't have our whole garage stacked to the ceiling and we weren't going to own a storage unit. And we succeeded in that. And we haven't missed really anything that we got rid of at the time. You know, occasionally you're going to throw out something that you go, “Oh man, I really need that now! Why did I throw it?” Well, you can go out and get a new one. It's better than just keeping stuff around in the hopes that someday you're going to use it. It just becomes clutter. So, at the end of the day, you want to get into all the notes and all the letters, all the old stuff that you have and really start sorting them out. And you can do part of your Swedish death cleanse, duplicates, things that are online now, you don't need to keep paper copies of those, because your descendants aren't going to want those things. And if you're really going to get started on family history and you haven't done anything at all, you're going to want to gather all the names and the dates that you have within your own household and that you've saved, and find the information that's there. And you can scan a lot of those things as well so that you can throw that stuff out. And the more you get out of the way, the higher the quality is for the things that remain. And you'll have photograph projects to do as well as your family tree and the stories that you have. And maybe you have many in your head. And maybe you can gather many from your cousins and your other close family relatives. If you have an old aunt still living or one of your parents, there are stories to be had there. You know, you don't really have to wait for retirement to start doing that stuff. Dave started at what, age seven, something like that?

David: Yes, yeah.

Fisher: And I started at 26.

David: If we had waited till we retired to interview our grandparents, our grandparents would turn out to be fairly old.

Fisher: [Laughs] You're absolutely right. What are your thoughts, Dave?

David: Well, you know, I probably have another 14, 15 years before I want to retire. And I've already thought about trips over to Europe and kind of darting around where my ancestors lived. And you've kind of done that yourself.

Fisher: Oh yeah.

David: Journey in places like that.

Fisher: Yeah.

David: I think that I would want to say that I've visited the grave site of all of my ancestors before I need a gravesite myself.

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: And that's important to maybe be involved in some archaeology in a town that my ancestor lived in, to kind of be able to dig back into the past. We've talked so much about archaeology, it's my second love. To do a little bit of that would be kind of fun, too.

Fisher: Yeah, I think of John Howland from the Mayflower. There are people who are actually doing a dig at what was once his son's house, there in Massachusetts. And I would love to be part of something like that sometime. So you're right. Obviously, it depends on your health and your physical condition for things like that. But like I say, you can do several things at the same time. You can purge a lot of things that you don't need anymore and your kids aren't going to want, but you can gather information and really get yourself set up for the basic, starting a family tree with yourself. And then going back from there and documenting every generation as you move along. And learning as you go, too. There's so much education that you can get of course through RootsTech, which is still going on online, and will happen again coming up this coming February and March. So, we wish you the best of luck in your journey with that. And coming up next, we’ve got another question. It's Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show.

Segment 5 Episode 478

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Fisher: All right, we are back on the job at Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com. Fisher here, David Lambert over there. And David, question number two this week is from Lauren in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She writes, “Fisher, you have mentioned your volunteer fireman ancestor from New York City. I have one, too. Can you tell me what records can be found on these guys?” You know, this is a really good question, because I searched for years to try to find where are the firemen records? One thing about New York City is, it's so big, it's really hard for people often to know what they have in their archives. And there's the New York Historical Society, there's the New York Public Library, there's the fire museum there in New York City, there's the municipal archives. You go through it, there's so many places and it's hard to find them. So, when I discovered that my guy was a New York fireman as were two of his brothers, it really took a lot of work to get the information that I'm going to share with you right now, Lauren. So, the first thing is, there’s a book out from 1887 in New York City by a guy named Augustine Costello. And it's really fat. I don't know how many hundreds of pages, 700- 800, something like that. It's called, Our Firemen. And he did one for Brooklyn as well. And there are a lot of names in this. And this is where I discovered two things about my guy. Number one, that he was a member of the Exempt Firemen's Association, which meant in his time in service, he had served at least five years, which I was later able to prove. The other thing it had in there was a list of all the former firemen as older men who marched in the dedication parade for the Statue of Liberty in 1886.

David: Wow!

Fisher: Yeah, with the veteran Firemen's Association of New York City. Now the veteran fireman was this collection of all the guys from the volunteer era, which ended in 1865 when the New York government made them a paid department. But there are several other sources other than that book, and that is the Documents of the Board of Councilmen. Now they have these annual reports, at least in the 1850s and ‘60s, because I didn't look beyond when my people were in there, but they listed all the members by name of each company. We're talking engine company, hose company, hook and ladder, the occupation of the men, where they lived, their street address. Some of these are online. I know the one from 1855 is on the Internet Archive, and it's labeled as, volume two, number two. So, volume one may be referring to 1854, which may have been the first year they did this.

David: Sure.

Fisher: But they continued all the way through 1865 when the volunteer department was ended and then the pay department was created. You might also discover some information and images relating to your person's company through the virtual museum of the New York City Fire Museum, which you can find online, as well as that of the FASNY museum, F A S N Y Museum of firefighting in Hudson, New York. They both have a lot of good stuff online. And if you're able to discover the company that your ancestor was a member of, you can actually search for things related to that company. And I've had a lot of success with that. And you’ve got to check our sponsors at Newspapers.com, because they have tons of stories in there. You can research the people individually and often find things about your man, because they were all men back then maybe tied to their fire company. But you can also research the specific companies by name and in the era that your ancestor was in there. So you can find out kind of their history. And there are a lot of histories just to be found by Googling them. And they're found in, Our Firemen, the book by Augustine Costello. And we should mention, too last and by far, not the least, the municipal archives in New York City has the Firemen's official rolls. They didn't know where they were when I went to see them about this about 10 years ago.

David: You're kidding.

Fisher: But I had them dig them up. And boy, it is complete and it's not available online. You actually have to visit the place. So that's all I have time to tell you about Lauren, but good luck with that. David thanks so much for joining us. We'll talk to you next week.

David: All right, my friend, until later.

Fisher: All right. And thank you for joining us. And if you missed any of the show today or want to catch it again, of course listen to the podcast on AppleMedia. iHeart Radio, TuneIn Radio, ExtremeGenes.com and Spotify. Talk to you again next week. And remember, as far as everyone knows, we're a nice normal family!

That’s all this week on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show!

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