Recently on JSTOR Daily: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

A few years ago I came across a family photograph of the burial ceremony of my second great-grandmother, Rachel (Broadhead) Taylor and her daughter, Flora Taylor. Both had died within three days of one another and were buried October 28, 1918. Rachel died at the age of 55, leaving behind her husband and several children, the youngest being just 13 years old. Her daughter Flora, not yet married, was only 26 years old. The photograph was a haunting reminder of the conditions of their deaths. The mourners, particularly the children, shrouded their faces in masks, fearful of falling victim to the same disease that claimed Rachel and her daughter—influenza. Local newspapers revealed their hometown had many stricken with the disease, part of what was to be known as the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, a global catastrophe that is estimated to have killed between 40 and 50 million people.

Read the full column at JSTOR Daily


Today on JSTOR Daily: Our Farming Ancestors

My ancestry includes an interesting mix of occupations – a few successful merchants, hard-working coal miners, and the occasional crooked politician. For many generations however, these occupations are the exception. Whether living in New York, Georgia, Illinois, or California the majority of my ancestors spent their lifetime as farmers. A large majority of our ancestors in the United States were farmers, as estimates count the number of farmers as 64% of the population (4.9 million) in 1850, slightly down from the figure of 72% of the population reported in 1820. While the life of my crooked politician is well documented, the lives of so many of my farming ancestors remain a bit of a mystery. They did not often make the county history book or the local newspaper, yet were an essential part of their local economies and deserve some recognition…

Read the full column at JSTOR Daily

Purchasing Your Tech

It has been a while since I made what I consider to be a “stupid” technology purchase.

Shopping CartThat was, until last week when I made a classic mistake – purchasing an accessory from a new vendor to save a few dollars. While the website’s reviews were mixed, I took the chance and made the purchase anyway. The item arrived safely and on schedule, but no matter what I did, it would not sync with my computer. With no technical support and limited return options, it felt as if I was stuck with my purchase.

In the end, I was able to get some excellent technical support via online forums and social media, and finally got the device to sync properly. It took a small army, but eventually I was satisfied with my new purchase.

The lesson? Never forget a few simple rules when purchasing your tech.

Know the Features You Need

Whether downloading a new App or purchasing a new mobile device, having a clear picture of the features you need is important. Do you really need a watch that displays your entire family tree? Do you have to have a large amount of memory on that new laptop? Will you really use that new wand scanner? Take some time to evaluate what you currently use before picking up the latest gadget.

Blogs and social media can be an excellent way to keep track of what features you might need. Accessing Flipboard’s category for Technology gives you instant access to a variety of reviews and comments on recently released tech. Other websites, such as can also provide reviews and important advice on the latest technologies.

Use Product Reviews  Effectively

Popular online shopping networks such as Amazon can provide an array of user reviews. Just as you evaluate your genealogical resources, it can be important to carefully evaluate a review. Look specifically for those that present both pros and cons for a product. No product is entirely perfect, and it can be important to hear from other users before making the purchase. You should also be aware of fake endorsements or paid reviews that are often found on online shopping websites.

In today’s world of social media a tweet or status update can create a flood of useful comments and actual user experiences that might not readily appear in published reviews elsewhere. Never be afraid to ask for guidance within your own social network. Don’t forget about longstanding resources, such as Consumer Reports, for a more balanced review. Websites, such as are also worth visiting, to find reviews outside of an online shopping experience.

Compare Before You Buy

Comparison shopping sites have become a popular part of purchasing items online. While sites like Amazon or Overstock might offer a lower price, the ability to bundle or add extended warranties and support might be more easily accessible through the manufacturer or another resource. That being said, great technology can be found across the web, from eBay to NewEgg, to other digital storefronts.

Besides price and warraComparenties, ongoing customer support should also be a point of comparison when purchasing something new. With big box software stores disappearing, the ability to receive one-on-one support is diminishing. Instead, look for shopping outlets that provide easy, no-nonsense return policies, support via social media, chat, and email.


Many might dread the need to purchase or acquire new technology. Upgrades and compatibility issues are just a few of factors that cause a genealogist some angst when adding something new to their ‘tech bag.’ While the places (and the technology) we purchase have changed over the years these few fundamental pieces of advice still stand the test of time.

Tools of the Trade: JSTOR

A new category for genealogists and family histories, “Tools of the Trade” will examine key resources – both online and offline – Joshua recommends for tracing your roots. This edition of “Tools of the Trade” features JSTOR, an online database of scholarly journals covering a variety of disciplines, including history, political science, cultural studies, and other areas relevant to genealogical and historical research.

Each year, millions of users tap into JSTOR ‘s rich holdings, searching across more than 6.8 million articles (over 40 million pages) from nearly 1,500 journals. With its full text search, JSTOR is a “must-have” tool for any genealogist.

What to Search?

While an article’s author might not realize they have created a resource for genealogists, their writings can hold important clues for family historians. Consider searching articles for surnames, locations, and other pertinent keywords from your own research. Articles might hold clues to migration patterns, church membership, or existing records.

Though genealogy and family history is not included among the many categories found in JSTOR, several important sections exist:

JSTOR Home Page

  • Archaeology
  • Art & Art History
  • British Studies
  • Geography
  • History
  • Irish Studies
  • Law
  • Library Science
  • Political Science
  • Transportation

The majority of searches in JSTOR should include keywords relating to a location or historical events rather than individual names. Sample search phrases might include:

  • Lee County Iowa Churches
  • Adams Pennsylvania Revolution
  • Migration Adams County Ohio
  • Baltimore Maryland Immigration Irish

Using and Accessing JSTOR

You can access JSTOR from home through a paid JPASS, or through a local library or university. A complete list of institutions that have access to JSTOR can be found online. Many of these institutions also provide remote access, allowing you use JSTOR from your home computers by logging into your library account. Keep in mind that an institution’s access to JSTOR might differ from one to another, depending upon the categories and titles a specific repository might have purchased access to.

Some of the materials found in JSTOR’s collection are searchable through Google, which often displays the citation and the first page of an article. Consider trying your search on Google Scholar first, before visiting JSTOR to get an idea of other resources that might be available.

Be sure to create a MyJSTOR account, which allows you to save citations and searches for future use. A MyJSTOR account is free and can be used regardless of what institution a user might be accessing JSTOR from. MyJSTOR can even be set to automatically email updated search results if desired.

Next Steps

A tremendous resource provided by these articles is their bibliographic citations, which often reference unique manuscript and archival collections used in developing the article that can be goldmines for genealogists. Collections might include a journal or series of letters housed in a small repository not yet online or the location of a church’s records previously unknown.

You can keep in touch with JSTOR by following JSTOR Daily, a new digital publication that shares some of JSTOR’s holdings on a regular basis.

The Genealogy Factor on JSTOR Daily

I am delighted to announce that for the next several weeks my column, The Genealogy Factor will appear at JSTOR Daily. JSTOR is an incredible collection of scholarly articles from various subjects, including history, art, music, archaeology, political science, and other topics. Available at libraries and through an individual JPASS subscription, JSTOR is a terrific resource for anyone interested in family history. I am delighted to showcase a few of my JSTOR finds in the coming weeks.

First up? Gravestones and Graveyards…

“Those tracing their family tree often find themselves scouring graveyards in hopes of uncovering new facts about their family history. Though not all burial locations are marked, gravestones can be an incredible source of information—providing names, dates, places, relationships, and other key details. Genealogists know that an individual gravestone can reflect multiple elements—including one’s standing with a community or their financial status. A single gravestone might only yield a name and year, though it can fill in the gaps. In such cases, a genealogist might move beyond the individual plot—taking a step back to analyze its position, noting nearby burials, further context can be understood by examining a gravestone’s art and comparing it to others, looking for common themes and patterns that showcase religious beliefs, local cultures, and other clues…

Read the full column at JSTOR Daily

Preserving Our Past: How You Can Help

Last Saturday morning, I was up bright and early filming an episode of Genealogy Roadshow in the amazing city of St. Louis. This Saturday, I get to watch the sunrise over the historic Alamo. Why am I watching the sunrise over the Alamo? Because I am walking to preserve millions of pages of pension documents from the War of 1812 – and I need YOUR help!

As many of you know, I currently serve as the President of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, a non-profit organization representation over 500 societies and millions of genealogists across North America. As an all-volunteer organization, the accomplishments of FGS are impressive. This week we are gathered in San Antonio, for our 2014 Annual Conference.

As part of its mission to preserve records and link the genealogical community, FGS has launched “Preserve the Pensions,” a project to raise $3.7 million to digitize the original pension files for the first time. These pension files reveal the stories that you often see on popular television programs, like Genealogy Roadshow and celebrate the legacy of so many who fought for America’s freedom.

This community project is the first of its kind – as these paper files are digitized and placed online FREE, FOREVER through the generous support of genealogists, just like you. Even better? Every dollar given to the project is generously matched by

In support of the project, I will be walking along with three of my amazing colleagues (Kenyatta Berry, Ed Donakey, and Judy Russell) on Saturday morning and I would appreciate your help. Please consider donating to Preserve the Pensions and sponsoring me during the walk. Every little bit helps as we work to place millions of pages from these amazing documents online, free – for the world to access.


The Fast-Paced World of the Past

A preview of my latest blog at Huffington Post, “The Fast-Paced World of the Past

As a kid, I was always considered a bit of an oddball. A genealogist from the age of 10, there were times when I felt a bit “stuck in the past,” enveloped in a world where ancient handwriting, dusty documents, and historical events were paramount. While my friends were becoming experts in Nintendo and perfecting their basketball skills, I was pouring over my family tree and bugging my parents about mysterious great uncle Henry.

Flash forward nearly 20 years and so much about my beloved hobby has changed. From unprecedented levels of digital record access combined with innovation in search technologies, family history has become a fast-paced digital industry – one that is making waves across the world. As a professional genealogist, I find myself working in an incredibly competitive industry, where acquisitions and mergers make big news, new start-ups appear every week, and every player competes to develop new technology to outsmart the others.

…continue reading the rest at Huffington Post.


Genealogy Roadshow seeks your submissions

It all started with a Tweet:

Interested in appearing on Genealogy Roadshow?  #genealogyPBS @PBS #genealogy #genealogist


Genelaogy Roadshow Logo

Now is your chance to submit your stories to the team at Genealogy Roadshow as preparations for Season 2 are underway. Can’t decide which question to ask? Here are a few completely unofficial, unauthorized, “insider tips” for submitting a story to Genealogy Roadshow:

  • Ask a succinct question or share a mystery rather than a long series of long-standing genealogical brickwalls.
  • It doesn’t matter how famous, wealthy, or prominent your ancestors were. Genealogy Roadshow is all about uncovering the past of everyday Americans, like you and I.
  • Submit a picture or two, they truly can tell a thousand words. Anything that adds life to the story helps someone engage.
  • Be prepared for what might be uncovered.  You never know what lurks in the archives about your family.
  • Don’t hold back. We all have one or two mysteries in our family tree. Your ancestor didn’t have to come to America on the Mayflower, be related to a U.S. President, or have a long-distance connection to royalty to be a fascinating story for Genealogy Roadshow.

Genealogy Roadshow - San FranciscoGRSFReady to submit your story? Fill out the online form ( to share it with the team. In the meantime, be sure to follow Genealogy Roadshow on Twitter ( and Facebook (, and by using the #genealogypbs hashtag.

Now, as for that “other” question you have been asking: yes, I am involved in Season 2 – and can’t wait to get back on the road uncovering America’s family history mysteries.

Stay tuned –


Expanding Our Audience

What I Learned From Genealogy Roadshow

When I first started in family history I will admit to feeling a bit like an outsider. In school my friends and classmates spent their free time engaged in a variety of other activities – video games, sports, etc.

Me? I would literally rush home from school, drop my bags, and be out the door to a local library to continue my genealogy quest. To say I was a bit obsessed is an understatement. When others would think my hobby (and now my profession) was weird or abnormal I could never understand where they were coming from. When studying in college and graduate school, I would proudly share that I was a genealogist, only to be met with scowls, raised eyebrows, or blank stares.

Fast-forward to Monday evening. I had a group of new friends over for a casual barbeque and to watch the latest episode of Genealogy Roadshow. Even though I have spent a considerable amount of time with this group before, none of them has really ever asked what I do as a genealogist – they simply know that I am one.

Well, that certainly changed Monday evening. During the episode questions like, “how do you do that,” “can I do that,” “how do I get started,” flooded the room. Here sat a handful of under-thirty friends anxiously engaged in family history. As the episode ended one friend said (quite loudly), “more genealogy.” I was a bit stunned; I wasn’t sure what to share with them.

Looking at my bookshelves and my computer an initial instinct was to pull out the latest issue of my favorite peer-reviewed genealogical quarterly or log onto a family history website.  Giving it some further thought, I realized that they probably weren’t quite ready for that. So I went with another option, an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?. We watched, they asked questions, had their own conversations, and my feeling was that by the end of the night the group had a better understanding of genealogy – and what’s better – some even found themselves to be curious about their own family tree.

Here is the thing, genealogy is not exclusive to one group or type of individual – it is something for everyone. Many believe there are some right and wrong ways to “do genealogy,” but I firmly believe there is no right or wrong way to find an interest or get started in genealogy.  Over the recent weeks I have heard some amazing stories through e-mails, Facebook, Twitter, and in person from folks who have just discovered they are a bit curious about their family tree. Each time family history is on television our audience expands. Those of us who call ourselves genealogists have a heavy task ahead!

My conclusion? We need to give audiences more credit and be prepared to teach and to lead them into genealogy.


In nearly every case, those who have reached out for help are completely aware that the process of family history takes more than 15 minutes to complete. In fact many reference a relative who worked on their own family tree for several years. Many remind me of myself as a beginning genealogist and I still remain grateful to the genealogists who didn’t laugh, but instead helped me learn. Family history is a constant process of education and learning.

It is the responsibility of dedicated family historians to find ways to share the genealogical process with those who are curious, without presenting an overwhelming, life-long task.


I fully realize that what we see on television doesn’t mimic the real process. The documents that take us hours, days, months, and even years to find are flashed in a matter of three seconds and then swapped aside for the next part of the story. They are illustrations to a story – not the story itself.

It is easy for some of us to pick apart our favorite – or even our least favorite television shows – especially if they deal in a subject where we have some expertise. Sitting next to an environmental scientist during the latest documentary on global warming can be an experience. Those who are in the business of television production work to create a product that entertains – and many are experts at just that – creating stories, casting the right participants, filming from the correct angle, editing the story to fit within the constraints of a given episode, etc.  My point? It isn’t an easy task  – we only see 45 minutes of something that took hundreds of hours (beyond the family history research) to create.

Just as genealogists strive to become experts in carefully citing each source, delivering a full analysis, and preparing a detailed, in-depth research report – those in television product strive to become experts at creating, filming, and editing a story for the mass market. Ironically, both of us see our work shortened and reduced to a few short moments in time. There are times when both sides seem to be at conflict and there isn’t an immediate solution. My personal feeling is that there is room on both sides to provide constructive criticism and look for improvement.

To demonstrate, let me share with you one of my greatest – and most challenging moments – from Genealogy Roadshow. Before some episodes were filmed the crew, hosts, and others would gather for a production meeting to discuss the episode. During this process the hosts are sometimes asked to practice with the script.  These meetings were certainly full of a slew of acronyms and insider language that left my head spinning (OTF, VTR, PA, etc.). My face reminded me of the look others probably have when I start talking genealogy in terms of NGS, APG, and FGS. Feeling completely out of my depth, I realized it was my role to learn what things meant – after all I was about to spend 4 intense weeks immersed in this world. How did I learn? I asked questions, I read articles, and I observed. Now, I know I didn’t pick up on everything, but I certainly made the effort to be teachable about the world of television production.  One of my favorites? When “taillights” appears on a schedule it means the time that things are all packed up and everyone is leaving the set – and after long 18-hour days, everyone is looking forward to taillights!

During one of these first sessions with my new colleagues, I had just spent about 15 minutes walking a family through their appearances in the United States Federal census, from 1850 to 1920. Just as I was set to continue I was politely stopped and asked what that all meant. Looking up, the blank stares in the room made it clear that this exercise had not captured the attention of the room. What I found fascinating, they found dull. I felt a bit like that 12-year old at the school lunch table again, who was waxing on about his latest find in a land record. I quickly realized I was completely out of my comfort zone. Yet, in front of me were those who were going to be running the cameras, deciding what to focus on, assisting in writing scripts, etc. I had utterly failed in explaining a series of records.

Not having been able to reach my conclusion (or any type of analysis for that matter), I was a bit stunned at what to answer. A bit frustrated, I looked to the story producers for some guidance. They really showed their expertise and asked me to point out ONE interesting thing from all those records.  Geez that was hard! There were so many interesting things that the research team had uncovered and that we could share from these records.

Using knowledge of what the records contained, I shared what I thought to be the most interesting element and we compromised. While I wouldn’t get to spend a great deal of time walking the participant through the census records, I would show them an interesting element from the records that built a larger story for the segment. It took time, patience, and understanding from everyone in the room.

Ironically? The following day during filming, as soon as the cameras stopped the participant asked me if I would spend some time (off camera) going over those census records, year-by-year because they really wanted to understand them.

The lesson learned: those who have a curiosity about family history will usually want to learn more, opening up a great teaching moment for the genealogist.


The experience was a teaching moment for me – and I found a deeper respect for the challenge of turning a 100-page, well-researched (and fully documented) research report into a concise story for a general audience.  Each short segment represents hundreds of hours (and dollars) spent by a production team to share just 20 hours of genealogical research with the world. Family history is a complex field – and we need to work to start an open dialogue with those who write, produce, and edit family history on television.  We should offer our help, assistance, and expertise without being negative or overly critical. Those on the production team are actually our fans, our promoters, and our friends. Of all the topics to choose from (celebrity dancing to misbehaving brides), they have chosen to devote their time, talents, skills, reputations, and money to our passion of genealogy.

I have heard from more than one member of the production team that they feel honored to be part of the family history experience. From those who work to cast participants – ensuring that there is a balance of diverse stories for a single episode to those who work to edit the material down to a concise entertainment package. Does it always turn out the way I would envision it? Certainly not.  My role isn’t to write the script or edit the footage – and thank goodness for that, my skills at writing screenplays and editing film are non-existent. After all, what is the trick and goal for many entertainers? To leave your audience wanting more. At the end of the day, I would rather see my passion for family history gain exposure to a wider audience, and provide more opportunities for family history to be shared, taught and pursued.

Disclaimer: The above thoughts are my own and do not represent the views of PBS, Krasnow Productions,, or the Federation of Genealogical Societies.