Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Do You Remember The Not-So-Glorious New York Fourth of July in 1832?

This afternoon, while organizing my books, I spent some time with the diary of Philip Hone (1780 – 1851), the one-term early 19th century Whig mayor of New York City.   Hone is remembered less for his stint as mayor than for his skills as a meticulous 19th century diarist.

While I had his diary in hand, two things crossed my mind: the impending 4th of July holiday and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Obviously, it will be a reach to connect the two with Philip Hone, but it’s not impossible, as you will see.  

Several months ago (late April to be exact) the Hon. Rick Perry, governor of Texas, signed a proclamation declaring April 22 – 24, 2011 as Days of Prayer For Rain.  The official text reads as follows:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal way of life.

For some reason, that reminded me of the impending 4th of July holiday.  And that sent me to Philip Hone’s diary for the 4th of July, 1832. 

I picked 1832 for a reason.

Just like things have been in the state of Texas lately, times were tough in New York City in the summer of 1832.  But it wasn’t because of lack of rain.  Here’s Hone on the state of affairs on the morning of July 4th, 1832:

It is a lovely day, but very different from all previous anniversaries of independence.  The alarm about the cholera has prevented all the usual jollification under the public authority.  There are no booths on Broadway, the parade which was ordered has been countermanded, no corporation dinner and no ringing of bells.  Some troops are marching about the street, “upon their own hook”, I suppose.  Most of the stores are closed, and there is a pretty smart cannonade of crackers by the boys; but it is not a regular Fourth of July.  The disease is here in all its violence, and will increase.  God grant that its ravages may be confined and its visit short!

Several weeks earlier, on Friday, June 15th, Hone wrote:

Bishop Onderdonk has published a very sensible pastoral letter to the ministers of his diocese, urging them to make a spiritual use of the apprehended danger, and prescribing a form of prayers to be used in the service of the Church.”

On the following Monday, he noted:

Prayers were offered up yesterday in all the churches to avert the threatened visit of the cholera, and sermons preached to prepare the minds of the people for the affliction, which seems now to be considered inevitable.”

The prayers offered up in Bishop Onderdonk’s churches had much the same effect on cholera as Rick Perry’s three days of prayer had on Texas weather.  Despite the heartfelt invocations, the Asiatic Cholera, like the Texas drought, came anyway.

Prior to 1832, cholera was an Asian disease.  It was unknown in North America. Its causes and its treatment, while widely discussed in medical circles, were unknown.  

However, in 1832, all that began to change.

During the spring and summer of 1832, more than 30,000 mostly Irish immigrants arrived in Canada via the St. Lawrence River, docking at the receiving station of Grosse Isle near Quebec City.  While many stayed for a time in Quebec and Ontario, a large number headed to cities south of the border.  Plattsburgh.  Albany.  Buffalo. Kingston.  Burlington.  Worcester.  Hartford.  Boston.  New York.

The arriving ships told the tale:

28 April – the ship Constantia from Limerick arrived at Grosse Isle, Quebec. There were 29 cholera deaths on the crossing.

14 May – the ship Robert from Cork, with 10 cholera deaths during the voyage, arrived at Grosse Isle.

28 May – the ship Elizabeth from Dublin docked at Grosse Isle and reported 20 cholera deaths during the crossing.

3 June – the ship Carricks from Dublin arrived at Grosse Isle.  Cholera was rampant. 42 cholera deaths had occurred during the voyage.

By mid-June, cholera had moved from Quebec to Montreal and then further west to Lachine, Brockville, Kingston and Cornwall.  

Meanwhile, by mid-June, Irish immigrant arrivals from Canada in Plattsburgh, New York and Burlington, Vermont took sick with cholera and died there. Toward the end of June, the wife and two children of an Irish immigrant named Fitzgerald died of cholera in New York City. In a day or two, everything mushroomed out of control in New York City. 

New Yorkers were sure they knew the cause.  It was God’s punishment for something or other.  Or it was the Irish immigrants, since the disease was rampant in neighborhoods that were thickly settled by immigrants.  Immigrants were dirty, and carried the cholera.  Immigrants were “not like us.”

Wealthy New Yorkers left the city in droves.  Hone took his family and headed for the security of Rockaway to take some salubrious sea air and wait out the disease.

After the worst of the epidemic was over, Hone described the newly arrived Irish immigrants in his diary entry of 20 September 1832 .  He wrote:

Of these, a large proportion find their way into the United States destitute and friendless. They have brought the cholera this year, and they will always bring wretchedness and want. The boast that our country is the asylum for the oppressed in other parts of the world is very philanthropic and sentimental, but I fear that we shall, before long, derive little comfort from being made the almshouse and place of refuge for the poor of other countries.”

By the end of the summer, more than 3500 New Yorkers had died of cholera.  Its cause would remain unknown until 1854 when John Snow, by investigating the families that got their water from the Broad Street Pump in London, proved conclusively that its cause was not the wrath of God or Irish immigrants, but rather water contaminated with human waste.  

Cholera was a bacterial disease, caused by the organism Vibrio cholereae, shown above, that passed from victim to victim by exposure to polluted water.  

It was all explainable by simple science.

Of course, these days, the legitimacy of “simple science” is questioned by populist pundits, and the idea that “big government” should be involved in public health has become a matter for debate, underscoring the fact that there’s really no cure for “stupid.” 

Anyway, enjoy a Glorious cholera-free Fourth of July!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Breaking News From Hot Springs, S.D.: Earth is Square!

When it comes to unusual maps and history, I’m always a sucker for a good story.

So, how could I pass up commenting on this piece on the History Blog that described the donation of a truly rare item to the Library of Congress by former North Dakota State Senator Don Homuth

Apparently the Library of Congress does not yet have its very own copy of Orlando Ferguson’s  treatise published in 1893 in Hot Springs, South Dakota entitled “Map of a Square and Stationary Earth”, in which Ferguson makes it perfectly clear that the Earth is not a sphere, but rather a square.  There are only a few known copies of this groundbreaking treatise, which, of course, is hard to fathom, considering its scientific importance and insight.

So, exactly who was this mysterious deep thinker and scientific “wunderkind” -  Orlando Ferguson of South Dakota?

Sadly, there’s no extant copy of the census for 1890 that might help reveal his identity.  However, the 1900 and the earlier 1880 Federal censuses give us a clue.

According to the 1900 census, Orlando Ferguson was a resident of  Jackson, Fall River County, South Dakota, and had been born in November 1846 in Illinois.  His father was born in Virginia and his mother in North Carolina.  He was married about 1873 to an Illinois-born woman named Marguerite.  

The father of nine children, he appears to have moved to South Dakota sometime after the birth of his son William in Missouri in December 1881 and before the birth of his son D. T. in South Dakota in May of 1884.

In 1900, he identified himself as a “Doctor of Medicine.”

He must have studied really hard, because 20 years earlier, he can be found in Lamar Township, Barton County, Missouri, with his wife and his two oldest children, as a hotel keeper, which, as we all know, provides much of the necessary training to become a “Doctor of Medicine”, at least in some parts of these United States.

He likely died before 1910, because in that year, his widow was listed in the census as running a “bath and boarding house.”  (Income from the “doctor biz” can be notoriously unreliable, but nearly everyone needs a bath now and then.)

Ferguson was obviously a man of many talents. Hotel keeper, doctor, author, bathhouse proprietor, there was seemingly no end to his many endeavours.

Did I mention "Astronomer"?

In 1891, Ferguson published a 42 page document called “The Latest Theories of Astronomy: The Globe Theory of Earth Refuted.”

Then, a few years later, he began a monthly journal, which he no doubt intended to be his “magnum opus” and, if enough subscribers joined him, his meal-ticket to a comfortable retirement.

In the 1896 edition of “Miscellaneous Notes and Queries: A Monthly Magazine of Folk-Lore, Mathematics, Mystics, Arts, Scicnce [sic], Etc.” Vol XIV, published by S.C. and L.M. Gould of Manchester, N.H., the following announcement appeared:  

The Square World is the name of a new monthly venture published at Hot Springs, South Dakota, and edited by Orlando Ferguson. Its leading text, is: "And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth," found in the Apocalypse (vii, 1). Illustrated with a map of the land and water surface on a square plane. He quotes the following text under the caption of " Prophecy of the Street Cars ": "The chariots shall rage through the streets, they shall jostle one against another in the broad ways, they shall seem like torches, they shall run like lightning." Fifty cents a year.”

Orlando Ferguson didn’t have much success creating a following for his “flat, square earth theory” in the 1890s.  “The Square World” never seemed to catch on.

Unfortunately, considering the current state of scientific denialism in the United States today, he’d have a much better chance of gathering a larger following.  And maybe even a political constituency.

I’m looking forward to the political debates of 2012; chances are, there will be at least one candidate who, in addition to espousing the “square earth” idea, will insist that early humans kept dinosaurs as pets, just like they showed on the “Flintstones.”

I wonder which one it will be? 

Beuhler?  Beuhler?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

NHPRC: What It Is and Why It Matters

This year, the Society of American Archivists has been having a year-long archival awareness campaign called “I Found It At The Archives!

Everybody – (and I mean in the genealogical community – and with the apparent exception of the good folks at Wikipedia) knows that primary source material is preferable to secondary source material.  That means, given the choice, an archival document – a first-hand account of the specific incident or event under study – is better than a “hearsay” account from years later.  

For those of you who haven’t been following the discussion closely, Wikipedia editors prefer secondary sources to primary sources since primary sources are “open to interpretation.”  Secondary sources – especially if found on the Internet – are in the view of Wikipedians – close to sacrosanct.

Which is, of course, why Wikipedia ought not to be a “Trusted Source” for genealogists.  If you haven’t figured out why primary sources are important, you need to spend more time learning about what you’re doing.

Nonetheless, Wikipedia notwithstanding, the Society of American Archivists has announced their six finalists in the “I Found It At The  Archives” writing competition.  Here’s the link to the six finalists:

Read all of them, but specifically read the two with a genealogical focus: Archie Reson’s experience at the East Texas Research Center of the Stephen F. Austin State University and Linda Ejzak’s discoveries at the Ohio Historical Society. 

Of course, there was obviously an ulterior motive to my posting the above.

All of the above is interesting but doesn’t address the immediate issue.  How do archives pay for themselves?

Sure, lots of archives are state-funded; these days, that doesn’t mean much, as states cut back on their allocations.  Also, lots of archives rely on contributions from individuals for operating support.  These days, that’s an “iffy” source.   When was the last time you wrote a check to your favorite archives?

Frankly, we take our archives for granted and assume they will always be there for us.  That’s a very questionable position, considering the current world view.  Lots of folks view archives as a “luxury”… something that could easily be done away with.

On June 23rd, the folks in Congress who sit on the House Appropriations Committee will consider funding for NHPRC.   And, what is NHPRC, you ask?

NHPRC is the National Historical and Publications Records Commission.  In a word, it provides funding for archives all over the United States.  Not just state archives, but private archival institutions as well. 

This year, the House decided that the NHPRC could subsist on just 10% of its previous years’ funding.  After all, the Congress (and you know who’s in charge) has decided that there are things we can’t afford, since there are tax breaks for billionaires at stake.  History and archives that NHPRC supports is apparently one of those things that's just too expensive. 

To find out what archives in your area receive NHPRC funding and are therefore in jeopardy because of this drastic cut in funding, check out the following link:

Surprisingly, not everything we need in our research can be found on Wikipedia.  We really need the real “primary source” records and finding aids that are found in real archives.

How else would we know the truth?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Things That Go Bump In The Night: A Family Story

“Best-laid plans” and all that…

Tonight’s offering started out to be about a completely different topic, but a post about “haunted houses” by my friend Marian Pierre-Louis on her New England House Historian blog  got me thinking.

What if…

Our current house was built about 1797, give or take a few years.  At least that’s what the old 1970s era “blue form” used to nominate it as a “historic property” in a “historic district” for the National Register of Historic Places says.

In any case, it’s been around a good long time and has undergone numerous internal and external “updates” – some good, some not so good.

I’ve lost track as to where we stand numerically in the long list of owners during the past 200-plus years. For part of that time in the early part of the 20th century, the house (which is quite large) was divided as a two-family duplex and at least two families lived there.  Without a doubt, it’s been “home” to numerous individuals since John Adams was President.

In any case, I would guess that the house has seen more than its fair share of folks shuffling off their mortal coils inside its walls. However, during the quarter century or so that we’ve owned it, we’ve not experienced anything like a spirit “presence.”

Not a single previous owner has come back to visit and had the courtesy to make himself or herself known to us, unless they came in the form of squirrels and mice.  If that’s the case, we’re kind of like the spirit world’s “Grand Central Station.”

Still, in spite of the age of the house, things have been quiet, spirit-wise.

However, that hasn’t always been the case in some other of my family houses, at least as far as some of my close relations are concerned.

My great-grandfather died at home in 1901 of nephritis. He was fifty-one years old and had worked most of his life as a sawyer in a lumber mill and as a carpenter.  By all accounts, he had a hard life and things did not always go well for him. 

At the time he died, four of his five surviving children lived at home.  The children ranged in age from 19 to 10.   My grandmother –the next-to-youngest- had just turned 12.  Agnes, the youngest child, was 10.

The house where they all lived was a massive two and a half-storey Victorian-era structure containing seven or more bedrooms, several parlors and two kitchens, with a large carriage house behind.  Spread across two city lots and set back from the street, the house dominated the neighborhood.  A carefully laid brick courtyard connected the carriage house with the street and a wooden picket fence surrounded the property.

It was the house in which my father was born.

As a child, I spent many Saturdays exploring the largely-abandoned carriage house, filled with boards and scraps of wood of all descriptions and with an assortment of carpenter’s tools, some of which belonged to my great-grandfather and others to his carpenter- son-in-law, the husband of his eldest daughter. 

The house remained in the family as part of my great-grandmother’s unsettled estate (she died in 1931) until 1965 when it was taken under “eminent domain” as part of a grandiose urban renewal project and then demolished.

(In fact, working from my notes while I was out of the country at university, I prepared the genealogical backup documents for the attorneys so that all the surviving descendants of my grandmothers’ children could receive their proper shares of the estate, which at the time, didn’t amount to much. If memory serves, the 1965 “eminent domain” price for the property was a bit less than $5,000, which was divided among 20 or more descendants, “per stirpes”, as they say.)

The old house itself was truly mysterious.  My grandmother’s nephew lived in rooms on the top floor and her older widowed sister lived alone (except for her canary) in the raised “English basement”, sleeping in a small bedroom next to the kitchen and cooking her meals on a huge cast-iron coal stove.  

The principal “parlor floor” was left uninhabited, its rosewood Victorian furniture draped with dust-covered sheets.  As far as I could tell, those sheets were put on the furniture in 1931, when my great-grandmother died and had never come off. The kerosene "Gone With The Wind" lamps were never lit.  During the next 25 or 30 years, no one spent any time on the parlor floor. 

The marble fireplace in the parlor had been stone-cold since the day after my great-grandmother’s wake. As a child, I tried to explore that room several times and was always quickly removed by one of the older relatives.  The parlor was not for exploring.  It was for preserving.

After all, it was in that room that the disembodied head of my great-grandfather appeared, wreathed in flames, to his youngest daughter Agnes, a few weeks after his death.  He left her with a short plaintive message.

Aggie,” he said, “I need more prayers.”

And then, it is told, he vanished.

Agnes was greatly alarmed at her dead father’s appearance, as were his other children and his grieving widow.  Prayers were said.  The priest was called.  More prayers were said and holy water was sprinkled liberally around the parlor. 

The vision of my great-grandfather in flames never appeared again, although most folks agreed that Agnes was never quite the same after that.

Or so the story goes. 

My grandmother told me the story of her dead father’s appearance before she died in 1956.  Her sister Agnes – the only person who saw the apparition - never spoke about it.  According to my grandmother – a staunch Irish Catholic until she drew her final breath -  Agnes’s vision was proof-certain  that her father was in purgatory.

Sadly, the house itself is no more.  Moreover, it occurred to me that I may be the only person living who actually spent any time in this house and actually knows its story. 

Houses disappear and families move on.  Their stories, however, can live forever - if we take the time to tell them.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Hermann Hesse, 1961, and Me: My Half Century of Genealogy Research

Hermann Hesse
It was June 1961. 

I was sixteen years old and school was nearly done for the year. 

Much of my free time was given over to writing fiction and reading Hermann Hesse’s final opus “Das Glasperlenspiel” (known in its English translation as “Magister Ludi”, or sometimes as “The Glass Bead Game).  Since my German was non-existent at the time, I was, of course, reading the paperback English translation. During the school year, I had already devoured Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, and was clearly on a Hermann Hesse marathon.

Hesse’s novel is set far in the future, in a central European region known as “Castalia”, an area completely given over to playing a nearly impossible-to-master game played with glass beads.  The central focus is on a boys’ boarding school known as “Waldzell” where the most intellectually gifted students spend years trying to master the basic rudiments of the game, which requires mastering arcane knowledge in many apparently disparate subject areas.  No matter how many years they study, only a tiny few can ever become proficient in the game, thus earning the title “Magister Ludi” – which means “master of the game.”

In June 1961, my father had been dead a little more than two months. I was an only child. Three of my four grandparents had already died. I had one aunt and two first cousins who lived nearby. My only uncle and two other first cousins lived far away. Other more distant relatives were mostly strangers seen only at family funerals. 

My family was my mother and me.  And an aging dog we called "Buzzy."

In June 1961, I realized that I knew very little about my family origins, other than the stories that my now-dead grandmother had told me about my grandfather and his professional baseball career years ago.  My grandfather died when I was two years old.  

I wanted to know much, much more.  Sure, I had collected family stories in my memory for years - probably going back to the days when I was nine and pestered my grandmother for stories about her Irish immigrant grandmother, but I hadn't done much in a systematic way.

June 1961 was the month that I decided that I would likely always be a committed genealogist.

So, in June 1961, I began to:

☞  Plunge into the collections in the Manuscripts and Special Collections Unit of the New York State Library, then housed in the lowest level of the State Education Building on Washington Avenue in Albany.  It was there that I learned to use their microfilm and manuscript census materials on afternoons after school classes were over. I taught myself to read 19th century handwriting and figured out how to efficiently extract information. There were no indexes.   It was also long before copy machines, and I still have the June 1961 letter from the Librarian containing the detail of my great-great grandfather’s “shoe manufactory” that was found in the 1860 census.  (Note that, at the time, no post-1880 census was available.)

☞  Closet myself on Saturdays in the Albany Room on the top floor of the Harmanus Bleecker Library, transcribing every Albany city directory listing that was even remotely connected to the families to whom I knew that I was related. The librarians were at first suspicious of a high school student wanting to work in their rare book collection on Saturdays.  Years later, I served on the Board of Trustees of the library and did what I could to insure the collection was preserved.

☞  Visit both St. Agnes and Albany Rural Cemeteries to transcribe family headstones.

By the end of the month, I had also written to the Zentralstelle für Genealogie in Leipzig and also to the Bavarian State Archives for whatever available information I could find about my German immigrant ancestors.

By July, I had convinced my mother that a road trip to western New York and northwest Pennsylvania was in order, since that was where part of her family was from.  I designed my own data collection forms and we headed west for a week of research.  She had no interest in the research part of the trip but she was a good sport and she played along as we went from courthouse to courthouse, cemetery to cemetery.  

Most of the records custodians assumed that she was the researcher and I was the tag-along kid. Surprise!

By August, I had set up appointments to interview distant elderly cousins of both my grandfathers whom I had never met, even though they lived in the same city as me. I collected family data, was given photos and began building a family archives. I had also read Gilbert H. Doane’s classics “Searching For Your Ancestors” and “Genealogy As A Pastime and Profession.” During the next several years, I read them over and over.

I was hooked, to say the least.

Actually, reading Hermann Hesse’s “Magister Ludi” in 1961 was a direct and important influence on my views of genealogical research. In the novel, students of the Game, like the main character Josef Knecht, must learn that they need to master massive bodies of arcane knowledge and must learn to see the hidden connections between seemingly unrelated, and sometimes inconsequential facts.  They must also learn that the Game is beyond the comprehension and interest of most people.

I am now known as the “Keeper of the Family Stuff.”   Perhaps someday I will be, like Josef Knecht, a  Master of the Game.  

Unlike Josef Knecht, I doubt that I will ever give up the Game.  A half century and counting…

Monday, June 6, 2011

Book People Take Notice: The Internet Archive Gets "Physical"

The term “digital preservation” gets bandied about quite a bit these days by genealogists. 

We get all warm and fuzzy thinking that we're both high-tech gadget freaks and preservation goodie-goodies, all rolled into one.  We digitize stuff, ergo we preserve stuff.  

As a modern-day Descartes might say, "Digito, ergo sum."

Genealogists love their digitized images of newspapers, censuses and original documents.  Lots of folks even talk about busily digitizing their personal photographs and paper documents as a means of reducing clutter and performing what they like to call “digital preservation.”  

After all, who needs the original when you can have a perfectly serviceable digital copy that can be sent around the world as a pdf file and takes up virtually no space on your hard drive? Or, better yet, stored offsite in the “cloud”?

If you think that digitization of books, manuscripts, photographs and documents is in any way part of the “preservation” process, you have been woefully misinformed.  Digitization of things already printed on paper “preserves” nothing – absolutely nothing at all; it simply makes a digital (and highly alterable) copy and provides another means of distribution so that the original is not subject to more wear and tear.  

That’s a good thing, of course, but it’s not preservation, even if it makes you feel good to call it that.  The “preservation” aspect of paper artifacts and other rare originals concerns the long-term storage, care  and access of exceedingly rare original copies.

Since a magazine photo of the “Mona Lisa” doesn’t do much to preserve the painting in the Louvre, why would anyone think that a digital scan of a photo of great-grandfather Hezekiah chopping wood is doing anything to “preserve” the actual photo?  Moreover, think what could easily happen to that digital image at some point in the future.

Consider, for example, the ease with which the Brooklyn-based ultra-orthodox Hasidic newspaper Der Tzitung removed the image of Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton and another woman from the photograph that appeared in their newspaper in early May 2011 because their editorial policy does not permit printing women’s images because they might be considered sexually suggestive.   Imagine if, a century from now, a digital file of that newspaper was all that remained to document the participants of the White House Situation Room on the day Seal Team 6 stormed Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. 

Digitized newspaper history is not without pitfalls.

So it was with some sense of relief that I read today that Brewster Kahle, the mastermind behind the Internet Archive, was taking this whole “preservation of the original copy” stuff very seriously. He observed that once books were available digitally after being scanned, more than a few libraries were moving their hard copies to virtually irretrievable offsite storage or were de-accessioning them completely.

“Deaccessioning”, by the way, is polite librarian-speak for “tossing out.”

Librarians follow the market (hi there, Kindle and Nook fans!) and the market wants more digital media and more coffee shops and more meeting spaces and more computer terminals in libraries.  Stuff needs to be cheap, if not free.  Books are so “yesterday” and Kindle is the new “Black”. 

Brewster Kahle has taken note of the problem and has developed a solution.

The Internet Archive – that high-tech bastion of digital technology – is creating an honest-to-God physical archive of the books they digitize - if and when the owners of said books (i.e., libraries) don’t want their physical copies back.  That’s because Brewster Kahle gets it, and understands the key difference between digital distribution and preservation.  His goal is to become the book’s “seed bank” – preserving one physical copy of every published book.  He’s designed a system that will accommodate ten million books.  

 That’s 10,000,000 real paper and glue books.  That’s a lotta books!

In a sense, Kahle realizes the dangers of relying on digitization as a “preservation” technology and is laying in plans for what some sophisticated researchers in the field are already referring to as the coming “Digital Dark Ages”, when stuff is lost because either the will, the determination or the funds are not available in libraries and archives to upgrade stored data files to the next new technology.

As you may have noticed, libraries fare really, really well in tight economic times.  Fiscally conservative politicians LOVE to fund libraries, right?  They fall all over themselves to increase their funding.

Archives are already feeling the pinch, with new academic collections that come to them on 5.25 inch floppy drives crying out to be re-copied onto current technologies before it’s too late.  Some stuff arrives as “unknown” and remains “unknown” because the archives does not own the proper hardware to access the storage media from, say, 1975.

Here’s the story about the Internet Archive’s physical archives for books, direct from “Mr. Internet Archives” himself.  Read it and understand why he’s doing it.

Remember to please keep a warm spot in your heart for the visionary Brewster Kahle. 

As a point of purely personal interest, I searched the catalog of our large local library system today in search of a book I needed for some family research.  The book – “Mrs. Jack – A Biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner” by Louise Hall Tharp - was published in 1965 and, until a few years ago, was pretty easy to find.  In fact, I’ve sold several copies for under ten bucks in the past, since it was anything but a rare book.  I never kept a copy for myself, though, since nearly every library everywhere had a copy.  It’s an important piece of art collecting history.  

Apparently things have changed. Today, in our very large local library system of 29 public libraries that serve two populous upstate New York counties, only a single library has a copy. Worldcat shows a few copies in some university libraries nearby.

I guess I’d better check that public library copy out, before they decide to de-accession it to make space for more video games.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Thinking Beyond Careers in Genealogy - The "Salem Psychic" Model

I guess I missed this Salem, Massachusetts story about the licensing of psychics in the 26 May 2011 New York Times since that’s the day I was driving north from Virginia.  

Anyhow, I found it interesting on a number of counts. (all of the statements below could easily be prefaced with “I did not know that…”)

Number 1:  Salem, Massachusetts now licenses psychics and currently has 75 licensed practitioners of this arcane but popular art.  To qualify for a license, psychics must have been resident in Salem for a year or more. No word on whether or not any other qualifications are needed.

Number 2:  The City Authorities in Salem are now worrying about “psychic overload.”  Too many psychics, too little work.  

That, of course, got me thinking about genealogy.  Salem has 40,500 souls more or less (counting the living souls only, of course).  Granted it’s a touristy town, but could it support, say, 75 professional genealogists?  I doubt it. Professional genealogists need much better marketing, obviously.  Psychics are milking the cash cow and eating our lunch.

Number 3:  In the NYT article above, a former accountant, now a practicing psychic, laments that most of the new psychics are “untrained.” Another psychic – formerly an exotic dancer known as “Toppsey Curvey” – suggests that many of the new psychics in Salem lack “experience.”  Hint: you may find a Google search on the phrase “Toppsey Curvey” amusing and instructive, but probably NSFW.  It also may give new meaning to your understanding of the word “experienced.”

Apparently, there is no “Association of Professional Psychics” or “Board for Certification of Psychics.”  Genealogists – with our very own APG & BCG – are way ahead in this area and psychics have a lot to learn.  Of course, you’d think they’d already know that, what with their being psychic and all…

Also, I don’t know about you, but I find the blend of “accountant/ psychic” somewhat troubling. I'll bet the IRS does, too.

Number 4: Psychics charge $35 for a 15 minute reading. That $140.00 an hour.   By current professional genealogist standards - that a WHOLE LOT of money.  And you don’t even have to cite your sources, such as they are.  This is definitely food for thought for under-worked genealogists looking for a sideline.  As I said above, it’s all about marketing.

Years ago, after a particularly unprofitable national genealogy conference, I suggested to my wife and a few close exhibitor friends that I was going to reinvent myself.  No more lugging thousands of pounds of rare books across the country to conferences.  From now on and henceforth, I said, I was going to sign up for a single booth at NGS and FGS and hang out a new shingle entirely.

The new, improved products?  

I was going to offer (a.) one-on-one “past lives regression” consultations.  The hook?  Learn who you were before you were you.  Discover if you were actually your own ancestor in a previous life.”  Then, to further corner the market, I intended to parlay that with (b.) my insightful ancestral astrological readings.  The hook?  Horoscopes cast for your departed ancestors.  Open new windows onto their lives for a fraction of what professional genealogists charge.”

Part B is not as far-fetched as it may sound on first bounce.  Apparently, I can get certified rather quickly as an astrologer for three payments of 99 bucks, from The Astrology Career Institute.   Their website says that I can “earn an excellent living in a fascinating, fun, and in-demand profession.”  Plus, I get a whole bunch of nifty manuals and study guides.

I wonder what post-nominals I’ll get to use?  

 Doesn’t matter; it’s hard to go wrong for $297 for a professional credential these days. Plus, there’s apparently no need to re-certify every five years.

I also gave some passing thought to becoming a spirit medium as well, acting as the link between the spirit world of long-departed ancestors and their genealogist-descendants, but I figured all that table-rapping in the exhibit hall would disturb the folks in the booths on either side.  

 Plus -  past lives regression consultant, astrologist, medium - that’s an awful lot of stuff to get on a sign or a business card.

Ah well, back to the drawing board… or maybe a move to Salem is in order, before they cap those psychic licenses!