Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Search engines and slavery

Historian Adam H. Domby (College of Charleston) reports that Ancestry has recently changed its search engine in ways that make it more difficult to learn about slavery from basic genealogical inquiries. "When searching for an individual’s name, stopped including results from the 1850 or 1860 United States Census Slave Schedules." Some improvements have been made but reportedly the search function is still not back to what it was. Read much more here. His article appears in "Black Perspectives," the award-winning blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).  

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Front-page news 101 years ago, or "we're not in Kansas any more"


A large airplane coming from the southwest and going northeast passed over Williamsburg about 4:30 Saturday afternoon [30 November 1918]. This is the first airplane which has been near here, and people in and around the vicinity were able to get a good view of it, as it was going rather slowly. No report has been seen of it, so no one know why it was traveling over here.

(Williamsburg Star [Kansas], Thursday 5 December 1918, page 1, column 2)

Sunday, April 28, 2019

First steps in analyzing stupidity

"Smart is the ability to solve hard problems, which can be done many ways. Stupid is a tendency to not comprehend easy problems." 

So writes Morgan Housel at the Collaborative Fund's blog. While the examples tend to focus on finance and economics, the lessons can be applied in many ways . . . 

For instance, one way of being stupid is "Discounting the views of people who aren’t as credentialed as you are, underestimating the special knowledge they have since they’ve experienced a world you haven’t."

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Books vs. Articles

Slowly I am learning that writing a family history book is not anything like writing an extra-long article. A book is more like infinity  -- walking in a flat desert with no landmarks. The horizon stays in the same place no matter how long you walk.

On the positive side, once done, books are much roomier than articles. I can find out how relatives interacted -- how California cousins took in a Wisconsin relative whose doctor said she would die if she had to go through another winter; how my wife's 20something grandfather, on his way from Wisconsin to graduate school at Yale, stopped by to see an aunt in eastern Kansas (a sizeable detour); and some less reputable exploits. I can also find out how they didn't interact, as when a Civil War veteran died claiming he had no relatives, when he had at least two. (I count him and many like him as casualties of the war even though they lived for decades after.)

And a book has room for diversions and distractions, even though it cannot be as consistently entertaining as  Sharon Hoyt on the many marriages of Ida May Chamberlain (National Genealogical Society Quarterly 106 [September 2018]: 217-38), or John Coletta on anything.

Easy online availability of deeds, probates, and newspapers makes it easier than ever to enrich the story -- and lengthen it (1216 footnotes but who's counting?). Even so, because so few write biographical or autobiographical sketches there are still many gaps. And when the task is to render the formatting consistent over many dozens of pages, it also helps to have the smooth drone of a Cubs game in your ear.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Read all about it! The day the earth died!

This article by Douglas Preston in April 8 The New Yorker, alternating between hilarity and horror, shows how a paleontologist can reconstruct, almost moment by moment, the greatest disaster in the planet's history. (I found it at the aggregator site 3 Quarks Daily.) For those of us puzzling over preserving our work, and whether to publish on paper or on line, it rather puts things in perspective.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Erased from history -- but not quite

Back in the day (when there had been only thirty-four presidents), I memorized all the presidents and their dates when they were featured with pictures on a full page of my grandparents' Chicago Tribune. I may have known the vice-presidents too, but I don't recall Richard M. Johnson (1837-1841). Even if I had known all the "First Ladies" I would have had trouble finding his wife Julia Chinn.

Much more recently, a friend drew my attention to a blog post at the Association of Black Women Historians. "The Erasure and Resurrection of Julia Chinn, U.S. Vice President Richard M. Johnson's Black Wife" will be the subject of a forthcoming book by Indiana University Bloomington professor Amrita Chakrabarty Myers. The post also references her earlier book, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston, 1790-1860. I look forward to reading both.