google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html The Armchair Genealogist

StoryCall offers Family History Interview Services

Are you intimidated by the idea of interviewing your family members? Are you struggling to
find the time to make those family history interviews happen? Perhaps you'll want to consider a lovely new service available for family historians who would like a little assistance with interviewing their relatives and capturing their memories and stories. 

StoryCall offers the services of trained professionals to interview and record your family history interviews. StoryCall captures your relatives stories over the telephone which are in turn saved on the app for other family members to listen to and enjoy.  

When you join StoryCall, you get a designated interviewer and a private website. Your interviewer will host 30-min calls, ask questions of your family members to capture their stories and memories and record everything. The website allows you to invite family members to the interview, schedule the call, send in the questions and listen to the recordings. 
StoryCall is currently in beta, so the service is presently free. I recommend jumping on board now! They're looking for your feedback.  

We all have good intentions of interviewing our relatives, but it can be time consuming and rarely happens. We've all been faced with the passing of a family member we wished we had interviewed. StoryCall will make sure those interviews happen. 

While checking out StoryCall subscribe to their newsletter and read my recent interview with StoryCall,  5 Questions with The Armchair Genealogist on the StoryCall blog.  

(I am not affiliated with StoryCall. Just think this is a great new product deserving of your attention.) 

Keys to the Asylum

Everytime we lose a celebrity or famous person to mental illness such as in the recent passing of
comedian and actor Robin Williams, depression and mental illness once again becomes a focus in the media and our lives. No family is immune to mental illness and with careful observation of your ancestor's records it will come as no surprize to find one or two cateorized as such. Today, guest author Ceris Aston from Scottish Indexes joins us and looks at the very difficult subject of mental illness and our ancestors.

Historically, Western society has a complicated relationship with mental illness, or psychopathology. To be considered mad, insane or crazy was too often to have been maligned, mistreated and subjected to social stigma – particularly if the individual was working class. Today in Scotland, only echoes remain of the village fool, the madwoman in the attic, the straightjacketed inmates of lunatic asylums - in literature, film and television, and in our collective consciousness. With the stories which have been woven around such characters, it’s hard to distinguish fact from reality. What, then, if you discover in your family tree a great-great uncle termed ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’, a grandmother’s cousin confined to an institution, pronounced of ‘unsound mind’? The blunt words can come as a shock, arousing pity and, inevitably, curiosity.

But where to find out more? In the past decade, increasing numbers of sources have been indexed by a number of organisations and volunteer networks. Indexes range from censuses through parish records to court, prison and – significantly – mental institution records. At Scottish Indexes, with the help of a team of dedicated volunteers, we are currently indexing the "Notices of Admissions by the Superintendent of Mental Institutions". These forms, which begin on the 1st of January 1858, were created each time someone was admitted to an asylum in Scotland. Thus far we have indexed 1009 such admission forms. The stories that they tell are fascinating – and often tragic.

On the 26th of December, 1861, one Elizabeth Allan or Wood was admitted as a patient to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum for the Insane. Following an examination on the 7th of January, the doctor John Moir LRCS pronounced: ‘with respect to her mental state, that it is unsound, and with respect to her bodily health and condition, that she is weakly.’ Forty-five-year-old Elizabeth was a married housewife, previously a servant, from the parish of Elgin. ‘Duration of existing attack’ is put down as six months – ‘supposed cause’, the death of her daughter. To the question, ‘whether suicidal’, the scrawled response reads ‘has attempted to drown’ – in a later note, we read that her attempts are repeated ones and that she cannot be left alone. The bereaved Elizabeth Allan or Wood is categorised as a ‘Lunatic, and a proper Person to be detained under Care and Treatment.’ Her loss is treated dispassionately, with one report listing as ‘Facts indicating Insanity’ Elizabeth’s feelings ‘that her God has deserted her and that her Soul is lost and her life a burden and can get no peace or rest’.

Elizabeth’s story makes for a heart-rending read – and there are so many more, with ‘supposed causes’ for lunacy including bereavement, financial loss and disappointment in love. Between the 1st of January 1858 and the 31st of December 1860, 3912 individuals were admitted to asylums across Scotland – an average of 1304 per year. Unfortunately, diagnoses and forms of treatment for mental illnesses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were startlingly inadequate. Institutionalisation was common and had become increasingly systematised by the time that Elizabeth was admitted, helped on its way by various acts of parliament.

Today it seems likely that Elizabeth would have been diagnosed with depression. Treatments and social attitudes have moved on a great deal since 1861, though there’s no denying we’ve still some way to go. The stigma of words relating to mental illness can be understood better by examining the social context of their origins and these also allow us to better understand our ancestors. These Mental Institution records offer an unparalleled glimpse into the reality of life as it was for a long-ago family member who suffered from mental illness. While often tragic, they are also intriguing, going far beyond mere names and dates. These records offer a real insight into the struggles that your ancestor faced. If you want to know whether a Scottish family member was admitted to an institution, you can search our indexed records here.

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10 Tips to Revive and Refocus Your Family History Research

The fall is upon us and much like January and the New Year, I love this time of year to take stock and re-evaluate my goals. Perhaps it takes me back to my school days and the feeling of a fresh start with new notebooks, a sharp pencil and some colorful post it notes that can always put me in this mindset. Oh, the power of office supplies to motivate!  So when back to school hits, I find myself falling into the routine at this time of year of clearing my desk, loading up on new office supplies and refocusing my research to meet my goals in this final quarter of 2014.

If you’re like me and feeling that you may be coming up a little shy on your family history research goals for this year, here are a few suggestions for refocusing your research and pushing through those family lines that are presenting a problem.

1. Take a Second or Third Look – Often times taking a second or third look at documents you were sure you gleamed every ounce of information can be surprising. Looking at document you haven’t seen in while can suddenly reveal an answer to a piece of information that has been sitting right in front of you. Re-examine your documents it might throw those research doors wide open.

2. Create a Timeline – Timelines are your best friend when it comes to family history research and writing. Chart your ancestor’s life on a chronological timeline. This will help you to indentify missing information and may bring to the surface a new fact or area to research. It’s just one of the many ways of re-framing your information to help you to see your research from a different angle.

3. Seek out Original Records – Often times we have transcriptions or abstracts made from an original record but often times they don’t tell the whole story. Consider where you are missing originals and attempt to seek them out. You just might find something in the original that isn’t in the transcript or abstract.

4. Consider Collateral Lines – This means spending some time researching your ancestor’s siblings. Looking to the siblings of the ancestor in question, they may unveil family information in their records that are not available in your ancestor’s records. Always look to collateral lines as a back door into your own ancestor’s records.

5. Expand Your Knowledge – Attend a conference, take a genealogy class at your local archives or hop online and attend a webinar that features a topic specific to that ancestor. Expand your knowledge of records, resources and history of that ancestor’s place and time and you’ll start to tear down that brick wall.

6. Join a Genealogical Society – Genealogical societies are a wealth of information and their competent researchers can help expose you to new resources and look at your brick wall in an entirely new light.

7. Walk Away - Don’t let a brick wall consume you. I usually have a short list of ancestors I’m actively researching. When one frustrates me, I walk away for awhile and refocus my attention on another ancestor. Sometimes just taking that break and putting some distance between you and that troublesome ancestor and help you gain some perspective.

8. Re-Organize - your research files, perhaps invest in a new software program or organize your family history files into the ever useful Evernote. I find if my desk and files are in chaos that creates chaos in my head and it’s very hard for me to see a brick wall clearly. The process of organizing your files can help to clear the chaos and refocus your research.

9. Take a Field Trip - If you only research online, make the leap to archives research and take a field trip. Make a visit to an archive that holds records pertaining to your ancestors. Learn how they work and the vast amount of resources and knowledge and blow the doors wide open in your research. Or perhaps it’s time to take a trip to an ancestral hometown; it’s the perfect way to revive your research. Sometimes, a simple field trip and change of environment it all that’s needed to rejuvenate your research.

10. Invest in a DNA Test – DNA testing is a great way to prove lineage and to prove or disapprove family lines. Consider joining or starting a DNA Surname Study, to take your research to the next level. Kimberley Powell offers some advice on organizing a DNA surname study or check Cyndi’s List for a catalog of current DNA Surname Studies.


11. Consult a professional genealogist -You can hire them to help you move your research forward. Can’t afford them to do the work for you, just paying for a one or two hours of their time to help you think differently about your research and learn about some new resources. Check out the Association of Professional Genealogists to find a genealogist who can help.

Printing and Publishing News for Family Historians

I received a lot of emails in the days and weeks following the announcement of's retirement of their My Canvas bookmaking services. Many were upset, with projects in partial completion, we all felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us.

However, this week there was great news on this front. Alexander’s , a printing company based out of Utah will be acquiring the My Canvas software.

Alexander’s is already in the business of printing family history books so this is not a new area for them, in fact they have been the long time printer of the My Canvas books.  Therefore, we should expect a smooth transition.  The move will not take place until next year; however your projects and services will remain intact at until the transition takes place. I’ll do my best to keep you up to date on changes with My Canvas as they become available.

I did reach out to Alexander’s and asked about the availability of shipping of My Canvas books to Canada. They assured me that this service will be provided. That’s good news for Canadians who have longed to be able use the My Canvas software for formatting their books.

Perhaps, Alexander’s acquisition of My Canvas software and keeping the printing in house will bring the cost down, time will tell.  While My Canvas is a great product, it is pricey. Love to see it become a little more affordable for all. 

You can find the full news of the My Canvas news from here.

Also on the printing and publishing front, one of my other favourite bookmaking companies is Blurb. Blurb announced some of their own news today.  Blurb has established the Blurb Global Retail Network which will not only get your book into digital stores such as and Barnes & Noble but also into brick and mortar stores using the services of Ingram Distribution. Pretty much any book you pick up in a retail store was distributed through Ingram Distribution.

 Ingram provides books to 38,000 retailers, libraries, schools, and distribution partners in 195 countries.  And Blurb is your way in. You’ll be able to set any of our new Trade Books (made with Blurb® BookWright® or our plug-in for Adobe® InDesign®) up for distribution, choose your Share and Wholesale Discount, and send your book out into the world.
You can read more about Blurb’s new services and in the meantime, I’ll be exploring Blurb’s new offerings and report back, we will also keep an eye on the My Canvas move. Stay tuned.

Lessons Learned from Photographing 1000 Tombstones

Recently, I participated in a photo shoot at my local cemetery. The Norfolk Historical Society, for which I am a board member and volunteer, has taken on the task of photographing Oakwood Cemetery in Simcoe, Ontario. This is the largest cemetery in the county and contains over 14,000 graves.  My share of the project was section C --- 1000 graves.

Photographing this many tombstones in the span of about 3 weeks taught me a great deal about tombstones and cemeteries in general.  Here’s a few lessons, I learned, maybe they’ll help you next time you’re searching for an ancestor in a cemetery or photographing your family graves.

Check the Cemetery Records
There were a lot of missing stones, which the cemetery records provided names for. Just because you can't find a tombstone does not mean they aren't in the cemetery. Many were buried without a stone or final engraving. Check the cemetery records.

Don’t Trust the Cemetery Records
Cemeteries are run by people, often many people over the course of many years. People make mistakes and sometimes did not anticipate the size the cemetery would become 150 years later. I recommend you do not to completely trust the cemetery records for two reasons.

1.     Not everyone is where they are supposed to be. I recommend walking a least 3 rows on either side of where your ancestor’s grave is expected.  If the section is not too big, walk the entire section. 

2.    There were many people buried in the cemetery who were not on the list given to us by the county. Yup, not recorded. If you’re pretty sure your ancestor was buried in a particular cemetery, walk the cemetery even though the cemetery people are telling you differently. Of the 1000 tombstones I photographed, I found 20 graves not recorded in the cemetery records. I know many of my fellow volunteers were finding the same. 

Tombstones Offer More than Names and Dates
Sometimes a lot more information can be found on the tombstone than can found in the cemetery records. For example other family members, maiden names, causes of death, places of death, places of birth. Even interesting life milestones engraved on tombstones, like "first lady driver in the county." 

Go Gentle when Cleaning Tombstones
There have been plenty of articles written about the various methods to clean and read tombstones. You don’t need much more than a spray bottle of water and a soft brush to clean tombstones. Most became legible with a little spray of water and a soft brush.  I cleaned many tombstones that were unreadable when I started and were completely legible when I was done. Brush and water, nothing fancier or harsher required.

Go Prepared and Organized
Save yourself a lot of work by gathering all your tools in a handy carry-all. Here’s what I carried with me.   
Bug spray
Gardening gloves,
Gardening shears
Soft brush
Spray bottle of water
Extra battery for camera
Paper towels
Clear baggie to cover camera if it’s a little drizzly out
Bottle of water to keep hydrated
Protein bar to keep you going when you’re feeling peckish.
Soft cloth to clean camera
Notepad and pencil

Don’t Wait for the Perfect Sunny Day
Overcast day, chance of rain, don’t let that discourage you from photographing. Cloudy days were in fact the best days, no sun to deal with casting shadows on your stones. You also get a little less warn out without the sun beating down on you. I found the best times to photograph were early in the day or around 4pm in the evening, sun was not intense, temperatures were a little cooler.

Be Respectful
I did have to forego one day, because there was an interment in my section. Be respectful of funerals and those who have come to the cemetery to grieve.  If you’re from out of town, go for a coffee or lunch until the funeral is over and everyone has cleared.

Review Your Pictures at Your Earliest Convenience
If you live a distance away, review your pictures before you leave the cemetery, make sure you can read the stones, check to make sure you haven’t cast a shadow of yourself over the stone, and that the stone is in focus and readable.  I did about 150-200 photos per session, so I reviewed them later at home and went back to re-shoot a few that didn’t turn out as expected.

Check with your local archives and see if they are conducting a cemetery project in your area and volunteer. I learned a great deal about photographing tombstones. It improved by photography skills by virtue of volume alone, but more importantly, I learned a lot about the past residents of my county and I gleamed a few stories that I just may have to write. 

This project was done with the permission of the county that operates and maintains the cemetery. They shared their lists with us; in exchange we will share our pictures with them.

Do you have any added advice for photographing tombstones?