Records, Not Revenue

In a past career life, I coordinated diverse groups of non-profits and ran advocacy campaigns, harnessing their collective voice for positive change. When I departed the political sphere, I never thought that I’d return to those roots in order to help keep historical records accessible.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Genealogy Program, keeper of some of the most essential records on 20th century immigrants, has proposed a 492 percent increase in the fees required to search their index and obtain historical records held under their purview. Many of these records should already be publicly accessible. USCIS is essentially holding them hostage, demanding individuals pay exorbitant fees to access documents of our immigrant ancestors.USCIS Genealogy Program Fee Hikes final v4

If approved, fees to access records will start at $240 and could cost up to $625 for a single file.  The fees are even more inexplicable when USCIS refers the majority of genealogy record requests to their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) program for processing.  If these requests are FOIA requests, researchers should not be paying any fees other than standard FOIA fees.

Everyone should care about the issues involved, even if your research does not include these records. What can be done to one type of records can be done to others. You do not need to be a US resident nor citizen to submit a public comment. Any interested party can make their voice heard.

You can make a difference. Make your voice heard in 3 easy steps:

Step 1: Review the proposed rule here, and jump to the Genealogy Program section here. There’s a summary available at RecordsNotRevenue.com

Step 2: Write your comments, addressing the issues listed here or any issue you think is important. Be sure to mention the Genealogy Program. See these conversation starters for thoughts on how to begin. 

Step 3: Send your comments BEFORE 16 DECEMBER 2019 to

    • Federal Rulemaking Portal and refer to DHS Docket No. USCIS-2019-0010 and follow instructions for submitting comments on the Genealogy Program; and
    • Send a copy of your comments to your US Senators and Representative, and refer to DHS Docket No. USCIS-2019-0010. Tell them you care about preserving access to federal records!

Sign up to stay informed on this effort and learn more at RecordsNotRevenue.com

Amplify your voice! Please share this with genealogical societies, historical societies, and every family historian and researcher you know!

The Eastern European Mutt is going to…

IAJGS-2019-Banner-Website resize

…Cleveland! I’ll be speaking at the 39th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, July 28 – August 2, 2019.*

My talk, titled Why Cleveland? Finding Answers in the Industrial Removal Office Records starts with the question many of us ask. Why did our immigrant ancestor chose to live in Cleveland over Pittsburgh? Little Rock over Los Angeles? Memphis over Miami? The answers might lie in the records of the Industrial Removal Office, a scary name for a good organization. The IRO, founded in 1901, assisted immigrants in finding employment and better living conditions, and helped assimilate them into American society. IRO agents, often working in partnership with B’nai B’rith or other Jewish fraternal groups, spread around the USA securing jobs, and then immigrants would be sent to those locations to establish a new life.

The session will examine the records of the IRO, housed at the American Jewish Historical Society, including ledger books, case files and correspondence, as well as reports by local agents on the newly settled immigrants. Using case studies, the presentation will demonstrate how to use the online index, and how to navigate to find immigrant case files, correspondence, and reports. The talk builds off a previous blog post, New York Minute.

I’ll also have a few minutes during the LatviaSIG meeting to speak about the records of the U.S. Consulate in Riga, housed at the National Archives in College Park.

Will I see you in Cleveland? Early Bird Registration ends 30 April 2019.

About that DNA test you got… Part II Addendum: Privacy?

Opening Pandora’s Box.abstract-2154782_1280

Sailing in uncharted waters.

The train has left the station.

It’s the Wild Wild West.

Brave New World.

I think we’re at the clichéd Wild Wild West stage, fast approaching the unknown. DNA enthusiasts and genealogists no longer know what to expect.

In the weeks since I posted the information about DNA testing and privacy, there was a massive change, then a partial walk-back, from FamilyTreeDNA and their Terms of Service. Other companies have come forward to clarify what is and is not private for their sites.

Genealogists and others are divided on law enforcement’s access to matches for use in solving crimes. These issues do not impact European Union citizens, as they are protected under GDPR, as are UK residents, for now.[1]

Test, don’t test, destroy your test? That is a very personal question. DNA has become an integral part of the genealogist’s toolkit. Its impact in providing answers to adoptees is real. Its impact in reuniting broken branches of families is real, and something I witnessed recently, giving my nonagenarian client a chance to meet close family for the first time since he was a child. Crowdsourcing DNA matches makes this possible.

Many of my recommendations stand. Know why you are testing. Read the Terms and Conditions, before you test. Stay abreast of changes to Terms and Conditions. Read the company’s Privacy statement. Pressure testing companies to respect why people test, and allow for opt-in consent.[2] Talk to family members. Be informed consumers.

 

Image courtesy of Pixabay. Yes, I do want you to think of Saul Bass’ poster for Vertigo, accessed 31 March 2019.

[1] GDPR Associates, “GDPR and Brexit” https://www.gdpr.associates/gdpr-brexit/, accessed 31 March 2019

[2] Judy G. Russell, “https://www.legalgenealogist.com/2019/03/31/opt-out-is-not-informed-consent/,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 31 Mar 2019).

Of St. Louis and Bread Memories

I was born in St. Louis. My parents are from St. Louis – born, raised, married there. My great-grandparents chose St. Louis when they immigrated, some arriving in the 1890s, and all settled there by 1908.

My bread memories of St. Louis don’t have bagels in them. My bread memories are of oblong sourdough rye loaves, in a thick coat of crispy cornmeal. Tzitzel bread made by Pratzel’s, a bakery founded in 1913.[1] After we moved away from St. Louis, we’d return home from a visit with a trunk full of rye bread, thinking it might somehow be enough to last until the next trip.

1962 Carl 2 Cents Plain Post Card cropped 2My family also knows a few things about the delis of St. Louis. My dad’s uncle Louis and cousins Jack, Charlie and Bill ran delis. Not just delis, famous St. Louis delis. Delis with pastrami, corned beef and barrels of dill pickles. Delis with tradition.

When the story of “bread-sliced bagels” as a St. Louis “tradition” broke the news cycle this week, I thought about Jack and Bill. In their retired years, I got to know Jack and his brother Bill a little bit. They aided me in the oral history of the Carl family, and Jack, in particular, seemed like an encyclopedia of St. Louis, lost when he died in 2015. I wondered what would happen if someone walked into Carl’s Deli and asked for a “bread-sliced bagel.” Bill, always putting the customer first, would have obliged, but would have wondered why. If the same order happened at Jack’s 2¢ Plain, Jack, the Soup Nazi long before there was a Soup Nazi, would have berated the customer.

Where did this “tradition” come from? Was it really a St. Louis thing? Panera’s parents were a Boston-bred cookie company, founded in 1980, and the St. Louis Bread Company, founded in 1987. Their union resulted in Panera’s birth in the 1990s. Panera is a millennial. It’s not a St. Louis tradition.[2]

Cities change. 2¢ Plain is gone now. Bill sold Carl’s Deli to an employee, and you can still get a real pastrami sandwich there. After baking tzitzel bread for nearly 100 years, Pratzel’s closed. We mourned the loss of the beloved bread, but a few years later, my cousin Melissa discovered that Mike Pratzel, of the St. Louis Pratzel’s, had a bakery in Madison, Wisconsin, and made tzitzel bread with the same sourdough starter that began his family’s bread legacy.  With the magic that is overnight delivery, we can order tzitzel bread from Manna Bakery in Madison. Maybe next time I’ll ask them to cut it like a bagel.

[1] http://www.losttables.com/pratzels/pratzels.htm accessed 28 March 2019

[2] https://www.panerabread.com/en-us/company/about-panera/our-history.html accessed 28 March 2019

 

About that DNA Test You Got for the Holidays… Part 2: Privacy

silence means securityThe first post from this series examined the most common DNA test used for genealogy, the autosomal DNA test (atDNA), and discussed what the test can, and cannot do, along with a few words of caution about expectations.

This post continues the theme of questions a genealogist might ask a client regarding their desire to take a DNA test. Remember, genealogists want you to test. Genealogists also want informed consumers and educated clients. My typical first question – why do you want to test? or another way of looking at it, what are your goals for testing? – appeared in Part 1.

Second question: what are your privacy concerns?

We need to have a discussion about privacy. All genealogy research is deeply personal, and nothing more so than your genetic material. My aim is not to scare you. I want you to take a DNA test. I want you to be comfortable, and understand what it is, what it does, and what the future holds.

If you are considering DNA testing or even if you have already tested, please read the testing company’s Terms and Conditions. Carefully. Read the Informed Consent. Carefully. Read the Privacy Statement. Yes, carefully. It’s a lot of legalese, and it isn’t easy to digest, but please do it. Some companies value your privacy, some value your genetic data. Some will use it for their greater gains.[1]

Every testing company has slightly different Terms and Conditions, Informed Consent, and Privacy policies. The International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki maintains comparison chart[2] which can help answer some of these questions, but nothing, nothing, replaces reading the documentation. I know this feels like a homework assignment, but it’s one of those tasks that makes you a better student in the end.

As you read, take note of the following: where is your test processed? Who owns the genetic data – you or the company? What are the opt-in or opt-out options? Will your DNA be assessed for health or other traits? Is the testing company in contractual partnership with any other companies? Who owns the DNA testing company?

Another essential set of questions to ask yourself regarding DNA testing: have you prepared yourself for the possibility of unexpected results? Have you considered how you will approach family members, or strangers, when communicating about results, expected or not? Do you know if any other family members – siblings, parents, cousins – have tested?

Now that the legalese is out of the way, I want to address a few myths:

  • When I test, my DNA will be online for anyone to see. Your DNA test is only viewable at the company with which you choose to test. Depending on the company, it’s up to you to control and share the information with potential matches, only within the company. If you want to share more widely there are options that you control.[3]
  • If I test, law enforcement will be able to take my DNA. False, sometimes true, or, it depends. Here is what it depends upon: if you test and keep the results within the database of the testing company, law enforcement would be required to obtain a court order to access your DNA.[4] Using a company’s website is not what happened with the now-famous case of the Golden State Killer. A third-party testing site called GEDmatch was used. On GEDmatch, users take their raw DNA results and upload them to GEDmatch, and the results are compared to users who have done the same process. GEDmatch does not test DNA, it provides a public platform upon which people can openly share and look for matches across the different testing sites.
  • My sibling tested so I don’t need to – my DNA is already “out there.” Not really.[5] Some of your DNA might be “out there,” as full siblings have about 50% of their DNA in common. Even identical twins do not have 100 percent identical DNA.[6] Additionally, testing siblings, parents, cousins, etc. can be an important part of a DNA research plan. Before that can happen, have a conversation with your sibling (parent, cousin, etc.) about DNA testing and see if you can agree on privacy settings, where to test, who to test, expectations, and more.

Conclusions

Finally, the information in this post is based on my experience testing myself, family members and clients, as well as my study of DNA testing for genealogy. I do not receive advertising or other revenue from any of the DNA testing companies. I am not a lawyer and please do not consider this legal advice.

[1] “Opting out,” The Legal Genealogist, https://www.legalgenealogist.com/2015/07/26/opting-out/, accessed 2 Jan 2019.

[2] “Autosomal DNA testing comparison chart” Tim Janzen for ISOGG Wiki, https://isogg.org/wiki/Autosomal_DNA_testing_comparison_chart, accessed 2 Jan 2019

[3] Based on the information provided by testing companies and reported on at “Autosomal DNA testing comparison chart” Tim Janzen for ISOGG Wiki, https://isogg.org/wiki/Autosomal_DNA_testing_comparison_chart, as reviewed on 2 Jan 2019. Policies can change. This statement assumes appropriate security measures are in place to prevent data hacks.

[4] If you search the name of a DNA testing company plus the phrase “law enforcement,” for example, “FamilyTreeDNA+law enforcement,” you will be able to read each company’s policy on granting access.

[5] Time to brush up on recombination, which is the exchange of DNA segments between the two copies of a chromosome (maternally inherited and paternally inherited). The creation of each egg and sperm is an independent event, and the newly formed chromosome in the fertilized egg is a patchwork of contributions. Siblings inherit different portions. Basically, that’s why they are siblings and not clones! I know, I snuck in more science.

[6] “Identical Twins’ Genes are Not Identical.” Anne Casselman, Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/identical-twins-genes-are-not-identical/, accessed 8 Jan 2019.

Image: “Silence Means Security.” Record Group 44: Records of the Office of Government Reports, 1932 – 1947. Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. 3/9/1943-9/15/1945 Series: World War II Posters, 1942 – 1945, War and Conflict Number 828.

About that DNA Test You Got for the Holidays… Part 1

Everyone’s doing it, which sounds like a comment made at a high school party. But according to recent reports, more than 14 million DNA testing kits have been sold – by one company alone! It’s anyone’s guess how many total kits have been actually processed (vs. sold), but the number could easily reach 20 million in 2019.[1] This post will tackle the most popular type of test, autosomal DNA (atDNA). Future posts will address privacy and the two other types of DNA tests taken for genealogical research: mitochondrial, also known as mtDNA, and Y-DNA.

23 chromo

There are loads of articles and Internet searches for “Best DNA Test kit,” but I have yet to find an article in a major media outlet that was written by a genealogist. If you ask a genealogist which testing company is best, I would hope they would turn around and ask you a question or two back, because like all things genealogy, DNA testing is personal, and there is a lot to consider.

If you were to ask me, my first question would be: Why do you want to take the test?

Possible answers:

  • I want to know my ethnicity
  • I want to get my family tree

Let’s pause here. These are the two most common responses I hear, and the ones I spend the most time discussing. DNA testing doesn’t really do either of these things well, even though the commercials promise otherwise.

Here’s the deal. Autosomal DNA tests (atDNA), the most common tests on the market, run from $50-80 or so, depending on the company and the sales. Companies promise your ethnicity estimate(s), and some say that can get to a very granular level with the tests. How do they do that? Beware: science content ahead – or more accurately – beware: statistics ahead!

An atDNA test uses data from the sequence of information on a person’s 22 autosomal chromosomes.[2] The testing company compares individual’s atDNA results to reference samples, looking for identical or similar strands of DNA on the different chromosomes, known as markers.

The data for the reference samples comes from individuals tested with known ancestry from a specific region, going back many generations. These samples help to establish unique genetic signatures from divergent regions around the globe. DNA testing companies take these reference samples and create proprietary databases, which form the basis of the ethnicity estimates.

Scientists still face challenges in this emerging field of study. The analysis is limited by the reference populations used. To date, only a few ancient human remains have yielded usable atDNA,[3] so the reference populations rely on living samples. Results can change as more data and refinement of reference populations change. Each company has a proprietary database, so one person testing with different companies will quite possibly receive different results.

The results are limited by the reference samples (populations) used in the analysis, therefore it is important to remember that the test provides only an ethnicity estimate, and sometimes the tests do not reflect the historic paper trail.

The discussion might continue with some follow up questions: But the results say I’m [Spanish, French, Scandinavian, etc.] but none of my ancestors are [Spanish, French, Scandinavian, etc.]. Is my grandfather not really my grandfather? Where is my German? Is the research you did for me wrong?

No, the historic research isn’t wrong, and though non-paternity events do happen, remember these are ethnicity estimates. The ethnicity of people from Europe is particularly challenging to pinpoint,[4] as brilliantly explained in the maps at this blog entry at DNAeXplained.[5] Think of it this way: could you really tell the difference between someone from Illinois vs Missouri vs Wisconsin? Or Connecticut vs. Massachusetts vs Vermont? How can we expect DNA to know the difference between France and Germany when the borders of those countries changed many times in the last 300 years?

Remember, ethnicity estimates are predictions limited by the reference samples (populations) used in the analysis, and because of the limitations of the reference samples, sometimes the estimates do not reflect the historic paper trail.

Given the political climate of the past few years, I have to raise another, more ominous reason I’m not so keen on the ethnicity estimates: nationalism.

For a lot of places in Europe, the country some DNA kits assign to the results might not have been a country when your ancestors lived there. Germany, not a country until 1871. Italy? Same. Poland, and many other places in Eastern Europe, didn’t exist or had ping pong borders until after WWII, and for some, not until the break-up of the Soviet Union. Current country borders in Africa and South America do not resemble their pre-colonial kingdoms and tribal regions.

Why do we want to plant a flag on our DNA? Sure, it’s cool to know where you are from simply by spitting or swabbing, but the negative undercurrent of relying on ethnicity estimates to “prove” whiteness or align with a certain country or nationality or race needs a careful eye.[6]

Now, about that family tree. Many people assume that when they receive the results of their DNA test, the website will display an amazing family tree. This might happen if you test and match with a relative who has done extensive work, but most of the time, there will be no tree.

Why do genealogists want their clients to test? It’s for the matches. The matches are the prize. Matches allow genealogists to break down brick walls, determine unknown maiden names, locate lost family, rebuild broken branches of trees, and more. Matches are essential tools, particularly if an adoptee is seeking information on a biological family.

How do matches work? Aren’t they just estimates, too? In a word, no. Matches are hard science, comparing your DNA with others who have also tested with the same company. If you match with another person who tested at the same company, it means that both of you have an ancestor in common.

Two main factors influence the significance of a match between people: the number of segments of matching DNA; and the length of the matching segments. The longer and more prevalent the strands, the closer the match. Using these matches, genealogists can start to piece together unknown branches of a tree. This work can be challenging, take patience, and time.

Another essential question to ask yourself regarding DNA testing: have you prepared yourself for the possibility of unexpected results? Have you considered how you will approach family members, or strangers, when communicating about results, expected or not?

Don’t be afraid to jump into DNA testing for genealogy. Just be sure to do it with your eyes, and not just your mouth, wide open.

Conclusions

Finally, the information in this post is based on my experience testing myself, family members and clients, as well as my study of DNA testing for genealogy. I do not receive advertising or other revenue from any of the DNA testing companies. I am not a lawyer and please do not consider this legal advice.

[1] “Autosomal Testing Growth,” The DNA Geek, https://thednageek.com/dna-tests/, accessed 30 Dec 2018

[2] “Autosomal DNA,” International Society of Genetic Genealogy, https://isogg.org/wiki/Autosomal_DNA, accessed 23 Dec 2018

[3] “Ancient DNA,” FamilyTreeDNA research group, https://www.familytreedna.com/groups/ancient-dna/about/background, accessed 2 January 2019

[4] There are some exceptions, notably the autosomal DNA of people with Ashkenazi ancestry.

[5] “Ethnicity is Just an Estimate – Yes, Really!,” DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy, https://dna-explained.com/2018/12/28/ethnicity-is-just-an-estimate-yes-really/, accessed 30 Dec 2018

[6] “Written in Blood,” Joan Donavan, Anthropology News. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2018/07/12/written-in-blood/, accessed 20 Dec 2018

Image: Bolzer et al., (2005) Three-Dimensional Maps of All Chromosomes in Human Male Fibroblast Nuclei and Prometaphase Rosettes. PLoS Biol 3(5): e157 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030157 Image 7a, https://biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0030157, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license, accessed 3 Jan 2019

The Tempest

Building one’s family tree and the excitement of “how far back” is a goal of many researchers. But what about the family’s history? Their story? Exploring the historical context in which the family lived can help offer clues to those pesky why questions: why did they leave for New York, or why did they stay in Berlin? Why was the family separated during WWI? Why did the family leave the countryside to live in San Juan? Newspapers can be an excellent source of learning context, particularly for events in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities’ Chronicling America project presents thousands of digitized newspapers from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. While the search tools can be cumbersome, the effort is worth it.

Wondering what happened to your ancestors during Huracán Ciriaco? On 8 August 1899, the storm raked over Puerto Rico, transversing the island from southeast to northwest, bringing 28 days of rain, destruction of farms, thousands dead and many more displaced.[1] This event occurred less than a year after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, an act that ceded the island of Puerto Rico to the United States government. Searches in the digitized newspapers of Puerto Rico help tell the story of Huracán Ciriaco.

Arroz y Habichuelas
La Democracia. (Ponce, P.R.), 15 Aug. 1899 [clip]

A letter from General George W. Davis, the US government appointed military governor of Puerto Rico, appeared in English and Spanish in La Gaceta, the official government newspaper.[2] La Correspondencia provided descriptions of the conditions in locations across the island, saying of Bayamon that tree branches and zinc tiles flew through the air, and that the hospital was without a roof.[3] It took until 15 August, a week after the hurricane hit, for the newspaper of Ponce, La Democracia, to put out an edition. That paper told a dismal tale of property destruction, listing the names of men and what they had lost. The editors wrote of the magnitude of the disaster, which grew day by day:

Conforme transcurren los días, va tomando mayores proporciones la magnitud del desastre que ha sufrido Puerto Rico. Cada momento de espera agrava más la situación, así como cada noticia que se recibe da más extensas amplitudes al cuadro de desolación que se ofrece a nuestros ojos. [4]

What else can be found in the digitized newspapers of Puerto Rico? Join my webinar Soy Boricua: Researching Your Puerto Rican Roots on Tuesday 12 June 2018 at 7pm ET, offered by the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society.

Dedicated to the memory of the #4645boricuas

 

[1] The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War. Online Collection, Hispanic Division, Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/sanciriaco.html, accessed 1 June 2018

[2] Gazeta de Puerto-Rico. [volume] ([San Juan, P.R.), 12 Aug. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/2013201074/1899-08-12/ed-1/seq-1/

[3] La correspondencia de Puerto Rico. (San Juan, P.R.), 09 Aug. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn91099747/1899-08-09/ed-1/seq-3/

[4] La democracia. (Ponce, P.R.), 15 Aug. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90070270/1899-08-15/ed-1/seq-2/