Monday, November 5, 2018

Family History — Part 40

Wrestling with OCR: Making Optical Character Recognition Work for You

by Brenna Corbit, Technical Services Librarian

After having spent a few months on our genealogical road trip, I think it is time to take a rest and give you advice on how to wrest the best from optical character recognition (OCR). I have often addressed OCR in the past, but I recommend you reread an earlier blog before proceeding: Family History Tips--Part 13

Recently, I noticed in
 that when I view an article I have clipped, there is a link below the clipping that says “show article text (OCR).” The pictured obituary presents a good example of what I am conveying. 

I was searching for an obituary of Walter T. Swoyer who died 21 December 1928, but my phrased, non-phrased, and spelling variation searches yielded nothing. So, I manually went through the digital images and found the obituary on the day following his death. Nope, no spelling errors in the title line. Once again, OCR failed to correctly read the text. But what is interesting is the OCR link which read his name as Walter T. Swover, not Swoyer. Thus, I tested this search as a phrase with the misspelling and, voila, found it instantly. 

I often stress the use of wild cards and truncation rather than using fuzzy search filters. If you remember, wild cards are asterisks and question marks that represent many letter variations in a word: e.g. “Mierzejewski” = “m*r*sk?.” But some OCR search engines do not allow such search aids. So what’s a genealogist to do?

If a Y and and V are similar, then I could simply try letter changes. I also notice in the article text that an E becomes an A for the word “he,” and that the word “of” appears as “oi.” If I looked at a hundred OCR transcriptions of article text, I could probably present a thousand or more variations. And you could end up trying so many spelling variations you would forget how to spell your own name as you walk off into the sunset finger-flipping your lips. My advice? Look carefully at the word you are searching, throw conventional spelling to the four winds, and start seeing the world as OCR does.

There is no quick and easy fix. If you know the date range of an article, then I would recommend manually searching the digital frames of the newspapers by date if OCR fails. But if you want to find those juicy stories of which no known date is available, and you have an inkling there could be more than what OCR finds, then just let your vision blur.

Here is a crazy idea that actually works. Spell the name on a word processor in a font similar to newsprint, squint your eyes to slightly blur the text and see what letter replacements are possible. I just did this with the word Britton typed in a serifed font. I squinted my eyes into a blur and saw it spelled Bnitton. I searched with this spelling and came up with 79 hits in Pennsylvania papers alone. I clipped one and indeed the OCR transcription read the name as Bnitton.

Another option to blur the fonts would be one-too-many martinis which would result from calming yourself down after having spent too many hours pulling your hair out while wrestling with OCR

Happy searching!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Family History Tips--Part 39

The Genealogical Road Trip Continues: Greeting your Great Grandparents at Ellis Island
by Brenna Corbit, Technical Services Librarian

Last time we left off you were driving around downtown Reading, Pa. looking at all the places your ancestors worked, or maybe you had to drive to Pottstown, or even Philadelphia to take in the old sites. Well, wherever you are, fill up that tank for we are heading up to New York to greet your great grandparents as they disembark from the steamships and are processed like so many cattle through the chutes at Ellis Island. 

We have already looked at the various records dealing with immigration—census records, declarations, petitions and naturalizations—to determine when and where your ancestors came to this country. Although this article focuses upon Ellis Island where most immigrants entered the U.S., there are many other ports of entry, such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and San Francisco. 

I first saw Ellis Island about 30 years ago when I knew practically nothing of my family history save that I knew my Polish great grandparents arrived via this port. The second time around was much more enriching. About 7 years ago, my wife Jolene, several family members, and I decided to go on a day when one of our ancestors arrived. We settled on Jan Gil, Jolene’s great grandfather who arrived 20 May 1907 aboard the steamer Amerika, a perfect time to be walking around outside.
Taking the ferry ride from Manhattan harbor and passing the Statue of Liberty on the way to Ellis Island, standing in a long line waiting to gain access to the Immigration Museum which is filled with passenger processing artifacts and life-size photos of early 20th century immigrants looking right at you, and looking out over the main hall where our ancestors waited to be processed presented a glimpse into the actual experience of Jan Gil and thousands of others like him just waiting to gain access to the American dream.

You don’t have to go on the exact day as we did, although that made the excursion all the more special. We even had Ukrainian/Polish food at Veselka in the Lower East Side in honor of Jan Gil’s nativity—Knapy, Poland, which was part of the Austrian Empire during Poland’s century of partitions.

A trip like this requires much planning. Of course, you must find the correct port of arrival. After that you should find as much information as possible for getting there—transportation, parking (if driving), ferries, reservations, hours, tickets, etc. I have provided a list of websites assist you on your journey.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month

The National Council of Hispanic Employment Program Managers  announced the 2018 Hispanic Heritage Month theme: “Hispanics: One Endless Voice to Enhance our Traditions.” The theme invites us to reflect on Hispanic American’s tradition, history and culture. 

Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15, which is tomorrow, to October 15, by celebrating the contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

Check out related activities at The Yocum Library and throughout campus during this celebration.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Family History Tips--Part 38

The Genealogical Road Trip Continues: Heading to Work with Your Great Grandparents 
by Brenna Corbit, Technical Services Librarian

Last time I gave advice on how to locate your ancestors’ homes, providing they are still standing. Those houses, I am sure, had nice comfortable beds, but morning comes early, and our great grandparents had to rise and shine and head off to work.

You may have discovered many occupations for your ancestors—blacksmith, nurse, hat maker, or farmer. So, just as it is really nice to find your 3x great grandparents’ home, wouldn’t it be sweet to find their places of employment? 

If a census record states your ancestor is a merely a “laborer,” you will have little luck locating where they worked, but if, say, your ancestor lived in Adamstown, Pa. and is listed as a “hat maker” in a “hat factory,” your chances of locating that factory would be greater. Many of the Adamstown Blimlines I was recently researching were hat makers. A Google search indicates the Bollman Hat Company in Adamstown was founded in 1868. A short drive to the factory would reveal if the original factory still stands. And if it does, ask about a tour.

In another example a census record indicates my aunt’s ancestor George Hamilton worked in Philadelphia as a “salesman” for a “soup company,” but his death certificate was more specific—Campbell’s Soup Company. I feel the connection; I was raised on this stuff. However, a web search indicates the old Camden, N.J. headquarters was demolished in the 1990s. 

In some cases, you can still see the legacy of your ancestors’ labours. The Borkerts on my mother’s side were bricklayers in the late 19th century and early 20th century, with one of the largest Berks bricklaying firms in its day—Borkert Brothers. Digital newspapers name many buildings erected by the firm. Many still stand in Reading—Freeman Shoe Factory (now an apartment building) and St. Mary’s School, to name a few.
In another case, one of the old concrete pavements in my Pennside neighborhood still bears the stamp of Dominic Maurer, Inc., an ancestor of my wife Jolene Flamm. Every time we walk the neighborhood, we are walking on my wife’s genealogical history.

When trying to determine where your ancestor worked, keep in mind where they lived. Most people lived near their jobs. Mass transportation did not come until much later. By the way, the old factory steam whistle not only signaled starting and quitting, they were also used to awaken the workers since few had alarm clocks. 

Here are some resources to locate your ancestors’ places of employment:

Family History Tips Blog Entry #9Other Often-Ignored Information in Ancestral Records—Occupations 

County Histories—Many county histories written during the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries contain profiles of industries, including biographies of prominent citizens and their businesses. Couple this information with other records, such as census records, information in corporate deeds, and articles gleaned in digital newspapers, and you may be lucky finding a place. County histories are available online, in locations such as Ancestry and Google Books. Hard copies can be found in libraries and historical/genealogical societies.

Historic Sites—Places like Charming Forge and Hopewell Village operate as living history museums. Some old grist mills still exist.

Census Records—If a person is listed as a “presser” in a “clothing factory,” you could try looking for a factory in the area. Historical societies could help you identify some of the buildings. If the person has his or her own business, and is listed, for example, as a “barber” at his “own shop,” refer to a city directory of the same year to obtain a street address.

City DirectoriesSometimes the addresses and/or names of a person’s business or place of employment are listed for an individual. Directories also list businesses in a separate section by categories. 

Military Draft registrations—These usually give a registrant’s place and address of employment.

Newspapers articles, obituaries—OCR searches reveal a whole world of information. 

At the rate the old buildings are disappearing, your chances of visiting your ancestors’ places of employment are getting slim. As I write, more than half of Vanity Fair Knitting Mills is being demolished. But when you find a place, it really puts things into perspective. When I look at some of these grim, hulking brick structures, and I have worked in a few of them myself, I feel a strong sense of connection to my past. Until next time, keep your engines running. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Family History Tips--Part 37

The Genealogical Road Trip Continues: Searching for the Ancestral Homestead
by Brenna Corbit, Instructional Services Librarian
It’s time to pack up the notes you have been gleaning about your ancestors in the archives and start trying to figure out what their lives were like. So far on this road trip, I have taken you to where they are buried, solemn places, indeed. But wouldn’t it be cool if you could drive up to where your great grandmother was born and raised? 
924 Rose Street, Reading, Pa, 
my great grandmother Iola Welfley’s
house where she lived from
1896 to about 1917. 
Photo—Brenna J. Corbit 

My great grandmother, Iola Welfley, grew up at 924 Rose Street, a tiny row home still standing on a half street in Reading, Pa. She shared those small rooms with eight other siblings. I can’t imagine the crowded quarters, no privacy. It makes me appreciate the fact I had only two siblings and my own bedroom. 

Not every city house and farm where they lived may still exist. More often than not, the city street where your 2x great grandfather was born and raised now occupies a college such as RACC, or the old ancestral farmstead has been turned into a strip mall. But if you are lucky, the houses may remain. 

So, how do you go about finding a house? For city homes, numbered addresses can be found in censuses, deeds, immigration papers, marriage license applications, and death certificates, to name a few. Use a city map to locate the property. Early city atlases may also help, especially if street names have changed. Just compare the two maps to locate the property.
If you found your ancestor lived on a farm, there will not be a numbered street address. Census records are a good source to see if the residence is rented or owned (listed as R or O); ownership may also be indicated by a listed real-estate value. If it is owned, you may be able to locate the place in a historic county atlas. Some atlases have property owner indexes. 

If not, you will have to find the township or borough in the atlas and use a magnifying glass and carefully search the names on the map. Some atlases are name searchable online. If you have located it, carefully compare the roads in the atlas (they will most likely not be named) to a present-day county atlas. This can be quite tricky. If you have succeeded in pinpointing a location, it is time to go for a drive.

When you find the city house, think of the period your ancestor lived there. If it was in 1910, does the property look like a house of that timeframe or even older? If so, it is probably the ancestral home you are seeking. Building and architectural style guides can help date buildings. The Yocum Library has several. Look at the house carefully; it may have been remodeled with extensions. I am still trying to determine if a house on the corner of 10th and Walnut Streets in Reading, Pa. is the house owned by my 5x great grandfather Tobias Burkhart. According to early maps of Reading, there is a house depicted on the corner as described in the deed of purchase.

If it is a rural house you are seeking, try to see if there are any old stone farmhouses that match the one depicted in the atlas. If you find one, use some discretion. You don’t want some farmer sticking a shotgun out the door for trespassing, or having a dog chase you back to your car. You could try knocking on the door or talking to someone who might be outside. If you show your notes, old atlas copies and all, you just might not be thought of as a thief casing out the place. At most, you may only get a few pictures taken from your car. Google Street View is an alternative. However, if you are lucky, the person might give a tour of the property. 

I once had the luck of being invited to look at an early 19th century property. I was at the Berks County History Center researching a tannery and home in the county when I was overheard by a patron. It just happened she was the owner of the estate.

Family history is all too often a pile of notes, a family tree, and computer files, but to stand where they once stood and possibly see where they lived, ate, raised children, worked and died is priceless.

Here is a list of a few resources and their availability:
  1. Current city atlases - found in most libraries 
  2. Historical county atlases - found in most libraries, genealogical and historical societies. 
  3. Historic Map Works - a huge online collection of county atlases and more. 
  4. Google Maps and Street View
  5. Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network - interactive map overlays. 
  6. Resources at The Yocum Library: 
Using the Philadelphia resource, I was able to locate my 2x great grandfather Andrew L. Britton’s home. Unfortunately, the present location is an empty lot. But I pinpointed the location! Next time, we will explore our ancestors’ places of employment.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Plan Some Fun in August

Don't forget that August is Family Fun Month. Get together with your family to plan some fun before school gets back in session.

Need some help coming up with free or low-cost ideas for family fun? Check out our online carousel with items in our collection that are related to family fun. You can find the carousel at the top of our blog page or at the bottom of our home page.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Family History Tips-Part 35

The Genealogical Road Trip Continues: State and National Government Archives

by Brenna Corbit, Technical Services Librarian

I promised last time to write about government archives, but I had misgivings since I have little experience researching in these places—three times, in fact; once in a state archive in Harrisburg researching orphanage records on my great grandmother’s adoption (I came back emptyhanded %$#@) ; and twice at the National Archives in Philadelphia researching information on my Corbit line, and Russian Consular records concerning my great grandfather’s birth certificate request from Russian-occupied Poland in the early 1900’s (zilched again on both counts). 

One of many endless shelves of archived 
I was a lot less experienced in those early days as a family historian. Yet, even a seasoned genealogist sometimes has to keep baiting the line to get a bite. I just happen to know many more secret fishing holes than I used to. And one thing I do know about government archives is that their holdings make online collections like Ancestry similar to a corner library located in East Jabip operating on a tight budget. 

State and national archives are similar to courthouses, historical and genealogical societies, but the latter are more concerned with a particular county’s holdings. Archives can be quite huge in comparison with zillions of civil records, such as births, marriages, deaths, military records (registrations, enlistments, and pensions), censuses, federal court records, immigration, naturalizations and alien registrations. 

Like I said, the genealogy giants like Ancestry are still lacking many of these records, especially in terms of digital images. Many online sources are mere indexes for where to find the information which requires online form queries with large fees attached (it cost me $100 for both my Polish great grandparents’ alien registrations). Therefore, a road-trip is not only more enjoyable, but it is usually cheaper to do your own research at these institutions. 

The depth and breadth of these places can be quite daunting, but a well-planned trip will be a rewarding one. Before you travel to an archive, always do your research to see what records they have, which will be a valuable time-saver when you are there. In some cases the records you are seeking will be available online, which will prevent an unnecessary road-trip. 
But that defeats the gist of this article. 

Also look on archive websites to check the hours, fees, appointments, parking, and rules. Many archives have librarians and volunteers eager to assist you. It is also a good idea to check out the local restaurants. Research works up an appetite. Enjoy your trip to the fullest, I say. 

I have listed two directories for state and national archives: