In this post, I’m going to talk about 3 basic categories of filing: paper; a mix of paper and e-files; and e-files only. We genealogists are so good as ferreting out the secrets hidden in our documents, but what on earth can we do with the documents once we’ve found them?
10 reasons for paper-based filing
In this scenario, you use the internet to find documents, and once found they’re printed and filed.
You have made a set of binders which are your goto research tools.
You want to keep your research completely private and off the internet.
You are not a fan of technology.
You don’t see a need for using electronic files in your current research methodology.
You like the act of writing on documents, and are comfortable using tabs, flags and post its to keep your documents pristine.
Your research consists primarily of things:
hard cover books
photo albums you want to preserve in their original format
original copies of documents
memorabilia and keepsakes
Having hard copies of everything is reassuring and is a tangible product of your years of work.
You are comfortable with your current budget for office supplies.
You have the space to keep your files together in one place, or at least in no more than 3 places. For example, you keep the photos in a spare bedroom, the files on a bookshelf, and your working files on the dining room table.
Your family is interested and wants to see your work. (Lucky, lucky you.)
10 reasons for keeping both paper and e-files
In this scenario, you jump back and forth between using paper and electronic documents, and are efficient at being able to cross reference between both platforms.
You like using your printed documents as reference.
You prefer reading your research in hard copy.
Your research encompasses original copies of documents, and <250 electronic folders on your computer.
Your paper-based research materials are becoming too cumbersome to take with you on research trips.
You’re beginning to find good online sites.
You can easily find the documents you’ve saved onto your hard drive.
You don’t tend to use your computer’s search functions.
You want to be careful about software costs.
You want to keep backup copies of your work.
You use the dual systems to help manage the costs of both office supplies and software. For example, I would print documents if they were 10 pages or less.
10 Reasons for using a document management system
In this scenario, you may still use paper for on site note taking, but the majority of your work involves an electonic platform of some type.
You want to be able to search within your files, not just the file names.
You have more than 250 electronic folders.
You want to keep backup copies of your work.
You are researching many family lines at once.
You want to use your laptop and smartphone as research tools.
You visit research sites where you are not allowed to bring anything other than a phone and a laptop. (Both the Chung Collection at UBC and the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan are strict about what a researcher may bring into the room, but the Archives will allow a pencil.)
You have a collection of digital photos and images that you’d like to combine with your genealogical work.
You want to capture internet pages, online chat group discussions, and Facebook group forums.
You want to share your research with your family, and they don’t live nearby.
Printing everything you have would cost a ton and is impractical.
No system is free. Paper-based systems require paper, toner, a printer, mounds of office supplies, and the room to store all of that stuff. Electronic systems require a computer and software, and the wherewithal to stay on top of factors such as backup systems.
There’s no right or wrong system – the only question is does it support your genealogical research? Choose the organizational style that fits you, your research style, and your budget.
NEXT POST: I will discuss document management software and its uses in genealogical research.
Quick quiz: if you had to find a genealogical file / doc/ photo / fact right now, how long would it take you to find it?
If you read the title of this post and said what process? you’ve come to the right place.
In this post, I’m going to talk about the factors that will help you figure out your most comfortable process for filing and organizing all that stuff.
Genealogy. I’m dating myself here, but when I started my genealogical journey, the records were only available in hard copy. A research trip involved travel to another city, copious note taking, and lining up to use the photocopier at 25 cents a page. If I got three or four documents in an afternoon’s worth of research, it was a good day.
I had planned to spend my retirement years visiting genealogical societies and libraries.
Fast forward ~20 years to today. The only thing that’s the same is that I’ll still likely spend my retirement doing genealogy.
Everything else has changed.
Process: 6 important factors
The resources: time or money
Process consideration #1 – Are you richer in time or money?
It’s one or the other. If you’ve got lots of time, you tend to have less money to blow; and if you’re making money, you tend to have limited amounts of free time. When I started with genealogy, I definitely had less money.
Process consideration #2 – Have you got the space? Hint: if your family makes dark comments about your stuff taking over the house, it’s a clue.
I really had no idea what I was getting into with genealogy.
Collecting bit and bobs seems so innocuous but over time has the capacity to eat all the free space on the dining room table, in the living room, on the bookshelves, and in every nook and cranny in the basement. Like any collection, genealogy needs a firm hand or it’ll get out of hand.
Process consideration #3 – how often do you move?
In the past two decades, I have gone from homeowner to traveller to student to renter to homeowner again. I have lived in 5 provinces. I stopped counting the moves at 12. Packing, storing, moving and unpacking are not an issue if you don’t move, but if you do?
Process consideration #4 – How much do you / would you like to leverage techology?
The internet and associated apps and tech tools have revolutionized genealogy. It is wonderful to find and use the thousands of sites and sources online – most of them for free. There are billions of digitized documents now available. In the future there will be trillions. There is a rich vein of media available – in addition to documents, there are webinars, social media chat groups, one name sites, and podcasts. I have met genealogists who have written the code for their own custom databases.
That having been said, there is something profoundly comforting about having all your research at hand, tidily tucked away in binders, files and books. It’s tangible. I understand.
Process consideration #5 – How will you leave your genealogical legacy?
Who will get your work when you’re done?
I don’t have a good answer for this one, but I know one thing for certain: none of my immediate family are interested in taking over my files. It’s too daunting.
Here’s a story. My aunt and uncle spent their lives collecting photos of the Yip family clan. They had a ROOM filled with photo albums, all meticulously tagged and arranged. When they moved from their house to a condo, they asked me if I’d like to take over “some of the pictures.” That’s how they phrased it. I offered to take “all” of it, not realizing how much of it there was. My aunt just laughed.
I LOVE photos, I’m into genealogy in a big way, and I still can’t take on their collection. This story tells me that however I hand off my work, it had better be in a format that’s accessible and useful to the next person.
Process consideration #6 – does your filing system work?
This is the dealbreaker – is your process working for you?
I know a guy whose filing system is physical piles of paper on the floor. January starts a new pile, and – you guessed it – December is on the top. He’s been following this system for decades, so that’s a lot of piles of paper. Being asked to locate anything causes a great deal of stress, because he’s sure he has it but he’s not sure he can retrieve it.
Take heart. Filing can overwhelm the best of us. If you think you have it bad, here’s a shot from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. I look at this and I don’t see a process that’s serving anybody.
Next week, I’ll break down paper versus electronic systems.
Take it from me, a former paper girl (as in, really, I used to be a commercial newspaper printer) and legal assistant (which explored the question what if the only limit you had on paper filing was space?) and I have a total love affair with paper products and office supplies. Put another way, I am a professional paper organizer and paper junkie, and I have managed a LOT of files.
How many? Like this:
And like this:
No more. I am moving away from the paper train. Sorry, Staples – I love you but enough’s enough.
It seemed innocent enough.
All the genealogy-for-beginner guides said print these family charts, and do one up for each family group. It was a process I could follow, and I like processes, so I followed it to the letter. I lost count of the office supply trips I made for binders, tabs, plastic document sheets, more binders, more tabs, flags, staples, etc. At one point, I considered ~$3000 worth of museum-quality supplies before I got hold of myself.
I thought that if I bought all these supplies, I’d be organized.
Many binders later, I realized the only times I really touched the binders was to file more stuff in them, not do any research. And that wasn’t right, because it seemed like a big chunk of my limited spare time was going to filing, not researching. It was also turning something fun into a chore.
Also, I didn’t like the results. All those census charts were so tiny and unreadable. I could have printed them on big paper – hi again Staples – but the costs were prohibitive. I had a tight budget for genealogy, and things were getting out of hand.
As well, I was missing SO. MUCH. STUFF. My binders didn’t have URLs, or colour photos (cost, again), and figuring out how to print unprintable web pages was annoying. Worst of all, I couldn’t retrace my research steps.
I started, then stopped printing PDFs, realizing I just wanted the PDFs as resources… so… I started a folder on my computer to keep all the electronic things. Now I had 2 completely separate filing systems, divided by medium. What was worse is that after all this time and money, my filing systems were not helping the genealogical research questions. Every time I wanted to follow an idea, I’d go from journal to binder to folder to website, and it wasn’t efficient or helpful.
There comes a point in every process-lover’s life when she realizes her current processes have hit their limits. I was at my limits. I didn’t know where to find anything I’d stored – email? Journal? Computer? Photos? Binders?
As well, I was wasting valuable research time. I think I hit the wall with my process when I carved out precious family visiting time to go to the Vancouver Public Library’s Chinese Canadiana section and I couldn’t find a document I thought I’d brought with me on my laptop.
I realized that on site research minutes are very precious, and I wasn’t prepared. It was humbling.
I moved to a cloud-based electronic document management system. It has changed my life. I still have the binders I made – they’re good for storing original documents – but otherwise I rarely touch them.
I have a personal genealogical research library of 2400 files which I can access from any device. I usually use my laptop, but in a pinch I can use my phone. I capture anything useful for future reference on the go. But it’s far more than storage – it’s a research tool.
And it’s not just for genealogy… but I’m getting ahead of myself. See you next week!
Next week: Process – it doesn’t have to be painful, but it does have to work.
DNA kits are rising in popularity, so much so that they were among the top 5 items sold during Amazon’s Black Friday sale in November, 2017. They are so popular that Amazon offered 18 different types. In this post, I’ll offer what I see as the pros and cons, and my decision.
Reasons for getting a DNA test
I love curious people. The impulse to know more is why I started on my own genealogical journey, so a DNA kit seems to offer a lot for a little.
Genealogical Brick Walls – busted!
Google “DNA tests brick walls” and you’ll get a pageful of results from AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, Legacy Family Tree, etc. I reviewed an AncestryDNA video showing how the process works, from ensuring that DNA results are connected to the right person in Ancestry, to a plan for getting all the relatives tested. In this way, with a DNA grouping combined with an Ancestry tree, relatives may be found across Ancestry’s databases.
Imagine finding long lost cousins who share a common ancestor. This happened to me last week. Both of us, in our respective countries, have been engaged in genealogical research for years. According to the knowledge we have gleaned, our ancestors originate from the same race, country, counties, speak the same dialect, and carry the same Chinese character as the family name. Like detectives, we are hunting for clues to see if we are more than “village cousins,” and DNA might give us that answer.
Genetic predispositions for disease
Some genetic predispositions, such as cancer, diabetes, and obesity may be identified with a DNA test. It may be helpful to know, for example, if the family history of breast cancer affects you.
Angelina Jolie wrote in the New York Times of her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy as a result of learning she carries the BRCA1 gene.
Who am I?
Many people take DNA tests to find their ethnicity. We’ve probably all seen the 23andMe or AncestryDNA commercials where people who thought they were one race turn out to be another.
I can imagine the hunger to know one’s own history in a closed / private adoption scenario. Taking a DNA test could answer the questions that nobody else can – or will – answer. Do you have siblings? How accurate is the testing? Here’s the YouTube link to the Today Show’s Dec 2017 test of the the accuracy of sibling matching.
Reasons against DNA testing
Are you ready for the results?
The joy and curse of genealogy is the gradual discovering of facts. New clues about your ancestors are like chocolates in an Advent calendar – slowly enjoyed and eagerly anticipated. My ancestors endured harsh conditions. As a sympathetic historian, processing some of these facts has taken an emotional toll on me.
Many people are underprepared, and for them there are now counsellors trained in genetic testing: genetic counsellors. DNA tests can reveal markers for genetic diseases… but the accuracy and process of acquiring that information, what tests are used, and most importantly, how they are interpreted, can vary widely. There have been false positives, and flat out wrong results.
On a related note, DNA tests can reveal family secrets that would tax the ethics of a professional genealogist. Human life is full of unexpected surprises, and not all of them are happy surprises. There are cases of rape and incest, of half-siblings who are the products of affairs, and babies born by means of in-vitro insemination.
Any information that makes us question our origins is information that needs very careful handling, and often, years of processing, reconciling, and adjusting. That’s a lot of pressure in one envelope, all at once.
How life-changing would it be to suddenly have to reassess your roots? For that, I leave it to two talented novelists to tell their own stories of explosive discovery.
Wayne Grady discovered the clues to his own lost family ancestry in a census record in Windsor, ON. His book Emancipation Daytook twenty years to write, and is a powerful creative non-fiction work inspired by the story of his father who was a black man who was light-skinned enough to pass as white.
Wayson Choy was touring Canada for his 1995 novel The Jade Peony when a stranger called to tell him a truth known to all in the Chinese community except him – he was adopted. The phone call inspired his 1999 novel Paper Shadows.
The ethnicity results may depend on the test kit
DNA test results can vary by test kit. Each company has its own processes for analyzing the data, and produces results with a margin of error. Remember statistics and the confidence interval?
Let’s take a common example of statistics: the political poll. My pet peeve is seeing a result like this: Conservatives 22%, Liberals 20%, NDP 19%, with a confidence level of 95%, with a margin of error at +/- 3%. The Cons are in the lead. What’s wrong with that?
95% sounds pretty confident, right? The trouble is, a 95% confidence level simply means 19 times out of 20, or 95 out of 100 people.
It’s the margin of error where things go completely sideways. In this example, there is only 3% separating the 3 results, meaning all results fall within the margin of error (19+3=22), which means the results are misleading, if not completely wrong. In this case, there is no party leading.
DNA kits such as 23andMe offer a 50% confidence interval. The Legal Genealogist calls such results no more than “cocktail party conversation” in her article “Those percentages, if you must.”
The law is struggling to catch up
Did you know that until Bill S-201 – the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act (the “GNDA”)was passed into law 9 months ago (on May 4, 2017), Canadians were at risk of discrimination based on the results of genetic test results?
In the USA, where the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act has been in place since 2008, some 300 cases / year arise from people suing because their genetic tests uncovered information which prevented them from being able to buy health and / or life insurance.
In my view, Canada was slow to add genetic data to the list of rights protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the real tests of how the GNDA will be interpreted is up to the courts, on a case by case basis.
The government makes laws, but the judges decide how those laws will affect people. It’s a work in progress.
What am I giving away?
To take just one example, see Ancestry’s Terms & Conditions below (copied directly from the site on 24 Jan 2018):
That by providing a DNA sample or Additional User Information to us, you acquire no rights in any research or commercial products developed by us or our collaborators and will receive no compensation related to any such research or product development; [emphasis added]
I understand the science of genetics like a dog understands English – I think I’m getting it, but I’m really not. But what I do understand is that we have barely begun to understand the potential of genetic research, never mind put a price tag on its value. I am nervous about giving away something that is inherently mine, with that degree of potential, forever.
For example, take the 2004 case of the American Havasupai Tribe. They had originally consented to the collecting of their genetic material for the purpose of studying diabetes, but found later that the study grew to include investigating “population evolution, schizophrenia, and inbreeding.” They sued Arizona State University for a long list of items from civil rights to misrepresentation.
No DNA tests for me
I am very curious. If I let my curiosity drive this bus, I’d have done a DNA test a long time ago. I am absolutely enthralled with the idea of learning more about my origins – that’s part of the reason why I’m such an avid genealogist.
Maybe the caution comes from the decade I spent as legal assistant, dealing with rights, reparations, privacy, and risk. Also, I’m fortunate that breast – and other – cancers do not run through my family, I was not adopted, and I’m most likely 100% Chinese.
So for me, the answer is no DNA tests. Not now.
How about you? Are you considering DNA tests? Have you done them already? I’d love to hear from you.
How do you sort photos when you have no idea of the dates and don’t recognize the people? Here are some hints from me, a longtime photography buff and ex-commercial printer.
Why sort at all?
Some people argue that sorting after scanning is better. I prefer sorting before scanning because:
I name files so they will automatically sort in date order: YYYY-MM-DD – [description of photo] – [names of people] – [location if known] – unique filename identifier;
Sorting photos makes the work of batch scanning and file naming much quicker;
Batches of similar photos will offer more clues together than a single photo by itself;
Sorting before scanning makes the post-scanning filing task much simpler, because I file photos in date order.
The problem: How to sort thousands of mixed photos from the past 50 years
I have boxes of loose photos from ~1970s-2000s, thanks to my family photo scanning project. See my story on the project here.
Step One – Do a rough sort of the photos by print attributes
Sort by colour (B&W or colour), then
Sort by size; then
Sort by photofinishing type (matte or glossy); then, if needed
Sort by photofinishing quality, e.g., are all the photos too light/ too dark?
Sort by colour and size
The first hint is the size and shape of the photos. Are they B&W or colour? Do they have curvy edges? Round corners? Are they odd sizes? Sort by colour, quality, and glossy/matte stock.
-Sample photos from a variety of cameras. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.
This isn’t as odd as it sounds. Film and cameras have changed over the decades, ranging from small and cheap, e.g., Brownies and Kodak Instamatics; to instant, e.g., Polaroids; to high quality, e.g., Kodachrome 64 slides and medium format film. Our family had both pocket cameras and single lens reflex (SLR) cameras. SLR cameras were preferred because the 35 mm film rendered good quality images.
35 mm prints were offered commercially in standard sizes. My family preferred prints 3.5”x5” or 4”x6”, because they fit into photo albums. My grandparents kept special occasion photos – births, graduations, and weddings – in frames that held 5″x7″, 8″x10″, or 11″x14″ enlargements. My uncle had a darkroom in the basement, and he was the one who first showed me how a 35 mm negative naturally enlarged to fit those sizes.
Why a single roll might hold 2 events, or odd, throwaway photos
When my family got together, they’d bring their cameras, shoot a full roll of film (12, 24, or 36 exposures), then send that film off for processing. Film and processing were expensive, so it was common to save a film roll from one occasion to the next, resulting in the same roll holding more than one event, from summer weddings to Christmas. My grandfather used to ask us to pose by the house or car to “finish the roll.”
Sort by photofinishing quality and finish
The results would come back about a week later in a paper envelope, either matte or glossy according to preference. I still remember eagerly waiting for the return of my photos and quickly flipping through the batch at the drugstore to see what turned out and what didn’t.
Offsite printing was far from uniform – some labs regularly calibrated their processing machines, while others were staffed by clerks who seemed not to understand that Chinese people are literally not white people and set the white balance (the lightest part of the photo) from skin tones. This results in images with overly light colours: blown highlights and lighter-than-normal midtones. See sample below.
Step two: Review the batches of photos for content
Use the advantage of batch sorting
Turn over each batch and look for any notes. You might get lucky and find a set of photos that are obviously one occasion such as a Christmas party and find that one of them has a note, e.g., Party 1985.
In my case, I found hundreds of loose photos without any ID, and then a few photo holders intact with notes. With the photos already roughly sorted into batches, it’s much easier to compare the print attributes and subjects of the loose and sorted photos, and make informed guesses about what goes with what.
Why aren’t there more labels?
It was extremely tedious to label each photo once they were printed. Sometimes, people would automatically order two or more sets at the time of printing in case anyone wanted a copy. My grandparents were social and generous, and would often order 3 sets of prints: that’s 108 photos for every roll of 36. To identify the stack, my grandfather would label just the paper envelope, or one photo in the pile. By reassembling the photos back to their original print stacks, I’ve been able to make assumptions about the rest of the prints.
What’s the occasion?
Once all the photos are sorted by size and photofinishing, you’ll likely have dozens of piles. What are the people doing and wearing? Is it day or night? Remember that photography was a luxury hobby, so people tended to only take pictures of special occasions. What special occasion was the reason for this photo?
What if I have the same occasion for more than one year?
For example, I have dozens of photos of company Christmas parties, and they’re all the same size, printed on glossy paper. I look at the surroundings: the curtains, floors, walls, and decorations. This allows me to figure out that I have photos of two Christmas parties, because they both feature Xmas decorations but in different locales.
If there had been two company Christmas parties in the same location, I would look for what the women are wearing. Men may wear the same tuxedo year after year, but women rarely wear the same outfit twice (unless they’re travelling and only packed one dress).
Simple sorting hacks – before and after
A loose pile of photos.
After the rough sorting is done, sort by year
After I’ve done the rough sort, I can often make a guess about a photo’s decade, based on the clothing and hair styles. I turned an old file folder into a simple place to do the second sort.
Two boxes’ worth of sorted photos
From two of the apple boxes, here’s a shot of all the photos from the 1980s, sorted by year.
For photos from the 20th century with no information on decade, I use 19xx-[description]-uniqueID.
For photos I can place to the decade, e.g., the 1970s: 197x-[description]-uniqueID
For photos where I can place the month and decade, e.g., April 1970s: 197x-04-[description]-uniqueID
My new high-speed photo scanner just arrived. After having done the work of sorting the last two boxes of photos and seeing the huge piles of photos left to scan, I am doubly, triply glad that I bought it. This is not something I ever thought I’d say, but I can’t wait to get started on the scanning. I’ll share my findings with you in my next post.
This is a story about a family project. You may have a similar project mouldering away on your To Do list. In this story, I’m going to talk about how and why the project got started, the steps to getting the project done, and the unexpected bonuses I found.
When my grandmother passed away in 2013, she left piles of photo albums, boxes of negatives, and hundreds of printed rolls of film still in their paper envelopes. The entire collection filled four whole apple crates. What on earth were we going to do with them?
My uncle volunteered to drive them home, a province away.
I volunteered to scan them all.
– The contents of one apple crate. Now multiply this by 4. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.
Several months later, I sat in my basement looking at the boxes. I had no idea how I was going to do this. My grandparents had photos from the 1930s to the 2000s. Each time I opened a box, I’d get lost flipping through the photo albums. I was daunted by the thousands of photos with no names or dates. How was I going to organize this mess?
My grandparents were both social and frugal – they’d fill a photo album with photos from one occasion, then fill the remaining spaces with random photos that fit. This method obviously worked for them, since they knew the people and the places, but without that intimate knowledge, I was lost.
I put the project away again.
I did this a few times before thinking, hey, I bet someone else out there has had this problem and already solved it. That’s when I found Curtis Bisel’s site Scan Your Entire Life.
It was a lightbulb moment.
It’s now four years later. For 2.5 years, I made great progress, scanning ~100 at a time in 34 scanning sessions. The hardest part was getting started: organizing, sorting, and making decisions on important basics such as scanning resolution and filename conventions. I also needed to decide what to do with the photos once scanned – how to store them long term and on a budget.
The next hardest decision was what to scan first. Open a box and choose at random? Pick an album? Do all the colour prints first? I opted to do the ones that most appealed to me: the old black and white photos.
In hindsight, I don’t recommend this, because despite all the prep work, I inevitably refined my processes as I went along. Then again, I might not have found the project as fascinating, and might not have continued. Hard to say. In the end, I did spend time rescanning and revising filenames. By the end of the second scanning session, I was on a roll, happily spending weekends and evenings immersed in the past. I worked from oldest to newest, and scanned just over 3200 images: all the tiny black and whites, all the white bordered 60s & 70s prints with fading ink, and the majority of the old family photos.
Then my scanner died and I didn’t have the cash to replace it. The project was put on hold.
I kept a journal to track my scanning progress, but it became a place to gather my questions about the family.
In the absence of dates, research and logic became my go-to tools for solving the mysteries I was uncovering. When I found my grandparents’ wedding photo, I wanted to know everything about it: where and when did it take place, who was in the photo, and even who was the photographer? I found a few answers by searching the online archives at the Royal BC Museum for the marriage licence, and the BC City Directories for the photography studio.
Other photo mysteries are ongoing. I found dozens of photos from the 1930s and 40s, all addressed to “Dora”. Who was Dora? I learned that Dora was my grandfather’s sister, and that Dora was her English name. So far, I’ve tried and failed to find an original document that has both English and Chinese names, which would confirm which of my grandfather’s two sisters was the girl named Dora who loved exchanging photos with her pen pals.
Thanks to a generous Christmas gift, I’m back on track. I’ve ordered a hi-speed photo scanner, brought up a box of photos from the basement, and begun the task of sorting all the photos in it. This box is nearly all travel-related. It’s taken me two nights to sort, but I’m not in a hurry. Besides, I love the stories unfolding in the photos, like a super slow-motion video. Also, I found that my grandfather was diligent about recording travel dates and locations on the cheap plastic holders that came free with film processing, which hugely helps organizing and sorting.
So I’m not quite halfway done, but the new high-speed photo scanner will make a huge difference in my projected completion date: from ~Spring 2021 to December 2018. That’s something to celebrate.
Another reason to celebrate: I’m learning that a project like this – scanning an entire family’s photos over the course of 5 years – can become a powerful genealogical search tool. Pictures resonate with life and vitality in a way that words and documents cannot, and in the days before Photoshop, it was once true that a picture never lies.
Lastly, this time spent poring over images has given me a rich mental picture of what life was like back then. When I close my eyes, I can almost stand beside my grandfather in front of his store, looking onto Main Street and thinking about the future.
This has been a huge help in my genealogical journey, helping me make intuitive leaps over the gaps in the document trail. The search for Chinese Canadian genealogy feels like detective work because it is a search to find marginalized and misunderstood people living on the periphery of society. If you think that’s a bit harsh, then I gently remind you that the Chinese were not considered citizens in this country until granted the vote in 1948. See my posts on it here and here.
It’s like wall climbing – the path up is the expert line, and progress can only be made by getting stronger, taking big leaps of faith, and pushing the limits.
Do you have boxes of loose photos from the past 50 years and no clue how to organize them? In my next blog post, I’ll share my tricks for getting the job done.
How do you know this stuff? Did you learn it at school?
There are so many answers to this question, but in the beginning, I learned my stories from my family.
The family stories
If you’re lucky, someone in your family is the family historian and the teller of tales. Our grandmother held that place in our family, and she liked to invite us for Sunday dinner. Each time, we’d ask her to tell stories – perhaps the one about the pigeons kept on the deck; or the one about the baseball cards and the chewing gum; or the one about the two day housewarming party; but mostly, stories about food. Eventually, I started writing these stories down. I don’t have them all, but I have a few. The trick to collecting family stories is to write them down exactly as they’re told. It doesn’t matter if this time isn’t the same as last time. They’re all true – perhaps not factually true, but emotionally true.
Family stories helped make sense of the world, and I was a curious child.
The family photos
I am fascinated by photography. A picture is not only a visual record of time and place, but also environment, society, people, and events. I have a storehouse of tens of thousands of pictures, a good chunk of which are family photos. Most are without identification, so I have spent hundreds of hours with them, using scanners, facial recognition software, logic, and a journal to record questions and answers.
Some are a mystery I’m still trying to solve.
The family tree
It may have been the photos that started it all – the questions of who what when why and how. Every family has people they don’t talk about. I began getting interested in family trees. On the one hand, my father’s family had access to a comprehensive family tree which detailed 800+ family members. On the other hand, my mother’s family tree was undrawn and largely unknown. I started drawing family trees by hand, then using MS-Visio, Geni.com, and now Ancestry.ca. I still draw and redraw the family line hierarchy when I’m trying to visualize generations through time.
The idea behind past-presence.com
Ancestry.ca raised more questions than it answered. While it was a handy way of building trees and identifying cousins, it was less useful in supplying documents. I collect facts like Smaug hoards gems. The history of my family – and to a wider extent, the history of the Chinese in Canada – is not so easily found.
I drafted timelines in Excel. I date ordered every fact I uncovered about my family: births, moves, graduations, deaths, marriages, enlistment, demobilization. I drew relationship trees to establish the birth order of coy aunts and uncles who said, “I forget how old I am.” I drew maps of neighbourhoods, mentally walking down the street to the neighbours’ houses. I collected resources: bookmarking web pages, building Excel sheets with links, downloading PDFs, scanning documents, and photographing sites.
It all felt like a big, ungainly mess until I built this website as a personal storehouse of data. What began as a passion project has led to a radio interview, a day with JJ Lee, and an invitation to be a guest lecturer at a university.
The legal framework
Every historian needs a way to see the whole picture. I see the world from a social / psychological/ familial/ economic/ political/ legal point of view. Eventually, I began seeing a framework from the facts, like seeing a body from studying bone fragments.
Here, in one graphic, are the laws affecting voting and immigration for the Chinese in Canada. I’ll expand on this graphic in my next post here.
It’s so ironic. I would love to go back to school to study history.
In September, I did, but with a twist: I was the guest lecturer, sharing my story along with a few facts, to a class of students in Asian studies.
How do you know this stuff?
I’ve alway been a curious child. In the beginning, family stories helped make sense of the world. Now, original records and a powerful array of online resources fill out my understanding, provide a framework, and raise new questions. It’s a layer cake of stories and details that’s endlessly fascinating. How about you? What’s your family mystery? Want to find out more? PM me and I’ll help you get started.
Voting. It’s complicated. Canada has been reluctant to share her treasures, at least to its non-male, non-white peoples.
Nearly 70 years ago, Canada’s Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian people won the right to vote in Canada. It had been a long time coming. You may know the story of the Famous Five*, who fought for and won women’s voting rights in 1921, but did you know that it took 27 more years for Asians to gain the right vote?
This is the story of Kew (K.) Dock Yip and Irving Himel, and their work to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, which is more formally known as the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923. There could be no consideration of voting for Chinese while this piece of legislation was on the books, banning Chinese from entering the country on the sole basis of race.
To understand Yip and Himel’s achievement, it’s important to set the stage and go back to the Dominion of Canada, circa 1800s.
Donald Smith, President of the CPR, drives the spike
Marker, the Last Spike
Prior to 1885, Chinese workers had been actively sought. Andrew Onderdonk hired 6000 Chinese labourers from 1800-1885 to build the most dangerous sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway in BC. Chinese workers staffed the CPR Steamships and worked in the gold mines. Before 1885, Chinese people were free to travel to and from China, and many men took advantage of the opportunity to work in Canada to support their families in China. For many, this self-imposed exile was the only way to support a family in a country severed by political upheaval, war, crime, and drought. Working in Canada was no dream: wages were poor, and conditions were harsh. In response, British Columbia enacted successive waves of anti-Chinese legislation, all designed to contain and deter its unwanted Chinese population.
On July 20, 1885, the railway having been completed, the rising anti-Chinese sentiment and fears of the “yellow peril” caused Canada to implement the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885. A CAD$50 head tax was levied on all incoming Chinese immigrants. This tax would be doubled to $100 in 1900, and then raised to its height of $500 in 1903. As Arlene Chan wrote in her book The Chinese Head Tax:
James Don’s father paid $500 each for his wife and 5 year old son. It took 17 years for his father to repay the loan.
No other immigrants to Canada were subjected to a head tax.
It was a hard year to be Chinese. The Electoral Franchise Act, 1885, explicitly removed voting rights for the Chinese (and Indians) two weeks earlier. Said Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald:
Persons of Chinese origin ought not to have a vote because they had no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations.
The Prime Minister was not alone in his anti-Chinese fears. In 1922, Judge Emily Murphy wrote in her book The Black Candle:
Anyone who has lived in British Columbia knows that where the Chinese have their own districts, much [opium] smoking is indulged in.
And lastly, the Native Sons of British Columbia, who wrote:
Native Sons of British Columbia are unequivocally opposed to extending the franchise to the Asiatic races.
The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, built on, and expanded, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885, effectively closing the borders to all Chinese. Those men that had families in China were thus prevented from seeing them for decades, or ever. The beleaguered Chinese community endeavoured to take care of its large population of rootless men. Depression, drug abuse, and suicide took their grim tolls on the community.
Fast forward to 1942, to the Queen’s Own Rifles Reserves, where two lawyers happened to share a tent: K. Dock Yip and Irving Himel.
The two lawyers are hanging around base camp, recovering, when they hatch a plan to fight injustice.
Himel, I want to do the Immigration Act. I want to do immigration work. They won’t let the Chinese in. – K. Dock Yip
We have to repeal that law. – Irving Himel
To help them achieve this goal, Yip and Himel eventually formed The Committee for the Repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act in November, 1946.
On that Committee were:
Dr. Armstrong, United Church
Cardinal McQuigan, Catholic Church
Judge Arthur Martins
Colonel David Croll, Liberal MP
Dr. Neyes, Chinese Church
Dr. Ngai, Chinese medical doctor
Irving Himel, lawyer
K. Dock Yip, Canada’s first Chinese lawyer
Eventually, the Committee grew to be 79 members. The Toronto Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Vancouver News-Herald began supporting the movement. Womens’ groups and political groups, labour and trade councils, and religious groups joined the call for change. It took five years from that day in the tent when two reservists decided to tackle Canada’s racist immigration policies, but Canada repealed the Chinese Immigration Act on May 14, 1947.
Asked about the delegation to Ottawa, Yip said:
He ran all the manoeuvres, Himel. Me, Kew Dock Yip, I’m the secretary… Irving Himel asked me to lead this movement, but I thought Dr. Ngai would do it better… so I deferred the position to him and he did a very good job. The [immigration] law was finally repealed in 1947.
In 1948, the Dominion Elections Act was also repealed, allowing Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians the right to vote in federal elections.
The Chinese in Canada finally had the right to call themselves Canadians. The fight for civil rights would be next.
Irving Himel continued his legal work on civil liberties, later becoming a founding member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. His work against restrictive covenants (clauses in real estate contracts preventing property sales “to Jews and other perceived undesirables”) resulted in them being declared unlawful.
K. Dock Yip continued his work as an attorney for 47 years, served as a two-time trustee of the Toronto School Board, was a leader in his community, and found time to be a movie actor on the side. In 1998, Yip was awarded the Law Society Medal for outstanding service to the legal profession.
*Observant readers will note that Emily Murphy is both lauded and criticized in this piece.
I have known bits of this story my whole life, but the online resources to flesh out the facts have only appeared in the past few years, thanks to the work of dedicated Canadian scholars and trusts, teachers, citizens, and politicians. Canada no longer ignores its racist past in our collective bid to work for a better future. In a small way, this is my story, too. K. Dock Yip was my great-uncle.
Chan, A. (2014). The Chinese head tax and anti-Chinese immigration policies in the 20th century. Toronto, ON:James Lorimer & Company Ltd.
I have four great grandmothers with the same name: Shee. If you’re the descendent of a Chinese family, you will also have female relatives named Shee,Shi, or Shih.You may also notice that in the 1900s, every Chinese family has women named Shee. You’ll see passenger lists, censuses, and other official documents where all the women are named Shee.
As you may know, I don’t speak Chinese, so it’s taken me a very long time to realize that Shee is not a name, but a title. It signifies a family name, clan name or surname. It means from the family of, the same way English uses the French word née (born). For example, if your family name is Lee, and your great grandmother’s family name was Wong, her name would be: Lee Wong Shee. Let me break that down for you: the most important part of her identity, her married name, is first: Lee. The second part of her identity, her family name, is second: Wong. The third part signifies her married status: Shee. To me, this naming convention encapsulates the traditional Chinese attitude toward women: a woman’s significance only as a part of a family collective. She does not have, and does not need, a first name of her own.
For genealogists, this adds a layer of complexity to the research, because the documents that we use to build a family history – census forms, birth and death records, marriage licences – are not necessarily correct. The handwriting is hard to read. Census takers may not have known how to spell the foreign sounds they were hearing, never mind record them accurately, or the same way over time. I sometimes wonder if any census takers asked themselves why all Chinese married women had the same name?
That’s the downside.
The upside is that a traditional Chinese wife’s name automatically spells out her family name, as opposed to the English convention – say, Mrs. Lee – which does not. A census may be misspelled, but it may be phonetic, and for a genealogist, a small clue is better than none at all.
The photo is my poor attempt at Chinese calligraphy. I did try to locate a better image online, but Google didn’t understand what I wanted, and searching for the phonetic Shih kept returning pictures of dogs. True story.
So, you want to start a family tree? Here are my top 10 tips, gleaned from many years of trial and error:
Go ahead and sign up for Ancestry.ca (or the .com equivalent). If you’re serious about this, try the one month subscription as a trial. I have a copy of Ancestry Canada, and for the rest, I go to the library. (Hot tip: it might be free at your library, too.)
You might find it easier to begin at the end, by which I mean searching for registrations of deaths. Depending on the year, you may be able to find these online via provincial vital statistics, and they are a wealth of factual detail: date of birth, place of birth, and the names of the parents, to name some of the major facts available.
You’ll quickly learn that genealogy is the search for everything. This is a joy and a curse. You can really get lost in the details. For example, beyond your grandmother’s maiden name, where did she go to school? Who was her maid of honour? Was she married more than once? Did she serve in the war? Does she have siblings or children she didn’t tell you about? How tall was she? What colour was her hair? Did she travel to the USA, or to Europe, and was it by car or by boat? Who were her neighbours and friends? This is just the beginning.
You’ll also soon realize that even if you find the records, they may not be all that accurate. Census takers may have had terrible penmanship, or couldn’t spell the family names, or the person answering the census might have been lying about any number of issues.
Take your time carefully reviewing every record you find. Read everything: the content, the borders, and the notations added in ink after the fact. This will not be as easy as it sounds. See the featured image sample.
Related to the above, download a copy of everything you find. (Yes, you can attach it in Ancestry, but what if you cancel your subscription later?)
Avoid connecting your family tree to other family trees you’ll find under Ancestry hints. Use the hints, just don’t accept someone else’s work without a serious amount of fact checking first. Not everyone is as diligent as you, and you really want to avoid having to eliminate whole family lines later. (Yes, this happens.)
Read a few How Tos once you’ve gotten familiar with what you’re doing. It’ll make a lot more sense, and be relevant to the questions you’re having.
Take notes. If you’re not sure what’s going to be relevant or important, you can try using pre-made blank forms like this one.
After you’ve been researching a family line for a while, go back over your records and read everything again. You will have learned a great deal more by this time, and so you may see something you missed on the first review. This will save major frustration later, when you have spent time and money acquiring records that you later realize you already own.