A return to blogging

It’s been (way) too long since my last entry, but I’m hoping to write with more regularity in coming months. Some exciting things afoot:

In my personal research, I’ve been spending a lot of time using genetic genealogy to untangle some long-standing family mysteries (including some that have only appeared *because* of genetic genealogy!). The power of DNA remains awe-inspiring – have you had your DNA tested yet?

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GRIP Recap

This recap is a bit belated, but I returned home to New York two weeks ago, having had a terrific time attending the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP) for the first (but hopefully not last!) time.

After completing Boston University’s Certificate Program in Genealogical Research last fall, I wanted to continue my genealogical education with more in-depth (and in-person) study at one of the excellent institutes that exist for that purpose.  Among the major institutes are the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG), the Genealogical Institute on Federal Records (Gen-Fed), the Institue of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR), and others.  Now in its fifth year, GRIP makes use of the campus of La Roche College, in suburban Pittsburgh.  Over 130 genealogists (from 35 states, and multiple countries) convened on the La Roche campus to enjoy in-depth instruction from leading genealogical minds in one of six different course options.

I decided to attend GRIP largely because of its excellent reputation and incredible course offerings, but also due to the timing.  As a business owner, it’s hard for me to get away from New York City for more than a couple days at a time – so it was a real treat to get to spend a whole week studying advanced genealogical topics.

Michael Cassara and Thomas W. Jones at GRIP - June, 2016
Michael Cassara and Thomas W. Jones at GRIP – June, 2016

I chose to take “Mastering the Art of Genealogical Documentation”, taught by legendary genealogist/educator/writer/editor Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D.  I had previously heard Tom speak at the New York State Family History Conference and am in possession of a very well-thumbed edition of his definitive work, Mastering Genealogical Proof, so the opportunity to study with him for a week was one I could not turn down.

On the first day of class we all introduced ourselves and, when asked why we had selected this particular course, “citation anxiety” was the number one answer given (present company included) .  The general skill level among my classmates was quite advanced (including multiple Certified Genealogists), but I noted a commonality among all of us: we all had a strong desire to do things the “right” way, and to be able to write professional and thorough citations without being overly dependent upon templates and examples.  As a young(er) genealogist (I was dubbed the lone/resident “Gen X’er” by a classmate), I have many questions about citation and the function of thoroughly-cited sources in research, particularly with the emergence of digital sources.  I came in with a goal of augmenting my knowledge of traditional citation standards and methodologies, and I feel I was able to get a much better sense of not only how to write thorough citations, but how to do so “from scratch”.  Though I wish I could rewind and re-live many of the discussions we had during our 5-day course, I left GRIP with much greater confidence in my own citation ability, and found the entire experience to be wholly worthwhile.

GRIP also offers supplementary programming in the form of free lectures (open to the public) for a number of evenings during the Institute.  I attended two of three lectures: Marian L. Fisher’s “Thinking Over Time:  Researching USCIS Records” was a big highlight for me as I’m currently doing in-depth research with a number of USCIS record sets, and learned a great deal from Ms. Fisher’s excellent presentation.  I was also able to attend F. Warren Bittner, CG‘s talk, “Understanding Illegitimacy: The Bittner Bastards of Bavaria”, which was very enlightening regarding social conditions surrounding illegitimacy rates (and how illegitimacy was defined) in European cultures.

Another highlight of GRIP was the opportunity to reconnect with genealogical colleagues and friends, and to make some new ones.  I opted for the dorm-room/meal-plan option and, though the dorms are pretty barebones, the convenience of staying on campus and not needing a car was valuable.  The classwork kept me quite busy, but I had a nice chance to catch up with my friend Tammy Hepps (who was not attending, but is living in the area doing amazing research on her Homestead, PA ancestors – check out her exemplary site, Homestead Hebrews), and also Rich Venezia, who recently moved to the area and has previously attended GRIP.  Michael Lacopo, whose must-read blog about his own family discoveries will keep you on the edge of your seat, taught one of the other GRIP courses on Pennsylvania research, and it was great to catch up with him, as well.

Catching up with friends, Michael Lacopo and Rich Venezia.
Catching up with friends, Michael Lacopo and Rich Venezia.

Tomorrow, the July session of GRIP will begin – and how I wish I could join them.  Leading Italian genealogist Melanie D. Holtz is offering an amazing course on Italian research, but, alas, the dates don’t work out for me this time around.  All in all, I gained a great deal from my GRIP experience and am hopeful that I’ll be able to return for a future session.

GRIP 2017 will not begin to accept registrations until after the new year, but the courses have been announced, and it’s safe to say there’s something for everyone – perhaps you’ll attend!


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RootsTech Recap, 2016 – Part II

When we left off, I had just finished attending the final RootsTech session of the day on Thursday.  I had hoped to cram in some research time at the Family History Library that evening but an unfortunate power outage meant they had to close early.  I decided to just grab some dinner and head back to the hotel.  One of the nice things about RootsTech being at the Salt Palace Convention Center is that there are a great deal of non-genealogical destinations to explore within a very short walk.  The shops at City Creek are terrific, and there are many good restaurants, all within walking distance of the numerous hotels that house conference attendees.  In the 5 years I’ve attended RootsTech, I’ve never rented a car; Salt Lake City has fantastic public transit – and lots of good private car (taxi, Uber, Lyft) options as well.

I caught an early dinner and a bit of the Democratic Debate, and turned in early.  I spent much of Friday exploring the Expo Hall.  Although there are always worthwhile presentations and classes at RootsTech, I find tremendous value in walking around the (gigantic) hall and chatting with the various exhibitors, learning about their products.  I visited friends from the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, E-Z Photo Scan, WikiTree and many others.  I met Fisher from the Extreme Genes genealogy radio program,  chatted with the RootsMagic folks about their (incredibly exciting) just announced Ancestry.com integration, and I learned about a number of new and exciting projects.

After grabbing lunch, I spent a good portion of the afternoon back at the booth for the Guild of One-Name Studies.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, I had never done the “exhibitor” thing before, and I really enjoyed the one-on-one conversations with so many attendees.  We had a constant flow of interested attendees – it was quite fulfilling to participate in this capacity.

Friday night there was an after-party, sponsored by MyHeritage – the first time they’ve held such an event – and it was a very enjoyable way to spend the evening.  Although I don’t think I’ll ever be one to say “boy, that karaoke sure was fun” – it was certainly unique to watch dozens of top genealogy personalities, belting their lungs out(!)

Saturday was the final day of the conference, and I kept most of the morning open since I was speaking that afternoon.  I was honored to be asked to speak for a third straight year, and I was particularly excited to get to speak on the topic of “Cemetery Crowdsourcing”.  Even better than that, my talk was chosen to be recorded by FamilySearch.  The attendance was a little disappointing, but many people do understandably skip the sessions that are being recorded in favor of ones that will not be viewable later.  Additionally, many folks tend to cut out by Saturday afternoon.  So, while I didn’t have a huge audience (when I spoke on Italian Genealogy in 2015, they had to turn people away!) it was a very engaged and delightful audience, with wonderful questions and serious interest in the subject matter.  Beyond that, the opportunity to be recorded is super exciting – and I’ve already heard from people who have watched it!

Overall, I felt very good about the talk – and I hope that you can give it a watch when you have a moment!

After the talk was over, I decided to do another lap around the expo hall, and then I helped close out the day at the Guild’s booth.  I got a quick drink with some of my fellow NYC-based researchers (most of whom I only got to meet upon being in Utah!  Funny how the world works, isn’t it…)

Dick Eastman almost always holds a closing-night dinner for those friends and readers of his newsletter who would like to attend, and this year was no exception.  I’ve attended for a number of years and always find it to be a highlight of RootsTech – there’s just something wonderful about being in a room full of kindred spirits, sharing what we’ve learned at the conference and getting to know one another at a more leisurely pace.  As the dinner came to a close, Dick and I split a cab to the airport as we were both on the same red-eye flight back to points east.  Part of the fun of RootsTech is that genealogists are everywhere.

While waiting for my flight to depart, I spotted a RootsTech lanyard and struck up a brief conversation with another genealogist about to board a red-eye.  It turned out to be True Lewis, I knew of her from her wonderful blog.  When I first attended RootsTech in 2012 I didn’t know a single person in the genealogy community.  I now look forward to running into friends and fellow researchers at every turn and, in this case, meeting someone I had yet to meet.  The work of my colleagues inspires me to no end and it is a thrill to explore genealogy in their company and with their guidance.

I should mention, the dates have now been set for next year’s RootsTech: February 8th to 11th, 2017.  I certainly hope to be there!  If you’ve never attended, perhaps 2017 will be your year!  It is, truly, my favorite week of the year – and this year was no exception.

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Cemetery Crowdsourcing at RootsTech 2016

For a third straight year I had the honor of speaking at RootsTech, the world’s largest family history conference in Salt Lake City, Utah.  This year I spoke on the topic of “Cemetery Crowdsourcing” – how genealogists can use BillionGraves, FindAGrave and other new websites and technologies to help catalog the world’s cemetery records.

The video of my talk has just been posted on the RootsTech site – and now you can watch it from the comfort of your own home!  I was scheduled in the last slot of the day on the final day of the conference, so attendance was a bit light, but it was a hearty bunch – and I’m very glad that the presentation is now watchable worldwide.


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RootsTech Recap, 2016 – Part 1

It’s Super Bowl Sunday and I’m finally back home in New York City.  I had an incredible time at the RootsTech conference and figured it might be nice to recap the week a bit.  This post will be part 1, covering everything up through Thursday night, and later this week I’ll post the second installment.

In snowy #SLC for my favorite week of the year! #RootsTech2016

A photo posted by Michael Cassara (@michaelcassara) on

I spent Monday at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.  One of the perks of RootsTech taking place in SLC is that it allows all of the visiting genealogists to spend some time doing research at the world-renowned FHL.  After a full day of searching my paternal Cassarà line in Mistretta, Sicily, I boarded the Frontrunner train to Provo where I managed to grab dinner with Brooke Schreier Ganz and Tammy Hepps, two of the most remarkable genealogical minds I’ve encountered.

Tammy’s site/story-sharing platform, Treelines.com, was such a terrific addition to the community when it won the RootsTech Developer Challenge in 2013, but I was particularly intrigued to learn of the in-depth research (and reporting) she’s doing on her site, Homestead Hebrews, chronicling the Jewish community of Homestead, Pennsylvania.  The site is a stellar example of how contemporary technology can bring records, pictures, stories and memories to life, in a vivid and remarkable manner.

ReclaimTheRecordsIn recent months, Brooke has turned the genealogical community on its head and, if you’re not already following the progress of her organization, Reclaim The Records, then you are missing out in a major way.  Reclaim The Records is *successfully* filing Freedom of Information Act requests, liberating data from state agencies, and making it available on a large-scale.  I can’t wait to see what they go after next  and I know I speak for many when I express my immense gratitude for the outstanding work they are doing.

Wednesday night brought two group dinners at …The Olive Garden.  The first was a small gathering for members of The Guild of One-Name Studies, organized by our chairman, Paul Howes.  The 7 of us in attendance are overseeing surname studies on these unique surnames: Boddie (Drew Smith of the Genealogy Guys Podcast), Colt/Coult (FamilySearch’s Darris Williams), Cuono (studied by yours truly), Howes, Keough (studied by Tessa Keough, whose contributions to the Guild’s first-ever booth at RootsTech were beyond invaluable), Pikholz (studied by Jerusalem-based Israel Pickholtz, whose book is on my must-read list) and Stoops (studied by Yolanda Campbell Lifter, who focuses on research in my native Ohio).  We discussed our studies and enjoyed each other’s company, along with, perhaps, a few too-many breadsticks.

#NextGen Genealogy Network Dinner
#NextGen Genealogy Network Dinner

As the GOONS (as those of us in the Guild are sometimes known) dinner concluded, I headed to another part of the restaurant for the tail-end of the NextGen Genealogy Network dinner.  I was happy to see some familiar faces, and also to meet some new folks.  NextGen was founded in 2013 to “create a community for other young genealogists”.  I have to say, given how solitary an activity doing genealogical research can be, it’s always really wonderful to meet and connect with other like-minded researchers.

Following the good conversation and carb-loading, I turned in for the night – eagerly anticipating Thursday morning’s keynotes and kick-offs.  Eastman’s Online Genealogy Blog has a terrific recap of Thursday’s RootsTech keynotes and other activities – and numerous videos, including the keynote addresses, have been uploaded to RootsTech.org, with more to follow soon.  The Ancestry Insider also has a great post on Steve Rockwood’s keynote, along with some exciting statistics on this year’s RootsTech attendees.

On Thursday morning I attended my first session, “Free At Last: Irish Records, So Peculiar, So Cheap”, presented by John Grenham (who literally wrote the book on the subject) and he captivated the packed room as he discussed the foundations of Irish research, and the latest and greatest in available records.

As this was the first year that the Guild of One-Name Studies had a booth at RootsTech, attending members of the Guild were called upon to volunteer when available.  Though I’ve attended every RootsTech since 2012, I’ve never gotten to wear the “exhibitor” hat and I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to speak with people one-on-one and tell them more about the Guild.  It was an extremely successful outing and I believe that many dozens of one-name studies will be registered as a result of our presence and the pro-active nature of our members and participants.  After my shift, I headed over to see the aforementioned Tammy Hepps speak on “The Ancestor Deep Dive”, and she wowed the audience with her approach to research methodology and case-study examples from her site.  I finished the day listening to Geoff Rasmussen speak about the new Google Photos, and how he’s been using it for his own photo collections.  Although definitive photo organization remains a constant struggle and challenge, I always enjoy hearing Geoff’s thoughts on the matter and, though it’s a few years old at this point, his book Digital Imaging Essentials is a must-read for anyone concerned with preserving and organizing their photo collection.

I’ll post a recap for Friday and Saturday later this week, but – suffice it to say – I think this was my favorite RootsTech so far – the conference just keeps getting better and better.  As I head back into the real world, this week, I’m extremely grateful to have had the chance to see my genealogy friends, make some new ones, learn some new things, share a bit, and spend some precious time on my own research.

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RootsTech 2016!

RootsTech 2015
Michael Cassara, at RootsTech 2015

The blog has been on a bit of hiatus in recent months.  In addition to “real world” obligations, I also recently completed the Certificate Program in Genealogical Research at Boston University.  While I’ll be writing more about that in coming weeks, suffice it to say, I’m very glad I was able to undertake the advanced study with such a wonderful group of instructors and fellow students.  As you may notice, the site has a brand new look – and I’ll be adding a lot of new content in coming weeks and months.

I’m writing this from Salt Lake City where, in a matter of minutes, #RootsTech2016 will be underway!  I’ve attended every year since the 2nd conference in 2012, and I’m very pleased to be presenting for the third time as well.  This Saturday, February 6th, I’ll be speaking on the topic of “Cemetery Crowdsourcing” in Ballroom J from 1:30 PM t 2:30 PM.  Please come by, introduce yourselves, say hello – the presentation is open to genealogists and enthusiasts of all levels, and I’m including some stories and information that will hopefully appeal to all attendees.

Beyond that, I’ll be spending much of the conference at the stand of the Guild of One-Name Studies.  I registered the surname Cuono with the Guild in 2013, and am actively trying to increase Italian surname participation, as the Guild seeks to shatter the notion that one-name studies are only for those from the British Isles.  Wherever your surnames may have originated, come visit us at the booth and learn a bit more about this outstanding organization!

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My (genealogical) New Year’s resolution

On New Year’s Eve (day), I was visiting with a friend when the topic of New Year’s resolutions came up.  I asked if she had any and, with quick certainty, she said “oh, no, I never make mine until a week into the new year.  It helps me really focus on what I’d like to accomplish – and it helps me keep them in the long-term.”  While I always enjoy the fresh start (and adrenaline rush) a new year can bring – I really liked her more methodical approach… which has led me to the question: what is my genealogical resolution for 2014?

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Wishing Dick Eastman a speedy recovery

Many of us in the genealogical community wake up every morning and eagerly jump into the latest edition of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter (EOGN), the daily newsletter put together by the wonderful Dick Eastman. Dick is presently recovering from a perforated appendix and, on behalf of everyone in the community, I want to wish him a very speedy recovery.  I’ve greatly enjoyed the group dinners put together by Dick on the closing night of RootsTech for the last two years and he’s a fantastic guy – very much the embodiment of his beloved (and prolific) web presence.

Get well soon, Dick!

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Welcome, all!

Hi everyone.  A number of you have stumbled upon my site via GeneaBloggers – and we thank them tremendously for our inclusion.

Still very much working out the kinks and getting ready to “officially” launch in the next week or so, but for now, there are a few entries below.  Please “like” us on Facebook, follow on Twitter, and keep checking back – many new things will be added soon.  Thanks for your support and interest – looking forward to what’s next!

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A beginning

I started this blog today.  I’ve been wanting to start it for many months and, in some ways, many years.  But today I started it and I’m facing a somewhat-daunting blank screen, wondering what may lie ahead.  While I have a very active social media and web presence for my work in the entertainment industry (I’m a casting director for theatre and film and own my own company in Manhattan), my genealogical work has generally been as a long-time researcher and observer.  While I read many websites and journals, I’m not usually an active participant – but I have felt that tide changing in recent months and figured it was time to put pen to paper, as it were. 

“Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” – David Ogden Stiers

In 2012, I attended two conferences: RootsTech, the “Family History & Technology Conference” in Salt Lake City, and The Genealogy Event, in its inaugural year, right here in New York City.  At both gatherings I became aware that there’s never been a more exciting time to be interested in genealogy and technology.  With billions of records available for free, and billions more being digitized, indexed and accessed every day throughout the world, I’m excited by the times in which we live – and I want to contribute more actively to all related pursuits.

I’ve been inspired by reading a number of excellent blogs along the way.  Some personal favorites have to do with NYC research, including

  • the excellent You Are Where You Came From blog, which really gave me a new way of looking at how blogging can serve a genealogist’s needs, while also serving his or her community.
  • The Bowery Boys (not related to genealogy, per se, but an amazing New York City history podcast series)
  • The Newtown Pentacle, where Mitch Waxman provides amazingly detailed analysis of my area of Western Queens, with frequent posts on Calvary Cemetery and Newtown Creek. 

Other favorite sites tend to focus on genealogy and technology, such as

  • The Ancestry Insider – terrific “insider” analysis of the latest genealogical technology industry news.
  • the Family Search Blog, providing regular updates on the incredible work being done by Family Search
  • and, of course, Dick Eastman’s invaluable Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter.  I look forward to it every morning, and have been subscribed to the “Plus Edition” for many years, for the best in genealogical news.

All of these have contributed immensely to my decision to enter the blogosphere myself, but leave me wondering what particular niche I’m aiming to fill, by tossing my own hat in the ring.

They say “write what you know”, and I suppose that’s what I’m going to set out to do.  I want my research to reach not only my relatives, but others who might have advice or suggestions.  And who knows, perhaps getting these names and faces and stories out into the world might lead to some new discoveries.  But, beyond my own research, I find no greater joy than the joy of helping others on their own research journeys and intend for this space to provide me the opportunity to chronicle some of those exciting instances of “philanthropic genealogy”, if you will – and perhaps create some new ones.

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