23 April 2024

2 Free Tools Can Read Document Images for You

Genealogist Lisa Alzo uses a website called Transkribus for recognizing text within images. It's a process that's been around for decades: Optical Character Recognition or OCR. I looked into Transkribus, but it isn’t free. So I searched for free OCR options we can all use.

It turns out a tool you may already be using has this capability. It’s OneNote!

I can think of 2 key reasons to use OCR in genealogy research:

  1. To pull text from images so you don't have to re-type it.
  2. To translate a large amount of text from another language.

Last June I wrote about a book that tells the history of one of my ancestral hometowns. (See "How to Use a Foreign-Language Book for Family Tree Research.") A distant cousin sent me the Italian-language book years ago. I began using Google translate and saving the results in a Word document. It’s tedious work, though. I have to type the Italian into Google Translate so it can generate the English translation.

You're probably already using 2 free tools that can do more for your family tree than you know. They can extract text from a genealogy document image.
You're probably already using 2 free tools that can do more for your family tree than you know. They can extract text from a genealogy document image.

Extract Text from a Photo and Translate

Using OneNote, you can:

  • Photograph (or scan) the pages of the book.
  • Drop the images into a OneNote file.
  • Extract the text by right-clicking an image and choosing Copy Text from Picture. This puts the text in memory.
  • Paste what's in memory either below the image or in a new section.
  • Translate that text by choosing Translate > Translate Page.

The translated text appears in a new section of your OneNote document. It's ready for you to format and look over for any errors. It’s hard to find OCR software that will format your text nicely, so there's always a little work to do. OneNote keeps the line breaks from the original, so you have to do some editing to make it more readable.

The translation uses British English even though U.S. English is set as my preferred language. I'll have to change words like favour, colour, and analysed for myself. And I have to look out for footnote numbers. You know how books use a small, raised number to point you to a footnote? They don't get extracted as a superscript number, so they tend to blend into the text.

I can imagine spending a day putting that book on my scanner, and capturing two pages at a time in an image file. Then I can drop a bunch of images into OneNote, extract and translate.

Turn Handwriting into Text

I did three tests with handwritten Italian documents. OneNote failed to extract the text from them. One of my tests was a 1942 death record with a fill-in-the-blanks format. OneNote extracted the typewritten parts of the form, and skipped over the handwriting!

Then I wrote a simple note in the nicest print I can manage. OneNote couldn't extract any text. If it could, that would be handy for capturing what's written on the back of a family photo.

Then I learned that Google Docs can extract text for you, too. The steps are as follows:

  • Log into your free Google Drive account using a web browser or the app.
  • Upload an image of the text you want to capture.
  • Right-click that image and choose to "Open with" > "Google Docs."

The Doc file will contain the image and its extracted text.

This is an easy way to turn handwriting into text. I tested it on the note I printed, and it worked perfectly. I tested it on an old Italian death record and it didn't recognize anything. But it should be great for the backs of photos or old letters written by your ancestors.

I encourage you to give them both a try.

16 April 2024

Why Are You Doing Genealogy Research?

When I was a kid, Dad bought me two big jigsaw puzzles. He taught me how to find the edges and look for the right shapes, then he let me figure out my own method. We glued the finished puzzles, framed them, and hung them on the wall. Decades later I bought more puzzles and hung them up. When I graduated to better wall art, I turned my love of puzzles to crossword puzzles.

Then I discovered the biggest, farthest-reaching, never-ending puzzle of all. Genealogy! I like to think of my insanely big family tree as a jigsaw puzzle that has no edges. I can keep fitting people together for the rest of my life.

Does Your Family Tree Have a Greater Purpose?

Think about your own family tree. What's the purpose behind your research? Is it to find and preserve relationships? If you're doing good work, you can make a contribution to lots of other genealogy researchers, too. (If you're not publishing your family tree anywhere, you really should!)

That's why I enjoy my genealogy purpose so much. I'm working to fit together everyone born in my handful of ancestral hometowns. The families I added to my tree this past weekend have no real relationship to me. But we are all connected through a network of marriages. See "Genealogy is the Joy of Names."

I've identified all 16 of my 2nd great grandparents using vital records. I can also name all but one of my 32 3rd great grandparents. I'm missing the names of:

  • 9 of my 64 4th great grandparents
  • 42 of my 128 5th great grandparents
  • 146 of my 256 6th great grandparents
  • 433 of my 512 7th great grandparents

I've ID'd 31 of my 8th great grandparents and 9 of my 9th great grandparents, and that's as far as it goes. I've milked everything I can out of the available vital records. (See "Genealogy Obsession Pays an Unexpected Dividend.") The only way I'll ever find those missing ancestors is if I can access church records in the future.

My ancestors were peasants in poor Italian towns, so there's little I can learn about them. I have one distant cousin who was a rebel fighting against Italian unification. He's a rare relative who's had accounts written about him. Stateside, I'm 3rd cousins with Josh Saviano ("The Wonder Years") and 5th cousins with Gwen Stefani. But I'm more intrigued by my beloved dead Italians.

Find a higher purpose for your genealogy research and no task seems too great.
Find a higher purpose for your genealogy research and no task seems too great.

Spread the Wealth

Since I love the research, I'm building my family tree to benefit others.

People often write to me because they found their ancestors in my family tree online. Most of the time I have to tell them we're not related, but yeah, I've documented your whole family. I love when this happens because my never-ending puzzle is helping other people. And it'll continue to help people long after I'm gone.

Currently I'm finding birth records for out-of-towners who married someone from my ancestral towns. The inspiration for this project came from my Feb. 27th article, "5 Ways to Find Loose Ends in Your Family Tree."

Each day I sort the people in my tree by birth date. Then I follow clues that lead me to missing birth records. I've had so many successes! And each time I add more people, I know I may be helping another researcher out there.

I began this project with people born in 1870, and I've gotten through those born in 1901. Italian birth records are not available after 1915, so once I get there, I'll go backwards from 1869. My family tree has 80,000 people, and almost all come from a very small geographical area. It amazes me every day.

Find Your Genealogy Purpose

Many of you are lucky enough to have actual written accounts of your ancestors. If that's your situation, and you're busy compiling those accounts, I urge you to share your work. When I researched my son's fiancée's family, I found published documentation about them. Her family had been in one county for centuries, and there's a wealth of information about them. (See "Stay True to Your Genealogy Discipline.")

Wouldn't it feel good to be the key resource for someone else's genealogy research?

Maybe your purpose is to find every descendant of a particular ancestral couple. Think how valuable that research could be to another descendant.

Perhaps you're trying to figure out who your unknown parent or grandparent is. Building trees for potential ancestors can be the key to connecting with a DNA match.

Whatever your purpose, don't confine yourself to sticking within those jigsaw-puzzle edges. Branch out as you feel like it. Enjoy the little victories of finding that one missing birth record. Put your research skills to work and help others at the same time.

09 April 2024

4 Reasons to Implement a Genealogy Backup Plan

It's been a while since I had a digital family tree disaster, but they do happen. I'm committed to preventing the loss of any of my genealogy research. And I have to believe you want to avoid losing your work, too.

That's why I have a multi-step backup plan that I follow carefully. See "Quick and Easy Family Tree Backup Routine."

Here are 4 reasons you need to choose and follow a genealogy file backup plan.

Are you committed to preventing the loss of any of your genealogy research?
Are you committed to preventing the loss of any of your genealogy research?

1. Natural Disasters Can Happen

I live in New York and on April 5th I experienced my 2nd east-coast earthquake. It came as a complete surprise to everyone. I thought either a dump truck was rolling up my street or a helicopter was flying right over my house. People mentioned seeing their computer monitors bouncing around.

What if an earthquake, wildfire, tornado, or hurricane destroyed your genealogy files? Are you prepared to pick up where you left off without losing any work? If you're not 100% confident, read:

2. Your Computer Can Die

Sometimes your computer lets you know things are about to go bad. Other times, it's a complete shock. I had this adorable tablet computer that I would bring when traveling. On one trip, I opened it up, intending to help my friend Lucy research her ancestors. But the tablet was dead. Just dead.

You need to have a plan in place so a dying or dead computer won't destroy all you've done. It's easy enough to create and follow this plan. See "Prepare Your Family Tree for Your Computer's Demise" and "Moving Your Family Tree to a New Computer."

3. Websites Can Crash

A big company's website doesn't often have such a disaster that data gets destroyed. But there are bad actors out there, and sites can get hacked. (I may be watching too many "Jack Ryan" episodes.) If you build your family tree online only, download a GEDCOM of your tree every day you make edits to it. And follow these "3 Top Safety Tips for Your Family Tree Data."

4. You Can Get Carried Away

How many times have you made a discovery that led to hours of adding new facts to your family tree? It's such a rush! But in our excitement, we may forget to follow good genealogy protocols. Like, did you add a big family to your tree without including source citations?

The thrill of the hunt can easily carry you away. That's why we need "A Safety Net for Reckless Family Tree Building." Be sure to also read "This 3-Step Backup Routine Protects Your Family Tree."

You don't have to be a control freak to take extraordinary care of your genealogy research. But you know what? It doesn't hurt.