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Latin and Palaeography

The Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. (c) 2016 Shannon Combs-Bennett. Used with permission.

The Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. (c) 2016 Shannon Combs-Bennett. Used with permission.

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

The next few modules (6, 7, and 8) confused me at first. I wondered why they would be covered in a course about paleography. I mean, how does learning about the church, social life, surnames, or Latin have anything to do with the study of writing? Well, maybe Latin, but the rest I was a bit skeptical of.

I did had to think about the meaning of paleography though. Remember my first blog post where I included the definition, as the study of ancient writings and inscriptions? It seems that paleography  covers a lot more than what I originally thought it did.

More importantly I appreciate that our instructor went through the various documents we would find with each associated section, common words we should know, as well as basic history for a better understanding and appreciation of the bigger picture. I don’t know about you, but I love getting background information on what it was like during the times my ancestors lived. Those aspects of social history, and being able to place them in a bigger historical context, really helps with my research.  As well as making it very easy to relate to them as a real person.

For instance, there is an extensive list of occupations listed which you may come across in historical records. I know I have read manuscripts before and was left totally flummoxed when I would see a word with no idea what it meant. For instance, have you ever heard a butcher called a carnifex?  I sure had not!

The last module of the Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents covered all the nuances and intricacies that come with the Latin language.  As I never took Latin in school (just a course in college for medical terminology) there was a lot I didn’t know. If you are dealing with Catholic Church records, or especially old court documents, then this is the module you should pay close attention to.

We learned about verbs, nouns, names, occupations, calendars, festivals… well, let’s say if you should know it in Latin, we covered it.  I am half tempted to put this section in a binder with plastic sleeves and set it next to my computer for future use in reading documents. I know I have not digested all of the information taught, but I am sure the more I put it into practice the better it will be!

See you online!

Math and Palaeography

By Shannon-Combs-Bennett, Student

Oh dear… math. I am not a math person, and the next three modules of Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents proved it. That being said, please understand that numbers, money, and measurements are very important to reading and analyzing manuscripts. So, I muddled through the best I could. Even if it meant I consulted with my husband who has a math degree (and tutored me in several math classes in school) to get me through it.

Now, don’t freak out on me. This is important information, I can just be a bit thick when it comes to numbers. You may have an easier time than me.  Especially when making change in the old English way.  You know, before they went to the current decimal system. I bow down to those of you who made change the old fashioned way!

This skill, unfortunately, is one that I need to nail down. I read quite a bit of colonial Virginia documents. Guess what? They use the pound / shilling / pence model for taxes and inventories up through the first decade of the 19th century. Now, after the Revolution you can find both the English system and the American dollar and cents shown next to each other in many cases. Fascinating as that may be, I admit that I will be going back to figure out conversion rates and check the math now that I really know how.

I particularly enjoyed Module 5 which covered weights and measurements. There were some unique terms I had never heard of before and others that I have read in books but didn’t understand what they meant. Happy to say, I do now!

Of particular interest was the difference in miles. Yes, a mile in one place did not equal a mile in another. As an example, look at these historic numbers:

5,280 feet            1 English Mile

5,920 feet            1 Scottish Mile

6,720 feet            1 Irish Mile

Can you see how it would be important to know this information if you are researching in the archives of each respective country?  Knowing how these numbers changed and evolved over time could also affect your research if you are trying to plat family areas on a map or determining how far someone traveled.

As a biologist, and daughter of a doctor, I have an interest in apothecary history.  As such I have come across different measurements for ingredients and medicines. Over the years I have looked them up to understand what they meant, but at times I struggled to put them into modern equivalents to really grasp the ideas. I was very excited to see table after table of information showing what the modern equivalent of historical measurements are.  There may have even been a “eureka!” screamed at the ceiling of my office.

I keep thinking of all the ways this information will help me in my research. From reading court records to letters you never know when this information will come in handy. Can’t wait to see what I will learn in the next modules.

See you online!

On Old Handwriting, Shorthand, and Vellum

Patent located at the National Archives in D.C. made from vellum. (c) 2016 Shannon Combs-Bennett Used with permission.

Patent located at the National Archives in D.C. made from vellum. (c) 2016 Shannon Combs-Bennett. Used with permission.

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

Ah, the stuff I LOVE. Calligraphy and old handwriting. Many people might find reading and deciphering (let alone attempting to write) old handwriting a daunting task. I was very excited that our instructor in  Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents jumped right in with the  basics straight away.

She even goes through the various types of writing materials, instruments, and even covers watermarks in the first few pages. These are all important things to consider and observe when you are researching.  Recently I have pulled military land bounty warrants from the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  Most of the time I see a variety of types of paper in the files. Then, on occasion, I get to see a document that was created on vellum.

For those of you who don’t know about vellum, it is animal skin that is prepared in a specific way for writing on. It can be fragile if not cared for correctly, but it is superior in many ways to paper made from wood pulp in its longevity. Holding original documents made from vellum is an amazing thing.

Of course, more important than identifying paper and styles of handwriting, our instructor also covered common shorthand used over the years. Hopefully, you didn’t think modern writers were the only ones with a set of shorthand abbreviations to make writing quicker. If you did, well, then you need to pay attention to this section, and take  Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents !

There are so many abbreviations, contractions,  and simple symbols used in various “hands” (aka types of handwriting) that there was an extensive list given. I was particularly appreciative of the example images that were shown so you could see what she was describing. Sometimes seeing it makes it easier to identify in the future. I know it does for me.

So the first two modules are done and I am rearing and ready to go for the next ones. If they are anything like these I will learn a lot.

See you online!

Starting Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

Paleography (or palaeography) is an odd word isn’t it?  I mean, we all know what paleontology is (well, if you have kids you do since dinosaurs are awesome) and some of you may know a few other disciplines that begin with pale.  But what exactly is paleography?

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary it is:

1        the study of ancient writings and inscriptions

2      a :  an ancient manner of writing  b :  ancient writings

So, for genealogists having a firm grasp in this discipline sounds like a must.  Do you agree?  Thankfully, The National  Institute offers such a course and I am diving into it full steam ahead.

However, and many of you may be figuring this out about me, I have had exposure to paleography in the past. In fact, I have studied various forms of medieval calligraphy for the past decade. I simply love old handwriting and calligraphy. Some of it is amazingly beautiful. Some of it, well, is amazingly undecipherable! I bet you have seen some words, symbols, shorthand or other things that made you want to scream!

Which is why I was excited to see that   Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents covers more than just how things were written. I am particularly interested to learn more about weights and measurements plus Latin terminology. In school I took German, not Latin, and even though I am slowly picking up some words as I read old manuscripts, knowing more Latin would be helpful.

I was intrigued to see that there is a workbook included with this course. There are exercises (hey, you get a dip pen too!) for each module that appear to put you through your paces. I love a good practical application, so I think this will be fun. Plus, it is unique as it is the first course I have taken with a workbook included. It is making me a little excited to see what is in store!

So, I hope you enjoy reading the blog the next few weeks. I am sure that you will stay entertained as I slog my way through  Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents.

See you online!


Copyright, Plagiarism, And Fair Use: A Genealogist’s Not So Simple Guide To The Truth

By Shannon Combs Bennett, Student

For those of you who have read my blog posts here for the past 2 years you are going to realize this post is different from my past posts. Today’s post is a subject that I am not sure gets enough real coverage in the genealogical field. I don’t want you to feel like I am beating the proverbial dead horse here, but since it is still brought up, maybe there is a disconnect on the issue somewhere. We all know that we shouldn’t plagiarize. We all know that there is this thing out there called “fair use.”  But what those terms actually mean seems to be where the confusion lies.

As an example, a friend recently posted on Facebook a conversation she had with a stranger. She graciously wrote the encounter up and allowed me to republish it here (for privacy reasons, please do not tag her name if you know who it is):

I spoke with a woman this morning who had recently taken down her business blogs because she was tired of people complaining about copyright infringement over her using pictures from magazines and things she’d found online. After all, she said rather indignantly, why would they put things online if they didn’t want people to copy and use them? [Let me just insert my gratitude here for our knowledgeable and conscientious genealogy community]

Or here is a favorite thing once said to me:

It’s my family!  Why shouldn’t I be allowed to copy, paste, and reuse or republish what I find online?  That person doesn’t REALLY own it.  We all do!!

Either of those sound familiar?

Many people are confused primarily by what is right or wrong. It would be nice if this issue was purely black and white, but unfortunately there are a few shades of gray thrown in. I have heard people state that if you are not sure if you should do something, don’t do it. That would be the safest thing to do in any situation.  However, there must be something in our subconscious (or for at least most people) that sends up that red flag. Where do we turn to learn more about that choice?  I don’t want to spend the next few years of my life becoming a copyright attorney but it would be great to at least have a cheat sheet!

In the case of plagiarism it seems like it should be black and white. If you copy another person’s words or ideas you have stolen. Done. It is theft if you did not quote them or gain their permission to use their words. Unfortunately in today’s world, the world of the Internet where you can simply copy and paste entire websites, there are misguided attitudes toward what is stealing. Throw in the various “rules” and laws may vary according to country, well, it makes my head pound.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary online defines plagiarize as:

  • to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas
  • to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own:  use (another’s production) without crediting the source
  • to commit literary theft:  present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source

Simply Google the word “plagiarism” and you will be inundated with page after page of websites talking about what it is and how to protect your work from it. The website is an excellent resource.  They have an entire page dedicated to educating people on what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

As a writer I have a real fear of being accused of plagiarism. The amount of reading I do (for entertainment and research) makes me question what I put down on paper at times. I have to think to myself on a regular basis “was that original, or did I get that thought from somewhere that I can’t remember right now?”  So far I have not been accused of plagiarism that I know of, and I actively work hard to keep it that way. I guess since it is a real fear it makes me think about the issue even more. At times I feel like I may in the minority on this point though.

When I was at RootsTech in February 2016 I sat in on a panel dedicated to ethics in genealogy.  You can read an after article about it on the FamilySearch blog written by Lynn Broderick.  Listening to the audience, even when you thought the answer was black and white, there seemed to be doubt and uncertainty everywhere. It made me think.  It made me look around the room and realize that this topic is far from over.

Lucky for me as an ambassador I had an opportunity to use the media hub recording studio at the conference. Very quickly my partners from The In-Depth Genealogist and I put together our own panel covering the subject, and were able to get the Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell to join in.  You can watch the video on our YouTube channel.  It is only 10 minutes long, but Judy says it better than anyone else I know!

I guess what I am trying to say here is, think before you act. Read what you write and cite your sources. Ask for permission because that will save you heartache, and possibly money, in the future. Really, we were all taught to keep our hands to ourselves in kindergarten, as adults it seems we just need to learn to control our mouse more.

Before I end, have you ever used a plagiarism prevention website before?  I have not, but know several people (mainly teachers) who do. Perhaps this is what we need to show and teach other researchers?  Maybe simply say “here, use this website when you write, and then either breathe a sigh of relief or cite your source.” Now some of these websites cost money, but I did find a few free ones online.


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The National Institute offers a course titled Genealogy and Copyright Guidelines by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, CG.  Required reading for the course is her book Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers & Researchers. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2005).  While it covers the nuts and bolts of copyright issues that face a genealogical researcher (and contains many excellent real life examples) I think it misses the visceral gut reaction I was looking for to what is right and what is wrong but it is a course I recommend everyone take.

Oh, and keep the information from this course at your fingertips.



More To Think About In Nuts & Bolts

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540

by Shannon Combs Bennett, Student

What do you think the hardest part of writing is?  Maybe you find the ideas or planning hard. For me, it is the editing. Self-editing and proof reading are my downfall on many projects. Not only do I find it tedious and boring, the further my writing is away from my “natural” voice the more difficult I find it to correct. English class was never my best subject in school.

Editing is a necessity though for anyone who wants to do any type of writing. In the last module of the course Skill Building: Nuts & Bolts of Reporting Research we are taught about everything you need to think about while you are writing your research. While the list may seem long and intimidating, in the syllabus it is quite a wonderful list to go through. Trust me.

One important thing to keep in mind is, do you have permission to publish certain items?  Now, if it is for your files you may not be as concerned about this aspect, but remember citing your sources is vital. If you ever want to publish your work (online or in print) and it contains anything from another person you must get their permission to reprint it.  No exceptions.  I was excited that this subject was covered because it can be confusing for many people.

Finally the list of suggested reading was excellent.  I have added the suggestions to my list of worthwhile books and articles. Yes, another guide I have created. Books, articles,  lists of things that are good to re-read or share with others.

Needless to say I was very happy and impressed with this course. I learned a few things from a different aspect and filled in more holes. Yes, sometimes I have to hear things multiple times before it sticks.  It is just the way I work. Now, off to write!  Those ancestors are not going to report on themselves after all.

Nuts and Bolts of Report Writing

Typewriter Keys Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

by Shannon Combs Bennett, Student

Well, this is when we get into the meat and bones of the course Skill Building: Nuts & Bolts of Reporting Research. Report writing. Now don’t be scared or nervous. This was a great section on all the why’s and how’s for you to become a great report writer.

Before that however you need to plan your research. The section on research planning, complete with example case studies, was an excellent outline of how the process should work. We all know, or should know, that you need to have the ground work of good research laid out before you can build your report. But, how do you do that?

It is a combination of many smaller things that when merged together create a solid case for your writing.  Through the research planning section of this module the process is laid out nicely step-by-step.  Complete with online, and off line, resources for you to consult.

The breakdown of the types of reports out there I think will be very helpful to anyone who has never created one before. For those of you who don’t know, or just need a refresher, the types of reports you can create are:

  • Narrative
  • Software formatted
  • Letter
  • Formal

Depending on your background these may have varying degrees of difficulty for you. That is ok, too. For instance I tend to enjoy writing formal reports and have very little experience using software programs to generate reports. This is where the case study comes into play. It gave me great practice into how to layout, plan, and write. I bet you will  find it useful too.

See you online!




The Nuts and Bolts of Research Guides

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

By Shannon Combs Bennett, Student

Well Modulus 1 and 2 are under my belt for the course Skill Building: Nuts and Bolts of Reporting Research and I am happy to say they covered two of my favorite topics: citations and guides. You are probably wondering what the big deal is?! We all know how important citations are but guides, what do you mean?  If you have never made a research guide then you are in for a treat.

Guides are a wonderful resource for you as a researcher. I learned that many years ago, and continue to create them for places I go to do research. However, I have discovered that many researchers do not do this and, to be honest, I think research would be a lot easier for them if they did.

You can create a guide for a specific place (town, county, state, and country), a repository, type of publication, or really anything else that you reference or use frequently in your research. As a living document (i.e. one that is designed to grow and change over time) you can start small and build on your experiences making sure all the pertinent information you need to be successful is listed there.

I have several types of guides on my computer as well as in my filing cabinet. My computer documents contain ideas, website information, checklists I have created, resources that I keep track of, etc.  In the cabinet I keep facility/tourist brochures, handouts that I get while on site, or other non-electronic information that I collect for that guide.

Needless to say I picked up a couple more ideas for my guides from this module. I know you will like it too!  On to the next lesson.

See you online!


Starting: Nuts and Bolts of Reporting Research

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

By Shannon Combs Bennett, Student

One of the most important skills a researcher needs to have under their belt is how to report the information they uncover. While there are various writing styles and types of reports to choose from there are specific items that need to be covered so your reports represent your best work. Which is why I was very excited to see a new course offered in the Skill Building track, Nuts and Bolts of Reporting Research.

While I enjoy writing blog posts and articles, reports can be like pulling teeth at times. Reports are necessary however, even if you never take a paying client in your life. Technically, your family are your clients. I am sure you have heard that we should document our own research the way we would want a professional too. So, that means you should really be writing reports for yourself, your loved ones, and your files.

Looking over the syllabus it looks like instructor Leslie Brinkley Lawson makes it easy and simple for everyone to learn. While some of it looks like review  (or maybe you have attended lectures on the topic) there are also a few gems in there. Practical exercises are always a wonderful way to practice, learn, and hone your skills. Exercises and case studies are exciting additions to a course and I was thrilled to see them both being used in this course. Case studies are excellent ways to learn from someone else’s experience.

For those who enjoy writing it also looks like the last module covers various types. While I find the thought of writing an article for the Register or NGSQ stomach turning, I do know many who want to do that at some point in their life. That’s  right, you can write more than just blogs and reports in this line of work!

One note, there is required books/readings for this course. Some articles/books are online or available through inter-library loan. You may purchase the books through The National Institute’s GenealogyStore. All of the books are excellent additions to your bookshelf. They include:

  • Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace
  • Genealogy Standards
  • Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians 

Which means I am off to try my hand at learning more about reporting my research.  Maybe it will help me make sure I have ideas for my own blog!

See you online!


Finishing Up Research: Social History

Early years, with images of family, self portraits, landscapes and architectural interiors. Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Library of Congress.

Early years, with images of family, self portraits, landscapes and architectural interiors. Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Library of Congress.

By Shannon Combs Bennett, Student

Wow, what a course!  I hope you enjoyed reading the last few blog posts about some of the things you will learn about in this course. There was no way I could over everything that was taught, but I hope I caught your interest.

Like I said in the introduction to the blog series I think social history is critical to beefing up your ancestor’s profile.  If you are not familiar with how to do that, or what it entails this is a course you should take. Well written and easy to read, it is more like a novel at times than a course. I did say I couldn’t put it down right?

If you are still not sure why you should consider taking this course, here are a few resources you should read about why social history is an important field of study for genealogists.


Good luck on your ancestor hunting and I will see you online!



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