Imagine going down to the cellar of your house and seeing "1423" carved in an original beam.
Our daughter once lived in Zurich, Switzerland. Her fascinating house on a historic street - Rennweg - in the center of town was on all the medieval maps at the city museum.
In the Middle Ages, it was the main street of the city's upper town and ran along the 12th century city wall from a fortified gate to the town hall. During street renovations, a Roman-era well was discovered.
Except for that carved date in an ancient wooden beam, a casual visitor would not have known the nearly 600-year-old building's history. Of course, other clues were the very steep steps, sloping floors and oddly-shaped rooms, but everything else was modern.
Wouldn't you love to know the history of your home? When it was built and by whom? Who lived in it through the years? How they were connected to the community in which they lived?
Unless preserved, this type of information is often lost.
In Ithaca, New York, a group of people have come up with a local project to preserve house history - one which could easily be replicated in places around the world.
Genealogists are not normally a wild bunch.
Our "happy dances" tend to accompany the discovery of new records for elusive ancestors.
Our "wild and crazy" moments happen as we help others find answers to their family history questions or help them locate hard-to-find records. We enjoy discovering the clues and pointers in both unusual and ordinary places.
This week produced two interesting developments.
I'm in northern California - Silicon Valley - at the home of friends, as I rest from one conference and rest up for three more in quick succession with only a day between each, beginning this coming weekend.
So, along with continuing prep work for my presentations - and blogging - it's nice to get in some fun. Fun, to those of us who pursue our roots, can mean many things.
My friend Rosanne is a semi-retired reference librarian - and an accomplished genealogist. I went with her to her library one day last week. As we parked, I noticed this great license plate on the adjacent car. We agreed that the vehicle MUST belong to a genealogist.
Students in a free genealogy class at a Sacramento, California library used historic fire insurance maps to walk through their community's 19th-century history without leaving the classroom, according to this story in the Sacramento Bee.
Instructor Melinda Kashuba said these maps are "obscure resource that can let a person's mind wander down the streets of their forebears," and that researchers can learn a lot about the lives of their ancestors.
Here's an example, above left; for the larger image, see below.
These maps indicate schools, churches, businesses and more. All provide additional leads for researchers, according to Kashuba.
An 1898 map of North Bloomfield shows that the area between Main Street and a nearby creek was where Chinese workers lived.
A map of Truckee from the late 19th century said the area between a hillside and West Main Street was lined with "female boarding houses," or brothels, Kashuba said.
Mapmakers had noted that a brewery in Mokelumne Hill was lit by candles and had no night watchman, making it a poor insurance risk, she said.
What makes me even happier - in addition to teaching beginners how to use these maps - is that the class was part of the library's free genealogy program. Future classes will focus on finding New England ancestors and researching church records
The fire insurance maps - a main publisher was the Sanborn Map Co. (Pelham, New York) - were printed 1860-1940, and provided insurance companies data to determine fire risks of buildings and neighborhoods, without having to send an underwriter on a personal visit. The maps were the equivalent of today's Google views.
Did you know that armies of volunteer mapmakers are out there - all around the world - adding data to existing maps, fixing errors on those which exist, and creating digital maps of places for which no maps are available.
A picture is worth a thousand words and a map of a place closely associated with nostalgia and family history uncovers long-forgotten memories. Those memories reveal that we don't even know what we've forgotten until a map or photo jogs those brain cells. I applaud all those mapmakers!
I learned about the new term geo-volunteerism from a recent New York Times technology article that focused on how these individuals are really making a difference.
Have you ever experienced a problem while relying on a GPS device? Perhaps the city maps are not updated in a timely fashion or perhaps the responsible company relies on a big digital map provider who doesn't have a resident army on the ground.
When visiting a genealogy society in northern California in 2007, the group's president picked me up from the train and we drove to his home. As we neared his neighborhood, he pointed to his GPS device and said to watch it. The disembodied voice kept insisting the driver turn left at the next intersection, but my friend was in the right lane. I looked left and saw a large building. If we turned left, we'd drive in the front door. He turned right into his own street. This was a few years ago, and I hope that the city's maps have now been updated by some of these mapping volunteers.
With thousands of geo-volunteers around the world, local maps are getting quick fixes. People who live in the area know almost immediately when a new road has opened, when a new building has changed traffic patterns, or when a new housing complex hasn't been added to existing maps and GPS devices. They know about these things because they cover their own cities and neighborhoods every day.
The article demonstrates that Google and other websites now understand that local residents can fix problems more quickly than professional digital map providers.
Two websites were mentioned in the article - OpenStreetMap and Wikimapia - and I decided to see what they might have for places I have lived. The non-profit OpenStreetMap has some 180,000 contributors who have made free maps available to everyone. Its maps are used in IPhones and even on a White House website. Wikimapia's volunteers create maps that are layered on top of Google's.
I checked an online resource for locations where my family had lived in New York. In the Bronx, we lived in Parkchester, a large, multi-building development built by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and now operated as a condominium. This map (right) shows our apartment building (well, the general location), as the interior streets of the development are not on this map.