Finley Family History Database

at Sonoma State University: Update

Carmen J. Finley, Ph.D., C.G.

[Published in The Computer Genealogist, vol. VII, No. 2, March/April, 1998]

In the fall of 1994, just as the World Wide Web was picking up momentum, this author chose to team up with the Ruben Salazar Library at Sonoma State University in California to preserve her collection of documents.

The development of this system whereby citations to individual family research documents could be entered into the library's database catalog and be made available throughout the library system was described in the NGS/CIG DIGEST two years later.(1) At that point in time approximately 500 citations had been entered into a library MARC format database enabling the user to search on author, subject and title just as could be done for any item in the library's catalog. In the intervening year and a half the technology has been developed to allow most of these citations to be accompanied by a full text transcription and, in some cases, by digitized images of the actual documents themselves. Maps have been included. Photo albums have been developed for some family constellations and reprints of previously published manuscripts have been added to the collection. The collection itself has grown to about 725 items. The purpose of this report is to expand on the methods used and to explore the feasibility/desirability of this model for preserving documents of value to the family historian.

Adding Full Text Transcriptions

By the time the system was developed to the point where data entry began, the vast majority of documents had already been transcribed. This was an ongoing part of the research that had been taking place since 1979. It was just a matter of developing the technique to attach them to the citations that were being entered. From this author's point of view, it was as simple as expressing an interest to the librarian with whom I had been working, Mary Dolan, and saying, "How do we do this?" Fortunately, about this time, the library's automation software was upgraded. The upgrade included a web-based catalog, searchable by anyone with access to the WWW. In addition, this upgrade meant that the records (citations) in the library database could now include active links to other computer files, whether those files were images or text.

Getting the transcriptions online involved a four-step process. First, because the transcriptions had been prepared over a long period of time using different word processing programs and versions, a fair amount of time was spent simply collecting them all into some organized grouping in a common format, which at that time was WordPerfect 5.1. The transition to WordPerfect 7 took place in 1996 with other system upgrades . Second, each document had to be formatted in hypertext markup language (HTML). Fortunately, WordPerfect 7 had the ability to reformat a basic document to HTML with a few fairly simple clicks. This worked most of the time, but some formatting problems were encountered with tabular material. In general, the easiest way to solve these problems was simply to put tabular material into table format in WP7. Occasionally, formatting was also improved by overriding some of the automatic HTML program conventions used by WP7 and doing editing in HTML using Word Pad. Third, after the full text version was prepared, an additional line of code had to be written into the original document citation. And finally, the full text version was uploaded to the SSU account that held the rest of the database.

Adding Previously Published Manuscripts

Basically, the techniques for adding the full text of previously published manuscripts was the same as that described above except for one very important addition. Permission to do so had to be obtained from the publisher. Initially, this included four periodicals--NGS Quarterly, The Virginia Genealogist, The American Genealogist, and Tennessee Ancestors. All editors readily gave their permission. The value of having these included as a part of this database cannot be overestimated. The entire history of computers in genealogy reinforces the efficiency of having material organized in a manner that allows for faster interchange with others. It is now possible to point persons who inquire into relationships in families to a specific spot on the Internet where they can read and download the article for themselves. The same is true, of course, with the individual documents in the database. All this can be done in a fraction of the time it would have taken to write a letter, print out or photocopy enclosures and mail them. Not only that, people tend to find me and/or my database without my having to search for potential contacts when doing my own family research. This makes for greater productivity in a shorter period of time.

Adding Photo Albums

The next development was to add a few photo albums to see how this might work. It worked very well. As of this writing, five such albums have been developed and more are planned. Again, for best viewing, it was found that the use of table format was preferred and the total number of photos in a given "album" should be restricted to a few that would allow most systems to load in a reasonable amount of time. To get an idea of how this works, the viewer can look at:

Charles Bartley and Alice Victoria (Hackney) McFarling Family Photo Album


John and Susan (Rogers) McFarling Family Photo Album


Jane Ann (Finley) Smith (1785-1871) and Family

[Note: the printed article carried extracts of Jane Ann's photo album which can be found in this database at the address given here.]

The citations of all photo albums contain the word "photo" as a subject category, so it is possible to simply search on the subject "photo" and locate all such items currently in the system.

Adding Other Digitized Images

The idea of adding other digitized images to the database was first explored when a couple of "prize" documents had been requested by an online contact. Instead of the usual trek to the photocopier and the use of the U.S. Postal service, why not just add them to the database where people could copy them to their heart's content?

One of the prized documents was a family history of Newton Gleaves Finley (1841-1933) written in his own hand in 1870. Son of James Washington and Margaret Jane (Campbell), Newton Finley was but eleven years old when his family made the five-month trek by wagon train from Saline County, Missouri, to San Jose, California, in 1852. This brief history of his family was taken from a letter written by his Uncle John Pettus Finley, who had been born about 1780 to 1785 in Montgomery County, Virginia. Newton includes a family tree which starts with the immigration of this branch of the Finley family from Ireland to America about 1700. Unfortunately, the name of the progenitor in America is not given, but the second and succeeding generations, without doubt, confirm much of what had been laboriously pieced together from documents found in Augusta County, Virginia, from the late 1730s to 1765. This document can be viewed at:

Newton wrote his own autobiography, in his own hand, when he was 74 years old in 1917. This can be viewed at:

[Note: the original article carried an extract of this material, which can be found in this database at the address given here.]

In a companion piece, Newton had written the story of this trip across the plains, which began from Missouri in April 1852 and ended five months later in San Jose, California. His Memoirs of Travel, written in December 1922 at the age of 81, is amazingly detailed. While this is a transcription, it adds appreciably to the story of his family and supplements the digitized images. This can be viewed at:

Adding Maps to The System

It was a simple step to add a few maps. John Finley (1823-1910), who was the progenitor of the Finley clan in Sonoma County, left an estate of approximately 1,000 acres when he died. This property was divided into eight parcels by survey in October 1911. While the online quality of this map is not really very good, it does serve to document there was such a map and does give the source. It can be viewed at:

Of better quality is the map of the division of the Henry M. Stemple estate in Tomales, Marin County, California, 1873, showing the division of property among his heirs. This is oversized and does not fit the average screen, but is more readable. It can be viewed at:

There are undoubtedly other ways to work out the best way to display oversized maps. One option might be to divide the map in sections that would fit the average screen. However, the first step has now been taken and refinements can proceed at a later date.

Advantages of This System

In the last four years since this project began, there has been phenomenal growth of genealogical resources on the Internet. Cyndi Howells currently lists over 26,000 sites of potential interest to family historians. Knowing what I know now, would I have done things differently? No! If anything, my experience watching the growth of this tremendous resource has only reinforced my conviction that teaming up with Sonoma State University Library was the soundest way to preserve my historical documents. Web sites come and go. URLs change. Some ISPs simply disappear from the face of the earth. At some time in the future there may be more stability than there is currently, but for now an alliance with an established institution offers the most stability over time. There have been changes in the SSU information system as well. But having the institutional support minimizes the problem of coping with change and of updating the system.

Plans for the Future

There is always more to do to improve this database than there is time in which to do it. The developments of the last year and a half have only skimmed the surface. More documents await transcribing; more photo albums need to be developed. More digitized images need to be added.

One of the unanticipated outcomes of this database, originally planned as a way to preserve documents, is that it is also proving to be a valuable research tool for the author as well as others. Sometimes it is easier to find a given document in the database than to try to find it in my own paper files. It has attracted persons whom I probably would not have found otherwise. I think I am really building a better mousetrap!!!


1. Carmen J. Finley, "Creating an Internet Database for Your Research Documents," NGS/CIG DIGEST, vol. 15, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec., 1996), p. 4. See

Carmen J. Finley, Ph.D., C.G. has published articles in the NGS Quarterly, The Virginia Genealogist, The American Genealogist and Tennessee Ancestors. She has received the NGS Distinguished Service Award for chairing the NGS Family History Contest. She may be contacted at <>.

See companion piece by Mary Dolan at aaa-0729.html.