An interview with Dr. Alvy Ray Smith

I had an enjoyable talk with Dr. Smith at the National Genealogical Conference following his lecture, “Advanced Word: Automatic Numbering for Genealogies.” Dr. Alvy Ray Smith is a published author, lecturer, and scholar. Dr. Smith holds a PhD from Stanford in computer science. He also is a member of FASG, a fellow of the American Society of Genealogists. This honorary society is limited to 50 living people receiving an invitation due to their scholarly contribution to genealogy.

In addition to his accomplishments in genealogy, I was in awe of his varied and amazing accomplishments. Dr. Smith was a founding member of Pixar. He has won technical awards for animation and filmmaking including an Academy Award for his work in developing pioneering techniques in digital paint systems used to make motion pictures. I have to admit I was a bit star-struck when I realized that he had ties to some large tech names and products including but not limited to Pixar, Xerox, Lucasfilm, Microsoft, and Altamira. I was fascinated to learn of his work on the Visible Human Project through the National Library of Medicine.

Even though the lecture was billed as an Intermediate to Advanced level class, there were a wide range of attendees. And just to make it interesting, there were Word users from 2003, 2007, and 2010. The occasional Mac user added some flair, complaining that they could not find the correct menus and commands. The presentation was interesting and informative. I left the session feeling competent to use automatic numbering to simplify my research and well-versed in the advantages of this type of organization. Especially useful with long registers of generations, the advantages of automatic numbering outweigh the time it takes to learn the techniques and set up a document.

Another take-away of the presentation is that publishing—genealogical and otherwise—is moving away from flat books to three-dimensional hyperlinked and expandable digital formats. PDF books are downloadable and much more user friendly than following the pagination and numbering of genealogical registers in print products.

I asked Dr. Smith if he would consider selling templates or macros to speed up with the auto numbering process. He made available a link to his web site where he has a tutorial, templates, and instructions for anyone’s use for no charge.

When asked if Dr. Smith used any other organizational tools in his own research and publishing, he responded, “I primarily use Word.” He talked about the power behind Word that is rarely utilized and not often capitalized upon. He suggested exploring Word to find its special features, built in macros, and amazing functioning power.

After an informative lecture and great conversation about genealogy, I still found myself enamored with having one degree of separation from the man who directed the “first use of full computer graphics” for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This genealogist and Trekkie loved it!

Using ebooks for genealogical research

One often overlooked source of genealogical information is family history and local history ebooks. Often in a library, you can find the books that have no index, but a wonderful added bonus with ebooks is that pdfs are searchable. And each ebook can be attached to relevant ancestors in Family Tree Maker. I have three major sources for ebooks– Project Gutenberg, Google Books, and WorldCat.

Project Gutenberg is a free resource for all types of ebooks. There are thousands of topics, authors, classics, and books are available in dozens of languages.  Books are also available as pdfs or many other ebook formats.  Project Gutenberg has a family history/genealogy subcategory.

Once you have thoroughly searched this site, then add it to your rss feed to see the latest additions. Going through the rss list makes it easier to keep on top of newly added books.

WorldCat is another fabulous resource for genealogists searching for family history books. Search by surname, location, event, and any other criteria. Sometimes you will find downloadable ebooks, but generally, WorldCat will tell you which library to contact to find the book. In addition to books, WorldCat also have a variety of media cataloged. You might be surprised what you find there.

 Google Books is a great search feature within Google for family history resources. Use  Google’s search tips to cut down the number of hits. Rather than just searching by surname (which will generate thousands of hits), I usually start with a search of surname +”family history”. With the plus sign and no space, Google will pair the name with anything you add to it. It will significantly cut down the number of hits. By placing “family history” in quotation marks, Google will show you those resources tagged or categorized as family history. For more tips on Google search tips, just google “google search tips”.

It is also helpful to combine surname +location. For example: offenbacher +ohio.

Or you can combine surname +event. For example: brelsford +flood or brelsford +”civil war”.

Use the Google search tools to account for surname alternate spellings. For example, in my family, there are Offenbachers and Offenbackers. So, you can google search with the asterisk to account for that. Just search for offenbac*er or even more generally search for offenba* which would also include the Offenbaughers and the Offenbakers.

Remember in all of these formats and sites, search for people, places, and events. And don’t forget to search for historical accounts, centennial/bicentennial celebrations,  and other local happenings. You might be surprised to find that one of your ancestors was a part of local history.

My search method is to go through a collection very thoroughly by surname on a regular interval. I use the same source tracking chart to keep track of ebooks in addition to the other sources that I mine regularly. If you would like a copy of the Excel file, email me at I will send you a free copy! Happy ebook hunting!