Second Annual RootsTech Conference Defines Future of Genealogy
By Heather Whittle Wrigley, Church News and Events
Three days of interactive presentations, hands-on workshops, and innovative technology may not sound much like a genealogy conference, but from February 2 to 4, 2012, more than 4,000 family history enthusiasts flocked to Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, to be a part of the RootsTech conference—a genealogy conference that is all about utilizing technology in the context of family history.
FamilySearch, Inc.—the largest genealogical organization in the world and a free service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—organizes the annual RootsTech conference, now in its second year.
The new CEO of FamilySearch, Elder Dennis C. Brimhall of the Seventy, emphasized that genealogy today involves much more than digging through old archives or viewing thousands of rolls of faded microfilm. The future of genealogy, he said, lies in technology.
Faster, Easier, More Accurate
It has only been during the last decade or so that classical genealogists, the people who understand records—how they’re stored, how to find them, how to use them to find names—have begun to collaborate with individuals in the technology industry, Elder Brimhall said.
“Most of us who grew up with genealogy in the old days always thought it was hard,” he continued. “The future is . . . to make it easier for new members who are just getting acquainted with it and for seasoned genealogists who are doing research at a much more complicated level.”
RootsTech attendee Rob Wallace compared his first experiences with genealogy to the industry today. “When I first started doing genealogy, you figured if you could find one family and get it submitted, that was way cool,” he said. “Now with the technology you can do way more than that really fast . . . and make a good, solid case for what you think is the correct thing.”
David Burggraaf, senior vice president of product engineering for FamilySearch, envisions a future where the information genealogists are researching will be interconnected across countries, genealogical societies, and time.
“There will be a lot more public collaboration,” he explained. “As we move forward—as those online records become more and more available to the public—you’ll be able to trace sources and talk to the people who generated them. Instead of the information being from religious or governmental institutions that have recorded history about people, it will be records in history that have been created by the people themselves or by people who knew them personally.”
Elder Brimhall noted that the future also holds increased interaction between genealogy and social media and mobile technology.
He cited the mobile app BillionGraves, which combines GPS location data with pictures of gravestones taken by users.
“If you can do that and apply that to almost anything you can imagine in the area of finding records and recording them and getting them into the file,” he said, “then you can see there’s enormous potential for this—a lot of which we don’t even understand yet.”
Prior to 1900, records exist for about 6 billion people. But because of technological advances in the last 112 years, especially in social media, there currently exist approximately 20 billion records from 1900 to today.
Because of the monumental growth in records, FamilySearch and other genealogical societies have recognized the need to partner in order to share information and increase the efficiency with which records are made available.
“The Church’s position on this is that we want the information available for free for everyone so that people can find their lineage,” Brother Burggraaf said. “The more partners we have, the faster it goes.”
For example, beginning on April 2, 2012, FamilySearch will partner with multiple genealogical societies to index the 1940 U.S. Federal Census. FamilySearch will provide digital images of the census online to tens of thousands of volunteers, who will transcribe the records so they become searchable. The goal is to have that information available by the end of 2012.
As a programmer with the Church’s Information and Communications Systems Department, Jeremy Robertson, who attended the conference, is interested in the technological possibilities he sees coming out of the collaboration between technologists and genealogists.
“It’s through the technology that you can really share and connect with other people,” he said. “It’s taking the pictures out of the shoeboxes in the attic and making them available to everyone.”
The Role of RootsTech
RootsTech’s first conference—which was the first of its kind—was held in 2011. It was designed to create a “sweet spot” where genealogists and technologists could collaborate to improve family history work, Elder Brimhall said.
“We hope that the people who come to RootsTech will, first of all, come away with an even greater excitement about this work that we’re doing—this work of finding and connecting our ancestors,” he said. “If they’re excited they’ll want to do more, they’ll talk to people, [and those people] will get excited.”
A second way RootsTech is building the future of genealogy is through its ability to connect people.
“We have a lot of people who really believe they’ve got some great technological applications, and they’re looking for partners or people in the genealogical area that they can work with,” Elder Brimhall said. “This is a gathering place for that kind of discussion.”
At this year’s conference, Terri Currier was demonstrating how to use a book scanner. “I think it’s great, because it makes life so much easier for all of the researchers out there, the genealogists,” she said. “The technology has allowed them to get things more easily and of much better quality . . . and [made it] affordable.”
In addition to connecting “techies” and “genies,” RootsTech brings partners—profit and nonprofit—together.
“Even if all [Church] members were indexing, we don’t have enough members to do all the indexing that needs to be done,” Elder Brimhall pointed out. So RootsTech provides a forum where different genealogical societies and organizations can partner to work on technological advancements that will allow them to interact better online.
Heather Miller is a two-year RootsTech participant and indexer who has experienced the way RootsTech has changed family history work.
“It was a transformative experience to see how the . . . techies are working together with the genealogists to create the future,” she said.
As a regular user of FamilySearch, as well as pay sites and other sites, she said she has seen the improvements to the genealogy industry over the past year that have come about because of the technological changes being implemented.
FamilySearch employee Penney Devey spent the three days of the conference digitizing more than 3,000 family histories provided by conference-goers. Participants received a PDF copy, and FamilySearch received permission to publish the histories on their website.
As much as the conference is about technology and genealogy, Sister Devey said, “what it’s really about is the stories.”
“It’s all about learning about your ancestors,” she said. “When we talk about tying families together, a name doesn’t do it. The stories that we get in these books are what tie our families together, because then you actually know the person, you don’t just have a name.”
The Work of Heaven
On the final day of RootsTech 2012, Elder Paul E. Koelliker of the Seventy definitively outlined the primary objective of the Church’s Family History Department, which oversees FamilySearch.
The main objective, he said, is to help more members of the Church to provide ordinances for more of their ancestors.
He then outlined steps the department will take to accomplish this goal:
- Provide a FamilySearch tree that meets the requirements of patrons at all levels of expertise, resulting in more members being able to take their own family names to the temple.
- Increase worldwide awareness of and confidence in FamilySearch.org.
- Allow other organizations to build and contribute to a FamilySearch platform, making it accessible to a broader population.
- Grow the community of volunteers working on FamilySearch initiatives.
“My simple faith is that all technology has been invented and developed for the purpose of the Lord,” Elder Koelliker said. “It came into being because of the inspiration and direction of our Heavenly Father. This is the work of heaven.”
“The Family History Department is based in doctrines,” Elder Brimhall affirmed, citing Doctrine and Covenants 110:14–15: “[Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers.”
Twelve-year-old Devin King accompanied his father, Steven King, to the first day of the conference. Brother King related his experience using new technology to show Devin and his other children where he grew up in Canada.
“It helps them understand my past and history as I teach them about their grandparents, who were pioneers and went across the plains,” he said. “Being able to track that and have it in one location is a phenomenal experience.”
Conference participant and blogger Michelle Goodrum also has a goal of engaging her children in the work. “If I can learn how to use some of these tools, then I can pool all of this information that I have in my home and through my research and put together mini-presentations for my kids that they’ll want to click on and learn,” she said.
The second part of the Spirit of Elijah, Elder Brimhall continued, is to help members take names to the temple to have them sealed.
“When members feels a desire to connect with their ancestors, we want them to be able to come to FamilySearch and [find them],” he said. “Then we help them get that name qualified and ready so they can take it to the temple and have that holy work done.”
During his October 2011 general conference address, “The Hearts of the Children Shall Turn,” Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that members have a “covenant responsibility” do family history work.
“The Lord has made available in our day remarkable resources that enable you to learn about and love this work that is sparked by the Spirit of Elijah,” he said. He then listed some of those resources: online genealogical services, personal computers, handheld devices, and family history centers located in Church buildings throughout the world.
That is a spirit Elder Brimhall—and thousands of genealogists—are starting to feel. “It’s wonderful to feel that stirring,” he said, “and to know inside that this is really important and that lives will be changed for eternity.”