RootsTech 2016 Draws Family History Enthusiasts from All Over

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 17 February 2016

Bruce Feiler, New York Times best-selling author, speaks at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

More than 26,000 family history enthusiasts from every state in the United States and nearly 40 countries swarmed the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City February 3–6 for RootsTech 2016, the largest family history conference in the world.

“Celebrating Families across Generations” was the theme for this sixth annual RootsTech, which was created and organized by FamilySearch International, the Church’s Internet genealogy service, which was in partnership with some 370 sponsors and expo hall exhibitors.

A prominent feature of RootsTech annually is the Family Discovery Day held on the last day of the conference. It features addresses and sessions by General Authorities, officers, and other prominent members of the Church. Some 22,000 Church members, including thousands of youth and children, came on Saturday for the Family Discovery Day.

As in past years, portions of the conference were streamed live on the Internet to a potential audience of 150,000, and recorded content from the conference is being made available for family history fairs sponsored by local Church units in about 1,500 locations around the world.

So, as large as it was, the attendance in the Salt Palace was merely a “studio audience” for the event that was seen by online viewers and for the recorded content that will be shown in various locations later, said Steven T. Rockwood, the president and CEO of FamilySearch.

Brother Rockwood, who is managing director for the Family History Department of the Church, set the tone for the conference in a keynote speech at the opening main session February 4.

He shared a memory of receiving a BB gun for Christmas when he was a boy of 10. His father delighted him when, unbeknownst to his mother, he took the BB gun, aimed it at a Christmas tree ornament, and pulled the trigger.

On another Christmas many years later, the father, Trulan Rockwood, shared with his children and their spouses his feelings about the true meaning of Christmas “and his never-ending love for each of us,” Brother Rockwood recalled. Trulan Rockwood died on Father’s Day of that year.

Brother Rockwood said his four sons have never met their Grandpa Tru. “But I guarantee they know him and are growing up to be like him, as he lives on through the stories, pictures, and lessons they have heard throughout their lives.” Brother Rockwood said every family has favorite stories like this one.

Steve Rockwood, managing director for the Family History Department, gives his keynote speech during the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Paula Madisen speaks at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Paula Madisen stands in front of a photo of her mother while speaking at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Stan Ellsworth, host of American Ride, speaks at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

“To get and keep the non-genealogist’s attention, we need to focus on the person, not on the genealogical search,” he said to the audience estimated at 12,000, with a potential 150,000 viewers watching via Internet streaming, virtually all of them family history enthusiasts.

“We need to keep it short, and we need to keep it meaningful,” he admonished. “If we’re going to reach our family members, we need to reach their hearts within 60 seconds.”

Thus, the RootsTech attendees “are, in a way, heart specialists,” he said, “heart specialists for society and, most important, heart specialists for your family.” He invited his listeners to don surgical masks that had been distributed beforehand at each seat in the hall.

“You may have thought you came to RootsTech to see the latest apps and technology,” he said. “You did. But RootsTech is so much more than that. … This is a train-the-trainer convention of family history heart doctors. All the vendors and booths and classes are here to help you better touch the hearts of your family members and of society with family history.”

Another prominent keynote speaker at the conference was Michael O. Leavitt, former governor of Utah and former U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services. Brother Leavitt shared his experience with the way he “tricked” himself into writing a personal history.

One Sunday afternoon, he said, he took out a pad of paper to see if he could fill a page with ideas. He did so in 10 minutes.

“I thought, ‘That was fairly easy; I wonder if I could do a hundred.’ I just started writing down one or two or three words that would remind me of some event in my life.”

Within a relatively short time he had completed 100. He then started a project he called “a thousand stories.”

He put it aside for a while, then got it out and began to group the ideas into categories.

“I saw a history that my great-great-great-grandmother had written that was eight pages long—handwritten. It was so meaningful to me. I concluded that I needed to get those thousand stories out and at least write a little bit. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It turned out to be a couple of volumes of personal history.” Not long ago, he said, his daughter told him something rewarding to him: that her eight-year-old daughter had said the children’s favorite nighttime story was a story from their grandfather’s personal history.

“A meaningful thing to me, and I tricked myself into it,” he said.

People listen to speakers during the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Technological innovation is a key part of RootsTech—hence the word “tech” in the name. Part of the proceedings are an “Innovator Showdown,” a competition in which companies vie for $100,000 in cash and prizes. This year from dozens of applicants, the field was narrowed first to 12, then to six.

At the Friday event a panel of judges selected as the showdown winner Tap Genes, a company based in Chicago that crowd-sources a family’s health information to identify health conditions that run in the family. The information can then be shared with doctors and other caregivers.

For more on RootsTech 2016, go to www.RootsTech.org.

A woman hangs a photo on a Tapestree at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Sharon Lane explores the Family Chartmasters booth at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Steve Rockwood, managing director for the Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gives his keynote speech during the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Ashley Pfahler talks to Linda Charles about Ancestry.com at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.