I think I was 12 or so when, in rummaging around my father’s home office, I discovered the family genealogy. Over time I was hooked, visiting our local branch genealogy library and, when we visited Utah during a family vacation, I spent hours and days at the Genealogical Society library, then installed in the new Church Office Building, simply collecting the work that had already been done, copying family group sheet after family group sheet. All this was possible because, as the descendant of early Mormon pioneers, huge amounts of research on my ancestry has already been done.
A lot has changed since those days. The term Genealogy has been dropped in favor of Family History. The group sheets have been replaced, first by the Personal Ancestral File program, and then by Family Search and New Family Search online. With each of these changes have come improvements, but also the amount of work has increased, first as data needed to be entered into the PAF program, and also as each new system revealed errors and duplications that were not obvious or available before.
New Family Search, in particular, is overwhelming. I have dreaded using it because of the amount of work needed to address the conflicting information collected in the system from a variety of different systems and contributors. And the system actually encourages entering conflicting information; since you can’t see information on living persons outside of your spouse and children, the only way to have that information on the system where you can see it is to enter it again. And if you make an error, you cause someone else (almost certainly a relative) work to resolve that difference. If you don’t enter some individual’s information (such as your spouse’s parents and living ancestors), you can’t access their ancestors. I’ve come to the conclusion that my best option is to ignore living persons and my wife’s ancestry and move on.
Despite all this I enjoyed Elder Bednar’s talk in the Saturday afternoon session of conference. His point about the priority the Lord placed on family history in the restoration is inspiring, encouraging me to rethink my priorities.
And directing his remarks to youth, I think, is wise. My own experience shows that youth (at least those few who are like I was) can be attracted to family history work and get heavily involved. The Bishop he mentioned who called three young men to teach the Family History class was inspired. A great idea.
But I’m not sure that the youth’s tech savvy will translate very well to family history work, at least not with the current software tools. New Family Search, in my view, simply misses the social and visual aspects that attract youth and others to visit a website and keep them there.
The problem, I think, comes from the distinction implied in moving from the term “genealogy” to “family history.” At least to me the term “genealogy” implies focusing on names and dates and relationships, with the goal that the more you collect the better. Rarely does genealogy look at who these individuals are, what they thought or what environment they lived in. “Family history,” in contrast, sounds like it collects broader information–who the individual was, what they looked like, where they lived and what they did to survive. To most of us, youth included, this latter information, when available, is much more interesting and motivating.
In my view New Family Search simply doesn’t provide this view of family history. It, perhaps as it should be, is focused not on family history, but on genealogy—on the information needed to perform temple ordinances. But that information doesn’t motivate as well as information about who the individual is—about true family history. And if you can’t easily share the information you have found, then in today’s socially oriented computing you can’t gain the interest of most people, let alone the youth.
Wouldn’t it be nice if Family Search allowed you to add a photo of the individual to the records? Shouldn’t family history software allow other types of events in the lives of these individuals besides births, deaths and marriages? Shouldn’t I be able to allow my married siblings to see my information if I choose? And when I’ve found that ancestor or cleaned up the information about my grandfather, shouldn’t I be able to share that fact on Facebook or at least among the relevant descendants and family members?
Like most Church members with an interest in family history, I’m grateful for the tools. Each of the changes has brought increased power and usability to genealogical records. But I’m not sure that Elder Bednar’s vision of involving the youth in family history is likely to be very successful with the current tools. The disconnect between the currently social use of technology that youth are used to and the current tools, coupled with the genealogy focus instead of true family history makes this seem unlikely.