Technology and Genealogy

October 10, 2011 | 18 comments
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0--NewFamilySearchI 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.

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18 Responses to Technology and Genealogy

  1. Niklas on October 10, 2011 at 8:45 am

    With PAF one can add photos and additional info. But now with the New Family Search one doesn’t need PAF and updating it is just extra work. New Family Search seems to be just a tool to send names to the temple.

    … and it is a mess. Finding and fixing the duplicates is dreadful.

  2. stacer on October 10, 2011 at 9:01 am

    I agree. When he said youth should get involved, I thought, “great idea! If only doing family history were as appealing now as it was to me back in the early 90s.” The technology hasn’t really changed much since then, and to me back then it was new. I still find PAF to be more versatile. I heard somewhere that the new FamilySearch was designed by programmers without actually consulting family historians, and I can believe it.

  3. Coffinberry on October 10, 2011 at 9:12 am

    I’m thinking that it is the folks with mega-Mormon ancestors that are having this problem with painfully annoying duplication, which is an increasing minority of members. Those of us who are first-, second-, or third- generation members don’t have much of that kind of problem. From my point of view (second generation on one side, and third on the other), New.Familysearch is functionally pleasant and errors are pretty straight-forward to fix.

    So maybe new.familysearch isn’t about y’alls. (And that’s probably why it was introduced in Utah last).

  4. Coffinberry on October 10, 2011 at 9:18 am

    I should add that I got ‘into’ genealogy when I was a teen, too… back when every query had to be hand written and posted with a stamp, and then you had to wait and wait for a return mail answer. As a young married couple, my husband and I were part of the staff at the BYU genealogy library, helping Primary children find their own Ancestral File records on the old microfilm systems. The kids had fun with those big clunky machines.

    I, too, got all excited about Elder Bednar’s suggestions, and I think actually they’re realistic. There are places within new.familysearch to put the cool history stuff (notes), plus new.familysearch is not the only place to do research (census records come to mind as a favorite thing to introduce teenagers to).

  5. Bob on October 10, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Kent Larsen:
    I use three Technology tools in my Family History”
    Family Three Maker__strong on narrative.
    legacy__strong on photos and Mormon tools.
    TribalPages.com__ a free site, easy to use__Very good at ‘showing the story.
    If you wish to visit my site:
    TribalPages.com Site sign in= Robertrundquist-GO

  6. Janell on October 10, 2011 at 9:33 am

    For me, new.familysearch is simply that tool I use to make certain that a person’s ordinances has been done, that the dates and locations are updated to the best of my knowledge, and that the related family members are minimally accurate. “Minimally” because family search has the nasty habit that if someone adds a relationship for whom there’s no proof they belong there, I have no way of fixing it. (E.g. A man’s son is also his father, or a woman with a first name and no other information married to a man for whom there is no evidence of a wife.)

    Sorry, that rant was longer than intended. FamilySearch drives me up a wall.

    I’ve been using ancestry.com as my primary means of internet organization and OneNote as my primary means of personal organization. I like ancestry’s tools to organize documents related to a person.

    @Bob – thanks for the suggestions! I’ll have to check out Tribalpages. “The Story” is something that I have to kinda beat into Ancestry. I make it work, but it’s a bit clunky.

  7. geoffsn on October 10, 2011 at 9:48 am

    I’ve submitted requests several times to allow pictures and biographies to people in New Family Search. However, they have added a section for “Notes” on the individual. I use that section to put in a ton of links to photos and biographies. You can easily scan such items, upload them to picasa, scribd, or any number of such sites that allow posting for free.

  8. Paul Mouritsen on October 10, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Just a couple of observations. First of all, if you are frustrated with new.familysearch, you might want to read the whitepaper on “Our Tree,” which may address some of the problems. It is posted on the new.familysearch.org web site.

    Second, in my opinion, the most exciting development in family history is the effort to index the vaste collection of records that Family Search holds. Just about every member of the Church can make a real contribution to the future of family history research by helping to index records. Just go to familysearch.org and click the “Indexing” tab.

  9. Bob on October 10, 2011 at 10:58 am

    The BIG/BOLD line between Genealogy and Family History is the subjective that Family History adds.
    That is: Kent was born 00-00-0000 (Genealogy).
    Kent was born 00-00-0000. His mother was not married. (Family History)

  10. anita on October 10, 2011 at 11:20 am

    When I heard a familysearch guy speak at the RootsTech conference last year, he said they’re working on the photo option so that eventually documents, pictures, etc, can all be attached to each person. It’s a monumental undertaking.

  11. Kent Larsen on October 10, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Thanks for all the suggestions.

    I should add that I’m generally NOT interested in many of the add on programs or separate programs. As far as I can tell, they all require some kind of effort to keep in sync with NFS. I don’t want to have to make ANY effort at all.

    In addition, these add on tools have the disadvantage of NOT being the default for users, and I would therefore have to persuade/cajole relatives into also using the same program.

    The issue of social networking of genealogy/family history is also significant here. NFS is a common database for everyone, which is a HUGE plus in my mind. But it does such a lousy job of facilitating communication between users with common family members/ancestors that I still think users easily work at cross purposes.

    I guess what I’m saying is that NFS’s use of a common database is, I think, the way that Family History work must go. Its just no where near where it needs to be.

  12. Bob on October 10, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    Kent Larsen:
    I guess it is a question of what your goals are in doing a Family History.
    First, sharing and working with the non-church programs is not as hard as you think.
    These outside programs are far more versatile and powerful. I can add video/audio clips. Voice over on photos, google maps, music, animations, drag and drop, scanning, links, burn, color code, etc. Go all the way to a family website or scrapbooking if I want.

  13. Kent Larsen on October 10, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Bob, I don’t want ANY extra work. I prefer that the default program work correctly.

  14. Bob on October 10, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    Kent, The thing is, at some point, you will not be needed all.
    I believe the CoC baptizes one man for all who died unbaptized in the year(?)
    No need for Temples or lists of names at all.

  15. AndrewJDavis on October 11, 2011 at 4:40 am

    I think comment #3 is spot on: It’s not really well designed for people with large (10000+) family trees. I haven’t yet seen an easy way to go to a particular person on my tree say 14 generations back without clicking through my entire tree there. And then getting back to me is worse. If anyone has tips on how to easily do that please please let me know! (I’ll watch here, or email ajd.ender -at- that gmail place.) It was because of (ok at least partially because of, having to finish school also helped) the change to the new family search that I stopped working on my fam history. I’ve been meaning to get back to it, but it just seems overwhelming now — 75+ duplicates for most people related to me in the past 200 years. Not fun!

  16. Bob on October 11, 2011 at 5:51 am

    AndrewJDavis:
    1) It is always earier to go backward than forward in Genealogy. For me, in working with “Utah Genealogy”, you start to look for ‘Family Forests”, not just family trees. LOTS of Clan stuff and information there.

  17. AndrewJDavis on October 11, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Sorry Bob, I must not have been clear enough. I mean within the new.familysearch.org program, actually clicking to get back the 14 or so generations to a particular person is a pain in the neck. and slow. but at least the site is faster than when it first came out a few years ago.

  18. Molly on October 11, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    On comment #3, I’m a first generation convert and my family on newfamilysearch is a complete nightmare. Husbands are married to the wrong women so children have the wrong mothers, children have been stuck in random families because someone saw something remotely familiar in census, and people are combined all over the place whether they have anything in common or not. Newfamilysearch is a functional nightmare and errors are impossible to fix. One can contact the person that submitted the erroneous information but I have yet to have anything changed. The only other choice is to make a “note” of the discrepancy. I don’t have the time to go into each family member and make a note that someone invented this family relationship.

    As for the youth, I’ve found the same thing. In teaching our YM and YW newfamilysearch and what is available to them in the FHL, the only time they really perked up was when I told the stories of my ancestors — and they ate that up. I agree with the earlier post … I think newfamilysearch has nothing to appeal to them — they see it more as the grown-up’s site. They aren’t interested in putting in all the dates and stuff; they want to find where great-gr-great Uncle Joe got his arm blown off in the Civil War or something.