BYU tech makes family history more interactive online

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Expansive family history libraries and events like RootsTech are some of the many attractions that bring family history enthusiasts to Utah. 

However, enthusiasts all over the world can engage in family history in unique and creative ways through online services like those offered through the BYU Family History Technology Lab.

The BYU Family History Technology Lab was created by BYU computer science professors Tom Sederberg and Bill Barrett in 1998. At the time, Sederberg wrote the software that later became known as Relative Finder, and Barrett was researching document scanning and recognition capabilities. 

BYU professor Mark Clement currently runs the BYU Family History Technology Lab where students design software that helps users engage in their family history in unique and creative ways online. (Courtesy of Mark Clement)

“The internet was still young — less than 1% of people in the world had access to the internet, and it was very slow,” Sederberg said. “We formed the Family History Technology Lab with the goal of hiring undergraduate students to develop software that could simplify family history work and make it more engaging.”

Sederberg and Barrett were inspired by the teachings of President Howard W. Hunter about family history work and the proxy work done in the temples for the dead.

During the centennial anniversary of the Genealogical Society of Utah’s founding, President Hunter talked about God’s role in accelerating technology for the purpose of family history and temple work.

“We stand only on the threshold of what we can do with these tools,” President Hunter said. “I feel that our most enthusiastic projections can capture only a tiny glimpse of how these tools can help us — and of the eternal consequences of these efforts.”

Sederberg, a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began searching for his ancestors in 1970 using microfilms. 

“Computers have made the process so much easier,” Sederberg said. 

BYU professor Tom Sederberg retired from teaching and running the BYU Family History Technology Lab in 2017 and is currently serving with his wife as a missionary in the New York City Family History Center. Sederberg works with patrons, like the one pictured, and helps them find family names to take to the temple for proxy work. (Courtesy of Tom Sederberg)

Sederberg retired as a BYU computer science professor in 2017 and is now serving a full-time mission in the New York City Family History Center with his wife. 

“Most of our patrons are not members of the Church,” Sederberg said. “Often after spending an hour searching for their ancestors, they are deeply moved.”

People who know stories from their family history show increased mental and emotional well-being, according to a study published in Emory University Journal of Family Life.

Lowering the barrier of entry to family history was another goal Sederberg and Barrett had while creating the BYU Family History Technology Lab. 

“A lot of users have trouble logging into FamilySearch and knowing what to do,” said Mark Clement, who succeeded Sederberg and Barrett in running the lab. “There are a number of games and fun activities at fhtl.byu.edu that make getting involved in family history easier.”

Each of the free applications created by BYU students in the technology lab relies on FamilySearch family tree information — requiring users to log in through their personal accounts before beginning.

Below are five of the most popular games, apps or tools included in the BYU Family History Technology Lab. 

  • Relative Finder: Relative Finder allows people to find out who they are related to by comparing family tree information. Relative Finder now has the capacity to find relations to authors, poets, LDS prophets, travelers on the Mayflower and European royalty. Created in 1997, Relative Finder now has over 900,000 users searching to make connections. 

“People enjoy learning how they are related to their friends and to famous people,” Sederberg said. “We have heard from numerous users who had not previously been interested in their family history that Relative Finder motivated them to create a FamilySearch account and to become engaged in searching their ancestors.”

  • Virtual Pedigree: Virtual Pedigree permits users to interact with their pedigree tree by clicking and dragging with their mouse on the fluid interface. This research application also now has the capacity to give hints on family names with temple ordinances available. 
  • Geneopardy: This interactive, multiplayer game allows families to learn fun facts about their ancestors like birth year, family relations and countries of origin. Users can choose how many generations they would like to include in the 25-squared, “Jeopardy!”-style board. 
  • Record Quest: The Record Quest video game was designed to teach young adults and children about the process of doing family history and how to explore records to find information. The objective of the game is to prove family ties to a rich man who has left his inheritance to his closest relative. 
  • Ancestor Games: Ancestor Games generates crossword puzzles, word searches, coloring pages and matching games. 

While playing games with family history information may have seemed unlikely over 20 years ago, technologies featured in the BYU Family History Technology Lab help shed new light on family history work.

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