Technology impacts family history work

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By Jeff Salcedo and Cassidy Wixom

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the October 2021 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine.

Gone are the days of using antique family history techniques to fill out a family tree as new technology makes genealogy an easier process.

“There was a day long ago when we’d flip through microfilm hoping to find someone and those days are well in the past … What we’re trying to do is think about the next set of technologies that will make family history even easier,” BYU Family History Technology Lab Director Joseph Price said.

BYU Family History Technology Lab Manager Mark Clement and students discuss technological advances in a BYU Family History Technology Lab meeting. Technological advances have made family history a quicker and easier process. (Rebekah Baker/BYU Photo)

According to a statement on genealogy from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, learning about one’s family history is more than just a casual endeavor. “Latter-day Saints believe families can be together after this life. Therefore, it is essential to strengthen relationships with all family members, both those who are alive and those who have died.

Family history has become more prominent because of companies like FamilySearch and Ancestry. The growth of technology has helped family history work become easier and more personable.

“The internet is a powerful tool; the home is now our primary family history center,” Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve said during the April 2019 session of General Conference.

Over the years, the advancement and implementation of technology in family history has produced greater accessibility to family history work. For example, the apps created by the BYU Family History Technology Lab are helping speed up the process. Price said something as simple as a search feature makes filling a family tree quicker compared to the past.

“I think we sometimes forget that part of technology is search, the ability to find things more quickly and we take it for granted because we’re so used to Google, but search is really one of the most powerful technological advances in family history,” Price said.

The lab continues to work on ways to make family history easier to do as it recently finished a new program called “reverse indexing,” which presents users with a certain word, and the user can select examples that don’t match the specific word.

This process differs from traditional indexing, where people read a document and transcribe the entire thing. This process provides a more efficient and engaging way to index, BYU Family History Technology Lab Manager Mark Clement said.

Growing inside and outside the Church

Family history has always been a topic within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it has gained wider attention in the last few years around the world with the rising popularity of genealogy websites and increased DNA genealogical testing.

Ancestry has around 3 million paying subscribers across 30 international markets and MyHeritage has 4.7 billion profiles and 92 million users. 23andMe has sold more than 12 million DNA testing kits.

In 2020, contributors to FamilySearch added nearly 100 million relatives to the FamilySearch Family Tree for a total of 1.3 billion people, and users added 300 million new sources from their family records. Visits to FamilySearch increased in 2020 by almost 18%, hitting 207 million visits compared to 169.5 million website visitors in 2019.

Resources and callings dedicated to increasing family history work within the Church has led to the Church owning one of the largest collections of family records in the world with information on more than 3 billion deceased people. According to the Church’s genealogy webpage, this effort was originally facilitated through the Genealogical Society of Utah and is now through FamilySearch — a non-profit organization sponsored by the Church. The effort was achieved through cooperation from government archives, churches and libraries.

Most recently, the Church hit a major milestone on Sept. 21 by digitizing FamilySearch’s collection of 2.4 million rolls of microfilm, an effort that has taken over 83 years to accomplish.

FamilySearch also hosts a yearly family history conference called RootsTech, traditionally held in Salt Lake City. According to its website, RootsTech is a four-day event “dedicated to celebrating family, discovering family histories and connecting the living to their ancestors and each other.”

RootsTech has had over 1 million attendees from over 200 countries and territories. The 2020 RootsTech Conference was virtual because of the pandemic and has led to greater reach and participation in family history with virtual sessions offered to anyone.

During the 2014 RootsTech Conference, FamilySearch announced it would collaborate with MyHeritage, Ancestry and Find My Past to give members of the Church access to more records than ever. This collaboration between the genealogy websites helped them share records and tools between their sites to allow more people the opportunity to build and preserve their family histories.

Personal impact

Beyond making family history easier to do, the BYU Family History Technology Lab strives to add personal connection for those doing family history.

“I love it when we can both connect to the past, but also connect with each other,” Price said.

Relative Finder is one of the ways the lab offers users an opportunity to form a personal connection in family history. The app helps users find other users they are related to through the use of their family trees. The program, which recently hit 1 million users, provided an Ohio therapist a way to help her homeless patients “not feel isolated,” Clement said.

“(The therapist) said her most effective tool in helping to provide services for homeless people was to get them connected with FamilySearch and see that they actually did have a big family. All of a sudden, they felt like they weren’t so isolated,” Clement said.

Users of the lab’s features aren’t the only ones to feel a personal connection through family history work. Clement and Price both feel immense satisfaction in the work they do for the lab.

Mark Clement and BYU Family History Technology lab students pose for a photo. Technological advances have made doing family history a quicker and easier process. (Rebekah Baker/BYU Photo)

Connecting people to unknown family members through Relative Finder gives Clement “gratification,” particularly when he could help a woman who thought she had no family meet a family member at one of his conferences.

“She wasn’t aware of any siblings or cousins so she felt disconnected from her family and she walked up to a person who was her cousin. She says now, ‘I feel like I’m connected, I feel like I have a family,'” Clement said. “That was very gratifying for me, to be participating in something that can really connect people with each other.”

Price shares the similar feelings he has when he helps users fill out their family tree.

“My favorite thing to do is ask someone, ‘tell me about your grandma, tell me about your grandpa,’ and then based on what they tell me, finding them in a record or try to find them on a tree … There’s something really powerful about discovering a personal connection with someone,” Price said.

The work Clement, Price and the students do serves a greater purpose in their eyes. “At times, at the end of our meetings, we shout ‘hoorah for Israel’ and we really do feel like we’re a part of gathering Israel on both sides of the veil,” Clement said.

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