Genealogy goes prime time, and it's not just for the retired anymore

By Laurie Snow Turner

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Aug. 15 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Genealogy has gone prime time.

That was the message at the Conference on Family History and Genealogy at Brigham Young University in July.

Television programs like NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” BYU-TV’s “The Generation Project” and “Faces of America” on PBS have peaked the interest of viewers around the world and motivated more people to research their family histories and heritage.

D. Joshua Taylor, a nationally recognized genealogical author, lecturer and researcher, spoke at the conference and talked about the future of genealogy, saying, “it will no longer be viewed as an ‘old’ activity for the retired. It will be undefined by age, gender and nationality. We’re in prime time now.”

Taylor looked at his first microfilm when he was 10 years old and became instantly hooked on genealogy. He is the director of education and programs at the New England Historic Genealogical Society and has assisted with research for the NBC series “Who Do You Think You Are,” including helping Sarah Jessica Parker with her genealogy.

At the conference, he traced genealogy through the generations and discussed how it has changed and evolved over the years.

“We started out with people writing letters, going to courthouses and lineage organizations for genealogical research. Then we moved to microfilm, which brought thousands, millions of records to people," Taylor said. "After Alex Haley’s 'Roots' book and television series, people became more interested in tracing their families. It became more visible, and the word ‘genealogist’ became known. Then we moved to digital records like on FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com.”

The attributes of the next generation of genealogy may sound “absolutely bananas,” but they will happen, he said. Here are some things that may be in the future of geneaology.

  1. More information will be simple to download and interactive. We won’t have to type in genealogical data from census and other records won't have to be typed in, it can be just a drag and drop process, and the computer will fill in all the details. “It’s happening now with medical records,” he said, “why not with genealogy?”
  2. There will be more online websites for digital scrapbooks and family histories. There will be blogs with live recordings, videos and links to other pertinent information.
  3. Everything will be digital. No more carting boxes of family documents from one relative to the next. Everything will be digital. It’s all about “the cloud,” and storing data in Apple’s new iCloud or dropbox.com, where a computer's data can be accessed from any computer without the worry of external drives, backup CDs and thumb drives.
  4. Genealogy will be more about people than facts. He encouraged genealogists to think beyond the pedigree chart and get into the stories about people.
  5. Communities will share data. Genealogists, historians, librarians, archivists and medical professionals will share information. “We all need the same stuff,” he said, “so we might as well share it with each other.”
  6. There will be more instant communications, not just with family members working together on genealogy, but with librarians, county clerks, associations, etc.
  7. Genealogy will not have to be a full-time pursuit. The younger generations will be able to devote just 15 minutes at a time and make progress because of new technology and collaborative methods.
  8. There will be a new generation of genealogists that will take new tactics. Taylor described a Boston University group of students assembled to work on their family histories and said there were 20 countries represented within just three generations of a family. Fifty percent of their parents or grandparents were born outside the United States. The average birth year of this new group of genealogists was 1989. About 85 percent of their family members immigrated after the year 1900, with the most recent immigrants coming to America in 2000. With this new generation, new approaches need to be taken such as oral interviews and tracing people who are still alive to find out why they came to America and what political movements affected them.

The Conference on Family History and Genealogy was at BYU and is sponsored by the BYU History Department, BYU Center for Family History and Genealogy, FamilySearch, Family History Library and the BYU Division of Continuing Education.

Laurie Snow Turner is a writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She blogs at lauriesnowturner.com.

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