SALT LAKE CITY — Family trees are like skeletons in that they need fleshing out, Ian Tester taught in a class on Feb. 3 at the RootsTech Family History & Technology Conference.
Tester, a product manager at United Kingdom-based Brightsolid Online Publishing, shared with conference attendees some ideas on how to flesh out their family trees and record the journey they make in the process.
In his presentation, titled "Telling Stories: Transforming the Bare Facts of Genealogy Into the Astonishing Tale of You and Your Family," Tester taught that people are their own detectives when it comes to researching and writing their family history stories.
He explained the difference between genealogical narratives, which follow primary source documents to create a factual series of events about an ancestor, and family history stories.
"Storytelling, we take the facts and we put something on top. We embellish. We make creative decisions on top of the facts," he said.
Part of the challenge in finding those stories, Tester said, lies in the family tree format. Family trees are strong in that they're understood worldwide, they map the biological relationships between family members and they're easy to share.
However, they have "pretty crippling weaknesses when it comes to telling the story of your family history," Tester said, because they don't deal with "the reality" of most people's lives. Some of those realities may be what the ancestor's occupation was, the kind of life they led, and circumstances like divorce, adoption and motive.
"(Family trees are) stark and bare — they are the bones, they are the skeleton; they're not the meat of the story. They don't record that very well."
Tester showed a video, "Stories Through Data," that shared ideas on how a family tree could bear some story-worthy fruit.
When it comes to fleshing out the story, Tester said, "The journey of finding your family history is almost as important as the destination."
Sometimes people may come across astonishing facts that completely change their research or even themselves. He said these are motivation to continue researching.
Those moments could include cracking a certain part of the research process or finding a piece of information where there seemed to be a dead end. Tester encouraged those who attended his class to keep track of these moments, which could also be emotional in nature.
"When you put yourself in the place of your ancestors and you empathize with them and you realize suddenly through 150 years of history how hard their life was or how fantastic their life was or how they were like you," Tester said, "(those moments) are the thing that keep people doing family history."
Tester's idea to record those moments stood out to Catherine Hingson, an LDS Church family history consultant from Depoe Bay, Ore., who came to RootsTech for the first time this year.
Hingson, who joined the LDS Church at age 19, had suspected for years that some of her ancestors who emigrated from Scotland to the U.S. had been Mormons. On Thursday, she found the entire family in early membership records of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1840s.
"How powerful that was, for my ancestors and for me personally today, to have that connection," she said.
"I had never thought, until he mentioned today, that we should record the journey," Hingson said. "I would've passed that over, I would've put down the documentation … but I wouldn't have thought to record my own personal story ... of finding that information."
Recording events like that will help people to understand more about not only their families, Tester said, but also about themselves.
"A really important part of family history, I think, is how you understand you, through researching your family," he said.
Tester's presentation was one of many offered at the Salt Palace Convention Center for RootsTech 2012, which ended on Feb. 4.
For more information about RootsTech, visit rootstech.org.
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