RootsTech 2015 Review (sorta)

Am back home from attending my first RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City and it was quite a trip. The compound name of it had caught my eye several months ago- “Roots” and “tech”, two of my favorite things, right?

I’m an amateur genealogist with a software background. I love researching my family, both online at home and out in the field. And I’ve trudged through those farm fields, literally, and have visited graveyards on foggy days, ventured into dark courthouse basements, showed the patience of a saint in clerks’ offices, and spent days among the stacks at historical, local, regional, and state libraries. I love everything about the research puzzle that is family history. I am totally hooked. The work puts me into an unreachable zone. I don’t stop to eat. I don’t stop to pee. Time disappears. Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying. You may recognize my “tree zone”.

But I’ve yet to find family tree or research software that supports or encourages or rewards those hours in the tree zone. Or that doesn’t have a horribly outdated user interface. Or that doesn’t keep giving me the spinning rainbow of wait now that I’ve got a huge tree with tons of citations, documents, and images. Or routinely fails to synch with my online tree. Nothing sucks me out my happy place like sucky software. And I get super pissed, blood-boilingly pissed, because I know it can be so much better.

So RootsTech popped up on my radar as the perfect opportunity to ask “WTF?” about the tech side while building my genealogist skill set. I dragged my husband along both to soothe the beast (me, be nice? among real people for five solid days?!) and to navigate the high level tech speak he knows so well.

The conference is put on by the biggest non-profit genealogical company in the world, FamilySearch, which was created by the Mormons to share all the historic and vital records they’d amassed in their effort to grow their church by baptizing new members postmortem. That’s right, they’re baptizing dead people. Retroactive religion, anyone?

For the uninitiated, the FamilySearch web site contains about a zillion family history records including U.S. Censuses, vital records, military records, and just about anything else you can imagine relevant to family history and you can download most of it for free. And they are continually and regularly adding new databases to it. Records not yet online (because they can’t digitize fast enough) are found in their film lending library. FamilySearch also has the largest online, collaborative family tree wiki in the industry, containing over 500 million people. That’s a lot of cousins!

They’ve recently been busy partnering with their would-be competitors so that many of these competitors’ records collections, or at least links to them, can now be found on FamilySearch. So FamilySearch is basically holding all the cards as the one stop place for at-home family research. A modern day monopoly of access to our past, really, and who can complain? It’s free! (Note: I still complain. Regularly. While still thankful they exist.) They also seem to understand how to use both technology and marketing and so when they hold their yearly conference TONS OF PEOPLE attend. And it’s been rapidly growing every year. This year, my first, I was one of over 22,000 people in attendance at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

The RootsTech low-down IMHO:

  1. This was not a tech conference. Nor was a genealogist conference. It was a FamilySearch conference. Apply filter accordingly.
  2. There are two main, basic camps of family history enthusiasts (although many in-betweens!): the serious genealogist and what I call, for lack of having ever heard a better term, the “click-n-add maniac”. Serious ones spent their time looking for vital records, censuses and other proofs of personal identity and familial connections. Adding new people to their trees is done only as the last, confirming step. The click-n-adds just want people in their tree, the more the merrier. They don’t check sources. They don’t use logic. They want instant trees and can find them online. They add entire branches just because the sun is shining. They make and perpetuate grievous mistakes in lineages because they don’t check basic facts and then other click-n-adds come right along behind them. They think they’re genealogists. You know those strangers who send you Facebook friend requests because they want to brag on their numbers? That’s them! Guess which type is FamilySearch’s target market?
  3. There are many very knowledgeable and experienced genealogists who willingly and enthusiastically share their knowledge with newbies and amateurs. Hats off to the presenters. You all rocked.
  4. The Salt Palace Convention Center needs a very thorough cleaning. Please.
  5. The majority of the tech community seems far more interested in the latest rage, “story capturing”, and are busy developing entertaining, social based, game-like, story capturing and sharing apps that memorialize not the past so much as present day family events. They do not see a market for anything supportive of the serious family researcher. This is sad. What’s even sadder is that the core genealogist community is not up in arms over this. I have a pitchfork, who’s with me?
  6. The idea of an online crowd-sourced marketplace to post records look up requests or ask for help on brick walls is intriguing and I plan to monitor these sites as both a genealogist and a technologist. I saw interesting lightening talks, tried out demos, and spoke to the vendors of these three: ancestorcloud, RootsBid, and GenMarketplace.
  7. Having the home town advantage, the Mormons and their expansive tree were represented in abundance and were kind, interesting people and several express having “the calling”. Being experienced with this, I kept the conversation light and stringently on topic.
  8. Hilton Homewood Suites is the bastard child of the Hilton line.
  9. I made a huge mistake. The Federation of Genealogical Societies was holding their annual conference in conjunction with RootsTech this year, with their own track, not included in the program listings, and I missed my chance to find my tribe by thinking it was only for society administrator types. I will loose sleep over this for some time to come.
  10. Former First Lady Laura Bush is hilarious. Really. Loved her talk. And her bobble head.
  11. Apparently, we more tech savvy genealogists need to gently but persistently pull our elders into the 21st century. There were classes on how to transition from paper to computer, what is meant by terms like “app”, “the cloud”, and “social media”, and I saw a Tweet about “double-click” being explained in one class. In the Expo Hall, I saw CDs, blank paper forms, and blank charts for sale. Here’s the horrifying thought- what can they be using for backup!?!?! (Is carbon paper still a thing?)
  12. I learned you cannot add a gay marriage to FamilySearch’s Family Tree. I tried, it is truly impossible. Booooo. Ancestry’s tree is anything goes, complete with an “unknown” sex choice. Everyone should be in the tree!
  13. Curt Witcher is one of most gracious, forward-looking, clear-thinking advocates of technological advances beneficial to all types of researchers such as integrated library systems, complex content searching and new ways to translate, transmit and share our conclusions. Should be no-brainers, right?
  14. Ron Arons is kind of a jerk. Or, he was having a bad day when we visited his booth. Or, he’s a jerk.
  15. The Mormons are still stunned by the large numbers of non-Mormons who invade their conference. The kindly gentleman to my left at the Donny Day keynote loudly BOOED when they proudly announced attendance numbers of over 22,000.
  16. The Expo Hall was the most educational, valuable, and enjoyable part of this conference. We talked to all the developers, test drove some new apps, and tried out the new features on the major family history web sites. I politely asked, “WTF?” by asking the developers to show me how I’d do this and that and then something else, knowing full well they didn’t have that functionality and hoping I was planting some seeds. Was invited by one startup to sit on its advisory board. I also got the low-down on genealogy education opportunities and getting certified and discovered new libraries, historical societies, and genealogical societies. I visited every booth at least once and kept returning to my favorites.
  17. Donny Osmond is now a hunk. Just when and how this happened remains unclear to this conference goer. Perhaps it was as simple as growing into his teeth. (If you think this is a cruel teeth joke, just check out mine.)
  18. FamilySearch needs to get its shit together if they intend to honor the “tech” part of this conference. There were no power strips in any classroom, the WiFi was slower than the spotty cell service and the chairs were so close together that using a laptop was impossibly rude. I had to use pen and notebook! And, we kept sitting on each others hips.
  19. DNA testing is another new rage, heavily marketed both in the Expo Hall and in numerous presentations. Spit, mail, wait for instant family. I kid, a bit.
  20. We actually heard someone say, “Well, we are ALL descended from Adam…”

I had a great time! Watch for more RootsTech related reviews to come.



Categories: Applications/Software, Conference Reviews, Genealogy, Reviews

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