Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Why aren't genealogists more proactive?

Genealogy is a peculiar avocation. Because the subject matter of the avocation is the history of families and individuals, you could immediately assume that "everyone" is or could be interested. But the disconnect is analogous to many other avocations. Just because you enjoy reading is does not mean you want to become a writer. Just because you enjoy art does not mean you can or would want to paint or draw. Just because I enjoy driving my car does not mean I want to become a mechanic. Of course, I could go on and on with examples. Having an interest in researching historical records to find information about a family does not necessarily follow a simple interest in your family and its history.

In addition, many of the aspects of our present family life are very personal and "private" and we all tend to project that aurora of privacy back into the past and apply it to the lives of our ancestors. We commonly feel that not all of the messy details of our family's lives are suitable for public consumption. In addition, present fears whether warranted or not about possible issues of "identity theft" create an atmosphere that is antagonistic to sharing family details even when there is no basis for that fear.

The real world of genealogical research is far removed from the public relations world of the promoters. Genealogical research is a challenging, engrossing and very intellectual pursuit that involves very specialized skills. Those skills are acquired only after expending a considerable effort over a period of time. The mere fact that a university would offer a degree in family history is enough to illustrate the involved nature of the subject. It should not be at all surprising to see the huge differences in the quality of the research efforts between those who are dedicated to improving their knowledge and skills and those who are involved on only a very casual and superficial level.

When I was nineteen years old, I was called as a missionary to go to Argentina. As part of that calling, I spent an entire summer at what was then called the Language Training Mission on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah learning to speak Spanish. Although I had previously taken classes in both French and German in high school, I did not have even a basic proficiency in either language and absolutely no knowledge of Spanish. Learning to speak Spanish, for me, was an extraordinarily difficult challenge. When I arrived in Argentina, I did not know how to communicate, despite my intensive exposure to the language for approximately 12 weeks.

After two years in Argentina, I had finally learned how to communicate adequately in Spanish. Upon returning to my university studies, I went on to obtain a B.A. degree in Spanish and a Masters degree in Linguistics. Then, as an Army Officer in the United States Army, I was stationed in Panama for two years. When I arrived in Panama, I discovered that despite my years of speaking Spanish in Argentina and during my university studies, I essentially had to learn the language all over again. Subsequently, during my professional career as a trial attorney, I was able to represent hundreds of clients who spoke only Spanish. Later, I decided to try my hand at teaching and obtained an Arizona certification to teach Spanish at the college level. Guess what? I had to learn Spanish grammar all over again. During the years I taught Spanish, I really learned all about Spanish grammar. By the way, I can now speak Spanish, but not like a native, more like a professor. I can also do extensive research into Spanish language based genealogy.

Now, what have I learned from this experience. For the past 35 years or so, I have been learning about how to do genealogical research, including taking university level courses for five years on the subject. I am still learning about how to do genealogical research.

Granted, with computers and the availability of information about the subject of genealogical research, I could progress much faster than I did when I began years ago, but the process of learning to speak Spanish and the process of learning to do genealogical research turn out to be amazingly similar in the time and effort involved in learning about the subject. If I had not spent four years of my life immersed in speaking Spanish every day, I would not have learned it as well as I did, but on the other hand, had I not studied it in the formal setting of university and college classes, I would still have had much to learn.

Today, you can go online and find any number of websites that promise you can learn to speak Spanish in 90 days or less. I can imagine that there are some people out there in the world that could do just that, but even then I would suggest that they might have difficulty in reading the novels of Jorge Borges in Spanish or enjoying the subtilties of Spanish poetry. They might also have trouble teaching a college class in Spanish or teaching an hour-long class about genealogical research in Spanish.

Is there a casual, easy entry-level aspect to genealogy? This is a concept I struggle with daily. I believe that with the online tools we have today, that anyone with an interest in their family history can learn the basics of genealogical research. But I also believe that anyone who attempts to learn about the subject will soon begin to comprehend the reality of its complexity. In addition, those who begin investigating their families soon learn that some of those same ancestors lived very difficult and complex lives and we sometimes conclude that we would have been better off not knowing those details.

Why then do I keep teaching and talking about genealogy and genealogical research? Probably for the same reason I chose to teach Spanish for years and to teach Spanish speakers English for years. I appreciate and cherish the joy of learning and deep understanding of life that comes with that learning. Genealogy is a journey into the soul of our own lives and the lives of our ancestors. But it is not something that can be sold with superficial assurances that it is "easy" or "fun."

In teaching about genealogy and in promoting it as an activity, we should be cognizant of the serious and involved nature of the subject and also aware of the privacy concerns that it raises.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Internet Usage in the U.S. and the FamilySearch Family Tree

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who wish to take their ancestors' and relatives' names to the temples can almost exclusively do so only by entering those names in the Family Tree. If they do not have the computer skills or own the computer equipment necessary to work online, they must rely on either the computers in Family History Centers, publicly available computers or rely on friends who have a computer connected to the internet. A recent Pew Research Center study entitled, "Internet and Broadband Fact Sheet" highlights some of the challenges of having just one, online access for temple ordinance submission.

According to the Pew Research Center fact sheet, roughly 90% of the U.S. population now use the internet. Of course, genealogists are included in these statistics. Following RootsTech 2015, The Ancestry Insider's blog published a breakdown of the demographics of those attending the Conference. The post is entitled, "RootsTech Attendee Demographics" and it has the following statistics:

RootsTech (hosted by FamilySearch) recently released some interesting demographics about 2015 RootsTech conference and Innovator Summit attendees.
RootsTech AttendeesInnovator Summit Attendees
Family history beginner37%21%
Family history intermediate46%46%
Family history advanced, expert, or professional17%33%
Technology beginner19%7%
Technology intermediate59%28%
Technology advanced, expert, or developer22%65%
Over 6529%8%
These figures correspond directly with my own observations and the historical demographics of those who read my blog posts. When I review the information provided in the Pew Research Center Fact Sheet, there are some interesting conclusions. Age, income, and education are the biggest factors affecting the number of internet users in any other category. Not surprisingly, the lowest adopters of internet use are those over 65 years old. While virtually all of the 18 to 29 year olds in the country are using the internet at 97%, usage by those over 65 is at 64%.

Current efforts to involve the youth in genealogy need to take into account another interesting statistic from the Pew Fact Sheet: 20% of the youngest group of internet users have access only thorugh a smartphone.

So here are some of the issues. First, efforts to involve the youth in genealogy have been very ineffective so far. The number of youth who are activiely submitting names to the temples is still disturbingly small and is further illustrated by the small percentage of youth attending RootsTech as shown above. In fact, current efforts to expand involvement are aimed at an age group that is not even measured by the RootsTech attendance percentages. Second even if efforts to increase involvement were aimed at the "over 65" group of users who already make up the largest percentage of those interested, this group consists of those who evidence the least usuage of the internet.

You would expect that if overall usage of the internet has increased dramatically, you would see a similar increase in the usage of the website. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. As I have shown by writing about the results of searches on Google Trends, searches for genealogy realated topics is showing an overall decline. See "Updated Thoughts on Genealogy Blogging and Pi Day." But more importantly, the only way to submit names is through a website that does not work well on many mobile devices, especially those without keyboards.

My own personal observation is that the teenage youth spend much more time on their smartphones and tablets than they do on desktop computers. If they do spend time on a desktop computer or a laptop, they are usually working on school homework or other similar mandatory tasks. So there is a major connection among the youth of desk top computer usage with compulsory activities. Getting them to sit down and use a computer for any serious purpose, other than game playing, is very difficult.

Maybe FamilySearch should seriously look at targeting the 18 to 29 year old age group rather than spending so much effort aimed at teenagers? Additionally, maybe they should also consider a larger emphasis for those actually interested in genealogy; those over the age of 55?

#RootsTech 2017 to Celebrate African Heritage Day

Quoting from the press release:
RootsTech, the world’s largest family history conference, sponsored by FamilySearch International, will celebrate Black History Month on Friday, February 10, 2017, at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the first ever African Heritage Day celebration. This celebration will feature LeVar Burton (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and other well-known African American historians and research specialists. 
LaVar Burton was previously announced as a Keynote Speaker. Here is some additional information about the Conference and African Heritage Day.
African Heritage Day is a celebration of culture, unity, and history of individuals of African descent from all over the world. With the help of modern technology and the completion of initiatives like the Freedmen’s Bureau Project in 2016, those of African descent have many tools at their disposal to enable them to connect with their ancestors.
A full day of celebration with events is planned from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., starting with a morning keynote session by LeVar Burton. For more than three decades, Levar Burton has been an inspiring actor, author, and entrepreneur known for his role as Kunta Kinte in the original series Roots, his passion for literature with Reading Rainbow, and for his role as Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Burton will be sharing some of his own journey of family and storytelling, and the influence of African culture on his American experience.

In addition to Burton, RootsTech is also pleased to welcome nationally recognized speakers Kenyatta Berry, host of Genealogy Roadshow, Sherri Camp, president of the Afro-American Historical Genealogical Society, and Melvin Collier, author of Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery. In a combined session, these three will speak about their connection to their African roots and experiences that have kept them close to their ancestors. 
African Heritage Day attendees will enjoy a variety of genealogy classes, an expo hall with over 250 vendors, and an evening cultural celebration featuring the Jambo Africa/Heartbeat Burundi Drummers, an all-male drumline cultural group formed in 2009 with the goal of spreading awareness of peace from traditional African drum music. Following the morning keynote session, attendees will be treated to the joyful noise and inspirational sounds of the Calvary Baptist Church choir of Salt Lake City. 
World-renowned experts in African American genealogy and family history will teach how to unlock the door to your family’s past and make connections with your African heritage. Additional topics related to African family history research will include: how to get started as a novice, tech resources available to help with research, overcoming genealogical challenges, to understanding DNA analysis. 
The massive RootsTech expo hall is free to registered attendees and is the place to discover helpful solutions, watch demonstrations, and interact with innovative family history technology. Attendees can see what hundreds of exhibitors from around the globe have to share, including event sponsors like Ancestry, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage
African Heritage Day is an unprecedented event with something for everyone. For more details about classes, prices, and how to register, visit

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Plight of the Mesa FamilySearch Library

While some Family History Centers receive very few monthly visitors, the Mesa FamilySearch Library has thousands of visitors every month, especially during the busy winter visitor season in Mesa, Arizona. Unfortunately the lovely building shown above has been condemned. During a remodeling effort scheduled back in 2014, the building was found to have a mold problem as well as some other issues. This tragic condition put the remodeling on hold where it has remained now going into the third year. The options seemed clear: fix the building and continue with the remodeling or tear it down and rebuild or close down the Library and release all the missionaries or move the library to a new building. Unfortunately, so far, none of these options have been made available to the not-so-patiently waiting library missionary staff.

As an alternative, the staff of the library has moved what could be salvaged from the building back into the old annex building that was the original Family History Library before the newer building shown above was constructed to replace it. For some time now, they have been operating a reduced schedule of classes and support for the thousands of patrons who have found their way to the substitute building. Ironically, the older building had been remodeled just a few years ago to accommodate the overflow needs to serve the patrons using the newer building. Before that, the building was used for storage and staging of the Mesa Easter Pageant among other uses.

Meanwhile, the status of the Mesa FamilySearch Library has remained in suspended animation. No one seems to know when or even if the status of the Library will be clarified. The staff of the Library has, for the most part, valiantly tried to maintain the support provided to the hundreds of thousands of people permanently living in the East Valley as well as the huge number of visitors from other states and countries. Not only is there an uncertainty about the fate of the Library, but there is also no communication about the status of the old/new building or what will ultimately happen to their staff of dedicated and experienced missionaries, some of whom have been serving for many, many years.

In past posts, I have speculated about the future of Family History Centers in general, given the accelerated digitization of the microfilm records and the commonly known fact that microfilm will shortly become unavailable to make copies to send to the Family History Centers around the world. Back in 2014, Dick Eastman, a prominent genealogy blogger, wrote a post entitled, "The Death of Microfilm" that summarized the future of microfilm and by extension previewed the plight of the Family History Centers that are relying on the loan of microfilm from FamilySearch to continue that operation in the future. Another recent article on the subject from entitled, "A Glimpse Into the Future of Microfilm and Microfiche," also acknowledges the inevitable end of microfilm and microfiche usage.

But whether or not microfilm disappears, sooner or later FamilySearch will have digitized all of the microfilm in the Granite Vault that is going to be digitized and the shipment of microfilm to Family History Centers will stop.

Combined with the ongoing digitization of books and other records by FamilySearch and many others, it is inevitable that some of the uses of Family History Center will change. But what will not change is the amount of support needed to researchers in family history. In this regard, the Mesa FamilySearch Library with its trained support staff and its very active class schedule was already anticipating the primary use of Family History Centers in the future. This makes the inactivity and lack of clarification of the Library's future even more of an enigma.

I recently visited the Mesa FamilySearch Library to say hello to old friends and acquaintances and found them immersed in helping patrons and teaching classes. My heart goes out these volunteers who have continued to try to serve under very uncertain and difficult circumstances. Isn't it about time some relief and clarification of their situation is provided to these valiant servants?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Is Family History a Sunday School class?

In talking to Family History Consultants during my travels across the United States and Canada and while working in the BYU Family History Library, I almost always ask them about the family history activity in their wards, In response, I usually hear a statement about the fact that "we don't have a family history class scheduled right now." The implication of this statement is that the Family History Consultant is essentially "on vacation" until someone agrees to have a "class." The answer to this comment is simple. Family History in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a Sunday School Class.

Historically, the most common approach to promoting family history in the Church has been to "hold a class to teach the members how to do family history (or genealogy)." The classes usually consisted of the instructor hauling in a huge pile of family group records bound in "Books of Remembrance" and telling about how they discovered a remote ancestor in some obscure German record or whatever. Most recently, the entire process was codified in a brief manual entitled, "The Member's Guide to Temple and Family History" and a supporting DVD of lesson materials. Both the manual and the DVD have now been discontinued by the Church.

From my own experience in teaching the Sunday "classes" using the materials provided, those attending the class usually either stopped coming after a week or two or even if they stayed for the entire course, they failed to take any positive steps to begin doing research into their families for the purpose of finding ancestral names to take to the temples. I have talked to a large number of class participants who have been to more than one series of such classes and who still do not understand how to get started.

Many years ago, when I was still living in Mesa, Arizona, we abandoned the idea of having classes altogether and simply began conducting a "workshop" where the members of our ward could come and receive help with their research. After persisting with this format for a few years, we saw remarkable results in increased activity in the ward and ultimately the entire stake.

The basic concept here is that family history in the Church is not a program, but a principle of the Gospel. See "Family History: Not a Program of the Church, But a Principle of the Gospel." The basic instruction for family history consultants is now found on in a section called "My Family History Calling." If you spend the time to work through the instructions on, you will see a few important principles: teaching family history involves learning some basic skills about and the Family Tree, in-depth learning and teaching are supported by The Family History Guide and instruction and help is best provided in a one-on-one environment.

For the time being, the Leaders Guide to Temple and Family History Work is still available online in PDF format. See
Quoting from the Guide on pages 17 and 18:
Holding a temple and family history class is a good way to increase participation and interest in family history. The class can be used to help with ward activation, retention, and missionary efforts. Anyone may be invited to attend the class. The ward council may decide to invite certain ward members. The class is taught by an effective instructor, who may or may not be a family history consultant. The class may be taught during Sunday School or at another time that is more convenient for members. It is taught under the direction of the bishopric rather than the Sunday School president.
Lessons are generally conducted as workshops in which members actually complete their own family history work, either on the computer or on paper. Where feasible, class participants should have access to computers. Many meetinghouses are currently being equipped with wireless Internet connections. 
The number of class participants should be limited to the number who can be given personal help. The class can be repeated as often as necessary to accommodate all who desire to attend. 
Family history consultants can provide personal help to participants during the class as well as after the class in members’ homes or family history centers. 
The key provisions here are that the help is given in a workshop environment, one-on-one, and preferably in the person's home or a family history center.

Family History Consultants should be involved in learning the skills necessary to help others rather than waiting around for a class to be held. Training resources are now available through The Family History Guide and Family History Consultants should be proactive. They should be, in effect, missionaries for family history and actively seeking opportunities to help others find their ancestors using the website and the additional tools that are now available.

Family history is not a Sunday School Class.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Family History Guide at #RootsTech 2017

I have been involved in using and now supporting The Family History Guide for quite some time for the simple reason that I think it is the best, available way to learn and teach genealogical research and the Family Tree. As I have mentioned in previous posts, my wife and I have been asked to serve on the Advisory Board for the program. The Family History Guide is a free program created, operated and maintained by a non-profit L3C corporation. I was recently asked to help promote the program by teaching at their booth at #RootsTech 2017.  The plan is to have a schedule for miniclasses at The Family History Guide RootsTech booth, #1133. There are 9 different classes planned for a total of 45 sessions - all free. All of the classes are 15 minutes each, with a 15-min. break in-between for Q&A & setup. The schedule is subject to change based on a number of factors. Here is a copy of the tentative schedule:

It is sort-of hard to read, but the legend for the instructors is as follows: BI = Bob Ives BT = Bob Taylor JT = James Tanner LB = Laurie Beardall GM = Gail Martinez

You might notice that I will be presenting almost every hour during the three-day conference. Right now, this is the plan but there is always a possibility that there may be conflicts so the schedule is somewhat flexible. 

If you have been to RootsTech before, you will find The Family History Guide booth, just past the Cyber-cafe where they have free sodas all day. You can also plug in your computers or whatever there. I will be splitting my time between the Media Center where the RootsTech Ambassadors hangout and The Family History Guide booth. In between, I will be talking and walking around to see the exhibitors. 

At the Brigham Young University Family History Library, we have been using The Family History Guide for some time to orient and teach the new missionaries as they begin their service. Recently The Family History Guide became a FamilySearch Partner and was linked from the website

Both my wife and I are convinced that The Family History Guide is currently the best instructional aid for family history that is available and after some thought, I decided there were few ways I could better spend my time at RootsTech 2017. If you are able to visit the conference, take a moment to say hello.

By the way, both my wife and I are unpaid, volunteers for the program. You also might notice in some of the promotional material and on the website for The Family History Guide that I am referred to as Dr. James Tanner. The title comes from my law degree and technically, in academic circles, I am a "Doctor." 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Confronting the Changes in the FamilySearch Family Tree

Rumblings and mumblings continue about changes being made to the Family Tree. Changes in the Family Tree are inevitable. That is exactly what it is designed to do. Changes are a sign that the Family Tree is healthy and growing as it should. In working with the patrons and missionaries at the Brigham Young University Family History Library this past week or so, I have once again been required to address complaints about the changes being made to the Family Tree.

I continue to write about the Family Tree because that is what I work with and support now nearly every day of my life. Ever since its introduction, the Family Tree has been the source of continued misunderstanding and, in some cases, antagonism over the issue of other users of the program making changes. If you spend any time at all working on the Family Tree, you will begin to see entries change. I will, once again, discuss both the reasons for these changes and how the effects of the ability to make changes can be minimalized.

First and foremost, the Family Tree is a wiki and has been designed to allow registered users to make changes. Except for very few entries that have been rendered "Read Only," all of the entries in the Family Tree can potentially be changed, edited or deleted. In some cases, the ability to delete individuals and entries have been limited to allowing only the person who entered the entry or information to delete that entry or information. But other than these limit restrictions, everything in the Family Tree is subject to change.

The ability of the Family Tree to change is essential to its purpose and survival. Objections to the changes usually originate because of a lack of understanding of the Family Tree's purpose. The Family Tree is unique. It is the first time that an attempt has been made to create a universal family tree that accommodates entries for the entire human family and that has been seeded with over 100 years of previously accumulated data.

Some of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are also motivated to contribute to the Family Tree because it is the primary method for submitting family names for temple ordinances. See Gospel Topics: Temples. Although the percentage of members actually using the Family Tree for this purpose is very small compared to the total number of members of the Church.

I have focused my genealogical efforts on the Family Tree for the following reasons:

  • The Family Tree has the greatest potential of preserving my data for the future
  • The Family Tree is quickly becoming a unified source, like a clearing house, where I can determine how much genealogical research has already been done on any individual
  • Because of the unified nature of the Family Tree, I am much less likely to be duplicating the research of others
  • The Family Tree is supported by a vast database of original genealogical source records
  • Through the FamilySearch Partner Programs, I can significantly expand my research efforts into other vast collections of genealogically significant sources
There are many more reasons including the undeniable fact of my mortality and the undeniable implication that I will probably never finish doing all the research and organization that I need to do. 

Now, what do I do about the changes? There is an unwarranted assumption that all changes are bad. That is an extremely egocentric position for anyone to take. My experience with the Family Tree is that most of the changes are beneficial. Those who complain about changes are usually focusing on a particular person or segment of their own portion of the Family Tree. 

Over the years I have been working on the Family Tree, I have seen the number of changes in certain family lines almost disappear. I attribute this to the following actions that I and my family members have taken.
  • We have added all the available documentation, stories, photos and sources. This fact alone has nearly stopped any changes being made in my first six or seven generations as shown on the Family Tree. I consistently find that the people who are complaining about changes have not yet taken the time to add sources, documentation, stories, and photos (if available).
  • We watch all of the individuals in our area of focus and concern so that we get weekly notifications from FamilySearch of any changes.
  • We quickly modify or remove any inappropriate changes, especially those made without any supporting sources or documentation.
  • In some cases, we communicate with the people making the changes to ascertain the reason for the changes. We request documentation where none has been provided. 
  • We make comments about the existence of source information that can be used to decide the accuracy of the information already in the Family Tree.
  • Where we have little or no data, we simply wait to make any corrections until we can do adequate research. 
  • We welcome and thank others for well documented and appropriate changes.
  • We avoid getting into change wars over remote ancestors with little or no documentation. 
Of all these actions, the most important are watching the Family Tree and regularly reviewing the changes sent each week by FamilySearch. 

Some changes are being made in an irrational manner. For example, we have an entirely undocumented person named Pardon Tanner who is repeatedly added to my third great-grandfather, John Tanner, as a child. There is no documentation of this person's existence and yet, he keeps appearing as an entry. In cases like this, there is really no way to prevent these bogus changes from occurring. We simply continue to watch the tree and remove him as a child when someone new puts that information into the Family Tree. 

If you are one of those Family Tree users who goes for long periods of time without viewing or working on the Family Tree, I suggest that you realize that changes are inevitable and that, like weeds in an unattended garden, they will proliferate in the absence of constant care and consistent work.