Inexplicably, many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are entirely unaware of the world-wide nature of family history interest and express surprise that "non-members" are interested in family history at all. Likewise, in light of the rapidly evolving technology of genealogical community, members with little or no interest in family history are being left further and further behind. This was pointedly illustrated to me yesterday when a patron came into the Brigham Young University Family History Library with two huge bags containing three ring binders of print outs from the Personal Ancestral File program. The patron had no idea how all of the thousands of pages of printed material containing thousands of family names could be entered into computer programs.
The patron was unaware of where digital files of the records could be found and further, upon examination of the paper records, it was evident that there was not a shred of documentation for any of the records. The immediate problem presented by the patron was how to access an Ancestry.com family tree uploaded by a relative. The first challenge came when I discovered that she had not completely signed into Ancestry.com with an LDS Account. Much of the first hours or so was taken up with working out logins and passwords.
The situation encountered by this patron is far from unusual. I had at least four or five discussions with the same theme in the last two or three days. These are people that are feeling the need to "do their family history" but are confronted by the realities of technology and the complexity of inherited family history files and documents. Granted, from the perspective of the entire membership of the Church, the number of people in this situation are relatively small. But in the past, most of the actual research done in finding ancestors came from the parents and grandparents of this small percentage of the total membership. Historically, the involvement of the general membership of the Church in family history has waxed and wained. There have been many programs to involve the members that have come and gone. Much of what we hear today is only a repetition of what has been said many times in the past.
What has changed is the technology. My distinct memories of family history instructors walking into a classroom with a huge pile of large family history binders with hundreds or thousands of pages of Family Group Records, are now relegated to the category of ancient history. As I pointed out to the patron at the BYU Family History Library, I had at least as much information on my iPhone as was contained in all the thousands of pages being lugged around in two large sacks.
In light of the effort being expended to encourage more involvement in family history, perhaps it would be helpful to direct a little bit of attention to the problems faced by those who have inherited massive amounts of family history with no apparent way to handle the huge number of "relatives" in their family tree. The tragedy is that the tools for handing and dealing with this mass of data are well in hand and freely available to all the members. What is lacking is an awareness of what those tools are and what they can do to help the members.
Most of the effort being expended concerning family history is presently directed at introducing new, younger, candidates to family history, but at the same time, little effort is directed to help those facing the challenges of age, lack of technological background, and skills that no longer seem relevant. These same people and their children or other relatives are now faced with the massive job of verifying and confirming the work of the last one hundred and fifty years. Granted, they now have the technological tools to face the task, but there is little support for or attention given to their plight.
They are being told that "all they have to do is go to the Family Tree and find new names to take to the Temple," but when they do, they find a huge mass of unsourced data and they have no idea how to approach this seeming mammoth task. So, how do we attract new, younger, more tech-savvy adherents while at the same time not abandoning the huge data pile already accumulated and the task of adding sources and retaining the assistance of those who already know how to "do family history?"
I don't think we do this by abandoning the small percentage of those who know how to do the work already. There is a lot that can and should be done by every member of the Church, but there are also challenges in family history that need specialized attention from experienced, professional level researchers. I am not in any way disparaging the efforts to include a younger and larger base of involvement, but I am hoping that this can be done without abandoning the seasoned researchers and those who have the motivation to become knowledgeable.
My own past experience is very typical of the path many experienced family historians have had to follow. Although some gain their interest through the mentoring of a grandparent or parent, I have had almost no contact from others in my immediate family concerning family history. I was relatively young, even by today's standards when I began the task of accumulating and evaluating my own family history. For most of my formative years in family history, I have had virtually zero support from my known family members. It was not until I had contact with more distant relatives that I found anyone seemingly interested in what I was doing or had done.
I am somewhat jealous of the experiences of those who had a grandparent or other relative that "told them family stories" and ignited their interest in family history. It took me years of experience before I would have been considered to be even basically qualified to do family history and many more years of intensive study, classes and conferences to gain whatever knowledge I now have. My concern is that those who have spent their time following their own path to family history competency are not swept under the carpet in the rush to include more people in the effort. I know many people of all ages who have the potential to do massive amounts of research who are stymied by the lack of support for "the next level" of family history research.
The recent RootsTech 2015 Conference is an example of what can be done to support both the experienced family historians and at the same time recruit new researchers. But having a once a year conference does not help when I am faced with a never ending supply of people who have to face massive amounts of family history data and do not know where to go to find help. I can only write and teach so much in the face of a seemingly endless need.