Transforming the genealogy experience - family history survey response (5/5)

  • By David Rencher
  • October 21, 2011

Over the weekend we shared the results of our recent survey on family history. The survey found that more people than ever are interested in learning about their family history but they (on average) know even less about their genealogy. This week, five of the genealogy community’s top thinkers will share their reactions.

Today we feature David E. Rencher. David is the Chief Genealogical Officer of FamilySearch and past-president of both the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the Utah Genealogical Association.

Genealogy Survey Results for Family History Month

With every new pursuit comes a learning curve – genealogy and family history are no different. So it’s not surprising that while interest in family history is high, the knowledge of how to do genealogy is less. Not unlike my interest in golf is high, but my knowledge and skill of how to play the game are low.

So where does that leave us? It’s the experience we can create for those who have high interests, but less knowledge about a particular pursuit. In the last decade, the experience surrounding genealogy and family history has taken the same ride on the Internet that virtually all other disciplines have taken. While we would like to believe we’re steering it, a far more likely scenario is that it’s steering us. Thus my colleagues this week have aptly pointed out that we are suffering from information overload.

The experience encountered by all of us from this overload of information can be particularly unnerving to the beginner who just wants to learn more about their family. Beginners start with an interest in their family spawned by perhaps stories and family memorabilia – they want to connect what they know in living memory to the array of historical documents they discover online.

However, they quickly encounter the pitfalls of research that more experienced researchers know all too well – ambiguity in names, localities and records suddenly present them with several possible ancestral possibilities. Not unlike my experience on the golf course – it looks easy when Tiger does it!

As a community, we haven’t lowered the barrier to entry for the beginner by giving them the answer to the question they most want to know – “where do I start?” Others of my colleagues have suggested mentors to assist those who know how to research to assist those with lesser skills. Perhaps we can find the solution with online resources that can create a rewarding experience that satisfies the natural curiosity about one’s family history and connect those who know how to assist.

Family history consists of a series of actions uncovering pieces of information that create an accurate picture of a family through a process of gradual disclosure. The Internet is the antithesis of sound genealogical research – web rankings bought and sold; sites that fail to describe what you’ve searched by virtue of searching their database and a fundamental principle of genealogy ignored – if you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where to go next. It’s no wonder that beginners are swimming in a sea of not knowing how to conduct genealogical research.

Well, that can change if the industry focuses on solving the challenging problems of creating high-quality matching algorithms; name and locality authority systems; and producing high-quality record content. The task then becomes to create the engaging experience that beginners and others can enjoy – bring the family history to life regardless of what direction or interest the inquirer has be it a pictorial, genetic, story-based, or lineage-linked.

As an industry, this survey serves as a good benchmark to see if we can make significant progress toward creating an experience the beginner enjoys and finds successful over the next five years. We have an incredible opportunity coming up with the release of the 1940 U.S. Federal Census in April 2012. Few record sets have the ability to close the gap between living memory and the other historical records and place families in context like the census. Let’s hope we find some real answers and lower the barriers to entry for those who have an interest in their family history but don’t know where to start!

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About David E. Rencher

David E. Rencher, AG, CG, FIGRS, FUGA, is employed by the Family History Department in Salt Lake City as the Chief Genealogical Officer for FamilySearch. A professional genealogist since 1977, he was accredited in Ireland research in 1981. He graduated from Brigham Young University in 1980 with a B.A. in Family and Local History. He is the Irish course coordinator and instructor for the Samford University Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research (IGHR) in Birmingham, Alabama. He is a past-president the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) 1997-2000 and of the Utah Genealogical Association (UGA) 1993-1995 and a Fellow of that organization.

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