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In order for you to better understand what I am about to say concerning my experience at the 2011 RootsTech conference, I probably need to admit where I fall within the wide spectrum of people who attended this event. Squarely in the middle. I am 55 years old. I started doing genealogy seriously 3 years ago, and consider myself to be well beyond an intermediate researcher. My working career was spent in the technology field where I spent over 20 years involved in technical writing and software testing in a rapidly changing computer environment. With this background I am generally in favor of technology and the positive changes it has brought to our lives. Just look how far we have come is so short a time. I look at the self-published 90-page booklet created by my great aunt Edith, The Gillespie Family Record, and I shake my head to think that she had no computer in the 1960's. Where did she learn about our family? That was leg work, pure and simple, maybe letters and telephone, and flying and driving to meet people. How did she store that information? Most likely in lots of file cabinets. And how did she publish? With a typewriter, carbon paper, and probably a mimeograph machine. She spent years of her life accumulating and publishing the family history as best she could and leaving it in a form that we could find and learn from. Now, some 50 years later, it took me a week to enter her booklet onto ancestry.com, and subsequently correct some mistakes, uncover a few untold tales, and more than double the individuals who are known to be related to this branch of my family tree. I can research, record, and publish in a matter of days where it took Aunt Edith weeks, months, years. She was dedicated, and I feel no less so, and I have every intention to use this wonderful technology to further our family history as far as I possibly can. And now of course, there is the generation behind me. They communicate in abbreviated codes and type with their thumbs faster than I can find my cell phone when it occasionally rings. To them, email is outdated, and to me Facebook and Tweeting are absurd. And yet, the peaceful and democratic revolution that recently happened in Egypt was carried out almost entirely by young people using Twitter. And so with that introduction, I-in-the-middle arrived at RootsTech in Salt Lake City during the first week of February, 2011. My experience there was a mixed bag, and when I look at the internet this afternoon and see the miles of accolades for this event, I shrink a little and think maybe I was perhaps not sophisticated enough to attend such a conference. But let me press forward, because among all the feelings racing around inside me is an awareness that I do have a responsibility to the future both with my own family history and how it is being researched and written now and how it will be preserved and passed on, but also with the communities and the context in which I live my life now and how we can influence what the future understands about the real values of the lives we're living. There are two general topics I want to tell about from my experience at RootsTech. But before I introduce those topics, I want to say that this article is not a comprehensive view of the RootsTech conference and is influenced by several factors:
1. I did not go to RootsTech with the intention of being a reporter, and so I did not make it my job to “cover” everything. There were plenty of professional bloggers there covering it all, and those reports can now be found all over the internet. 2. I had a definite sense of overwhelm before lunch came along on the very first day. It was not just information overload, which I will speak to in the next point. It was the logistics of 3000 people in a huge convention center where it was not easy to find where I wanted to go. Then I came to find some of the workshops I wanted to go to were full, meaning the room was overflowing with people and there was no hope of getting in to hear or see anything. This turned me off in a big way, and I found myself spending time instead wandering around the Exhibit Hall looking at miles of products. That in itself is another topic for writing, and I probably should relate a couple of things I saw in that Exhibit Hall that made my mind spin. But that's another article. What I'm saying here is that you are about to read of my experience after attending a rather small sampling of all the sessions that were offered. I took plenty of time off in between events just to sit and breathe or slip away for a few quiet hours at the Family History Library. 3. I had some emotional reactions to the information coming my way, and honestly, I was not expecting that. Maybe for that reason, I have struggled to write this report, wondering that emotion is inappropriate in a report about technical advances. But I have nevertheless arrived at simply acknowledging my complete experience, and now put forth my trust that this writing in itself helps to assuage my inner conflicts.
The Big Picture
First, let me give you a bullet list of themes I heard repeatedly at this conference. I think it will give you a good introduction to the topics I really want to discuss, which follow. So, are you ready for the bullets? • users are about to bypass the PC experience • information is the most important natural resource of the next several decades, especially for health, education, and welfare • information is doubling every 4 years (also Morris' Law: technology doubles every 18 months) • we are becoming prosumers not consumers • organize research around themes • when friction and filtering are reduced, innovation happens What do we (genealogists) really want (from technology)? • build a database built on records (sources) not on names • open source software and web-based genealogical databases – we want to own our own data: google docs, ZoWho, WeRelate, Reunion • expanded search: why aren't we creating websites shared by both historians and genealogists? It's better to collaborate, more indexes, bigger data banks, multiple communities, easier to share cost. Raise awareness and recognition of record preservation; reach out to other historians; we are using the same data through different searches • social media: genealogy software that integrates with facebook and others • we want to go beyond just name and date, 4-5 records lead to that conclusion; check out the GenSmarts program • standard metadata set: don't just attach a record, don't just cite a document, provide context, historical, genealogical, enter by records not names; enter documents and use software to automatically transcribe or automatically abstract
easy uploads: tell a library what you're giving them. Books are going gone, how do we give libraries our data? Digitally preserve for the long term and disseminate.
Are you exhausted already trying to comprehend even pieces of those bullets? Or like most of the RootsTech conference attendees, are you so excited you can hardly contain yourself at the prospect of these amazing possibilities? Remember, I am in the middle.....
So now, on to my first RootsTech topic. Until a month or so ago, I had never heard of the term “cloud” and at RootsTech, the cloud was hanging over nearly every presentation and conversation. So let me try to summarize what I think I learned about it. The “cloud” refers to service-based computing power for the masses. What that means essentially is that somebody else provides the applications you want to run, and even the hardware where it runs, and all you do is “lease” time to use those services. You pay only for what you use. So you no longer have to buy a bunch of hardware and worry about getting viruses or not having data backups when systems crash, and you don't have to pay big bucks for some software you only use once in awhile. You can “rent” Microsoft Office for a week and move on. All the applications you need and want are running out in the cloud and all you have to do is plug in and use it for as long and as short a time as you want or need. If you use Family Search on the internet, you know their web site has recently changed – in a big way. That's because the folks in Salt Lake City made the big decision to switch to cloud computing. They looked at the enormous costs of running bigger and bigger computers as they move forward with the gigantic task of digitizing their collection. Not only is the hardware and software investment enormous, but it takes an army of people to maintain day and night. Now all that is being handled by amazon.com! Yes, AWS (Amazon Web Services) offers EC2 (Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud). So on Sunday afternoons when the usage of familysearch.org spikes, EC2 automatically expands the hardware to handle all the usage, and then by Tuesday at 2 a.m. when family researchers are finally sleeping, EC2 automatically cuts back on the machines being used to handle the familysearch web site. It's a whole new infrastructure, and it entails a whole new way of storing information. The Family Search databases have been restructured and code has been rewritten, all to facilitate running in the cloud. For us as consumers of the information, we notice that something is going on, but essentially we are still getting what we want, which is free access to familysearch data. The difference is that the LDS folks can now get back to their real task, which is capturing records and making them findable and accessible to the world. Like most everything else presented at this conference, this technology means we will have to think differently. Even though it is an illusion, we will in the future assume we have infinite resources when we think about what we want software to do for us. It will be like electricity. We don't have to think about the huge facilities that generate the power or the infrastructure required to deliver it. We just turn on switches and pay by the hour (or kilowatt). This is great for consumers because it helps to equalize the power of having certain applications at our fingertips. Even if I can't afford to buy Microsoft Office (quite expensive), I can still use it to prepare my resume or a genealogical PowerPoint presentation. But I think it also opens the doors for ALL of us to realize that any of our big ideas can be realized. I still have to pay for the service, but I no longer have to own or operate all the intricacies associated with power computing. What might be possible if I thought my ideas could be implemented in the
cloud and I didn't have to spend the rest of my life trying to learn the next programming language or hardware upgrade or web capability. Might ideas flourish even more?! It's important to realize that the cloud is not a someday idea. It is happening right this second, when you type www.familysearch.org. Yes, to my own surprise I learned we are already in the cloud.
The second topic I want to present is called “Second Life.” The presentation about Second Life was given mostly by dearMyrtle and Tami Glatz, both well-loved and well-respected genealogy bloggers. Tami is president of APG. During their presentation, they were logged into their “second life” environment and had it projected up on the screen for the audience to see. SecondLife is a virtual website. No, that's not right. SecondLife is a real website that creates a virtual world where you and other characters can move around and communicate with each other. You can get a free account – I think there are paid accounts, but I don't yet know what the extra advantages are for a paid account. In creating a Second Life account, you create an avatar, which is an animated character that represents you in the virtual world. The avatars for both Myrtle and Tami (who go by other pseudonyms in SecondLife) are rather Barbie-like in appearance. I did notice that one member of their virtual group appeared as a small animal – a porcupine or something. They had to create a special straw bale for the porcupine to sit on in their virtual meeting space (everybody else, of course, sits on chairs). So this virtual world can be used by anybody for anything, but the genealogy community has its own specially created meeting places. One is the fire pit, where people just hang out and talk (usually by text chats), but there were several other locations which the genealogists created (I think?) to have their meetings. The avatars “transport” to these various locales at the click of a button, and because these locales are all very graphical, it takes awhile for the environment to “res” in (I believe that's the term they used – what it stands for is resolution I think – initially the virtual environment looks quite stark on the computer screen but eventually the buildings and furniture and flowers and such all start filling in). There are some major meetings being held in this virtual world. There is an APG meeting twice a year, a meeting called “Powerless over our brick walls”, another for RelativelyCurious (Tami's blog name) on 3rd Thursdays – the list of scheduled professional meetings goes on. And then there is the fire pit where people (avatars) can show up any time and talk about what's going on generally. So this virtual world can be likened to the web concept of a “chat room”, except that it's visual. Communication seems to be mostly by text chat, but you can also use voice. Also people can bring powerpoint presentations and give either a real presentation or even a practice presentation. I don't know really what the learning curve is for figuring out how to make your character move around in the virtual world. In the demo we saw, there were definitely 'newbies' present in the virtual world because it took those characters much longer to figure out how to get their avatar to sit down or move across the room. Here is the interview of the real dearMyrtle and Tami Glatz discussing SecondLife: http://blog.dearmyrtle.com/2011/02/dearmyrtle-interviews-tami-glatz-about.html This RootsTech presentation is the one that boggled my mind to the point of dropped-jaw disbelief, and I must tell you that I reacted with some negativity. How can the future of genealogy be about virtual games? Even now I am shaking my head; the idea is just unacceptable. And this is where I have to take note. Whenever I find myself most uncomfortable, I am coming up against a belief of some kind –
which is not a bad thing, but it indicates a behavior that I have locked in either consciously or unconsciously. What is the belief behind my reaction? Genealogy is, after all, about people, and it's bad enough that most of my genealogical time and thought centers around dead people. Somewhere, some how, we have to connect where we have come from to the present, in our own lives, with our own relations, and yes, with other real-live personal historians who relish in discovering and honoring the past. That's what genealogical societies have given us – a chance to find others who share an interest, to share our stories and our experience, to help and encourage, to learn. Surely, all these real-life connections will be lost by playing around in a virtual reality. Surely. I couldn't really appreciate dearMyrtle or Tami in person during the presentation because my mind went into shock, I think, by what I was seeing on the screen. But in watching the video interview now (see link earlier in this article), I really notice Tami using the word “fun”. There is no question that these mature and professional genealogists are having fun. They are connecting with each other on a very regular basis, and they are in fact accomplishing all the things I think a genealogical society wants to accomplish, without the human contact. No, that's wrong. I guess I have to say without physical contact because the truth is that the people who are advocating this virtual world are obviously sharing a closeness that is hard to deny. At first I think how terrible is the fact of physical separation, but is it really that? I look at the reality of my own life as a genealogist. My “career” started with ancestry.com. By making my tree public, I was quickly able to connect with cousins I didn't know I had as well as with other researchers who are working on related lines and who share an interest in the same times and places. My genealogical contact list is now sizable. With some contacts, I communicate daily, others weekly, some every other month or so. We are sharing both research and tidbits about our day-to-day lives in the present. We send Christmas cards. And after three years of building this genealogical contact list, I have met in person only one of these remarkable people! Is that bad? I don't think so. The computer has allowed me to find my people, communicate widely day and night, and build relationships even though we are geographically separated. All this is a good thing, and I think it might have its application to genealogical societies. As mentioned in the SecondLife video, there are members who cannot travel to meetings because of caretaking of elders or children or both, or because of their own personal limitations. I, for one, live in Boulder, and because I have a back problem and an issue with driving at night, the chances of me attending a Friday night meeting of the Colorado Genealogical Society in Lakewood are reduced. But would I log in if the meeting were online? I bet I would. Would I wish that both were possible – a physical meeting AND more online meetings? Yes, I would.
What Conclusions, If Any?
Curt Witcher, who is the Historical Genealogy Manager at Allen County Public Library (Ft. Wayne, Indiana, has the second largest genealogical collection in the country), gave a general session presentation called “The Changing Face of Genealogy”. He talked a lot about “the power of telling our story” and how we need to be (and are moving toward) spending less time finding, and more time evaluating and telling our stories. This is happening through things like Flickr photo streams, Family Search Wiki pages, and RootsTelevision. To further the goal of spending less time finding, a public school system in rural Indiana has given all their students only iPads, NO BOOKS. I find that shocking. How can this be? Please don't tell me any more.
But there is more. Witcher went on to say that most of today's new researchers do not belong to genealogical societies because there is no return on investment in a membership; they find everything they need online, more or less for free. I heard this statement with some amount of sadness because I know if not for the genealogical societies around the world, my own research would be quickly deadended. Will these societies become a thing of the past? I think it more likely that Mr. Witcher, himself in charge of one of the most amazing libraries in the country, was challenging genealogical societies as well as individuals like me to look at change as an opportunity rather than seeing all these vast new differences as a difficulty. So consider me challenged. In non-virtual reality, technology is doubling every 18 months and there are days when I think there might well be a point when I can no longer keep up. But maybe that's me feeling scared. Witcher ended his presentation by saying that today's genealogy is about the experience – it must be about engagement and success and fun. There's that word again, fun. People engage in what gives them fun; they are not likely to do things that result in pain and failure. I personally think this is not altogether true of many genealogists who keep searching for years or lifetimes for that one puzzle piece that may or may not ever emerge. Nevertheless, I live my day-to-day with today's teenagers, and the point is well taken that the future demands a different kind of engagement. I find myself staring at the video of two well-respected women in the genealogy world talking about how much fun they are having in the virtual world of SecondLife. Is this really the future for genealogy? Why do I have such mixed feelings about it? For one thing, it strikes at the core of why we do genealogical work at all. I believe many of us would say we do genealogy because we want to leave a legacy. And right away I remember the RootsTech speaker who wanted to know this: what legacy is there to the scholarly approach of genealogy? Did he really say that out loud?? But he continued on to make his point. If I leave behind a 300-page book about my family history, I would have to believe my descendants are willing to go to a library to look for it. If, indeed, my book could be found at any library, in any form. Or I could leave a multi-media database that can be found by my descendants from wherever they call home any time of the day or night. Which one is a true legacy? But even as I write this, my heart is pounding as if the mere consideration of such a thought is somehow sacrilegious. What else rubs me wrong? Well, what's true for me is that I like what I've come to know. I like what I'm good at, which is to say I know how to get around in a library and I know how to get what I want out of the internet. What will change with all this technological advance? I will spend less time traveling and more time finding what I want from the immediacy of my own home-space world. But some part of me loves the physical journey outside myself. Stepping foot on the ground where my ancestors lived, finding a grave that has been otherwise unknown for a hundred years, meeting people who remember something I'll never find in any document of record, these are all things that make me feel an aliveness bubbling under all the piles of data. And yet in the very same breath, what I realize is that part of my resistance to this message of change is that I am completely addicted to the search. Every time I sit down to write a story, I get stuck. I have reams of material to tell about, but honestly just let me go back to the logistics of travel and research because, of course, that will never end, and somewhere along the way will be that thrill of discovery rushing through my body. So if I deep-down love the story so much, why don't I spend more time telling it? Because then it becomes personal. Then you might see me. Interestingly, I heard the author Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, talk on Science Friday (NPR) about the growing preference to avoid real human contact. From what I understand of her premise, she explores the question of whether our growing reliance on technology will evolve into human hollowness. Turkle doesn't want to throw away technology but suggests that each of us as individuals must think about when and how to
apply it. Now more than ever, this subject presses in my psyche, and I'll probably order Turkle's book to further consider her research on the topic. I see that her book is available for immediate download to my Nook...... Well, let me end this article with a couple thoughts about how I am assimilating all this information and where I plan to go from here. My first thought is about blogging. I have realized that I should be using blogging technology to communicate my research thoughts/findings to my growing list of genealogical contacts, and thus potentially find others who are interested in the same. So I am working on creating a website to post my family tree and a link to a new blog. Gasp. Maybe it will contain this article. Yikes. Maybe I will tell somebody at my home genealogical society about it all. Gadzooks. I am dragging my feet, but I got this far writing this article, so anything could happen. My next thought is about how to find the middle ground, since that is, obviously, where I currently stand. How do I use the power of technology to reach not only the truth of my/our past, but also to do that work and tell that story in such a way that I come closer to reaching the full potential of what it means to be human? Isn't that really why we do anything? Who saw the recent movie Avatar? If you can survive the visual stimulation, perhaps some genealogists besides me noticed how the protagonist (in the form of an animated character, of course) could not, in the end, save the day without going to a magical grove to “plug into” the voices of the ancestors and ask for their help. And that, I believe, is also a truth of our reality. No one would exist here in the now to brandish our technological prowess without the Ones Who Came Before. Sometimes, privately, I pray for their guidance.
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