02 April 2013

RootsTech 2013 - Personal Reflections on a Pendulum Ride

After catching up on some much needed sleep, I have been reflecting on my overall RootsTech 2013 experience. I was on a pendulum swinging back and forth from highs to lows but never quite reaching the floor.  I found myself sitting on both sides of a fence wondering where to land but never failing to see both sides as green.

Let me explain.

I was anxiously preparing for RootsTech in the weeks prior when my 102 year-old mother-in-law's health went quickly downhill. Mom was a very strong woman with healthy long genes which she didn't fully appreciate! She had for years felt it was "her time" to go feeling she wasn't able to be productive. Mind you, she lived alone in her own home until she was 98 when her vision and steadiness started to wane, and she had been alone since her husband died in 1971. She was terribly mistaken about her value - she served others her entire life.  She made a great difference in other people's lives and not just with her tiny family of descendants. She made friends wherever she went right up until the end.

Mom grew up mostly living a very poor life on a rural farm in northern Utah with eight siblings. She managed to put herself through nursing school, became a registered nurse and served thousands of patients, family and friends for about 50 years before she finally let her license expire.

She sang to her friends at mealtimes. Sang when someone made her smile. Sang to cheer herself up. Sang to bring joy to others. She appreciated every moment and every smile or act of service from others.

She loved family history and worked on it for many years until her eyesight failed her. She was thrilled knowing I was so interested in family history and had been much of my life. I would carry it forward.

Mom passed to the other side two days before my activities at RootsTech began - early Monday morning. It was finally "her time" to leave.   Wednesday morning we buried her in a simple service so indicative of how she led her life. Wednesday afternoon I began my RootsTech journey -just the way she would have wanted it.

Part 2 - As one day closes to the living, another day opens to the past.

A few years ago I received an email from "Jackie" who had spotted my name listed as a submitter of data on the FamilySearch tree. Jackie said she and her husband had been going through some boxes of family memorabilia and found a very old leather-bound bible in a cardboard box labeled as her mother-in-law's family bible. She soon realized that the bible did not belong to her husband's family. She told me the names found in the bible and asked me if I would be interested in having it?  The name she shared with me came from the marriage page and was the brother of my great grandmother.

I was so giddy with excitement I could hardly breathe! I immediately wrote back and said I would very much be interested in obtaining the bible. We talked of making arrangements to meet.  Understand, it's not the bible, per se, but a link to my family I never knew! My biological grandfather died when my mother was seven-years-old and she never got over it. I felt her pain. I yearned to know more about him and, his line is my biggest brick wall.

Then some weeks later my heart fell when I received another email from "Jackie". She didn't know what to do as she had received another response from her email saying that he was a direct-line descendant and wanted the bible. I cried.

It took me a while but I bucked up, prayed, and decided to do the Christ-like thing.  I told her I totally understood and if I was the most direct descendant I would want it too. We left it at that and have continued to correspond the past three years. Jackie and I became online friends. I still wanted to meet this unfamiliar cousin, see the bible, and share stories.

Well, time went by and as a RootsTech blogger was given the opportunity to give away a registration to RootsTech via a contest on my blog. I received many entries for the contest. When the time came to select a winner I made up folded slips of paper with names of each entrant. (Not exactly scientific!) I always put the burden on my husband to select the winner. I threw the papers in the air and he grabbed one as they fluttered to the ground. To my surprise, "Jackie" had entered and won the registration!

Jackie and I had to email a number of times over the course of several weeks because of a communication issue at FamilySearch in getting the registration info for her.  She shared with me that she had never heard back from the "other person" concerning the bible that we had talked about a few years earlier and would still like to give me the bible!

I had such an overwhelming feeling of love for my family, for Jackie's kindness, and for the power of prayer. My heart was full.

THE bible
I met Jackie and her wonderful husband standing in the registration line at RootsTech and holding this cardboard box containing the bible. I just couldn't believe that this was happening. It was like she was handing me a piece of my family that I could touch and feel. It put a face on family history and provided a physical link to the past! I had nothing of my family passed down to me. I only had one photo of my grandfather. I had sad memories of my mother’s loss of her father at such an early age. Somehow this simple act gave me hope that I will eventually find a way to break through that brick wall.

I told Jackie that I would love to get together with her during RootTech but I never saw her again over the next several days. I jokingly wonder if she was real! I will continue to pray for Jackie and her family and be ever grateful for her kind deed.

I returned to my hotel room that evening and was so touched by the experience of opening this incredible piece of my history. As I flipped to the handwritten pages in the middle of the book I was a bit shocked at the contents. Yes, the marriage page was that of my great granduncle and aunt. However, the pages containing the births and deaths were of my grandfather's siblings - all those who were born and died prior to his birth. This was my family's bible!
Grandpa on the right

My grandmother who married into this line had told us about a family bible but after she died in 1971 no bible was ever found. We spent years looking and asking questions to no avail. Now I ask, is it possible this was the missing bible Grandma talked about? I may never know the answer to that, but I question not this beautiful gift that Jackie shared with me! I am so grateful for her selfless act.

Part 3 - The pendulum keeps swaying

Blogger Dinner
Since official RootTech bloggers are provided some early communication over a pre-conference dinner, we all get the opportunity to visit, get reacquainted or meet new friends. Friendships are developed, growing in an amazingly few minutes over food!  With such common interests, we become a family of potential cousins. Stories are shared, brick walls are dented and we band together in support of one another.

One year ago Dennis Brimhall, President and CEO FamilySearch International, came on board for RootsTech. Speaking to the bloggers, and again often in his keynote speech and interviews, he admittedly was outside his element with all the technology. In a short 12 months he has strengthened FamilySearch, added millions of new records, augmented and shaped support for customers/patrons, and defined a new focus for RootTech; that of discovering ones ancestors through their stories.

That childhood feeling we have of self-discovery often leads us to search for ancestor's names and dates. As we gather documents and build a timeline we can discover who they really were. Not a name and date, but your favorite relative's favorite relative! The one you never had a chance to meet here on earth but began to love and appreciate through this discovery process.

Dennis Brimhall
Dennis Brimhall suggests that maybe the easier way is to start with the stories you already know and love - and the facts come later. Children learn through stories - maybe it's time we remember how simple life can be.

Here is where the pendulum swings again. Which direction, is up to the reader. Yes, professional genealogists pride themselves in 100% accuracy of sourcing to the comma and italics, while others grab at names and numbers and are committed in their belief that Great Aunt Letty spoke or wrote with total accuracy and never stretched the truth. One grows as one discovers that spelling of names doesn't mean much, or that ages on census records are not always accurate. With experience you find people that altered their name to avoid persecution. Or, there really were three children given the name of Thomas in the same family, the first two having died at birth or infancy. We learn from each other.  Family history requires an open mind and a heart in tune with the spirit.

Both sides of this fence are helpful but the true story lies elsewhere and simply. Dennis Brimhall said "we are turning hearts. We are all about helping families fall in love with their ancestors. It's a love story." Is there anyone who doesn't believe in a love story?

Part 4 - Take the pendulum ride once more. Which side of the fence are you on?

During RootsTech, busily tweeting, I found very little time to attend classes, not that I didn't want to or need to, rather because I was so busy collaborating with others, answering questions and enjoying the moments. I have the luxury of living in Utah and have 100's of people I've met, taught, learned from, and become friends with over the years. We can take the opportunity to visit one of the libraries in town, have access to a Family history center usually within a mile or so of home, and attend classes almost daily. We have the best of the best. Yet, there are so many locally who do not partake of these advantages. I ache for them as they are missing out on the joy one can find by truly knowing how they became who they are.

I have taken the step to know my fellow genealogy bloggers online and in person. I respect and appreciate who they are and what niche they play in the family history and genealogy world. They love what they do and are so willing to help everyone.

I loved the buzz at RootsTech -- people from all over the world, those speaking different languages, different roots, different beliefs, and differing views. I found those that loved RootsTech and those who didn't find what they wanted out of it. I understand the differing views and can support each side.

The RootsTech focus appears to be narrowing in scope - or should I say, has chosen to do so. The focus is more on true beginners and intermediate family historians and genealogists. The feeling is that professional genealogists have other avenues for growth, such as FGS, NGS, SLIG (UGA), and Samford (IGHR). This is probably why I heard some genealogists say that RootsTech had no classes that were geared to them. Others found classes labeled as intermediate that were really for beginners and vice versa. It's a tough job trying to figure out what level everyone considers themselves to be. It comes down to what you have learned and what you want to learn. My view of where I am is probably far from where you think I am. To me, that's the fun of discovering new and different views in whatever class I choose to attend.  I believe we can each benefit from whatever class we take, what activity we choose to attend, or even how we choose to interact with other attendees. I personally like the mix of beginners and experts. They feed off each other.  We get out of it what we choose to put into it.

I do agree that the class listings need to be more descriptive so that a beginner or an expert can determine what they might benefit from. I would like to more easily access the syllabus and earlier, so I have time to go through it and make a better informed decision on my personal plan of attack at the conference. I dare bet that many people never did figure out how to get the syllabus material downloaded to their own technology tools. We needed a class on how to do it!  If RootsTech really wants to focus on beginners and intermediates then every step in the process needs to meet that focus.

I want it all!

I'm one of those people who wants it all! I know that's not really feasible, but that's me.  Where do you find yourself on this pendulum? I want to encourage and help beginners get started, enjoy and collaborate with the intermediates, and learn from the experts! And, believe it or not, the experts want to keep getting better! That creates a win-win for everyone. And most of us want to do it all in a one-stop shopping arena! The economy makes it very difficult to attend more than one large conference in a year.  And there is no bigger selling point for RootsTech than the immediate access to the FamilySearch Library in Salt Lake.

One of the greatest changes to come is the focus by FamilySearch to youth involvement in family history.  Many may find this unusual, I mean “what would they know”, but I am a strong supporter of the youth.  I have taught many youth in the basics of family history and they take it and run with it. They see no barriers or brick walls. It may start as a game to them, but once their ancestors touch their hearts they scramble to move forward.

Part 5 -  The Ups and Downs

So bottom line, I found some things about RootsTech that can still be improved upon:
   1.    App issues as listed above;
   2.    More paid lunch classes as they again sold out within a short time of the start of registration;
   3.    Barring space considerations, more hands-on workshops (heard lots of complaints about this)
   4.    A better way of helping all attendees determine what they can walk away with from each class before they sit through 5 or 10 minutes of a class only to find it a waste of their time, then finding another class better suited to their needs and finding it full.
   5.    Classroom sizing was much better this year. However, attendees still spilled into the hallways often. Maybe we need more classes per hour and repeat the ones of major interest.  Yes the cost of space is an issue.

I found things that have improved this year or were enhanced:
   1.    A much larger audience -- 6,700 in pre-registrations; upwards of 10,000 people in attendance from around the world to the live streaming keynotes and classes; about 2,000 youth and youth leaders attended on Saturday special sessions; and another 4-5,000 people attended selected portions of the conference in 16 locations around the world for use at family history fairs, including translations in foreign countries.  If all went well for this test, the audience for 2014 could easily top 120,000 attendees to RootsTech worldwide.
   2.    An exciting focus on the stories within our family history – the stories create the “wow” factor in our lives.
   3.    New technologies continue to be developed to make family history even easier
   4.    Hey, did you even realize there was complementary soda drinks and water in the exhibit hall?
   5.    Did you realize that you could attend other classes all day long inside the exhibit hall?
   6.    Did you find it much easier to make your way around the conference this year? I found better layout for classrooms, keynotes, and in the exhibit hall.

RootsTech 2013 is now complete and on one end of the pendulum swing. I plan to start preparing for RootsTech 2014 as the pendulum swings back! How about you?

Be prepared for new changes to FamilySearch coming in the next couple of weeks! Enjoy! We don’t grow if we don’t change!

Some of the best reading from RootsTech bloggers and the local media:

Muddy Heroes by Nancy Shively at Gathering Stories
My RootsTech 2013: Day 2 by Michael McCormick at Enduring Legacy
RootsTech 2013: Wrap-Up by Schelly Dardashi at My Heritage 
RootsTech 2013: Technological advancements in genealogy by Ryan Morgenegg at LDS Church News
Youth at RootsTech by Jill Ball at Geniaus