Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lisa Louise Cooke: Technology Empowers – #BYUFHGC

Lisa Louise Cooke spoke at the 2015 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy.“Technology can be a little frustrating at times,” said Lisa Louise Cooke. “The good news is that you’re empowered.” Lisa presented the Thursday keynote at the 2015 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy. She titled her presentation “The Future of Technology and Genealogy: Five Strategies You Need.”

Lisa is the founder of Genealogy Gems, a genealogy and family history multimedia company. She is the producer of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, the popular online genealogy audio show, downloaded over 1.5 million times, available at and iTunes. She produces The Family Tree Magazine Podcast, writes for the magazine, and is the author of four popular books.

Lisa had a podcast listener write in and tell her about having a PICNIC. She was having problems on her computer. Her son looked at what she was doing and told her she was having a PICNIC. She didn’t feel like she was having a picnic. At least she didn’t until she learned that PICNIC stands for Problem in Chair, Not In Computer. (Genealogy Gems, podcast 117.) However, you don’t have to stay at the PICNIC. Put yourself into situations where you can learn about technologies.

Put into a situation where she could learn, Lisa fell into her career of genealogy and technology education. In 2007 her daughters got together and decided that Mom needed an iPod. She didn’t have a music collection and movies were not available at the time, so there wasn’t much Lisa could do with it. Then she discovered podcasts. They were free! And she soon discovered that podcasts were being created by ordinary people. She could do it too. This was a way she could share what she was learning about genealogy. That desire has grown into a full-time career for herself, and, more recently, her husband.

A technique you can use to better utilize technology is to think in terms of the individual tasks you do when doing genealogy, rather than looking strictly for genealogy-specific technology.

“I think that Google Earth is one of the most powerful genealogy apps around and it isn’t even a genealogy app,” she said. Lisa showed a Google Earth example along with several other websites and technologies.

Lisa said that genealogists have been slow to utilize video. “We need to catch up.” We can upload our stories and our home movies to YouTube. Just keep clips to ten minutes or less. People have short attention spans. We can also search YouTube. Don’t just search for your ancestors by name. Search for places, events, and other topics associated with your ancestors.

Searching YouTube helped a genealogist discover a movie clip of her grandmother.One of Lisa’s podcast listeners, Laurie Burgess, heard Lisa’s recommendations to utilize YouTube and thought, “Lisa, you’ve lost it. I will never find my ancestors on YouTube.” One day Laurie decided to give it a try. Her grandmother had been royalty in the 1946 Rose Parade. Laurie knew the description of the float upon which her grandmother rode. So, she searched YouTube for “Rose Parade 1946.” She found someone had uploaded an amateur video of part of the parade. As she watched, a float matching the description rolled by. There, riding on the back of the float, was her grandmother! Laurie contacted the video’s contributor and found he had another movie clip he had not uploading. The clip showed her grandmother accepting the royalty trophy.

Lisa closed her presentation with counsel that we not let technology stop us from listening to our ancestors. She shared a personal story of serendipity that I feel is too private for me to share here. There came a moment in her life where a strong impression led to a long-sought reconciliation, healing past and present family.

We were already in tears when Lisa shared a slide show with musical accompaniment, “The Family Tree," by Venice.” Recommended listening.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Kehrer Talks FamilySearch Transformations – #BYUFHGC

Robert Kehrer talks at the 2015 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy“I’m here to talk about transformation,” said Robert Kehrer. In his three careers, Robert Kehrer has had a front-row seat to three exciting transformations. Robert Kehrer, senior product manager at FamilySearch, gave the Wednesday keynote at the 2015 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy. His presentation was titled “FamilySearch: Past, Present & Future.”

Robert’s first career was as a molecular geneticist. It was at an exciting time when sequencing the human genome was underway. Genetics have since transformed the landscape, including that of genealogy. He next went to Apple at a time when they were down trodden and beleaguered. Since that time Apple has transformed the laptop, smart phone, tablet, music industries and more.

“It was fun to have a front row seat in the beginning of that transformation,” Robert said.

“I came to FamilySearch eight years ago,” he said. “I have witnessed a fundamental change.” FamilySearch had decent product offerings back then, but there were limitations and problems. It was not genealogically sound as it was not source-centric, he said. The offerings weren’t great.

“Today it is fundamentally different,” he said. And one sign of the transformation is the increase in visitors to Traffic has increased 1,035%.

Robert highlighted past and future transformations at FamilySearch in several areas:

  • Researchers need a whole lot more records.
  • Users want and need to upload artifacts (photos, scanned documents, stories, etc.).
  • They need to be able to use the site on mobile devices, especially for indexing.
  • Researchers need more accurate and full featured record searching.
  • Family Tree must be genealogically sound.
  • FamilySearch can’t do it all themselves; they need partners.

One transformation at FamilySearch has been the availability of records. In January 2012 had 1,033 record collections; today, it has 2,019. In January 2012 it had records from 72 countries; today, it is 91. About 2010 it had 750 million indexed names; today it has 5.2 billion. Those names come from 3.04 billion indexed records. has 1.02 billion document images. The FamilySearch catalog contains 1.6 million titles. FamilySearch’s microfilm collections consists of 2.9 million rolls. FamilySearch estimates there are 975 million names in its compiled genealogies and its scanned book collection now totals 220,000 books.

I was thrilled when he showed the Ancestry Insider’s graph of microfilm growth. (For the original, see “Vault Vednesday: Food, Film, and Family History Centers.”)

Robert Kehrer displays the Ancestry Insider's graph of FamilySearch microfilm growth.

FamilySearch has cameras all across the world capturing records digitally, as indicated by a color-coded map of the world. Darker means more cameras.

Robert Kehrer displays a map of FamilySearch cameras across the world.

The record types digitized by FamilySearch in 2014 were predominantly those with the most genealogical value. Civil and church vital records and census records accounted for 61% of the records. Because of their focus on digitizing the records of greatest value, FamilySearch really has the deepest set of genealogically rich and valuable records.

Robert Kehrer displays a chart of record types digitized by FamilySearch in 2014.
(Click to enlarge the chart of record types and percentages.)

FamilySearch has a number of record related goals for 2015. They plan to digitize and index more records with affiliates. They wish to digitize key vault records, concentrating on those with the best value from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. They wish to create fielded indexes of names, dates, places, and relationships in family histories and obituaries. Their goal is to ramp up non-English indexing, especially in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and German. They are trying to increase to 300 cameras capturing records, with major growth targeted for Europe, Latin America, and Africa. The goal is to digitize over 150 million images this year.

Another transformation at FamilySearch has been the Memories section of The Memories section allows users to save photos, stories, audio, and scanned documents. It was first released back in 2013. Since then users have uploaded over 13 million artifacts.

Example of a person on the People pageThe People page now  defaults to showing artifacts submitted both by yourself and others, “making this a page of discovery.” Behind each person’s portrait are thumbnails indicating there is more to see beyond this page. FamilySearch displays the lifespan underneath the person’s name. Further down is a link to view your relationship with the person.

“We’re redoing some of the pages and we’re really excited about it,” Robert said. The artifact page displays in grid view today. In the future, there will be a list view that looks like iTunes.

Robert said when he first came to FamilySearch he realized something. They had two contributor doors through which you could walk through: indexing or genealogical researcher. Only about 3% of the public have the desire to be a great researcher and indexing was the only other alternative. Today, FamilySearch has a lot of other contribution channels. Robert quoted Elder Dallin H. Oaks from the June 1989 Ensign article titled “Family History: ‘In Wisdom and Order.’ ” Elder Oaks said, “Our effort is not to compel everyone to do everything, but to encourage everyone to do something.” Today there are lots of ways for people to get engaged. You can grab an iPhone and record an interview or photograph a document. You can use the source attachment tool without being an expert genealogist. FamilySearch is seeing an increased participation in family history, Robert said.

Indexing has gone through transformations and is set to undergo more.

Volunteers have indexed a total of 1.34 billion records. The total for 2015 is 68.6 million. The total number of contributors is 213,184. Arbitration is not keeping up with indexing. There are a total of 15.8 million records awaiting arbitration. There are currently 450 indexing projects underway.

The current indexing system requires a Java download and is not compatible with mobile devices. FamilySearch will roll out a new indexing system over the next several months that runs as a web app in most browsers on most devices. No download is required. I’ve reviewed many of the expected features previously. (See “#RootsTech – New FamilySearch Indexing Program.”) Among other things, Robert briefly mentioned better collaboration, better reporting, and a messaging system.

An examination of the numbers shows a disparity between the number of records digitized and the number of records published. Indexing is not keeping up with acquisition. A lot is going on behind the scenes to address this. One approach is to automate indexing, or robo-keying as some call it at FamilySearch. They have a lot of smart people working on this. Robert showed an example of an obituary color coded to show what a computer had identified as people, places, dates, and relationships.

An obituary color-coded by robo-keying software

This breakthrough is being used today to help index the “United States, GenealogyBank Obituaries” collection. (FamilySearch recently announced they were adding an astonishing 47 million records to the existing 16 million records. I wondered if automation was being used to progress so quickly.)

Automated indexing produces some errors. For example, Billie Jean is not Michael Jackson’s sibling. The record detail page indicates automatically indexed records and allows users to specify corrections so that FamilySearch can better tune the system.

FamilySearch robo-keying misindexed Michael Jackson's obituary.

Robert announced “Fuel the Find,” a FamilySearch worldwide indexing event. It is a weeklong event this year, 7-14 August. The goal is to have 100,000 volunteers index at least one batch during the week. To learn more, visit

FamilySearch has made great transformations in its search capabilities.

Robert gave a tour of the historical record search capabilities. I’ve written about much of it in the past. (See, for example, “Searching for Sources at FamilySearch at #NGS2015GEN (Part 1)” and part 2. There’s probably more I could write about the country specific search pages, but I will save that for another day.

FamilySearch’s hinting system is really good. About 98% of the hints are correct and 65-70% of records about a known person are surfaced through hinting. (Robert calls this latter measurement hinting recall.) Each day a quarter-million hints are added to the tree.

Robert showed the new image viewer. It displays a grid below the image showing the persons and some of the information indexed from that image. He said that the deficiencies exhibited by the new image viewer, such as lack of image-to-image navigation, are coming in the next month or two. He felt the power of the page was worth releasing even though all the features were not yet present. Click “Open in a new window” to revert to the old image viewer. To close the viewer and return to the record details, click the X in the upper-right corner or click somewhere off the image. You can also go to the record detail page of someone else on that image by clicking their name in the list at the bottom and clicking the record icon to the left of their name. This feature elicited applause from the audience.

At this point, Robert was overtime and whipping through his presentation. He alluded to coming features that will allow users to click an icon next to a film number in the catalog and see the images from that microfilm! That drew even greater applause. “We think that what we’re going to deliver will be more functional than cranking a microfilm reel,” he said.


The BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy continues through Friday and you can still register, get the entire syllabus on flash drive, and attend the remainder of the conference.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

We are Binding Families in Love and Service – #BYUFHGC

The opening keynote of the 2015 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy was decidedly orientated to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It might help others understand why the Church sponsors FamilySearch, but if that is of no interest to you, feel free to skip this article.

Elder Gerald N. Lund, emeritus member of the 2nd Quorum of the Seventy“The doctrine of turning hearts of fathers and children, I believe, is about creating eternal families whose hearts are bound together in love and service to each other,” said Elder Gerald N. Lund. “The keywords for me are love and service.” Elder Lund presented the opening keynote at the 2015 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy. He titled his presentation “They Are Not Dead, Only Living Somewhere Else.”

Elder Lund is an emeritus member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is also the author of more than 25 books of both fiction and nonfiction. He is best known for his historical novels, including two well–known series, The Work and the Glory and The Kingdom and the Crown.

Elder Lund told us that he was not a genealogist. He said he felt like the burro enrolled in the Kentucky Derby. Someone observed to his owner, “You know he has no chance against all those thoroughbreds?”

“Oh, I know that. He knows it too. He just likes to lather up with the best.”

Elder Lund said that while he’s not done a lot of family history, he’s seen a lot of history and has a lot of family. He has seven children, 29 grandchildren, and 11 great grandchildren. Counting spouses, his family consists of 63 people. And writing his historical fiction books, he has studied a lot of history.

While we usually think about our service to our ancestors—through temple work on their behalf—we don’t always think about their service to us. Elder Lund quoted President Joseph F. Smith, who said,

Surely those who have passed beyond, can see more clearly through the veil back here to us than it is possible for us to see to them.…I believe we move and have our being in the presence of…heavenly beings.…We can not forget them; we do not cease to love them; we always hold them in our hearts, in memory, and thus we are associated and united to them by ties that we can not break, that we cannot dissolve or free ourselves from.

If this is the case with us in our finite condition, surrounded by our mortal weaknesses, short-sightedness, lack of inspiration and wisdom from time to time, how much more certain it is and reasonable and consistent to believe that those who have been faithful, who have gone beyond…can see us better than we can see them; that they know us better than we know them.

I claim that we live in their presence, they see us, they are solicitous for our welfare, they love us now more than ever. For now they see the dangers that beset us; they can comprehend better than ever before, the weaknesses that are liable to mislead us into dark and forbidden paths. They see the temptations and the evils that beset us in life and the proneness of mortal beings to yield to temptation and to wrong doing; hence their solicitude for us and their love for us and their desire for our well being must be greater than that which we feel for ourselves.1

“Isn’t that a wonderful concept of service?” asked Elder Lund.

He quoted again from President Smith:

We are told by the Prophet Joseph Smith, that “there are no angels who minister to this earth but those who do belong or have belonged to it.” Hence, when messengers are sent to minister to the inhabitants of this earth, they are not strangers, but from the ranks of our kindred, friends, and fellow beings.…Our fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters and friends who have passed away from this earth, having been faithful,…may have a mission given them to visit their relatives and friends upon the earth again, bringing from the divine Presence messages of love, of warning, or reproof and instruction to those whom they had learned to love in the flesh.2

These are angels providing service to the living, Elder Lund said.

At the conclusion of his presentation, Elder Lund reiterated his definition of turning hearts. We are binding families together with love and service so that they can be together forever.


     1.  Joseph F. Smith, Eighty-Sixth Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (April 1916): 2-3; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 28 July 2015), image 1637. Ellipses mark passages that I’ve left, which may not match exactly the ones excluded by Elder Lund.
     2.  Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1986), 435-6. Similarly,drop outs may not match exactly those of Elder Lund.

Incremental Improvement of the New Website

The Ancestry Insider at Niagra Falls
Software used to be developed using a waterfall process.

Software is now developed iteratively and incrementally.
Whirlpool image: Wikipedia launched its new website design in an unfinished state. I suppose this was a calculated move. Gone are the days of “waterfall model” development where the entire website is conceived before coding begins and released only when entirely finished. Today, software is developed using iterative and incremental development. This is why you regularly see websites and features not quite finished. Examples are Ancestry’s “new search,” the old incarnation of Ancestry Member Trees, the Ancestry mobile app, the New FamilySearch (NFS) Tree, FamilySearch RecordSearch, and more recently, the AncestryDNA website, the Ancestry Findagrave app, FamilySearch Family Tree, FamilySearch historical records search, FamilySearch mobile apps, and, now, the New Ancestry website.

Users overtly hate and unperceptively love iterative development. Iterative development allows a company to give you that long requested Xyzzy widget as soon as it is developed enough that it gives you value, not when it is flawless. Users use it and react. “Here’s what I like; here’s what I don’t like.” If it is valuable enough, they continue using it despite its flaws. It gets better over time. It gets improvements. It gets polished. But It also moves around, changes color, and morphs in sometimes unexpected ways. That confuses users, makes it difficult to find, and forces teachers, like me, to constantly redo our slides.

But we love—or at least value and hate—these unfinished websites or features enough to continue to use them while simultaneously complaining.

Well, that is not always true for every user in every case.

Such is the New Ancestry Website. When I announced its release in June 2015, several readers saw fit to comment. While there were a few “just don’t like it” comments, I was proud of y’all. There were lots of actionable observations, explicit items you didn’t like, like tree background color, printing family group reports, display of age on timeline, thumbnails and links to media, web links, and problems with comments.

Almost immediately after releasing the new Ancestry website, Ancestry said they were “still working on a few final missing features, as well as making continued improvements to new features based on your feedback.” Sound like incremental development? In that post they listed features and fixes they were working on. As they’ve finished the bulleted items, they have posted completion status. See “New Ancestry: Feature Update” on the Ancestry blog.

Armed with your specific comments, Ancestry has fixed many of the problems you posted here. See “The New Ancestry: July 15th Feature Update” and “The New Ancestry: July 22nd Feature Update” on the Ancestry blog.

Get specific feedback to Ancestry. They will aggregate your opinions and act accordingly, incrementally, and iteratively. That is the nature of incremental development processes.

Monday, July 27, 2015

BYU Conference (#BYUFHGC) Starts Tomorrow

BYU Conference on Family History and GenealogyThe BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy runs this week, 28 to 31 July 2015 and you can signup clear to the last day of the conference, online, by phone, or in person.

I’ve already mentioned two conference activities: Cokeville Miracle and the BYU Family History Library open house. Let me mention two more.

EZ Photo Scan is offering free photo scanning at their booth. They have a high speed scanner (80 a minute!). Bring a large stack of photos. I get nervous about damaging prints, so I would only trust photos in good shape and would prearrange them in stacks of the same size. They hope to scan 30,000 photographs during the conference. The announcement doesn’t mention if they will be supplying memory sticks/thumb drives, so I’d bring my own, just in case.

You can also sign up for the ICAPGEN luncheon on Friday. This is a networking luncheon for those who want to learn more from or talk with Accredited Genealogists, but anyone can go. Lunch will be held on the Conference Center patio and feature chuck wagon food: BBQ Chicken, baked beans, Dutch oven potatoes, house rolls, coleslaw, vegetables, and BYU Creamery ice cream dessert, all for $20.00.

As always, I will be attending lectures given by and FamilySearch so that I can give you the latest news on their products. FamilySearch is giving an entire track on Tuesday. I will be reporting on several of those classes.

Aaron Orr, a product manager at, is presenting “Using AncestryDNA to Further Your Research” at 1:30 on Thursday. I asked Aaron why someone would want to attend his class. “If you’re wondering how a teaspoon of saliva can help you break through brick walls, then this class if for you. ,” Aaron said. “I’ll walk you through the basics of genetic inheritance and how you can use your AncestryDNA results to discover mysteries once lost by time.”

Lisa Elzey is an family historian and researcher for the television show, Who Do You Think You Are. She is presenting “How the Records Tell the Story” at 4:00 that same day. Of her class, she said “Discovering the detail within records will help you piece together your family history narrative much like we do for Who Do You Think You Are. Even with the records you already have found, it's about looking at them in a new light to illuminate a richer story.”

See you at the conference!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Serendipity from a Strange Phone Number

Jen W., writer of Peculiar and Co.A coworker alerted me to a blog article about an adoptee’s quest to find her birth mother. In one sense, these discoveries are becoming less and less serendipitous as DNA databases get larger and larger. This particular story is well written and worth the read.

Jen W. had a long-time dream of finding her birth mother, sometimes whimsically googling the question, “Who is my biological mother?” One day she “suddenly became overcome with the thought of having [her] DNA tested.” However money was tight and needed elsewhere. A DNA test would have to wait. Then one day, something happened to change that.

I received a phone call from a strange number. Usually I don’t answer calls from numbers that I don’t recognize, but this time I decided to live large.  After picking up the phone, I learned that my mother-in-law had been talking to one of her friends about my desire to have a DNA test done.  This friend just ‘happened’ to have an extra DNA test kit lying around her house.

Read Jen’s story in her own words, “In the Face of Another,” on her blog, Peculiar and Co.

FamilySearch Cameo in Salt Lake City Parade

The big parade in Salt Lake City is the “Days of 47” parade on the 24th of July each year. It commemorates the arrival of Mormon pioneers in 1847. FamilySearch got a brief cameo. One float with a family history theme had a sign sporting the FamilySearch logo hanging from a tree (almost hidden on the left in the photo below).

Family history themed float in a Salt Lake City parade float displaying the FamilySearch logo

The float included a bubble making machine. The bubbles were too much of a temptation for one little girl. Mom had to run out and grab her.

Family history themed float in a Salt Lake City parade float

FamilySearch had another couple of tie-ins to the parade this year. The parade passed in from of FamilySearch headquarters, which occupies several floors of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. And FamilySearch Records Division director, Rod DeGiulio, was briefly interviewed late last night on a local television station as he camped out on the parade route, saving a place for his grandchildren. Way to go, grandpa!