Friday, March 22, 2013

From RootsTech: Partnering with FamilySearch for Probates

Tim Sullivan Keynote at RootsTechRootsTech’s opening session on Friday featured two keynote speakers, Jyl Pattee and Tim Sullivan.

“It’s exciting for me to stand on this stage at this conference and announce our largest and most ambitious collaboration with FamilySearch ever,” said Sullivan, president and CEO of “Over the next three years FamilySearch and Ancestry are going to work together to digitize and index over 140 million pages of U.S. probate records spanning from 1800 to 1930.”

At this announcement the audience interrupted with applause. “It’s alright,” Sullivan said. “I’m excited too.”

Tim acknowledged FamilySearch’s decades of work filming these documents. Efforts are underway to secure rights from administrators and archives to publish these records online, and the progress is positive.

“We are very excited about working with FamilySearch on this project.”

Sullivan committed to spend over $100 million over the next five years to digitize and index new content for publication on, Fold3, and “We’re investing aggressively in new content,” he said. This past year Ancestry published over 1.7 billion records, including over 1 billion names from city directories using the new technology they demonstrated last year. (See “Tim Sullivan: A Fantastic Era in Family History,” and “Data Extraction Technology at”)

Sullivan also announced a new price point, $99, for Ancestry’s DNA test. They are improving their ethnicity estimation and cousin matching. They currently have a database of 120,000 customer samples and have made two million 4th cousin matches. I think one of the best ways to increase the value of their database and the effectiveness of their ethnicity determination algorithms is to increase the pool of samples. I believe for that reason, they are decreasing the price. Since they regularly upgrade the results for all previous testees, everyone benefits from a larger sample pool. The new price applies to both subscribers and non-subscribers.

Sullivan said a new version (4.1) of their iPhone/iPad app will soon be available. It will enhance the ability to share on Facebook and Twitter. It will provide photo hints and pair your tree with someone else’s tree. Over one-third of their new registrants come via their mobile app. My notes here are a little cryptic, but he said something about 50% of them are younger than the average age. That’s a law of mathematics, isn’t it? There must be something wrong with my notes. Anyway, the point was that “this is a whole new generation of family historians.”

Sullivan began his presentation with an appeal (but not in so many words) that experienced genealogists open up their private Ancestry Member Trees.

“I’m here today to make a confession about Ancestry family trees,” Sullivan said in mock seriousness. “They are not always 100% accurate all the time. I know that’s a shocking revelation.”

In my opinion, both Ancestry and FamilySearch have a big problem. In my experience, the greater the expertise of the genealogist, the less likely they are to make their Ancestry Member Tree public and the less likely they are to participate in FamilySearch’s unified Family Tree.

According to Sullivan, both beginner and expert alike benefit from collaboration. Beginners sometimes give experts good advice. (See, for example, Crista Cowen’s “Lessons in Genealogy Collaboration.”) Also, more people than ever are combing through online records from multiple websites and adding sources to online trees. More people are scanning one-of-a-kind documents and photos and adding them to their trees. More people are using digital cameras to capture grave markers and other valuable photographs.

“To take advantage, you’ve really got to take the plunge to share and collaborate.”

1 comment:

  1. The digitization and indexing of probate records is exciting news indeed. I'm sure it will take a tremendous amount of work, and there will inevitably be bumps along the way. But (to use a much-overused phrase) this is a real treasure trove for serious researchers.

    I'm a little bit more cynical about the 'private' vs 'public' tree issue, and specifically about ACOM's motivations in the matter. If they genuinely wanted to encourage collaboration between beginners and more experienced genealogists there are many things they could do. But suggestions to enhance the platform to promote and encourage collaboration and skill development always seem to land on deaf ears. I'll be pleased to be proved wrong, but I suspect ACOM's motivation here is much more straightforward: they want to use the content of experienced genealogists as bait to broaden their subscription base. Pure and simple.


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