Thursday, August 22, 2013

Über Cool Family History Center of the Future Shown at #FGS2013

“Everything I’m going to share with you is top secret,” warned D. Merrill White of FamilySearch. White was a luncheon speaker Thursday at the 2013 annual conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. His presentation was titled “Discovering the FamilySearch Family History Library of Tomorrow.” He warned that at the end of the presentation we would see a flash of light and all we would remember is that there was good chocolate cake.

Fortunately, I’m a fast typer!

Family history centers are designed mostly for researchers and that’s mostly who uses them. The average patron age is over 50 and families and youth don’t feel welcome. “It’s very rare that you see anyone younger than that age in a family history center,” said White. Centers receive 2.5 million annual visits, which sounds really good until you realize there are 4,600 centers.

White has pushed for years for change and recently he got permission to make some. He calls it, “Family Discovery Centers.”

“So what I’m going to walk you through today are some prototypes of things we are thinking about doing throughout the world,” said White. “We’re going to start with a prototype in Seattle, Washington.”

“We are looking at locations with the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, with the British Library in London, and of course Salt Lake. The mother ship has to have one of these,” he said. “But it’s also something we want to do in our existing family history centers.”

The Family History Library todayThe FHL as it might someday look
How the Family History Library might look as a Family Discovery Center

“We’re still preserving what we do well at, and that’s giving you access to records and expertise. We still know that that’s vital,” said White. “But how can we get more people involved?”   

The Family Discovery Center mission statement is, “The Family Discovery Center offers individuals and families simple yet powerful in-person experiences to discover their heritage and have their hearts turned to their ancestors.”

FamilySearch learned from the Museum of Tolerance that such a center has several key aspects. It has to be sensory. It has to be emotional, having humorous or touching stories about real people. It needs to be personal—let you learn about yourself through your ancestors. It needs to be motivational; the experience must invite you to take action.

They’ve been testing prototypes in focus groups finding out what works and what people want. They have held focus groups in New York, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and several international locations. “Now we’re getting to the point that, well, now we’ve got to go build one,” he said.

FamilySearch picked a meeting house of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) next to the Seattle Temple in Bellevue, Washington. The building already has available space and they wanted to test in a meeting house. They also wanted to test in a smaller location outside Utah.

White showed us a floor plan of the center. Then he did a virtual walk-through, stopping at each station. For each station he explained the experience and showed a video demonstrating the technologies that could be employed.

Floor plan of the Seattle Family Discovery Center

A patron’s virtual guide through the center might be an app on a tablet device that ties directly into their FamilySearch account. “As they’re going through the experience, they’re finding things they like,” said White. “They’re recording things they enjoyed. It’s [being] preserving into a book about them and about their story that they can continue to work on the next time they come, or at home through the website.”

You’ll bring this device to each of the stations. Not only will it record your experiences, it will help drive and personalize them.

“One of the things we’re excited about we’re calling the ‘community wall,’” said White. The wall, a large touchscreen monitor, would have different content for each center, reflecting the locale, its history, and the activities of previous patrons. Patrons can share, even after returning home, photos, recipes, and so forth. You can interact using the touch screen or the tablet. “We want people in the area to share things. It’s their wall.”

There is a station they call the “story center for children.” It’s an interactive pop-up 3-D storybook. The book sits in front of a computer monitor and there’s a camera above you that watches you and the book. Everything you do in the book affects what is shown on the screen. White showed a cool video illustrating the technology, but I can’t find a copy. Here is a video that illustrates the same technology. (It is called augmented reality.)

There would be a bank of monitors where you would be able to learn things about yourself: “Tell me about my name. Tell me about the year I was born. How common is my surname? Where is it predominantly located? What countries?” For those who have already entered some of their tree into FamilySearch, FamilySearch will look at it and tell them things. “Did you know you have ancestors from Seattle?” Or, “Did you know these types of things about your surname?” If they don’t have anything in their tree, this is also where they could start to fill out their pedigree as part of the experience. “Tell us a little bit about yourself, your mother, your father.”

What if you could dress up like any of your ancestors and take your picture anywhere in the world? We jokingly call this station, “Take Your Ancestor on Vacation.”

One room is called “the Time Machine.” It is like the holodeck of Star Trek. (The technology goes by various names, such as immersive environment.) It uses projectors to project on the ceiling, walls, floors, and white objects in the room. They hope to be able to take people to places, such as an old blacksmith shop to learn what it was like to be a blacksmith in the 1850s, or how did one location change from 1830 to 1880 and so on. You could move about by touching a panel. It could recommend things to you based on your pedigree. I found the video he showed us showing what a 3-D room looks like.

There will also be “Story Booths,” the oral history studios I mentioned the other day. “We’re really excited about families being able to come in and talk with one another,” he said. “Perhaps one time it is your son’s day. So you bring in Bobby and everyone sits down together as a family and they all share stories about Bobby. And now that [recording] is Bobby’s.”

“We’re giving you a lot of fun things to do, but we also want to integrate into the entire experience, that as they do things, they start to learn in a very subtle way some research methodologies. ‘How do we get this information?’ ‘All that comes from records.’ They start to see that records help tell these stories. “That’s what we gently push to them as they get ready to do some searching on their own ancestors,” he said.

There is still the area of the center where people can sit down and research on the computers. “Now they’re coming in again, engaging with records, adding them to their tree, and learning more about their ancestors and themselves, and wanting to continue to share and preserve this story when they go home.”

The tree is the climax of the Family Discovery Center experienceThe climax area is a tree. Here families and individuals who have gone through the experience can come and dock their iPads and look at everything they’ve experienced on a grand scale, on the ceiling and on the tree, where they can move things around and display their pedigree as they like.

“This is your sneak peak into the Discovery Center in Seattle, Washington. And we’re going to continue to prototype and test, but our next real big thing is, we’re going to go and build this and see what we can learn from it as we look to build more of these and create a much more immersive experience.”

Wow! That was a bright flash of light! Now what was I saying? Oh, right. Merrill, Project Chocolate Cake (wink, wink) “tastes” great.


  1. Fascinating. "Build it and they will come" is the hope I hear.

  2. Everything about this screams gimmicky and forced. Really? All the family members going in and docking their iPads and viewing their "experience" projected onto a tree? There's so many problems with the practical execution of all this that I don't even know where to begin. For how careful we have to be with Church funds, this seems like a ridiculous expenditure for what appears to be a one-and-done experience. Please, spend the money fixing Family Tree, instead of building a hundred family history theme parks.

    1. Our experience this summer with families at our FamilySearch Library was very positive. The families coming in already wanted to connect with their ancestors on a more personal level - more than names and dates. The parents have a lot of information to share and the youth often understand the technology better. We had quite a number of repeat families, so many that we are going to add classes for families so they can work together gathering and understand their records. Ancestors were understood as real people and hearts were turned. I hope that St. George is high on the list of Libraries to upgrade.

    2. The goal is to engage the huge amount of members who have never participated in family history. If these experiences can accomplish that, it will be worth it.

  3. Sorry, but to me (UK agnostic), that sounds really really creepy (I mean seriously so). You sure that little syringes would not come up through the seats and take a sample of DNA as well?

  4. This is what happens when an organization tries to be 'all things to all people' - force early retirement on the most experienced professionals and hire animators to make cartoons and 'augment reality'. Real needs are ignored and fiction becomes history - but that's the beauty of it - there's already a whole lot of fiction in the records transcriptions on Family Search so instead of fixing the problems lets build new buildings!

  5. I love the idea of partnering with the British Library. Thanks for sharing this!

  6. I've heard Alex Graham (WDYTYA producer) explain that the most moving moment for the celebrities on his show was when they actually held a 200-year-old document and read an ancestor's name on it.

    How can FamilySearch replicate that experience? I'm not sure that any amount of technology can do that. Note that WDYTYA NEVER takes celebrities through the Family History Library or Family History Centers. I don't know the reason for that, but could it be because a microfilm/scanned version of an old doc doesn't produce the same effect as the original document?

    How can FamilySearch create Who Do You Think You Are? experiences?

    1. I think we can achieve that with technology. There could be a way to scam their tree for attached documents, or recommend documents that match extremely well.

    2. I'd like to give everyone a WDYTYA experience. One like that outlined in the post that just went up:

      Have an expert guide them through the discovery process. Let the expert research for weeks to uncover interesting facts.

      Take them to overseas places where ancestors lived. Let them try the local cuisine.

      Show them pictures of the ancestor. Let them visit the church where they worshiped.

      Tell them which famous people they're related to. Tell them what crimes their ancestors were involved in.

      Let them handle original historical documents about their specific ancestors.

      Then let them go tell their family about all the exciting things they've learned!

      Since FamilySearch may not be able to finance such an experience for everyone that walks through their doors [or could it?], I'm very excited about the Seattle project. It sounds like an affordable alternative that will likely spark interest in people about their roots. Sounds pretty cool.

  7. Sometimes we just go "beyond the mark"! REALLY??? The Church must have a LOT of money!! We need the Spirit! Not sure this will bring the Spirit of the work! Technology reaches soooo many without having to leave home.

  8. If you were going to launch a tech-intensive project, Seattle could be a great place to harness lots of support and interest. Sounds like fun for the future, but what can we learn and take away from the aims right now? Like in the training videos - FH Consultants doing some prep work with the parents can help prepare a meaningful and memorable Family-experience. You don't have to just have FHE on a Monday night. FHCs are not open on Monday nights. Do you remember the scene that was part of the opening of the Personal Ancestral File program? Multi-generations, a granddad playing guitar to his family, several activities going on, a table full of photos and albums with folks gathered around sharing stories, including young people. I always thought that was in a FHC, but maybe not. It could be though - sharing and exploring your heritage counts. What will touch someone to open their heart, turn their heart toward their forebearers? Pictures, stories - driven from facts and clues in records, traditions of music, food, customs.... Research can be learned and taught, Along with that comes the imagination to compose narratives from dots on a [research log] timeline. That's stories. Share them so others can catch the vision.


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