Friday, August 1, 2014

David Rencher: The Role of FamilySearch in a Worldwide Community #BYUFHGC

David E Rencher, FamilySearch CGOThe role of FamilySearch has changed over the years, said David Rencher, chief genealogical officer at FamilySearch. There was a time when FamilySearch, or rather its predecessor, the Genealogical Society of Utah, was “the only game in town.” The Genealogical Society of Utah started as a small library with a small book collection and staff to help you write letters to record custodians. It has grown to be the largest genealogical organization in the world. It has nearly 1,000 employees spread around the world. It has created the largest genealogical library in the world. The library makes three billion pages of records available, accumulated from 110 countries, and gathered since 1938. The collection grew to be so vast and so valuable that they built a record vault in a mountain of granite to protect and preserve it. FamilySearch has established 4,600 family history centers in 134 countries.  FamilySearch has assembled a tremendous support organization that is available to answer questions 24 x 7. It has built a website containing over 1,400 record collections containing over three billion searchable names and is used by more than three million people.

FamilySearch’s collaborative tree, “Family Tree,” grew out of problems affecting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and problems felt by individual genealogical researchers. Rencher quoted from the book, Finding Allies, Building Alliances, by Mike Leavitt and Rich McKeown. “When People are motivated by their own problems, they often discover that they can find solutions to them by responding to the interests of others. Individuals become collaborators when they discover that they cannot solve a problem on their own.…Collaborating with others is hard…It always involves a surrender of independence.”1 The Church has had a difficult time avoiding duplication of temple work and Church headquarters has always become a chokepoint. The TIB, the IGI, and TempleReady all grew out of the Church’s efforts. Each in turn became too unwieldy. Individual genealogical researchers have experienced frustration spending large amounts of time and money, duplicating the research of others. We find ourselves travelling to the same countries and counties, visiting the same courthouses and archives, researching the same volumes and collections, and paying for copies of the same records and certificates. FamilySearch Family Tree addresses both these pain points. It allows the Church to address duplication in a cost-effective manner and it allows researches to share sources, information, evidence, and conclusions.

Family Tree incorporates concepts from Wikipedia. No central party controls the content of Family Tree. Anyone can add, edit, or delete information. Users are encouraged to provide sources for information contributed and explanations for logic supplied. Family Tree enables discussions, includes a change log, and allows changes to be undone.

Further refinements are under consideration for Family Tree, although Rencher warned that not everything contemplated will be implemented. Further work is needed before some duplicate people can be merged. A mechanism is needed to allow any user to contact any other user. Users would like some mechanism to impede changes to good information. Ideas that have been thrown around to accomplish this are: count the number of users who agree with some information, count the number of users who are watching a person, and allow users to vote on accuracy.

Heavy use threatens to destroy fragile pension documents from the War of 1812
Heavy use threatens to destroy these fragile documents
FamilySearch is no longer alone in the worldwide community and participates in a variety of partnerships. Rencher highlighted BillionGraves and the Preserve the Pensions project. I’ve said before about the project:

The War of 1812 pension digitization project, …honors veterans of the war and makes available important documents to their descendants and all historians. There are 7.2 million pages of documents in 180,000 pension files. None are available on microfilm. Heavy use presents a danger to these fragile documents. FGS, NARA, Fold3, and are collaborating on this project which is funded by your donations. FGS is leading the effort to raise the funds necessary. NARA is archiving these valuable documents. Fold3 is hosting the digitized images for free to the general public. (I think they are also digitizing them.) is matching donations. Fold3 is posting the digitized and indexed images as they become available. The files are being digitized in alphabetical order. If your veteran’s name is before Ha, then his file may already be online.

For more information or to make a donation, visit the Preserve the Pensions website.

(Since I wrote that a few weeks ago, the project has advanced to surname Hill!)

In closing, Rencher said that, ultimately, FamilySearch’s role in the worldwide community is to connect people to their ancestors. 


     1.  Mike Leavitt and Rich McKeown, Finding Allies, Building Alliances (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 27.

You can (or soon will be able to) find a copy of Rencher’s presentation, as well as Elder Koelliker’s at

1 comment:

  1. "No central party controls the content of Family Tree. Anyone can add, edit, or delete information."

    There is at least one administrative body that has locked certain individuals so no changes or merges can be done by users.

    Voting is a terrible idea for genealogical accuracy. Most of us have seen wrong data for persons of interest repeated in tree after tree. A lot of these mistakes are making their way into FS-FT. Having umpteen persons who agree with Widely Held Mistaken Beliefs vote for their own opinions would just repetition of the wrong tree stuff that was the basis of new.FS and is much repeated in FS-FT.


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