Monday, March 7, 2022

"Unlock the Story"


There may be, among some people, a certain pride in being able to claim that their family tree contains the names of multiple thousands of ancestors, or that they have "made it back" to an impressively early century in their genealogical research. In addition, those details seem to be correlated: the larger the count of names, the more likely the number of generations covered is higher. But is it?

Although yes, I can affirm that I have 27,858 names entered in my own tree—plus 26,200 in my in-laws' combined tree—there are some family lines for which I struggle to say anything at all, besides perhaps a name, about a second great-grandparent. Only a second great-grandparent. That isn't very impressive.

The goal, however—at least in my book—is not to see how far back in time I can reach, or even how many names I can collect,  but how many relatives' stories I can recover. Documentation is important, true, but I'm not out to be a collector of human data points; I want to know these people as if we were sitting across a table talking while sharing a cup of coffee.

This past weekend wrapped up an impressive and generous offering to the genealogical world, which its creators called RootsTech: an online event which, in an effort to become accessible to all despite the pandemic, drew over one million digital attendees worldwide, with events accessible around the clock. (If you somehow missed the news about this year's version, there are still free learning opportunities to be had. Check here for more information.)

While there were inspirational and educational sessions too numerous to review in one page here—and plenty of bloggers who have shared in far more detail than I am providing here—there was one brief statement from one session which particularly spoke to me. So much so, in fact, that I had to stop the video—you can do that, you know, with pre-recorded sessions, but I had to wait until this main stage event was re-posted among the taped versions—and write down that one particular phrase.

The session I have in mind was the RootsTech Main Stage presentation, "The 1950 U.S. Census and You." In that multi-faceted look at what's racing toward us in less than a month now, spokesperson Crista Cowan was talking with FamilySearch's Senior Vice President (Europe and North America), Stephen Valentine.

By the time Mr. Valentine joined the program, we had been treated to an overview of the amazing technological advances in handwriting recognition artificial intelligence and how this will speed up our accessibility to the soon to be released census data. True, the process will require a human-with-AI partnership similar to what we've known at FamilySearch as "indexing." But even that process has been re-imagined and fine-tuned. Now, it will not only allow volunteers to help others access the information, but allow us to help ourselves get closer to our own research goals by zeroing in our efforts where we help index within the 1950 census project—all within the "Get Involved" portal at

Within that context, it is easy to see how much this technology will accelerate our ability to gather names, dates, and locations, adding them to our ancestors' timelines. Hopefully, though, from that point, we will step into a new realization. That was the essence of Stephen Valentine's comment in that RootsTech presentation. He reminded us: the data is not there just for us to build our tree bigger or faster, but for us to have more tools to "unlock the story."

The story is already there, but it is hidden—buried, sometimes—within the mass of data swirling around the lives of our ancestors. Sometimes, the work to sift through the volumes of excelsior packed around the gem of the issue seems wearying—even insurmountable, like my quest to learn more about the life of my fourth great-grandfather, Charles McClellan. But that innate sense of looking for the details surrounding his life—his "F.A.N." Club, how he spent his days, what was important to him—may turn out to be spot on, after all.

Those details, as it turns out from the RootsTech overviews of what's to come at genealogy services like FamilySearch, Ancestry, or MyHeritage (to name a few among many), may become easier to access in the near future. I found it excellent news, for instance, that some wills and probate records are now searchable not only by name of decedent, but also by all key names included in the document—excellent news as I search for Charles McClellan's involvement in his community and his church in early 1800s Georgia and Florida. These are the data points which, examined more closely, may help answer questions which I could not answer any other way.

Accessibility through data, sifted, sorted, re-envisioned. This will be the key to help me—and all of us—unlock the story of our specific ancestors.   

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