Threats of thunderstorms failed to deter nearly one thousand enthusiasts as they packed into the Friendswood Stake Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the two-day Houston Family Search Genealogy Conference April 26-27, 2013. Hundreds filled the chapel and spilled into the overflow to listen to key note speakers Albert Haines and Don R. Anderson, on Friday evening, while thirty-seven presenters taught fifty-five separate classes during the six-hour Saturday session. Attendees registered free of charge on www.houstonfamilysearch.com.
FamilySearch.org is the world’s largest collection of free family trees, genealogy records and resources. These records are available free of charge online, and are also freely accessible through 4,600 Family History Centers in 126 countries worldwide. FamilySearch has 6.875 billion historic records on microfilm that are being digitized and eventually indexed. These records contain an estimated 20.6 billion names.
Jonathan S. Schmitt, President of the LDS Church’s Friendswood Texas Stake, welcomed those who attended the Conference. Citing the Old Testament, Schmitt told the audience that their participation “is the fulfillment of the prophecy made by the Prophet Malachi. We are here today because our hearts have turned to our fathers – those wonderful men and women without whom we would not be here today. When we begin to find and learn about them, we better understand ourselves. The beauty of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is possible for us to enjoy our cherished family relationships not just in this life, but throughout eternity.”
Mr. Anderson, Senior Vice-president of FamilySearch, discussed the 100-year-old organization’s mission of forging partnerships not only with commercial organization but with communities in digitizing, indexing, and preserving precious ephemera and making this vital statistical information available to researchers worldwide. Initially founded as the Genealogical Society of Utah in 1894, the institution has since grown into the largest genealogy organization in the world.
A respected community and Church leader, Mr. Haines earned national recognition for his efforts to utilize newly available Freedmen’s Bank records to assist African-Americans in the greater Houston area in discovering their own family histories. Beginning with a small group in the Klein/Cypress-Fairbanks areas, this initiative has since spread city-wide and is used as a model for programs in other population centers.
Not Your Grandmother’s Genealogy
On Saturday, Conference-goers from across the greater Houston area soon realized the 2013 program of the annual event unlike any other previously offered. In addition to the typical expert presenters with long years of genealogical research experience, many classes were not only directed at the nearly two hundred teenagers with whom the adults rubbed elbows, but taught by them as well. Youth from all over the greater Houston area participated and lent their expertise to such disparate subjects as researching family stories, creating pedigree charts, and documenting local headstones.
The youth presenters particularly shone as they explained various applications available to assist, organize, and collaborate in genealogical research. 15-year-old Kristin Cunningham instructed a standing-room-only audience of seasoned hobbyists three and four times her age on the specifics of participating in the FamilySearch indexing program which recently surpassed over one billion names indexed since its launch in 2006. Fielding questions with unflappable grace, her clear, concise answers brought the latest technology within the grasp of many who are more gadget-challenged.
Before the same audience, Connor Murphy, also 15, explained the functionality of billiongraves.com, a mobile application which allows anyone to upload digital images of gravestones from their mobile devices, complete with GPS coordinates, into a central data pool. Connor recently completed his Eagle project for the Boy Scouts of America using this process to map headstones in the Spring area.
As a Q&A panel, Kristin, Connor, Coy Gardner, and Tori Scott faced down the toughest audience of all — their peers — as they explained why teenagers should get excited about digging into their families’ past. Coy taught an adult class on using FamilySearch to conduct research, while Tori provided instruction on making ancestors a reality by collecting their stories.
Many other youth provided logistical support to event co-chairs Adam and Judie Rawlin, assisting in publicity, setup, take-down, and other functionality issues. In one particular class, teens provided clues both online and on-site for others to super-sleuth their way through a genealogical puzzle.
Boosting the Signal
The emphasis on technology was also new to the conference this year. Several classes focused on the collaborative efforts using of both free and fee-based software applications available on the Internet, such as Google Earth, Dropbox, Evernote, ShoeBox, BillionGraves, and RootsMagic, the only fee-based genealogy program certified by FamilySearch, the industry standard. Attendees were also encouraged to use social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest to capitalize on their family connections and expand their repertoire of family history stories and other available information.
To facilitate this strategy, the Houston Area technology representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embarked on an unprecedented expansion of the Friendswood Stake Center connectivity. Led by Don Goehring, a technology team provided live streaming broadcast of select classes to seventeen other LDS chapels in southeast Texas and Louisiana over the two-day period.
The Conference featured two separate “Discovery Zone” rooms in which thirty online workstations were available to visitors for hands-on experimentation with the FamilySearch.org website, as well as other useful Internet tools and applications. Hardware was loaned by local area businessmen free of charge. Representatives were on-hand to answer questions and provide tutoring when requested by the patrons.
Over One Billion Served
Since its launch in May of 1999, FamilySearch.org has added over 3.5 billion names in its searchable databases, with over 900 million in Family Tree alone. It contains 1,522 searchable historic records collections, and publishes over 35 million historic records and over 33 million digital images from original source documents online each month. It boasts over one million registered users and over 200,000 online indexing volunteers. Since its inception, it has had more than 16.6 billion page views.
FamilySearch has over 200 digital record preservation camera teams in 45 countries who produce more than 100 million new digital images for free online publication each year.
The FamilySearch Indexing program is available in English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish with more language interfaces and international projects coming.
Contributor – Penny Freeman