Kimmitt Genealogical Research

13 February 2011

The Week My Outlook on Genealogy Changed: RootsTech 2011

The first annual RootsTech conference came to a screeching halt yesterday afternoon at 4:00 pm and left 4,000 people wondering where we go from here. As I keep broadcasting on Twitter and Facebook, this conference marks the start of a shift in perspective in the genealogical world. I'll describe my own experience and hope it helps explain my bold assertion.

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...Image via CrunchBase
I usually visit Salt Lake City every January during the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy but this year I couldn't, so instead booked my week to coincide with RootsTech. I figured there would still be lots of people I know and I could visit the Exhibit Hall to network. I didn't plan to attend many sessions. I wasn't coming to play: I had real work to do. Besides, I'm already a techy, so I didn't need to be convinced to enter the 21st century. I love the latest gadgets, monitor new developments and keep up to date. I'm already in constant reach via the internet, being a sad, pathetic geek who actually goes to sleep cradling her iPhone whilst listening to audiobooks, and awakens bleary-eyed (sometimes with the cord wrapped around my neck) to check email, FB status and tweets. What could I possibly learn about technology and genealogy? I'm already all over it. HAH! Wrong! Just goes to show, you don't know what you don't know. It's not about the gadgets.

Before the conference even began there was a soft hum developing. The organizers stayed in touch with attendees, keeping us informed of late-breaking developments. Tuesday we heard there were 2,000 attendees. Compare that to the two major national conferences, sponsored by NGS and FGS, which usually attract about 1,500. The night before it began the number ballooned to 3,000!

We could have lounged in bed and watched the keynote online instead of stepping across the street, but the buzz was calling us, so we went. Because of so many last-minute sign-ups, registration was jammed, so I just skipped it and went to the hall to witness the keynote, given by Shane Robison, Executive VP and Chief Strategy and Tech Officer at Hewlett–Packard and Jay Verkler, President and CEO of FamilySearch. It was held in an enormous room, with rock music playing, four huge screens, photographers everywhere and an announcer who counted down the minutes to blast-off in a smooth-as-silk polished media "voice of God." "This ain't your father's genealogy conference," was the phrase being circulated. OK, fine, so it's jazzier, in a slightly comical, corporate kind of way. Alarming to the elderly, and amusing but not earth-shattering to the techie crowd.

Myles Kimmitt
Patent-Worthy Circuit Design Engineer,
Enabler of Moore's Law
Shane Robison came on to put into perspective the vastness of the internet and the potential for growth. He reminded us of Moore's Law which asserts that the amount of computing power they can squish onto a microprocessing chip doubles every 18 months, thanks to my husband and other genius engineers of his ilk. Moore formulated this in 1965 and it has consistently been proved correct. We never can believe it will still happen, but it does. Yes, yes, I know, technology is grand and getting more and more efficient. The amount of data online also doubles every 18 months which I could feel, if not give specific statistics about. Ho hum. The immensity of potential is great, but not surprising, and definitely not inspiring.

Just hearing Jay Verkler's bio recited was enough to mark him as someone to whom I need to pay particular attention: obvious software genius, having been with several Silicon Valley companies, the most familiar of which to me was Oracle. But here's the sentence that got me: "Mr. Verkler studied electrical engineering, computer science and chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as Japanese and Asian studies at Harvard University." Except I swear they said Japanese and Chinese... Not your average geek. And he pulled this conference together in the maniacally short period of seven months. Unheard of! He bounced onto the stage and won us over with his passion for spreading knowledge.

FamilySearch Mini-Lab
Have your cake and eat it, too!
This is the crux of the conference. It can't be easily explained, or at least I haven't yet extracted the essence of what is making everyone so slightly crazy. We don't even have a clue what we're in for. Remember ten years ago? Many people didn't have cell phones. Professional genealogists didn't use the web. People were suspicious of because they made us pay for access! Then FamilySearch came along and we got the IGI online, but the IGI is based on two things: member submissions and extracts. Many people did not understand the difference. Remember those that said you can't trust anything you find on the web? That wasn't very long ago. They said this because all they had found was personal family trees with no documentation, and facts such as born 2 July 1603, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA. They threw out the baby with the bathwater. Eventually, the baby was resuscitated as people began to realize that valid original documents were being scanned and uploaded, careful (often volunteer) indexers were donating their time to give us access to these documents, and today you'd be considered horribly inefficient if you did not start most research projects with an overview of the internet. Things change quickly.

RootsTech 2011
Randy Whited consults the Unconferencing Board
Jay outlined the goals of the organizers. For old genealogy dogs like me, it was exciting to have a different model. The focus here was on connectivity, collaboration and community. Many sessions were to be interactive. They introduced the concept of Unconferencing, where you sign up on a white board for a time spot by entering your brilliant idea, others gather and energetic collaboration ensues! People emerged from these with eyes sparkling and  I overhead several people describing conversations between developers and genealogists that left both feeling validated and motivated. Microsoft provided a fun "Playground" with pool tables and air hockey, XBox games, chess, ping-pong etc., which encouraged the programmers to get creative and the genealogists to let down their white hair a little. It was hysterical. I even wished my kids were with me! The organizers created a collaboration zone with couches for relaxing and knocking heads together. They served popcorn at the software demonstrations. Little additions like this keep everyone on their toes and help us accept new paradigm.

So I keep talking about how everything is changing, but what, exactly?? Curt Witcher, Historical Genealogy Department Manager at the Allen County Public Library was instrumental in forcing me to undergo a fundamental shift in perspective. His keynote moved many of us to tears, over and over again. This is not normal for me, to gently weep during keynotes. Curt's message was "just get the story out there." Instead of harping on WDYTYA producers for not ensuring that white gloves be required, for instance, be delighted that our passion is being introduced to more and more people. Find ways to welcome them, encourage them and help them. And that doesn't mean you start by quoting ESM on source citations. Everyone deserves the chance to know the story of their ancestors. It's about our humanity, the essence of life, our shared journey. We can help them to understand professional concepts later––just connect up with then first, and help them connect with others. And above all, share the results of your own research! Don't be afraid of people stealing your work, just disseminate it!

Nathan FitzGerald Kimmitt
Official Welcoming Committee
Barnes Family Reunion
June 2010, Scituate, Massachusetts
Genealogy used to be practiced by individuals working at home or in libraries. They were removed from one another. Unless the researcher wrote a book for his family, they usually never saw the results of his hard work unless it was displayed in a pedigree or fan chart on the wall. In fact, that's just what I did last summer to introduce some of my own relatives to our ancestors. People were interested, but it was very static and dry. A bigger hit were the photo albums, but what we all loved the most was recognizing shared family traits, or hearing stories we had somehow missed before. Just being together was the fun of it. We made a video which will be so precious to my children's children, when they see my sons (their dads) at 19 and 17 with their Great Uncle Eben who was 80+. The key to this conference is the counterintuitive realization that technology will bring us closer. In fact, our own reunion took place because of my blog, which brought a long lost branch of our tree back to the fold. The excitement of finding each other online, first via the blog, then telephone, then Facebook, led to the face-to-face reunion.

Once I heard Curt, I gave myself over and just stayed at the conference. Luckily, I had exhausted most of my research leads, so being in SLC and not at the FHL was tolerable. The nagging guilt was soon overcome by the rush of ideas that flowed for the next two days. The floodgates were opened and our imaginations are finally able to go there. Just as Facebook keeps me connected to family, friends and colleagues in a most intimate way, so will technology enhance my ability to serve my clients. I will provide them with a better service because my product will not just be a written report with charts and a gedcom, but I will attempt to bring the passion I feel for their families to them as well. I will encourage newbies and not cringe (much) when they say, "I'll remember where I found that, I don't need to cite my sources." I won't talk about ESM until the third date. And I will be tireless in advocating to local societies the need for them to take their mission online. Otherwise, they will fail. I will help them find a way to bridge the gap between computerless members and the rest, and I will show them that the only way to attract new members, and members in large quantity, is via the internet,

RootsTech 2011
Media Hub

Many initially worry that putting information and webinars online will kill societies (and society!) because members won't bother to leave their homes. Again, counterintuitive! The technology does not replace our humanity, it brings it alive and serves to connect us to one another, be aware of one another, and causes us to want to gather. The Official Bloggers, shown above hard at work, managed to get the word out to the community, not just by blogging, but also via Facebook and Twitter and probably stuff I haven't even heard of! Many other non-official participants also tweeted constantly about the amazing sessions we attend, and drove those not in attendance into a jealous, but happy frenzy. It's not about the technology, it's about how the technology draws us together. 

RootsTech 2011 was an amazing accomplishment. The organizers dared to patch this together in a mere seven months, and there were some issues. As I mentioned, registration was jammed. It was hard to find individual lecture notes in the syllabus.  They could have used a few traffic monitors. But hese are minor considerations and inconveniences that were easily tolerated by attendees because the reward to being present was so great. Organizers are going to have their hands full preparing for next year's RootsTech. I can't imagine how they will pull it off again, given the exponential nature of the power of technology to atttract attendees apparently, but the innovation in the minds of those planning this event is impressive. I can't wait for RootsTech 2012 (v. 2.0!) and I hope to see you there 2-4 February 2012. We'll have fun!

RootsTech 2011
Microsoft Playground

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Jenna said...

Very through review! I attended some of the sessions virtually and it was fine but virtual presentations will never take the place of being there in person, conferences should not let that be a concern. I hope Curt's presentation and words are remembered!

Unknown said...

Great summary of the conference and post. I came away with same message. Hope to see you at 2.0!

Lisa / Smallest Leaf said...

Thanks so very much, Polly, for the wonderful detailed wrap-up of the RootsTech conference. Wish I could have attended!

I'm excited to see where genealogy will go from here. I'm hanging on to my hat and ready for the ride!

Smallest Leaf

Becky Jamison said...

I love your post, Polly! I was inspired and touched by Curt Witcher's presentation as you were (I watched it from home) and hope it will be available on YouTube. You made so many good points--I'm going to print your post and keep it! Thank you so much!
My husband and I will definitely be at RootsTech 2.0!

nalexmanz said...

Thanks, Polly, for sharing your thoughts. I'm a believer of the connectivity of media. Can't wait to discuss this and more with you at NERGC!

Kathryn Doyle said...

Thanks for a thoughtful, thought-provoking summary of RootsTech. I now have the 2012 dates on my calendar as well. This article will be one of my "editor's picks from the blogosphere" for the March 2011 California Genealogical Society eNews. I'm sure our members will find it as interesting and informative as I did.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous write up. There is so much more involved here than just gadgets. The technology advances allowing for more connection with family and other researchers is great. It's nice to see more people catching up with the potential technology has to offer.

Polly F. Kimmitt said...

Thanks everyone! The extent to which I was impacted by this conference still has me shaking my head! I still haven't pinpointed the catalyst.

Unknown said...

Me ha gustado la forma en que has relatado tu interesante participación. Nos has dado una visión "casi real" de lo que pasaba allí adentro. Interesante, el que aunque sea acerca de la tecnología, no sea "de" tecnología solamente.
Muchas gracias :)

Polly F. Kimmitt said...

Gracias, Sonia. ¡Soy feliz que lograra transmitir el quid de la experiencia!

Elissa S Powell said...

Great summary, told well! I recognize some of the things we talked about at the conference trying to pinpoint in words what the feelings were and you nailed it: community, collaboration and connectivity!

With 3,000 people there this year they had better be prepared for 5,000 next year as the energy grows and more people trust version 2.0.

FranE said...

Enjoyed reading your summary. I so agree with all your comments and find the mesh between old and new exciting. My heart has always been in the stories, so it is nice to see the emphasis being made.
Thanks again.

Laura said...

It was about hope and possibilities instead of rules and doing things as they've always been done. It was like Woodstock, where a message of free love - this time of genealogy and technology, and not music (but the music did help) - was absorbed through our pores and into our spirits.

Tessa Keough said...

Thanks for such a great summary. I would love to read more about the Unconferencing Area and the Challenge that was mentioned by others. I am wondering about how the "excitement" level stays up and genealogists and tech folks get together and collaborate between now and next February. Thoughts?