RootsTech – Day 3 with a Look Back at the Conference

The final day of RootsTech 2013 has been as interesting as the previous two days, with surprises along the way such as the interesting mix of conferences which co-existed in the Salt Palace Conference Center today – genealogists, tattoo artists and Harley riders – a pretty eclectic mix with attendees who were pretty easy to differentiate. You wouldn’t wander into a session by mistake!

The day began with humor and an intriguing view into new mobile technologies. If you have a chance to hear David Pogue speak, be sure to make the time. Pogue is the weekly personal-technology columnist for the New York Times and a monthly columnist for the Scientific American, as well as the author of several ____ for Dummies titles and various titles in the Missing Manuals series. He is extremely entertaining, and presents intriguing views of what he terms “disruptive technologies” – those apps that have the potential to change everything. Do you know about the Ocarina, Augmented Reality, Autotune, or Word Lens apps? If you don’t (or even if you do) an autotune YouTube video is a must see. The keynote session was followed by interesting lectures, and my conference experience was complete with a last visit to the exhibit hall late in the afternoon to see if I could beat the odds and win the drawing for a new iPad – needless to say…

My experiences over the past three days, however, have led me to reflect on some of the core messages of this conference and how, at least in my humble opinion, they impact genealogy today. On Wednesday I shared here several themes from the conference:

1)      the process of collecting, preserving and sharing stories is vital to breathing life into our ancestors (as well as providing those stories about our own lives for future generations);

2)      the need to attract a wider community – particularly the younger generation(s) – to genealogy by insuring that family history needs to be an adventure that is both affordable, accessible, and global;

3)      the desire by many beginners is to have instant search responses, often with the work done by others.

First, while some distinguish between genealogy (fact-based and more academic) and family history (anecdotal and less-structured), for me a balance is essential between the two approaches, with the documented facts providing the framework upon which the anecdotal stories provide “local color” and depth of understanding. While I agree that it is important to capture the interest of an audience ever-increasing in number and range of ages, my central concern is how we will translate that new-found interest into quality, authoritative and enduring research-based family history/genealogy. I worry that as we appeal to new learning styles, “Twitterize” our skills, and look for immediate gratification, the pendulum will swing too far away from an ability to think critically, analyze intelligently, know resources comprehensively, and develop sophisticated, yet efficient, research strategies. It may seem wonderful, even magical, to have our family tree compared instantaneously with millions of other trees with the “matches” added to our information automatically, but what does that say about our obligation to analyze the importance and accuracy of that information in terms of our knowledge of our own family? What will happen to the difficult research problem that will never be solved by instant matches?

I don’t claim to have the answers to these questions. However, I believe that research skills should not be defined by one’s generation. Well-documented facts are essential; they will be richly complimented by family stories.  Careful research is a core value that we should all share. We have an obligation to instill that value in those whom we attract to our adventure in any number of new and creative ways. We must all become engaged in and remain involved in our own research, even as we work collaboratively with others; we must constantly learn new skills and must not not rely on the magic of instant matches in which we are uninvolved.

I remember some years ago asking a friend to locate a military record for me at the National Archives. His response was that he didn’t want to deprive me of “the joy of finding the information for myself.” No instant gratification  to be found there, but I would never trade what became, indeed, the joy of finding the information on my own.

Let’s continue to seek the balance between traditional research skills and the adventure of new technologies.

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