RootsTech: The History of Your Family is in the Future
I spoke with Jay Verkler, the CEO of FamilySearch International, in the Oak Room of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. We spoke about the future of technology in the practice of genealogy, an activity with a distinctly old-school reputation.
Verkler is not your average genealogist (whatever that is). His background is not spending sleepless nights knee-deep in 18th century census records. He’s a graduate of MIT and spent most of his career in Silicon Valley, at companies including Oracle, Sales.com and push technology company inCommon, which he founded.
Microfilm to the Cloud
Family Search’s experience with state-of-the-art tech ranges back to the late 1930s when they were the first archive to start using microfilm.
“Other archives were thinking about using microfilm, but we wanted to take copies of records and given them to others so they didn’t need to come to the where the records were stored. We used microfilm as a transfer medium and we wound up writing a whole bunch of the standards on microfilm production in the Seventies because we’d been doing it for thirty years at that time.”
Verkler says Family Search’s activities with current tech fall into three “buckets,” social genealogy, digitization and community.
Family Search is currently building a social tool that allows family historians to work on augmenting the same document or sets of documents without overwriting one another or creating duplicate records. The digitization is ongoing. The community is twofold, online and offline.
The organization has a wiki which is growing, capturing the knowledge and process savvy of historians around the world and acting as a kind of virtual training group for other historians. The goal of this wiki is to act as a definitive and yet dynamic guide to best practices.
Crowdsourcing and Data Viability
A great deal of the digitization work at Family Search is volunteer-driven. For a non-profit, even one funded by a group as large as the LDS church, facing the task of putting billions of documents into an electronic storage medium and then sharing those documents online is an overwhelming task. A volunteer cadre of tens of thousands of people is integral to that task.
What was unexpected to me about this organization was how virtual they already are. Most of the 3.3 billion records they already hold from sources around the U.S. and the world are not the originals, but copies.
“The orginal documents may come from a little church somewhere in Europe. They’re not going to give us those documents and we don’t want them.”
But they do want to capture images of those records so the information lives on. In fact, a key concept at Family Search is the notion of data viability.
“(As a high-tech executive) I used to think in terms of the software as primary and data as interchangeable. Now I think exactly the opposite. The information in the records must survive even as the machinery and the software that reads it changes.”
The information that originally existed in documents and letters and ledgers was transfered to photographs, then to microfilm, then to computer tape, to floppies, then PCs and then to thumb-drives and now the cloud. The data remains the same, regardless of the method of capturing it. And now as original data is born digitally, that must also be preserved for a future whose data reading protocols beggar our contemporary imagination. That, according to Verkler, is the future of genealogy. Data preservation.