Stories at FGS / RootsTech, or, Why I’m Not Brandishing a Pitchfork

It’s been almost a week since the end of RootsTech and FGS 2015. After suffering through delayed flights, adjusting back to my own time zone, and battling to keep the pipes in the house from freezing solid, I’ve finally had a chance to put some thoughts together.

(This is beyond the “genealogy conferences as group therapy” thought that I had earlier this week.)

Part of the FGS / RootsTech 2015 Expo Hall. Photo by Amy Crow.

Part of the FGS / RootsTech 2015 Expo Hall. Photo by Amy Crow.

The Stories… and the Pushback

As Randy Seaver pointed out in his FGS/RootsTech recap, there were a LOT of vendors focusing on stories. Even the winner of the Innovator Summit has a product based around recording family stories. (BTW, some people seem to have the wrong impression of StoryWorth. It isn’t recording only via phone calls; that’s just one way to record them. But I digress.)

I heard some pushback while I was in Salt Lake and I’ve seen comments on various social media channels. “That’s not genealogy.” “Where was all of the research stuff?” “You’d think this was a storytelling conference instead of a genealogy conference.”

On The Intrepid Sleuth blog, she (sorry — couldn’t find your name!) stated:

The majority of the tech community seems far more interested in the latest rage, “story capturing”, and are busy developing entertaining, social based, game-like, story capturing and sharing apps that memorialize not the past so much as present day family events. They do not see a market for anything supportive of the serious family researcher. This is sad. What’s even sadder is that the core genealogist community is not up in arms over this. I have a pitchfork, who’s with me?

(Not picking on you, Intrepid Sleuth. Just quoting you because it summed up a lot of what I heard and read during and after the conferences. And I totally agree with you about the need to clean the Salt Palace Convention Center. I’d add that they also need better signage.)

Here’s Why I Don’t Have a Pitchfork

Pitchfork, by Julussugla. Used under Creative Commons license 3.0

Pitchfork, by Julussugla. Used under Creative Commons license 3.0

First, a bit of background. I’ve been “doing” genealogy for a LONG time. I’ve been a Certified Genealogist since 1995. You might call me a “serious” researcher — and you’d be right. I do take my research seriously. But I didn’t start this way.

It started with my grandma’s stories. It evolved as I learned more and wanted to make more discoveries — to learn more about my ancestors than what Grandma knew.

There’s room for a lot of players and a lot of viewpoints in the genealogy world. The finalists in the Innovator Summit included a company that is working on reading handwriting to index old records. There was also a company that wants to match people with research problems with the genealogists who can help solve them.

The exhibit hall was filled with the “big guys” in the genealogy world, right along with “mom and pop” operations with hand-lettered signs. There were high-tech things and there were decidedly low-tech things. There were even things that didn’t specifically relate to genealogy. (I’ll admit right here that I had a serious case of lens envy every time I passed the Nikon booth.) People were visiting all of them.

Not only is there space for everyone, I have a selfish reason for being more than ok with those who focus on stories. I got my start with the family stories and it sparked a passion in me. That passion grew and I learned more and more and have made some wonderful discoveries about my family. I’ve had opportunities to learn from others who have had the same experience. I want more people to get that spark, to feel that sense of wonder and curiosity. Why? Not only because it will make our community stronger, but because perhaps one of them will be a cousin and will want to share those stories with me.

What are your thoughts?

19 thoughts on “Stories at FGS / RootsTech, or, Why I’m Not Brandishing a Pitchfork

  1. charmaine riley holley

    I am with you Amy! I have been doing genealogy forever and I am working to become more of a family historian. I love the stories – not just the names and dates. I, too, got started in this wonderful community with stories my Nana and my Grandma told. I wish that I had been more concerned with the stories and less concerned with names and dates over the year because the story tellers are gone but the microfilm is still here.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      “…the story tellers are gone but the microfilm is still here.” That’s a great way of putting that, Charmaine.

  2. Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG (retired, 2012)

    I am another one who fell into the “genealogy rabbit hole” because of Grandma’s stories. I just had to know more about her ancestors, and so it began when I was about 12 and continues — decades later. Of course, I thought I would “find” all the genealogical/biographical information about ALL of them many years ago (how naïve can you be?). Here I am still digging and learning and finding bits and pieces of my past. I love the strides in technology that enable me to do so much more with this information (the old days of typing charts and using WiteOut are just a memory), but some of the technology and gadgets are more glitz than practical functions for my purposes, but others may find these just what they need.
    I have never heard anyone say they became interested in genealogy because of reading pedigree charts and family group sheets, but family stories and old pictures have hooked many of us.

      1. haz

        Well I must be one of the few I loved the relationships charts of Scottish Royal families and who was related to whom.SO then I moved on to creating my own charts
        My family did not share stories I had to ask ..So no warm and fuzzy grannies for me

  3. Jade

    To be sure, no few persons have first been impelled into genealogy research by hearing stories. Genealogy conferences should include information on techniques to collect them (and of course to verify).

    But most attendees at RootsTech/FGS 2015 were not beginners. And, oddly, most of the pre-conference blogging was about RootsTech, not about FGS, despite there being little at the conference regarding tech developments. Lots of marketing of “story” stuff. Where was the discussion of the work being done to create a renewed/different genealogical file-sharing program? The one speaker on the misnamed GEDCOM X did not even get to nuts-and-bolts in his talk.

    The few topics where there were several speakers were not set up with open mikes for all, so they were forced into serial presentations and responses rather than the more free-flowing panel discussion that could have been fruitful.

    Weren’t the RootsTech audiences too large to allow much Q&A during the sessions? There could have been break-down workshops after many of them, to allow better absorption of the material and its applications. But it was an awfully crowded schedule.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      I would agree about most of FGS attendees not being beginners, but I would disagree about the RootsTech crowd. Having being a presenter and a booth worker at 3 out of the first 4 (and an attendee this year), it’s been my experience that while there are “advanced” researchers at RootsTech, the crowd skews much more toward the “newer” end of the genealogy spectrum.

      I agree with you that there should be more sessions that encourage interaction between presenter and audience. There was at the first RootsTech (from what I’m told; I wasn’t able to attend that one), but they seem to have gotten away from it. It’s a shame — there could be some great exchanges of ideas in that setting. Seeing the problems with a fresh set of eyes could lead to some interesting solutions.

  4. The Intrepid Sleuth

    Hi Amy! Great post. I love good stories too; in fact, I’ve started the blog because my family keeps bugging me to post more of the family stories and adventures my research has uncovered. I am frustrated by the lack of comprehensive software that supports the complexities of genealogical research and hoped I would make discoveries at a conference with “tech” as one half of its name. I agree, there were many cool things to see and discover, at the Family History Technology Workshop (my fav was, the Innovators Summit, and in the Expo Hall (that guy shopping the Nikon booth daily was my hubby!), but nothing that really fit my desires for one program to rule them all. What technologies do people who have been doing genealogy for awhile use?

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      What technologies do people who have been doing genealogy for awhile use? Yes. 😉

      For me, it depends on the task at hand. When it comes to timelines, I’m a bit old-school and rely heavily on Excel. For photos, I organize in folders and tag in Photoshop Elements. A lot of people are using Evernote to sort/store/organize their notes. I need to explore that.

      Like you, I haven’t found the solution for all of my research needs. Then again, I haven’t even found the perfect planner/organizer/scheduler for my daily tasks and projects yet!

  5. Sandy

    The stories are what make the data into real people! I agree with Charmaine – the living will pass, but toe data can still be found.

  6. Dana Leeds (The Enthusiastic Genealogist)

    What a great post! I wasn’t aware of the controversy going on over the conference, though I wasn’t in attendance, either. I consider myself a “serious” genealogist, but have lately become a lot more interested in the stories than the names and dates. Of course, we need the names and dates to build upon! But, the stories are what bring our ancestors back to life and ‘seem’ real again.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      I wouldn’t call it a “controversy,” so much as a differing of opinions as to what constitutes “genealogy.”

  7. Elizabeth Wilson Ballard

    I listened and listened and listened as a child, teenager, and adult to the repeated stories. They are in my head and my heart. I have my favorite ancestors because of those stories, and what I learn, I can share with others. The stories and the serious genealogical research are not mutually exclusive. I have shared many times on my blog that while it is exciting to find out the facts, I sure miss knowing the stories – and the people, my ancestors, are gone forever. I can only hope to do them justice. My uncle who died almost a year ago, my mother’s brother, was 91 years old. What my cousins and I have left are paintings, photographs, letters, and memories. But if we don’t write down the stories of the people we knew, who will? Someday, we will be gone and there will be nobody who knew my mother, nobody who knew her brothers. And nobody who knew us.

  8. Beth Hardin

    I love stories. I have stories about my family, written by my grandfather’s contemporary cousin, one describing my grandpa as a little boy gathering eggs that I dearly love. It could be a children’s book, with a little work. You can’t beat stories by contemporaries, especially ones that took place over 100 years ago. I vote for more stories…for future generations. JO
    Thanks for asking.

  9. kessara

    The stories are what get us started – the research is what we do to support the stories and help them sustain so future generations can find them.

    I started when I was twelve, sitting with my great-grandmother at the annual Roberts’ family reunion in Wesley, Maine. I had trouble keeping track of which of my cousins belonged to which of her siblings (I think there were over 350 attendees that year) and so she helped me write it all down on some paper scavenged from the kitchen and the depths of her white vinyl purse with the shiny brass twist latch at the top.

    Forty years later, I have the dates and documents to back up the original list – and the great-great grandchildren of those siblings of hers are in my files as well.

  10. Schalene Dagutis

    Bang on, Amy! I was weaned on the family stories my Dad told as I helped him with his data entry. I later learned, and am still learning, about serious research. There’s a place for both. But if you can’t tell a good story, you can’t interest the next generation and your work will likely die with you. Unless, of course, you’ve written it down. Gasp, perhaps told a story.

  11. hardyp3

    Like any science it all starts with an observation. You see something and say “that looks cool, I wonder how that works?” or some such. In genealogy it might be you hear something (a story) and say “that’s cool, I wonder how that can possibly be so?” and then start digging. Some might not make it past the “that’s cool” stage but it’s a start. Scientific instrument makers are all about capturing observations. So what if the latest trend in genealogy ‘instruments’ is capturing stories?

  12. Vera Marie Badertscher

    Besides the emotional tug of stories, there is a very practical use of narrative in compiling family history. Again and again, I have had a list of facts that looked perfectly logical in the abstract, but when I tried to link them in a narrative, I saw problems. Those resisting story might think of story as a fact checking tool.


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