Attracting the young through computerized genealogy
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Technology has advanced more rapidly than the genealogical community can or will absorb it, said the opening speaker at the BYU Conference on Computerized Genealogy being held at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on April 26-27.
"Genealogy crosses many, many disciplines, and the technologies in each of those disciplines are accelerating at a rate that is almost unprecedented," asserted David Rencher, chief genealogical officer for the LDS Church's FamilySearch organization. Keeping up with them is the challenge that family history enthusiasts face, he said.
What makes it challenging, he explained, is an often steep learning curve for genealogical products that can be non-intuitive to a genealogical audience. The learning spectrum can be wide, since genealogy takes advantage of the records of so many disciplines; new software is sometimes completely revised, requiring extensive re-learning; and technology can encroach on time and resources needed for other kinds of learning, he noted.
Social media, exemplified by Internet sites such as Facebook and MySpace, are changing the dynamics of family history as they change the information age, Brother Rencher observed. "There is going to be a fundamental shift in the way we approach family history."
To illustrate that point, he said Facebook users are primarily between the ages of 13 and 29, contrasting that with the demographic of family history enthusiasts who have an average age of 55.
Brother Rencher told of a conversation he had with a fellow passenger aboard an airliner, a young man of about 21 years. The young man was en route to a family wedding. Brother Rencher asked him how they were related, and the man replied, "I have no idea."
"I showed him things he could do on the computer; he actually was interested in tracing his family history," Brother Rencher said. Reaching his destination, where he was to speak at a genealogical conference in St. Louis, Mo., Brother Rencher had an "aha!" moment, he said.
"There isn't any way on earth I could get that young man to come to this meeting," he realized. "It's not his crowd; that's not what interested him. He was interested in absolutely anything I could show him on a computer, but he was not going to come to the St. Louis County Genealogical Society meeting."
Thus, the Facebook crowd wants family history, "but they don't want it in the same way we do," Brother Rencher reflected. "They want a technical experience. They're not as likely to go to a library, join a society, search microfilm, look up index data or learn technological applications of various records."
Genealogy will have to be as engaging to the 13-29 age market as it is to the 75-plus market, Brother Rencher said. Looking at his largely older audience, he said, "They want an experience that's different from the experience you want. It needs to be developed, in my opinion, by those who are ages 17-26." As they are educated in researching more about their family history, "they will come up with a way to play in that arena, and they will do it in a way that will be extremely engaging."
More open-source computer technology will have to be provided to bridge the gap, he predicted. "As the gap narrows, what will happen is the commercial market will not address the needs of that audience. Why? Because there will be little or no return on the investment."
The emerging social media segment will likely keep current with developing technology, he said. "They pick up the latest thing, and they run with it." He noted that, at the moment, there are 36 mobile phone applications for genealogy. The younger segment of the populace is more likely to use such devices.
"For genealogists to narrow the gap, you need more exposure to technology and learn new genealogical tactics to keep pace," he said. "We need to create a learning environment that is comfortable to you that you enjoy the experience and that you want to come back. We need to shift toward collaboration and social networking, and the trust issue has to be resolved. There has to be a mental shift from 'my data' to 'our data.' That is one of our greatest challenges as genealogists."