Social media breaking down family history barriers

Wednesday , March 27, 2013 - 12:50 PM

Dana Rimington

SALT LAKE CITY — As social media becomes more prevalent, family history researchers see it as a valuable resource when it comes to connecting family members and generations.

Facebook, Pinterest and personal blogs can all be used as vehicles for family history, said Paul Nauta, FamilySearch public relations manager.

“All of these social applications are really nothing but a family history-oriented product, as a way in this age for family and really close friends you esteem as family to share day-to-day thoughts, share photos, current events, family recipes, and timelines, which is all about capturing your personal history,” Nauta said.

Thomas MacEntee, who hosts an online community for genealogy bloggers, has seen a dramatic increase in the use of social media for family history ever since ancestry.com took off in 1995.

“We have a very active social media community for the genealogy society to interact, connect and network,” said MacEntee, who currently lives in Chicago and recently attended the RootsTech family history and technology conference in Salt Lake City.

Decades ago, genealogy used to be somewhat of an elitist field, done by some to prove how American they were, but social media has helped break that down, MacEntee said.

Social media also allows people to share family stories that may have been hard to talk about, such as slavery, polygamy, thievery or prostitution. One woman MacEntee worked with, who was setting up a blog for her family history, was unsure how to share the fact that her family owned slaves.

“She ended up putting her records out there, which helped to get them talking about things they hadn’t talked about before,” MacEntee said. “We’re now willing to tell those stories rather than keeping them hidden.”



The storytelling aspect of family history that has accompanied social media has also opened up opportunities for family history. It used to be something families did in the evenings, gathered around in the parlor room telling stories.

“Now we have so many more ways of storytelling (with social media),” said MacEntee.

Behind every person’s family stories, though, are records of their lives. Accessing those records online for family history research is becoming easier with the amount of data being digitized. Currently, The Church of Jesus of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints is in the process of converting all of the microfilm records in its vault to digital images, which are then indexed.

“For the most part, people are totally unaware of how much content is going online from original sources,” said Nauta. “The digital image collections are by far outpacing the indexed records, with 400 million digital images of our historical records being put online per year.”

However, regardless of the vast amount of research available online, it still hasn’t changed the foundation behind genealogical research.

“It has made the process easier, but it hasn’t changed the basic tendancies of research in terms of the way we do research,” MacEntee said. “Sometimes it hard to find that needle in the haystack for things that are not indexed, or if you have to travel to an archive or library.”

“There’s a sense that people have been lulled into thinking you can do everything from home, when the fact is only 5 percent of records are useful to genealogy online,” said MacEntee. “FamilySearch is doing a great job of digitizing as much as possible, but you still need to go out to locations, such as making a trip to the national archives in Washington DC, or sometimes a trip overseas.”

However, thanks to social media, accessing some of those places before you visit has become popular.MacEntee said several small Greek villages are putting up their own Facebook pages, where individuals can go to ask questions about the people who lived there and compare photographs.

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