Thursday, April 30, 2015

Family History’s Link to Civic Engagement & Tourism

Only 47% of Southerners know what both of their grandfathers did for a living, more than twice the percentage nationwide and astonishing given that 3-out-of-4 Americans express interest in knowing their roots.

But only a small percentage are what are called family history enthusiasts, people who have done at least 40 hours of research on their family roots.

A study published last year by The Odum Institute at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, just south of Durham where I live, found some significant correlations to family history enthusiasm.

It found that “higher levels of involvement in family history research positively correlated with self-reported volunteerism, civic engagement, charitable giving and community involvement.”

My interest in family history dates to my earliest memories of being lifted over the fence from the ancestral ranch where I was born to explore the headstones in a small cemetery in view of the Tetons where generations of ancestors had been buried.

A generation ago, the average family history stretched back 149 years but thanks to the ability to mine records online, it has grown in the U.S. to 184 years.

On both sides, mine now goes back now much further, in some cases more than 1,500 years.  I’ve been fascinated with a new interface that compares your family tree looking for any links to those of famous inventors, writers, athletes, clergy, even U.S. Presidents.

Relative Finder shows me my distant familial connect to Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Clemmons, Walter Chrysler, the Wright Brothers, Bing Crosby and Hall of Fame Quarterback Steve Young.

It also shows connections, long before they were Mormon leaders, to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and a hand full of others, including David O. McKay, who was the leader as I grew up.

I am also distantly related to Alexander Hamilton, 5th cousin 9 times removed to George Washington, as well as a distant relative to Jefferson, Adams and 15 other Presidents before I lost count including 7th cousin 5 times removed to Ulysses S. Grant.

Others included both Roosevelts, Truman, Nixon, Ford and President Obama through his mother’s side, 12th cousin 1 time removed.  Of course, most of these relationships relate to common ancestors long before those who who would immigrate here.

Obviously I am an underachiever.

Last year, a separate study reported that online family history research has grown in the United States by 14 times over the past decade.

Today, my alma mater BYU is known for its acclaimed Family History Technology Lab in the Computer Sciences Department, where students developed the now certified Relative Finder.

But it was two students earning degrees in public policy and mechanical engineering who first laid the groundwork in 1986 for what is now online genealogy.  It was a computer program intended to index text information in publications.

But it was soon integrated by Novell into its then dominant network operating system. Soon, two other BYU students used this technology as the backbone for what became

It was started as a publishing company in 1983 to aid people doing family history the old fashioned way.

But by 1996, two students with degrees in Russian and International Relations leveraged a start up in electronic publishing into what is now a huge subscription repository of records used to build family trees.

I mentioned the majors of these pioneers at the forefront of online genealogy to make the point that they didn’t have degrees in science or technology, something often lost on policy makers today obsessed with STEM.

According to the Ancestry Global Family History Report, interest in family history has doubled since 2008 and will again by 2025.

More than half of us (54%) were drawn to family history from looking through old photographs, letters or documents that our parents kept. 

Nearly a third of us (29%) have been to visit places where our ancestors lived while 14% have visited a museum, library or archive to conduct family history research.

In the U.S., 81% of those of us researching family history have come across old photos and two-thirds have come across birth, marriage or death records other than church records and 47% of have discovered old letters.

Only 10% of Americans trace to those who arrived on the Mayflower, but a quarter of those of us researching family history have used other passenger lists and immigrations records.

The report also provides a typology based on how close or distant families are in each nation.

Many times, I come across distant relatives who have chosen to share their DNA results on various websites including  Researchers are also now able to use DNA results to unwrap the composition of entire countries. has digitalized or obtained 15 billion digitalized records to date including 3 billion uploaded by users.

It is just one of several online family research sites, some of which such as are now allowing an interface.

Significant is that across the six countries studied in the Ancestry Global Family History Report is that 60% people “feel a personal responsibility to act as a guardian of their family history.”

Possibly more important is that 62% of younger people ages 18-24 are being inspired to learn more through talking to older family members.

Just remember to capture every bit on a digital recorder or smart device.

My mother died in January at age 86 but my sisters and I were astonished at how much information she would share in her last few years that we had never heard before.

It was priceless.

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