RootsTech 2023: In Person

As I sit and write this, I am people-watching in the Salt Lake City airport, with three days of conference and 7 days of residency behind me (and a rerouted 14+ hour flight home ahead of me …). But apart from wishing I was on the plane to Honolulu at the next gate, I am also thinking about all the people I’ve met, all the things I’ve learned and all the experiences I’ve been exposed to. And, yes, all the food I’ve eaten …

So here it is: my review of RootsTech 2023 In Person!

My time at the show started on Wednesday evening with a dinner hosted by Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch. In his opening address, he dwelled on the theme of “and, not or” when it came to RootsTech – online AND in person – and how that also dovetailed with the show’s tagline of uniting: The wider people in our research should be just as welcome as those closer to home. It was also something that resonated in my head and continues to swim around in my brain. And, not or.

The dinner – where I managed to meet up with some old friends and also make some new ones, like journalist Rebecca Olds from the Deseret News who was covering the show for the paper – was followed by a brief tour of the Expo Hall, ahead of the grand opening on Thursday morning. I admit that I was struck by the reduction in size from the last time I had attended back in … 2018 (wow), but I put that down to the fact that this was the first in-person RootsTech since Covid struck and perhaps people were not quite back to the point where they wanted to risk exposure. No judgement from me.

Day One

I had chosen a leisurely start to the day (unlike my traveling companion who had an 8am class) and was able to attend the What’s New at FamilySearch in 2023 talk at 9:30. Here, Craig Miller from FamilySearch gave us an overview of said new features, such as the new Homepage and the new look Person Page.

This was followed by a somewhat leisurely perusal of the Expo Hall. Amongst the Big Boys of the industry, such as Ancestry, FamilySearch, 23andme, DNAPainter, it was good to see a smattering of the New Kids muscling into the space – such as one of the show’s sponsors: Storied. This site offers record access (in fact, the company started as a newspaper archive) and has recently branched out into tree building and – crucially – enables users to record family stories and non-family relationships and connections (friends, neighbours, colleagues) to truly provide a more holistic view of our ancestors’ lives as more than just names and dates.

In fact, this blending of historical fact with more social-media-friendly story building was the overarching drive behind most of the big tech updates given by most of the companies with this being most apparent with Ancestry’s Storymaker Studio.

After a pleasant lunch, it was time to return to the Salt Palace and one of the most fascinating talks of the entire conference: Professor Ugo Perego’s An Introduction to Investigative Genetic Genealogy. Not only is Professor Perego an amazing geneticist, he is also an enthusiastic and charming speaker!

The day rounded out with more DNA science and a talk by Roberta Estes on following your ancestor’s path via DNA. Here she shared several case studies of using DNA to untangle mysteries and isolate particular family groups from one another, enabling popular theories of family lines to be laid to rest once and for all. I admit that I am not as clued up on genetic genealogy as I’d like to be. Roberta’s site DNAeXplained will no doubt come in very useful!

Day Two

Another busy day of classes, focusing on tips on writing your family’s narrative i.e. supplementing family stories with other documents and widening the net on social history archives and sources to truly understand the world in which our ancestors lived – from food to fashion to farming to toys to local maps and the landscape around them.

There were two other enjoyable talks that day: the address by the CEO of MyHeritage where he detailed some recent and upcoming releases, and then Amy Johnson Crow’s talk on milking a source for all the information it can tell you.

MyHeritage is increasing its DNA Tools with the introduction of the cM Explainer. This is a slightly smarter version of the DNAPainter (sorry, Jonny!) Shared cM Project 4.0 which takes into account the ages of the matches to highly target potential connections and likely Most Recent Common Ancestors. The impact on adoptee research could be great, especially as this is a free tool not tied to a subscription.

Amy’s talk on sources resonated with me as it is one thing that I often say to people: click to the next image/turn the paper over. That is, just because one image of one page comes up on a digital search, it doesn’t mean that the page before – or the page after – won’t also hold some key information. Also, the information listed may not be all the information the source holds (i.e. it may say it gives you year of birth, name, and arrival date, but the document itself may give date and place of birth, full names of spouse and children, arrival information as well as departure information). It is also key to remember that often the source may just be an index card and not the complete source itself. So it is already an abstract before it is abstracted again for the digital summary. Tracking down the original source is of vital importance.

Day Three

Saturday seemed to come around far too quickly. After having been in Salt Lake for a week, how could it be almost over already?! As always, it seemed to be over before it had begun. But not before an early class with the charming Cheryl Hudson Passey and radiant Laura Hedgecock discussing becoming a professional genealogist, along with Peggy Lauritzen (the indomitable Miss Peggy). Definitely gave us lots to think about.

Saturday was also host to one of the most popular Key Note addresses of the show: Sean Astin. The mood in the Hall leading up to his arrival was most definitely electric and his appearance garnered thunderous applause from the audience. During his (all too brief!) discussion with the MC, Sean discussed his love of family and how his family has grounded him during his long career in Hollywood, and how one of his daughters is deeply into genealogical research and will surprise him with stories that she finds. One particularly moving moment was when he read a text message exchange where she stated her love of genealogy proves that family is legacy and nobody is ever really gone as long as they are remembered.

My final in-person class was actually one that I had missed during my initial review of the classes on offer: David Lambert and the Salem Witches. We all know that I love a good witch connection so I was doubly pleased to have found it.

With one final spin around the Expo Hall, my time at RootsTech came to a stop … well, not quite actually! There were many classes that I wasn’t able to attend in person due to scheduling conflicts, and a great many of these area available online and I will be doing a round-up of some of my favourite offerings soon so please do keep your eyes peeled for that one.

I also haven’t managed to bore you with my food stories (yay to burgers and fried chicken with Nashville barbecue sauce, nay to badly cooked tepid pizza, yay to chai tea lattes, nay to allowing others to put milk in my tea…) or managing to meet up with my wonderful cousin and her husband again (for margaritas and enchiladas). I also haven’t even talked about a visit to Heber Hatchets where I discovered I am the King (Princess?) of the Axe!

Since I’ve been home I have been knocked flat by some kind of cold-adjacent virus (I suspect viral pharyngitis because that sounds more dramatic than “sore throat”) which made the journey home (already complicated by a forced change of route) a lot more difficult than it needed to be, hence why it is almost 4:30am on Thursday and I am putting the finishing touches to this post!

If you’re interested in attending RootsTech next year in 2024, the dates have been announced as Feb 29 – Mar 02, and it will once again be both in-person and online. And, not or.

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