Last week, CitiGen post-doc Sarah Abel attended North America’s largest annual family history conference, RootsTech, held from 8th-11th February in Salt Lake City. This post comprises a collection of her thoughts and observations from the event.
I am standing in the entrance to the Exhibit Hall of the Salt Palace Convention Center. It is an immense space, currently filled with thousands of roots-seekers who have journeyed from across the United States, and even further afield, to attend this, the Mecca of all genealogy conventions. Upon entering the exhibit hall, they, like me, are greeted by the sight of row upon row of pop-up stands, each representing a different company or organisation, and collectively offering a cornucopia of products, designed to complement and improve each conference-goer’s journey into their own family history.
Nearest to the entrance are some of the largest and most visually impressive stands, representing some of the biggest names in the genealogy industry: Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, and FamilySearch. At any point during the conference, these stands are teeming with visitors, who queue up out of the door to get their hands on a cut-price DNA testing kit, or to sign up for a guided tour of the latest family tree software or online archives, or to perch on fold-out chairs, listening to company experts giving out tips on various research topics.
Further into the hall, these imposing stands give way to a maze of smaller stalls, tended by smiling representatives offering leaflets, tote bags, raffle tickets, and sweets in the hopes of luring visitors into hearing about a new storage solution, a file-sharing platform, a novel way of framing one’s family tree. Some are offering information rather than commodities: dotted about the hall are representatives of regional genealogy groups, looking to help conference-goers who are interested in researching their Italian, or Irish, or Native American roots. Others are simply looking to deal in nostalgia: there is a man selling “Kettle Korn”, which diffuses a sweet pungent smell of cinnamon and sugar among the neighbouring aisles, while another company invites attendees to have their photograph taken against a digitised landscape, meant to conjure up a romantic image of their ancestral “homeland”.
This colourful buffet of the modern-day accoutrements of genealogical research offers a taste of the rich pickings to be made from the business of family history. Indeed, genealogy today is a multi-million dollar industry, and conventions like RootsTech present prime occasions for companies to showcase their wares and size up the competition – but also to network and strike up business opportunities.
Yet financial gain is not the sole motor for RootsTech. The convention is sponsored by FamilySearch, an online family tree platform and record consultation service, which is maintained and offered free to the public by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (more commonly known as the Mormon Church). The FamilySearch website – which was launched in 1999 and within a week became one of the top ten most visited sites on the internet – draws upon millions of digitised microfilms collected from around the world by Mormon missionaries over the course of the Church’s history. The hard copies of these microfilms are stored in the Granite Vault, a reinforced underground storage chamber located outside of Salt Lake City, which is said to be secure enough to withstand a nuclear blast.
What fuels the Mormon interest in genealogy? During my time at the conference I encountered two main explanations from members of the LDS Church. The first is theological, and is based on the belief that by uncovering the names and stories of their ancestors, and then undergoing “sealing” ceremonies on behalf of those deceased individuals, Mormons can provide their ancestors with the opportunity for salvation – and therefore the possibility of resurrection at the time of Christ’s Second Coming. The belief that all humans should be given the choice to be saved – and thereby to be reunited in the afterlife with all their family members, past and future – continues to spur many Mormons to embark upon voluntary missions to collect and digitise birth, death and marriage archives from around the world.
The second explanation is rooted in a moral conviction of the social value of genealogy. One Mormon I spoke to (who also has a managerial role in FamilySearch) spoke of the positive impact that knowing one’s origins can have upon young people, stating: “Youth who have a good understanding who they are – the shoulders that they stand on – can weather the ups and downs of life better than those who don’t. They have a stronger sense of identity, and when trials set down upon them they know that they can deal with it because they know that those in their own tree have dealt with harder things […] and they know they are part of a broader fabric”.
The idea of genealogy as a path to social improvement is not exclusive to the LDS Church, but has become something of a North American mantra since the second half of the twentieth century, when genealogical research began to rise dramatically in popularity – notably following the screening of the TV miniseries Roots, adapted in 1977 from Alex Haley’s bestselling novel, published a year earlier. Fittingly, the moment many attendees regarded as the highlight of this year’s RootsTech was a keynote speech given by LeVar Burton, the actor who forty years ago was immortalised for his role as Kunta Kinte in Roots. In his speech, Burton talked of the continuing need for Americans to confront the darkest periods of their collective pasts, and spoke of the potential of family history research to bring about healing for old wounds and enmities, wrought along racial lines.
In recent years, however, such narratives of healing and self-empowerment have been most successfully mobilised by genetic testing companies, who promote personalised DNA analyses as a way to re-establish links with a lost “ethnic” identity or “homeland”, or as a means to reveal hidden connections with living relatives via matching genomic segments. This notion was emphasised by various speakers throughout the conference: for instance, genealogy blogger Melvin Collier (who gave a keynote talk just after Burton) described how a DNA match to an 82-year old Ghanaian woman led him to orchestrate a “family reunion” between his African American kin and their newly discovered Ghanaian “cousins”, centuries after their common ancestors were likely separated by the transatlantic slave trade.
Back in the Exhibit Hall, my eyes are drawn to an enormous, ceiling-high poster, looming over the maze of stalls. Entitled the “World’s Largest Genealogy Chart”, it espouses a Mormon conception of human genealogy, tracing its root to “Adam” in 4000BC. As incongruous as this pedigree may seem with the phylogenies depicted by population geneticists, who trace our common origins back to ancestral individuals who likely lived in East Africa over 100,000 years ago, over the course of the conference I have come to perceive a common ethic that feeds and facilitates this strange coming together of LDS theology, genetic science, and big business. In the words of one Mormon interlocutor:
“Something that we see all the time is that people are just natively interested in who we are. So we do it because of a deeply bound faith – a faith-based constitution that we have. But we recognise that people worldwide, regardless of what they believe are interested in who they are. So we share this data and create a conference like RootsTech to foster innovation, so that more and more people can discover who they are […] So let’s keep developing that world tree and make the world a kinder place. We are all family, at some point”.
If you enjoyed this post, look out for future research updates from CitiGen! Over the coming months, the CitiGen team will be offering critical perspectives on the uses of genetics to (re)construct individual and collective pasts in different societal contexts.