Stories Over Data

It was an emotional day for me at Rootstech. One filled with inspiration.

Things kicked off with the keynote addresses of this first official day of the event. Two presentations stood out for me. Steven Rockwood, head honcho at Family Search talked about the need to focus on the stories instead of the data when sharing our family history.

That’s pretty interesting considering that FamilySearch is all about the data. But his point is a recurring theme that I’ve felt keenly for many years now — and it was repeated over and over today.

The Spirit of Elijah comes from the stories, not the cold hard facts of names and dates. What inspires, uplifts, teaches and humbles one are the lives lived by those who came before us. They in part define who we are and that emotion comes back to me time and again.

In fact, that was the story shared by Paula Williams Madison, a retired NBC Universal Executive of black and Chinese descent. She told her story featured in this preview of her documentary – click here to see the trailer.

Fascinating tale of how family — no matter where or how — touches us.

Her point in speaking at Rootstech was to say “thank you” to the world of researchers who helped her bridge the gaps between Harlem and China. Quite a tale.

That was a good foundation for what followed for me today.

My morning after the keynotes did not start well. I attended a class that was supposed to instruct us on writing our own family history. I’ve been unsettled about that topic because it is easier for me to write about others than it is to write about myself.

This class was not as advertised, however. It was “taught” by an exhibitor who was there to pitch websites, family charts and custom books. It was more sales than practical advice and I quickly bailed on the class, more than a little annoyed.

I jumped into a Family Search class that gave tips about using Family Search. Fantastic class, even if some of the information was stuff I already knew.

I noticed something. Everything associated with Family Search in some way was packed – crowded to standing room only.

There’s a reason for that.

Family Search isn’t in the business of making money. The entire site is free.

This is important to recognize as you take inventory of the prodigious amount of progress Family Search is making. The emphasis on stories over data, as Rockwood explained, shows just how much Family Search has mastered the mechanics of tying together the available data.

The hook of it all – the meat – lies in the stories. And to get to the stories you’ve got to use the many beneficial features of Family Search.

From that class I learned to pretty much keep my eye on what Family Search is doing – and right behind that, what the Church was emphasizing.

Even though I’m not a family history consultant and I’m not in ward leadership I decided to attend the Church Family History department presentation about the vision of the Family History Department.

What a wise choice! And what an inspiring hour that was spent. It was every bit as good as anything you’d see in General Conference.

Elder Stephen Snow – yeah, we’re related – first announced ways the Church history department is interfacing with Family Search efforts. He announced the release of a database of early church missionaries dating from 1830 to 1930.

If one has ancestors who served a mission during that time frame we can get new information about them. I couldn’t wait to get home to check it out.

But then Steven Rockwood came back – this time in a tie and addressing the crowd as “Brothers and Sisters”.

He was inspiring in ways that few are at Rootstech and he gave what I consider to be a masterful presentation. He said, “If you want to understand the business plan of Family Search International, read 1st Nephi”, then he began to teach how the experience of Lehi was really a lesson in family history. Great talk with too many take aways for me to list here.

But again his talk was centered on the “heart” of family history – the stories we learn of those who come before.

That was again demonstrated through another Family Search class I attended later as they walked a recent convert through a live coaching session on finding ancestors via Family Search and preparing those names for the temple. The poor girl they used was a bit nervous but she was a good sport. I’d say she was maybe in her mid-twenties.

She had gathered just a few names and dates from a distant family member – and within a 30 minute demonstration they were able to find more data to paste into her family tree. In fact, they discovered a whole family of some 15 members – and gathered enough to print cards for them all to take to the temple. The look on her face was priceless – and one I could certainly identify with – as these discoveries unfolded in front of us.

Facts brought out questions, questions brought up searches, and searches began to sketch out a story. And the story brought realization and tears. All of it, of course, was made all the more powerful for this new member who suddenly had new context for getting to the Temple.

Oh, that I could do this work all the time – 24 hours a day. It is food for the spirit, hope for the soul, and light for dark hearts.

Jeff Westover
Jeff Westover

Husband, father, Latter-day Saint, 11th generation American, and web geek currently residing in Smithfield, Utah. Please visit my website at

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