The right to exist is the most basic of human rights, and without a record of people’s lives, they don’t exist, the president and CEO of FamilySearch International said March 21 as he opened the third annual RootsTech Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City.
Dennis C. Brimhall posed the question: “What would our great-great-grandchildren wish we had spent our time preserving?”
Elder Brimhall is an Area Authority of the Church as well as being the leader of the Church-operated FamilySearch, the largest genealogical organization in the world.
More than 6,700 registered adult attendees have flocked to Utah’s capital for RootsTech, making it the largest family history conference in the world, with about 10,000 viewers tuning in live via Internet streaming. In addition, some 2,000 teenagers have signed up for an assortment of sessions on Saturday, the last day of the three-day event.
Noting that family history is more than just names, dates and places, but also includes the stories that give meaning to lives, Elder Brimhall said, “We hope that what we can do is move beyond some of the classical barriers to people getting involved in family history. They don’t know how to find records; they don’t know what to do. We think we can begin to bridge that so that more people out there have the same interest and passion that all of us have and all of you have that are here.”
He added, “The key for us is to figure out how to share what we know. ... The more we share that, the more it brings people in.”
FamilySearch and its predecessor organizations have been collecting family history since 1894, Brother Brimhall said.
“It took us from 1921 to 2006 – 85 years, starting with typewriters and then with computers – to get our first billion records,” he said. “But thanks to hundreds of thousands of volunteers and enabling partners, we now have 3.2 billion searchable names online.”
An example of success, he said, began last year with the effort to index and make available the 1940 U.S. Census. The project involved the efforts of 200,000 volunteers.
“That’s like having everybody in the city of Des Moines, Iowa, indexing. And because of that we were able to get that project done months ahead of time, and we invited a lot more people in to get involved in family history than we might have ever before.”
But there is a lot left to do, Elder Brimhall said, mentioning the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Project, an effort to index passenger and other lists from U.S. ports of entry, including New York City. To date, more than 120,000 volunteers have indexed nearly 30 million records.
To illustrate that this is as exciting as the 1940 Census project, Elder Brimhall related a personal experience. Indexing some records, he came upon the story of a young boy who had come through the Port of San Francisco.
“Under ‘country of origin,’ it simply stated ‘stowaway,’” he said. “Now I thought to myself, ‘There’s a story here.’ I don’t know what the story is, but I know this: They let him in. Somebody here may be the great-grandchild of that young stowaway.”
Another project he mentioned that FamilySearch is involved with is the Italian Civil Registration, a partnership with the National Archives of Italy that will result in an online database of more than 115 million images of Italian births, marriage and death certificates.
To illustrate the principle that stories should be a part of everyone’s family legacy, Elder Brimhall shared the story of his father, who in 1943 became an Army Air Corps cadet. He was assigned as a bomber co-pilot and flew in mine bombing raids over Germany, northern Italy, Bulgaria and Austria.
In November 1944, on his ninth mission, his bomber was hit with a flak deathblow that separated the left wing. The aircraft burst into flame.
Escaping by parachute, he saw the plane’s navigator fall past him in a partially torn parachute. “Hi ya, buddy,” he said as the man fell past him.
“As it turned out, that mid-air moment was a meeting of the only two survivors,” of the ill-fated mission,” Elder Brimhall recounted. They ended up in a famous German prisoner of war camp from which they were later liberated.
“As remarkable, heroic and life-changing as his World War II experience was, for nearly all my life I never knew about this event,” Elder Brimhall said. “The turning point in saving these priceless family memories was when his granddaughter, my daughter, inspired by seeing my father’s war memorabilia during a visit to my mother’ house, one day simply asked to hear his story.”
She chronicled it in a book that captures the details of his war experience.
The book includes remarkable photos of the bomber being hit. Elder Brimhall’s father discovered them while shopping in a grocery store five years later, where he saw a store employee wearing a military jacket with a patch that identified him as part of the same squadron his father flew in the war. The man had been on another plane in the same bombing run and had taken the photos.
“Because of my daughter’s inspiration to tell her grandfather’s story, and the chance meeting, generations of my family have and will be blessed,” Elder Brimhall remarked.
“This story, while of my own life, is not unique. There are people all over this country and the world who are finding ways to tell their own family stories and save them for generations to come.”