Monday, February 7, 2011

Interview with RootsTech Speaker Janet Hovorka

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janet Hovorka of Generation Maps and the popular The Chart Chick blog. She is speaking and exhibiting at the upcoming RootsTech conference. Below, she discusses the sessions she's teaching and the conference in general:

1. Why did you choose to speak at RootsTech? What makes it different than other types of genealogy conferences?
RootsTech is going to be a very different type of conference for me since I fall into the category of lecturer, vendor and student.  With Generation Maps, we are not only teaching about our products and displaying them in the vendor's space, but we are also able to participate in this conference as developers, being there to learn from the users about what is needed so that they can be better genealogists.  At every conference we go to we are always listening for how people interact with our products and what their needs are, but this conference is different because of the collaborative environment that has been set up for users to interact more formally with the developers to express their needs in genealogy.  It will be interesting to see how that all works out.  I'm sure we'll be very busy but I'm also sure it is going to be a very productive conference too.

Besides our vendor's demos, I've chosen to speak at RootsTech about two issues we see constantly in our genealogy business--two issues I care about very much.  "Will Your Work Survive the Digital Age" is about digital archiving and how the user can ensure that their research is available for future generations to investigate and build on.  We hear over and over about how people have scanned in all their pictures and have everything organized on the computer.  And yet could you really lay your hands on something you did on the computer 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, or 20 years ago?  And if you do still have it, and can still find it, could you open it up on the computer you have today?  Our world has gone digital.  My Grandparents' courtship was through letters, my courtship was through emails and over the phone, and my younger sisters' courtships were through text messages.  But it will be much easier for my grandchildren to read about my grandparents' courtship than about mine or my sisters'.  In some ways we are creating a digital dark age, and this first lecture is about how to make sure your genealogy research survives that situation.

My second session is about "Playground Rules for the Genealogy Playground."  I've written about this some on my blog but I'm looking forward to hearing what the participants at this conference have to say on this subject.  At Generation Maps we are in a unique position in the industry.  Unlike most of the other companies whose products you purchase and use when you are starting or working on collecting your family history, our products are used when you have collected some of your family history already.  We have people send us files from all over the world for custom and regular chart printing and I get to see the end result of a large amount of research.  Those files don't go anywhere else, and we delete them after the chart is printed, but we've seen many, many family history computer files.  As a librarian by training, I've noticed that often the documentation has not been collected as well as the other information.  I've been increasingly concerned about the collaborative databases out on the internet, the research that people have contributed to the databases is sometimes given with documentation and sometimes not.  Likewise, it used to be that when you would write a cousin for information about the family, they would send you all the information they had from vital records or maybe the family bible.  Now, when you contact a genealogist cousin, you may get a computer file--and depending on how diligent that cousin is about entering the sources they used to collect the information into the computer, you may or may not find anything on where that information came from.  This becomes a real problem when you collaborate with lots of genealogist cousins and and come into conflicting information.  We have to make sure the source citations are attached to information out on the internet so that we can effectively analyze sources against each other.  

2. Your session looks at the Internet as a collaborative space for genealogy. How important is collaboration in family history research today?
Collaboration is fabulous.  More information is more information is more information and that's always a good thing when you are researching about your family. But we have to keep in mind a couple of things.  First and foremost, we need to share not only the information we have about our ancestors, but also the sources about where we found that information.  Then when future generations find conflicting information, they will be able to analyze the sources against each other and come to the truth.   If we create genealogy databases and resources without the supporting documentation, future generations will have very little to build on.

Secondly, we need to remember that there are different levels of researchers.  Some of the collaboration will come from newbies who will believe anything they see on the internet.  I have a friend who collaborates with her very active genealogist Uncle.  When she asks him about something in his research, he says "I don't know--I found it on the internet."  Being a more careful researcher herself, she uses his research as pointers, and then looks for more thorough documentation.  Beginners are fine--everyone was one at one time.  You just have to be careful not to take everything at face value.

And we need to play nicely with each other.  It is often easy to say things through the computer that you would say in a more gentle way in real life.  As you interact with others about their family history through the internet, it is really important to be kind.  Especially when you are discussing someone's family history.  Your family's history is the core of who you personally are so it can be a highly charged and emotional topic for some people.  

3. What can attendees expect from your session?
I'm really looking forward to the collaborative environment of this conference and getting some feedback from attendees on these ideas.  I've given these presentations before in other situations, but there hasn't been as much back and forth discussion on the topics as I'm anticipating here.  I'm looking forward to discussing these ideas and other issues pertaining to Generation Maps products with the attendees.  

I'd like to thank Janet for sharing with me (and you) about her sessions and perspective on family history. You can see Janet at her Rootstech sessions, and stop by the Generation Maps booth #310 in the free RootsTech exhibit hall.

Disclosure: I am an Official Blogger for the RootsTech conference, and will periodically write about the event in this capacity. This perk includes complimentary registration to the event. 

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