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February 19, 2011

Talking to Curt Witcher, Allan County Public Library (A RootsTech Interview)

Interview with Curt B. Witcher
Genealogy Center Manager Allen County Public Library

Lamar Tyler and I sat down with Curt B. Witcher a few minutes after his keynote speech at RootsTech. Curt was on fire during his keynote speech. He was animated and passionate and a joy to listen to. One of the points Mr. Witcher made was that genealogists should not be afraid to take the next step beyond gathering information. After gathering the information it is important to analyse it, study it, organize it and SHARE with others.

Mr. Witcher was still on a dynamic roll when he sat down with us and it was obvious that he is passionately dedicated to the idea of technology making genealogists lives easier and making it easier for us to share what we have, or what we discover, with others.

Lamar started the interview off by asking how we can show our readers that it isn’t necessarily a huge task to start one’s genealogy. Curt responded that there isn’t a better marriage for technology than genealogy because emerging technologies make it possible for researchers to search millions of records quickly. Researchers can text, post on Facebook, fill in blanks in their family trees and quickly and easily share that information with others. Others can then add their own information.

He added that technology has taken genealogy from researchers seeking, seeking and seeking for long periods of time without finding anything, to seeking and finding quickly. With more success more quickly we can start to put our stories together to share.

Curt feels that the boomers are the key – they expect things to happen quickly and fairly easily and they have vitality and excitement.

I mentioned that there are two groups of genealogists who might want to share their stories or photos or documents. The first group are those who have personal items (photos, documents, letters etc). They have never thought about sharing these items with others. The second group are people like me who have larger collections that they have put online. But these collections are still quite small and scattered. I asked Mr. Wichter how we can encourage the first group to share their memories and how we can help the second group to expand so that more genealogists can access the documents.

Curt’s responded with the answer that he would like to see that dialogue initiated and continued between technologists and genealogists. He called small collections “walled gardens”, closed off for sharing easily with others. He has not yet found one good way to share more easily and that is why RootsTech was a great way to start the dialogue to try to find solutions.

He noted that sometimes family members who inherit research or personal documents do not know what to do with it. Often they don’t want it and the privacy issues frighten some. But he believes passionately that it is powerful to know who you are and where you came from, and in fact it can be life-changing. He asked a rhetorical question which resonated for me

“What is it in the human pysche that connecting to family and ancestors makes you realize you are part of something bigger?”

Curt mentioned that Wikipedia is a good example of sharing and sourcing where people post articles and others quickly add to them or correct them.

Lamar wanted to know how we can encourage young people to become interested in genealogy. Mr. Wichter pointed out that young people already know the technology part. They are tweeting, texting, and setting up Facebook pages already. So we have to show them they can do the same fun stuff with family history! We need to encourage them so they end up wanting to know more.

I wanted to know about Seniors and how we can encourage that group when many are very frightened of technology. Curt suggested that a trusted organization or a trusted invidual needs to show them the way. Seniors can get confused on complex sites and they often worry about identity theft or privacy issues. So someone like a grandchild can help them overcome those fears.

Curt ended our interview by explaining that technology can add an extra layer to our relationships. Family history and sharing keeps memories alive. It takes a family – children, parents and grandparents, to share and communicate and that sharing is a powerful tool.

For more background information on Mr. Witcher and his many involvements in the genealogy community, please see RootsTech Keynote Speakers


Tessa Keough said...

Great interview - I watched his talk via streamed video and thought he was amazing.

I think that when anyone can see how technology can help them, have the technology explained (in general not too techy at beginning) and be given a "cheat sheet" to work with, most people are willing to try new things.

We need to get out there at the libraries and schools and encourage kids by showing them how their family fits in American and their ethnic history.
We need some collaboration with school groups, scouting groups, etc., to use technology with history, geography, writing skills, computer skills, language, cooking, etc., to show them how their background relates to our big picture of the American story.

So how do we do this?

Joan Miller (Luxegen) said...

Good job on this interview! I did a recap on his FGS luncheon talk. He was on fire for that one too.