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Family history enthusiasts from 40 countries gathered in Salt Lake City February 8–11 for RootsTech 2017, the world’s largest family history conference. Organizers report more than 13,900 people registered for the event this year, a record crowd for the annual event held at the Salt Palace Convention Center. Saturday’s free Family Discovery Day attracted another 30,000 participants.
Family Discovery Day
Family Discovery Day focused on events for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Speakers included President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson; and members of their family.
“We need to be spending more time in the temple and in doing family history research, which includes indexing,” said President Nelson. “I invite you to prayerfully consider what kind of sacrifice of time you can make to do more family history and temple work this year.”
“It is my testimony that however fabulous your life is right now, or however discouraging and heartbreaking it may be, your involvement in family history and temple work will make it better,” said Sister Nelson.
Also during the week, Mormon leaders announced a change that will more closely align family history and temple service for Church members. The title for those serving in a family history assignment is changing to temple and family history consultant.
“Imagine how we would all look at each other and treat each other if we knew how we were connected,” said Stephen Rockwood, managing director of the Church’s Family History Department and the CEO of FamilySearch International, as he opened the conference on Wednesday.
Top 10 business thought leader and Brigham Young University graduate Liz Wiseman was a keynote speaker on Wednesday during the Innovator Summit. Wiseman told conference goers not to be afraid of having a lack of experience or a rookie mindset. “With experience, we gain knowledge and confidence,” she said. “But we stop seeing outside the box.”
Other celebrity keynote speakers included “Property Brothers” stars Jonathan and Drew Scott, who have made their careers buying and renovating homes. Family has always been important to the twin brothers.
“We’re Scottish,” said Jonathan Scott. “My dad wanted us to know everything about our past. So we actually would go back to Scotland, and we would tour through castles that our family live in, and we would tour around.”
“I love being able to come out here, thousands of people in the audience listening to us,” explained Drew Scott. “You know, they’re fans of our shows, but they’re also just as excited about lineage, finding out about their family, and finding about other people who are just as interested in their family too.”
Thursday night at the Conference Center, a concert titled “Music, It Runs in the Family” featured the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with special guest soloist Dallyn Vail Bayles and music and stories by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Oscar “Andy” Hammerstein III, grandson of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, provided the narration. The Orchestra at Temple Square also performed.
On Friday, author and actor LeVar Burton participated with a group of speakers to discuss their African heritage. Burton is known for his roles in “Roots,” “Reading Rainbow” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“‘Roots’ is a powerful example of the idea that we, all of us, truly stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us,” Burton told the audience. “In my childhood, it was my mother who was my first introduction to the magical properties of storytelling.”
At the end of his presentation, he got emotional as Thom Reed of FamilySearch presented him with documents of his great-grandparents who were born into slavery.
“To have been handed the story that goes back to emancipation and even before is an enormous gift that I’m still trying to process what that means to me,” said Burton. “I just got a motherlode of information that I didn’t have before, so I cannot wait to share this with the rest of my family.”
On Saturday, “Cake Boss” star Buddy Valastro, a fourth-generation baker, thanked the audience for the warm reception he received during his first trip to Utah.
“One thing is great to find out your history of where you are and where you come from and where your ancestors are from, but it’s another thing to know the roots that your family instilled in you that makes you who you are today,” said Valastro, whose parents were born in Italy.
“Nothing brings families together like food. Probably some of my best memories were at the dinner table, or you know, creating food or holiday with my family,” he said.
Valastro started baking with his father when he was 11-years-old. “I got to where I am today because of hard work. And I feel that work ethic that my grandfathers had, you know, that my father had, I have.” Valastro also participated in a cake decorating competition during his visit.
More than 200 classes were scheduled for this year’s RootsTech conference for all levels of experience. Hundreds of exhibitors also displayed the latest products available for family history buffs.
Family History Online
Many participants were anxious to see what new technology might be available for family history. On Friday, finalists competed in the Innovator Showdown to present their family history technology products before a panel of judges and a live audience. OldNews USA, a mobile app that makes newspaper research easy on a smartphone, took home the grand prize of this year’s competition.
RootsTech is organized by FamilySearch International, a nonprofit family history organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FamilySearch provides free online access to millions of people around the world, both members and nonmembers, who are researching their genealogy. In fact, FamilySearch reports that more people not affiliated with the Church have accounts to access their family trees than do Latter-day Saints. Visit FamilySearch.org to set up a free online account.