D. Joshua Taylor, Co-host of the Genealogy Roadshow on PBS Television and President of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&B), took a few moments from his busy schedule at RootsTech 2016 to chat with me about the future of genealogy and how video plays a role. This interview took place on February 6, 2016 in the RootsTech 2016 Expo Hall. Click here or on the image below to hear the full audio interview, complete with hubbub from the attendees and exhibitors in the Expo Hall!
Margaret M Eves: How do you see video and especially online video as playing a role in helping genealogists tell their ancestors’ stories now and in the future?
D. Joshua Taylor: I think it’s going to play a very, large role. In fact, it might replace a lot of things because it’s so easy now to create a video, and it’s so much more interactive. I think it’s easier to tell the story alongside the documents when you’re doing it for a video. … In the future, I think it’s very possible that we will tap into a video experience, even if it’s only interactive video when we’re working with the librarian or an archivist somewhere when we’re actually doing the research. I think we’re going to see that coming. There’s nothing stopping us. What would it be like if you could sit here and tap into a librarian of the New York Public Library, and have a reference conversation and record that and have that for future generations?
MME: Are you seeing genealogists creating videos to share their research now?
DJT: A little bit. I’ve certainly seen genealogists appear on YouTube. There are several who are showing how they organize, talking about a brick wall that they have. It’s not as many as I would like to see, in that case. I think technology is still intimidating for some a little bit. But, I think it’s absolutely an essential thing that you should do. The easiest thing to do is to talk into a microphone, talk to the webcam for 4 or 5 minutes about an ancestor.
MME: Are you seeing ways to help promote [creating videos] and progress into doing that, especially for genealogists?
DJT: RootsTech’s actually a very good example of a place that gathers together the vendors where they can discuss it … One thing I’d love to see is some of the commercial companies, like MyHeritage and Ancestry and FindMyPast start to incorporate video as a default function within their online tree and their research. Why can we share a record on Facebook and not record a video about the record we find? … It would seem natural that it’s going to come to that point because you think of Periscope and Snapchat and all that. The new generation, they talk in Snapchat. Why aren’t we integrating that somehow into family history?
… We have to find ways to adapt the existing search technology into these new ways of sharing. Video is a huge component of that. Online video is absolutely essential now. I think we’re missing the boat by not integrating that.
MME: In your work doing Genealogy Roadshow …, what is one of the more compelling reactions you’ve seen when [sharing] to a young person.
DJT: It’s hard to pick just one. I will say, for a young person in particular, there’s always the first moment they see their ancestor’s signature, or even their ancestor’s name on a document … when they realize, “That’s my great-grandfather. He’s no longer just Grandpa Joe to me. That’s his name, that’s his immigration number, that’s his census record.” Those are really, really, special and really important moments.
MME: In your experience, what are some of the common challenges or pain points that genealogists have when they are trying to share their research?
DJT: You know, it’s a very difficult question to answer because I think there’re a lot of them. One of the pain points, I know for me, is that I have to be a storyteller, and not a genealogist. We encounter this all the time on Genealogy Roadshow, where we have 50 documents to share, but in reality, we have to whittle it down to a six-minute segment. How many documents can you really show a person within six minutes, before their eyes glaze over, but also to make sure that they’re understanding what you’re talking about?
So in many cases, it’s how do you tell a story and use the documents as illustration versus simply giving them a research report? … as I see other genealogists sharing stories with their family members, it’s very easy for it to turn into a very long-winded research report, “I found them in the census. Now they’re here, and now, they’re here.” It’s that shortening of that 30-second tagline about an ancestor. What’s the tagline in that case?
MME: It’s like an elevator speech…
DJT: Exactly. I think one of the challenges for genealogists is actually having to create those elevator speeches of their ancestors because we want to tell so much more about the story and everything we’re finding, but when you’re sharing the story, it has to be that, in that shorter time.
(During the Thursday morning keynote presentation at RootsTech, speaker Steve Rockwood asked the audience to turn to a neighboring audience member and take turns sharing a 60-second story about an ancestor. His point was to make it short and make it a good story. I asked Josh if he shared an ancestor’s story.)
DJT: I did…he’s actually a first cousin 3 times removed, but he was a circus performer in the 1850’s and 1860’s. He traveled all around the world. He was born in Missouri. He died in Bombay, India. He lived in Australia. He went to China. He went to England … he traveled the entire globe. When I think about him and his family, all of his children but one died very, very, young. I think about the struggles he had. He had a desire to express his creativity as an artist. He was able to travel all around the world–that absolutely inspires me. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be born in Missouri in 1839, die in Bombay, India in 1870, and travel the entire globe.
MME: Have you found any photographs?
DJT: Yeah, I have photographs of him. In my office at home, I have a Playbill from a theater in Boston. He was performing there. I found it in in an archive somewhere and then found another copy of it at an antique store so I was able to get that. I have visual representation in my pictures of him performing with horses. I have all the ads from the newspapers when he was in town. I have a lot about his story. I want to write a book one day. Even more, I want to write a video and produce the video about his life. He’s an incredible guy.
MME: That’s great. I love that. Anything else you want to add in terms of getting genealogists to use technology?
DJT: I would only add that [you should] start, start. I will be completely honest. I never saw video as being a part of how I do my research. I looked at it and was like, “How would I use that?” I was being stupid. I use video now to keep my research log. When I come back from the library, I … record on my camera, on my laptop, and I talk about everything I looked at. Then, I preserve at least that thought that was in the moment. I can share that with somebody and say, “You know, I went to the library and here’s what I found.” There’s ways I can use it in the research process, but also in the sharing process. I’d much rather talk about my circus performer on video with images I could show [rather than] than lay out documents. It doesn’t actually capture his great story. It’s in the images, and in seeing that visual movement from place to place.
MME: I appreciate your meeting with me and sharing your insights.
DJT: My pleasure.