Joe Price Talks about Census Tree Project—RootsTech 2019

April 12, 2019  - by 

How have you been influenced by archives and libraries? Have you ever visited a museum and wondered how your own ancestors were part of the history you see there?

Joe Price, associate professor of economics and director of the Record Linking Lab (RLL) at Brigham Young University, spoke at the Access and Preservation Day at RootsTech in 2019. His presentation was about the RLL’s census tree project and how it will create meaningful connections to the records in archives, museums, and libraries.

Connecting with Records

“My life has been changed by archives and libraries,” Price said. He described how he likes to look for records and items that have not yet been digitized. He once took his children to a library and told them to find a book about someone who might be interesting. His son came back with a book about deaths in Yellowstone. Next, he told them to find the interesting person in the FamilySearch Family Tree. His son successfully did so and added information that the family and others would find meaningful.

Boy looking at library books.

This is the type of connection Joe looks for in museums as well. At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D. C., the exhibits affected him powerfully. “I was struck by the heroes,” he said. Price then asked himself, “How does this person connect with me?” As someone who works with records, he explains that “one way we can tap into a larger population is to provide those connections.” He predicted that in the future when you visit an archive or museum, you will be able to take out your phone and type in your grandparents’ information, and you’ll be directed to displays about your relatives. It will make a visit much more meaningful.

How Do We Get There?

Dr. Price runs the Record Linking Lab (RLL) with over 50 research associates at Brigham Young University. Their goal is to make records easier to find by linking them together. With technology, humans can teach machines to extract data from historical records and link the records. “This linking opens up immense opportunities,” Price said. When you find an ancestor in a source you think to search for, technology can find him in records you may not have thought about yet.

Students working on census records.

A challenge the lab is working on is linking United States census records for everyone who lived in the United States from 1850 to 1940. That is about 217 million people. The result will be one database with one profile for each person. Imagine that someone goes to Gettysburg. This person would be able to search the census tree and find a relative, which then connects to FamilySearch Family Tree. It is then possible for people to find records about their ancestors who were in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Libraries and archives are like haystacks. And finding a record in them is sometimes like searching for a needle. If you attach a record to a digital tree, though, people can find it. This digital tree could include so many great databases, such as newspapers, school records, oral histories, and photo collections. The census tree creates a core structure where all these other record collections can fit.

A Roadmap

Price presented a partnership roadmap for archives, libraries, and museums. Together, they can identify which records are of most interest to people. They can digitize and index those records, perhaps partnering with the RLL or another academic institution. They can then link those records to a tree, such as the RLL census tree or the FamilySearch Family Tree. Price notes, “We can help create ways to integrate this into the user experience when they visit your archive, library, or museum.”

Joe Price is a professor of economics at Brigham Young University and is the director of the BYU Record Linking Lab. He has been working to combine family history and machine learning to create automated tools to link historical records and extract data from handwritten and printed text. His lab employs over 50 students and has ongoing collaborations with academics at universities around the country. He loves finding ways to help connect people to records in meaningful ways.

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  1. Many times I have realized that documents and proof before I add a member is the most important thing I do. I learned that right from the first day I started. I am sure that this drives you crazy. Thank you for the reminder of the local library .

  2. Joe, I have been interested in your US Census Project for some time now. I would like to know how it is done in Family Search. I would specifically like to start my own census project with the surname HOGAN. I have heard you describe the process at the Springville Family History Center Fair, but I did not get enough information to understand how to do it in Family Search. Can you please help me?

    1. I would love more information on that too. I would love to see that integrate with Indexing too if that is possible. It’s an abstract idea to me but with so many wonderful implications.

      1. See comment above to Wendy with more info about doing a census project.
        We are also developing a way to do indexing for records that are likely to have a specific surname. We use machine learning to get a best guess of what the person’s name is and then use this indexing tool we’ve developed to have a human check the work:

    2. Here is a link to some instructions on how to do a family name network project for a surname like Hogan:
      Let us know how it goes and we can post about it on our Facebook page:

  3. I can’t say enough about the vision Joe Price has and how it has impacted our family history work in Laredo. Due in a great part to his efforts, we have initiated the Laredo Restoration Project which will eventually attach all existing Find A Grave records for Laredo either to existing Family Search records or newly created Family Search records that augment the Family Search database. In addition family trees for Find A Grave records for our two cemeteries are being created in the process by volunteers. So far over 6500 of the current batch of 17,000 plus records have been completed. Our community goal is to add all missing internments to the Find A Grave database and attach each as an original source document to a Family Search records and construct family trees to the extent possible. This experiment is taking the volunteer efforts to the next step after indexing to the actual creation of family trees by community volunteers with a community based record. Thank you Joe.

  4. Do you have a listing of those who were at the joining of the railroads at the Golden Spike ceremony in northern UT? I believe my great-Grandfather, William Francis James, was there.

    1. No, we haven’t worked on that data but it sounds like an interesting project. It would be kind of fun to identify all of the people in that famous picture.

  5. Would love to hear more about this project. I’m a “amateur Genie”, former Registrar with the DAR. I’ve been searching for my husband’s family “Gordon’s of Morristown” NJ area. Back to 1775, Charles Gordon 1775-1815, spouse’s Hannah Perkins 1795… (his descendent) spouse #2 Sister Elizabeth. 3 possible fathers for Charles…

    1. Here is a link to the slides from that presentation:
      Our lab tends to focus on records after 1850 when the US censuses started to include the names of all family members.
      We have some volunteer opportunities if you are interested: