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.
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.
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.
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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