A Greek at RootsTech 2019

After four days of classes and meetings at the largest genealogy conference in the world, I am both energized and exhausted. RootsTech, held every year in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a sensory as well as intellectual experience. The vacant hallways of the Salt Palace before opening day give no hint of the pandemonium about to hit.

Before and after

Choosing from the myriad of classes was tough, but I was drawn to sessions focusing on records preservation (both archival and personal), what’s new and upcoming at MyHeritage and FamilySearch, resolving conflicting evidence, alien registrations, military research, and DNA. I enjoy and learn from Mary Tedesco’s Italian genealogy classes, as research strategies in Italy and Greece are similar.

But the most rewarding part of this RootsTech was connecting with several friends of Greek descent. One is a volunteer at the Family History Library on Wednesday mornings and helps people with their Greek research. For the past ten years, she has guided patrons in their quest to get started. She related that most people do not know the original surname and village of origin of their ancestral family, and with no centralized online database in Greece, research must be done at the local level by mail or in person. Thus, much of her assistance centers on teaching patrons how to use U.S. records to find needed information.

My Greek friends at the Family History Library.

There is a feature on the FamilySearch Family Tree app which calculates how many people, within 100 yards, are related to you. Twenty thousand people attend RootsTech, with thousands in the Expo Hall at any given moment. Every year, I pull up this app and every year, my matches are ZERO! The real-time board which displays the numbers of related attendees irritates my Greek friend, Georgia, and me. It is so annoying to hear people say, “I have 300 cousins in this hall right now” when we have none.

We have zero cousins in the expo hall!

But I do have many blogger friends in the genealogy community known as GeneaBloggers. We write about our research and our ancestral families; our backgrounds are multi-cultural and our blogs reflect our areas of expertise. Our goals are to assist others in learning how to research, and to support each other in our own efforts. We are a tight group but never exclusive, and invite any and all who write about family history to join us.

The Family History Library (FHL) is one block away from the Salt Palace and most genealogists split their time between the two venues. The FHL provides access to digitized materials which, due to contractual restrictions, must be viewed either there or in one of the 4,500 Family History Centers worldwide. Its collection of 2.5 million microfilms is almost entirely digitized, but some have not yet been converted; thus, it is the place to go to view these films. The FHL has 3,000 microfilms of records from Greece, predominantly the region around Athens and some islands. This list, compiled by Lica Catsakis, can be found here. While most Greek films have been digitized, some remain on microfilm and can be viewed and downloaded at a scanner such as the one below.

Microfilm scanner at the Family History Library.

Microfilm image of a page from a death index book, Thessaloniki, 1918.

The FHL has a few reference books for Greek research. Of particular value are the gazetteers, or geographical dictionaries. Since the Revolution of 1821, many villages underwent name changes, consolidations, or even extinction. This image shows a list of villages in the Dimos Lakedaimonos in 1836.

Join me at RootsTech next year! The dates are February 26-29, 2020. I can promise you an extraordinary experience of inspiration and education. And great fun!

A Greek at RootsTech 2018

RootsTech–the largest genealogy conference in the world–provides researchers with a myriad of classes and resources to enhance their skills, and four full days to connect within the genea-universe. It is exhilarating, energizing and exhausting!  Over 13,000 attendees overran the Salt Palace Convention Center.

Exterior of the Salt Palace Convention Center, with quirky ying-and-yang signs

Salt Lake City is the center of the genea-universe, with the massive Family History Library just one block from the Salt Palace Convention Center. I spent several hours at the International Floor, where I digitized some Greek reference books and microfilms. The Library is in the process of digitizing all of its 2.5 million microfilms and hundreds of thousands of books, and millions of these images are uploaded weekly to the FamilySearch website.

The International Floor of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City

With over 300 genealogy-related classes, there was something for everyone…but, many of the sessions were geared towards beginners. I opted for intermediate-advanced classes to improve my research and writing skills, such as:  DNA Chromosome Mapping (I was lost); Netherlands Research (it’s always good to learn research skills in other countries and see what types of records are available); Tips and Tricks for International Research; Choosing Details: The Secret to Compelling Stories (a fabulous session); Town Hall meetings with FamilySearch executives; Battlefield Stories: Writing About Your World War II Ancestors, and others.

The halls were overrun with eager participants; at times it was almost impossible to walk against the crowd.

Jammed in the Salt Palace — over 13,000 attendees!

Several hundred vendors filled the Expo Hall. Attendees could talk with company reps, get hands-on assistance with software, take mini-classes, and browse the newest offerings of techie-tools. I was delighted to see booths featuring Chinese, Ukrainian, African-American, Jewish, German, Canadian and other ethnic groups. Someday there will be a Greek genealogy booth! ❤

RootsTech 2018 Expo Hall

Who Is My Relative?
People were huddled around apps on their phones, not only to keep up with RootsTech tweets and comments, or to decide on the next class to attend, but also to find relatives at the conference. But…these were relatives that they did not know. The FamilySearch Tree app, “Relatives Around Me,” was utilized by attendees to discover how many new cousins were lurking in the same classroom, ballroom, or hallway. Even the keynote speakers had fun with this app, offering a prize to the first cousin who found him/her on the app. One of my genea-blogger friends had 361 cousins in one session!

I had none. Not one. Any Greeks who attended RootsTech were not related to me 😦

A fellow genea-blogger, originally from New Zealand, also had 0 on his app, so we designated ourselves as conference cousins. No one wants to feel left out!

MyHeritage is Rocking!
Executives at MyHeritage made a major announcements which could be life-changing for adoptees. They launched a new website, DNAQuest.org, with the goal of helping adoptees reunite with their biological families. As a pro-bono initiative, MyHeritage is giving away 15,000 DNA kits to those who qualify, through April 30, 2018. Further information is on the DNAQuest website.

New record collections have been added, and a new feature for users of the FamilySearch FamilyTree allows synchronization with MyHeritage to find hints for new records.

And…there is the annual party, held on Friday evening when everyone needs cerebral “RnR.” A band, food, games and prizes make this event fun-fun-fun!

MyHeritage RootsTech Party, 2018

Did I learn anything pertinent to Greek genealogy research? No.

Did I meet any new Greek friends? Yes–one, whose grandfather is from Crete. We are now in touch and hopefully I can get her connected with people who can help her.

Do Greeks belong at RootsTech? Yes! Absolutely! Acquiring sound research skills, understanding DNA and its place in genealogy, learning about new software and websites are all critical components of starting off on solid ground. A large portion of our research begins in the U.S. or our home country, searching records to document our family units in their “new country,” organizing our findings, and determining our original ancestral surname and village of origin. This search begins in U.S. records and must be complete and accurate before we can access records in Greece.

Will I attend RootsTech next year? Of course–please join me!


RootsTech 2017, DNA and New Cousins!

Along with 20,000 of my “closest friends,” I spent three days at the RootsTech Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah February 12-14. This is my fourth year attending, and I continue to be dazzled at the variety of sessions and topics offered. With the surge of interest in Greek genealogy, I attended sessions on Italian and French ancestry to learn tips for teaching ethnicity research.

Both presenters did not discuss U.S. collections but focused exclusively on the records available online and on-site in their countries. Their lectures covered:

1. the types of records found in civil and ecclesiastical collections and the date range of those collections

2. the vital importance of understanding the geographic boundaries and the country’s history to ascertain which government had control of the records at varying times;

3. the structure of other repositories (e.g., libraries, archives) and the resources found in each.

These classes were of significant value to me as I prepare for two Greek genealogy conferences this year (New York City in April; Salt Lake City in September).

At a vendor’s booth, I was thrilled to find issues of Tracing Your Italian Ancestors and Tracing Your Eastern European Ancestors. Both of these are filled with “how-to” tips such as visiting ancestral villages, strategies for successful research, locating online resources. These articles will be of tremendous help in structuring classes for Greek researchers.

Italian Genealogy

I also attended several sessions on DNA and Genetic Genealogy. This field has become a hot topic in the past two years, as more people learn how to connect with others who descend from a common ancestor. Although I have taken both an autosumnal (or Family Finder) test and a mitochondrial test, I have not followed up on contacting “matches” as my time has been spent on analyzing records I got in Sparta last summer.

But that has now dramatically changed! Thanks to an Ancestry DNA autosumnal test, I can introduce you to my new cousins, Aidin (Dini) Malaj and his sister, Disola!

Melanie and Dini Malaj, me, Disola and Auston Horst.

Melanie and Dini Malaj, me, Disola and Auston Horst.

Dini and Disola were born in Albania and came to the U.S. to study. Here, they married and are now living close together in Utah while their parents remain in their village in Albania. But Dini and Disola were not the first in their family to come to America. Their grandfather, Bexhet Mala, emigrated and lived for several years in New Bedford, Massachusetts where he worked in the mills. He returned to Albania to fight in the Balkan Wars (if I remember correctly), married and remained in his country.

Interestingly, Dini’s father has been collecting the family history predominantly through oral tradition, as many records in Albania have been destroyed over the years (sometimes by Greeks — ouch!) Now Dini has picked up this mantle and is using DNA and other contemporary resources to expand his family lines. And, happily — that extension has led to me!

It is both thrilling and paradigm-shaking to look into the eyes of newly-found cousins and to comprehend that, as different as we are, we share a common ancestor. I am Greek; my parents and grandparents are Greek; I have walked the paths in my grandparents’ villages and I know from whence they came. I have read about various migrations of Albanians into Greece and I have seen the ethnicity breakdown of my DNA test so this new dimension of my family history should not come as a surprise. But it does!

Ethnicity map

I thought I knew who I was, but my visit with Dini and Disola and a second, more critical look at my ethnicity map has awakened me to many more new and exciting ancestral possibilities!