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Family history research isn't what it used to be

Posted: February 18, 2016 10:19 p.m.
Updated: February 18, 2016 10:19 p.m.
Amy Choate-Nielsen/

As I attended RootsTech this year and met with Kendall Hulet, senior vice president of product management at, I realized genealogy isn't just about microfiche. It's about finding, preserving and telling stories.

I need to make a confession.

Sometimes I feel like an impostor.

Like, here I am, writing a column about family history — I’ve been writing it for four years now — and I still haven’t used microfiche.

I know. I’m ashamed of me, too.

Growing up, I thought that’s all that family history research was: sitting at an old, blinking computer for hours, scanning dark pages of microfiche for names that could somehow be linked together. I couldn’t understand how one would go about knowing which microfiche to look at, which tiny, minuscule square to aim the microscope at, and how that might lead you down a trail that would connect your genealogy back to the creation of the world.

People called it genealogy back then, a word that — for me — conjured images of something laborious, antiquated, tedious and smelling of must.

Back then, there were no Internet searches, online U.S. Census records, photos of graves from around the world accessible from the cloud, or DNA tests. Those are the kind of things Kendall Hulet makes. He’s the senior vice president of product management for, an online, for-profit genealogy company based in Utah. I met Hulet this year at a family history convention called RootsTech, which takes place every year in Salt Lake City.

Hulet’s people reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in an interview, and I was intrigued. I’m an impostor, after all. I wondered what it would be like to talk to an expert. Someone who not only knows about genealogy but also makes some of the tools I’ve been using to dig around in my past.

So there I stood in the main hall of the Salt Palace Convention Center, waiting to meet someone who’s made a career out of genealogy — the same laborious, antiquated, musty-smelling subject of my childhood brain. I imagined the person I was about to meet was probably old. Very serious. And maybe a little boring.

I was surprised to see he wasn’t much older than me, with a messenger bag slung across his shoulder, looking like he wouldn’t be totally uncomfortable in a hipster cafe, contagiously energetic and excited.

As we walked over to the slick white couches in the media hub for our interview, I mentioned something about how I was looking forward to taking a DNA test because I wondered if I might have some Native American ancestry in my blood.

“Lots of people think they have Native blood, but it’s usually not true,” he said.

“Oh, yeah, I’m sure,” I said, immediately backpedaling, feeling slightly embarrassed.

I changed the subject.

I was interested to know how Hulet got involved in family history (his job, of course) and if he had any amazing family stories that he discovered from his research. For me, family history is all about stories. Hulet agreed.

He has some good ones. He told me one story about his great-great-great-grandfather, who was a Redcoat in the Fifth Regiment in England after the American Revolution. The soldier brought his wife and child to battle in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but the wife died on the boat ride over.

After doing a bit of research (online and by calling a museum in England — no microfiche), Hulet learned the soldier went to battle every day after tying his daughter to a tree, leaving food and water nearby, to keep her safe.

The things parents do, I said to Hulet at the end of the story. I wanted to come back to what he said about everyone wanting to find Native American ancestry in their blood.

“Why do you think that is?” I asked him.

“It’s exotic,” he said. “People want to be related to something cool and interesting, and you may not be, but you are related to somebody interesting, and they have a story in you. It’s actually inside of you. You’re carrying it everywhere you go. You just don’t realize it.”

Suddenly, I didn’t feel like such an impostor. And I wasn’t thinking of microfiche and must when I heard Hulet’s stories. I was thinking of my own family history and the lyrics to a song I learned a long, long time ago:

Genealogy, I am doing it, my genealogy.

And the reasons why I am doing it are very clear to me.

I will keep my book of remembrance, I’ll write my history.

It’s a record of my family, my genealogy.


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