The World Conference on Records: Writing the History of the Heart
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“The World Conference on Records: Writing the History of the Heart,” Ensign, Oct. 1980, 72–75

The World Conference on Records: Writing the History of the Heart

“In all of us,” wrote author Alex Haley, “there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we have come from.”

His remarks reflect the vision behind what happened one warm week in August as thousands of individuals met to learn how to preserve the histories of their families for the benefit of generations to come.

The World Conference on Records, held August 12–15 in Salt Lake City, served as a meeting ground for the old and the young, the experienced researcher and the eager beginner, the highly technical and the deeply inspirational. It was a friendly gathering of some 11,500 people from every state in America and fifty nations worldwide. Most of the participants were LDS, but the presence of many nonmembers suggests that interest in family history is by no means exclusive to the Latter-day Saints. Indeed, since Alex Haley’s Roots it has become fashionable to look backward in a very personal way.

President Spencer W. Kimball, addressing the first conference general assembly on August 12, warmly welcomed the “impressive international audience.” His brief remarks included observations that “Whether we recognize it or not, we are connected with our past,” and that “People who care nothing for the past usually have no thought for the future and are selfish in the way they use the present.” He emphasized the need for keeping personal journals, citing his own deep commitment to the practice:

“By now, in my own personal history, I have managed to fill seventy-eight large volumes which are my personal journal. There have been times when I have been so tired at the end of a day that the effort could hardly be managed, but I am so grateful that I have not let slip away from me and my posterity those things which needed to be recorded. I pray, therefore, that you will have both the commitment and the energy to follow through on what you learn as you participate in this World Conference.”

While the nuts-and-bolts business of historical research was covered in detail (sessions dealt with North American, British, Continental European, Scandinavian, Latin American, Australian, Polynesian, Asian, and African family and local history), much of the conference was concerned with the preparing and preservation of personal and individual family histories.

Speakers stressed the significance of journal keeping, books of remembrance, the recording of family history, as well as the emotional and spiritual benefits of preserving the past and recording the present.

Alex Haley, addressing a general assembly on the second day, described the writing of Roots as “a spiritual experience.” Reminiscing about his childhood, he recalled hearing stories of his family’s history related by great-aunts who had gathered to comfort his widowed grandmother. Years later, he uncovered by chance some sketchy information about his great-grandfather. “That,” he said, “was when I received the bite of the genealogical bug—a bite for which there is no cure.”

Enlisting the aid of “cousin Georgia,” who was by then the only surviving relative who could retell the family story, Haley began a long and exhaustive search that finally ended in a tiny African village. “I had to go to Africa,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to go, but I had to. Then, when I knew the story, how could I tell it? How could I contain it?” When Roots was published, he recalled, “all of a sudden my mail began to come in grey canvas sacks. Everyone was writing about family. The greatest common denominator is family; it’s also the greatest humanizer.”

Haley referred to the family as a “basic building block of society,” and suggested that both families and society can be strengthened by collecting oral histories from the elderly and by holding regular family reunions. “Every time a family meets,” he reflected, “there is another tightening of that building block. It is exciting what worldwide family reunions could contribute to worldwide peace.”

Similar sentiments were echoed throughout the conference. George D. Durrant, director of the Church Priesthood Genealogy Division, observed that “The most exceptional stories are those written about ordinary people. Simple folks have the most interesting histories of all.” And he expressed what was perhaps the overriding message of the four-day gathering: “This conference was called because now is the time to write the history of the heart.”

There are perhaps as many ways to go about writing a personal and/or family history as there are people who might begin such a project. Clearly, methods will never be identical, although guidelines can be valuable. Dr. Edward L. Hart, professor of English at Brigham Young University, recommended an uncomplicated approach which begins with one’s parents, then extends to self, brothers and sisters, and other relatives. “Begin,” he said, “with what you already have—documents, letters, photographs, journals, statements of bills, etc.”

Intimating that perseverance is the key to successful research, he added that “you may need to write letters and make visits. Tell family members what your goal is and ask for their help. Ask for specific facts; if you can’t get them all at once, write many times.” The written history itself should be simple, straightforward, easy to understand—and scrupulously honest and accurate. “Facts,” noted Dr. Hart, “should never be accepted on the basis of hearsay. Be sure to verify all those stories.” And never be afraid to rewrite; after all, “nothing on earth is absolutely perfect.”

Indeed, neither is anyone on earth absolutely perfect—a point discussed at some length during a session conducted by Dr. Davis Bitton, professor of history at the University of Utah and Assistant Director of the Church History Division (Historical Department). Titled “Family History: Therapy or Scholarship,” his presentation explored some of the possible tensions a researcher may feel when it becomes evident that “in various forms, nuts can fall out of the family tree.” We need to be prepared, he explained, to cope with unpleasant discoveries in our family background, for they will likely emerge as we search the past. In fact, this “wonderful experience” of recreating history might take some unanticipated—and not always welcome—turns. Suicides, crime, drug addiction, divorce, mental illness, and other circumstances are not uncommon in family backgrounds. Taken in long-term perspective, said Dr. Bitton, “these make our families more human.” But we must somehow become reconciled to the reality that “in everyone’s past lie pockets of sorrow and rage.”

Tangible benefits of personal and family history-keeping were cited throughout the conference. Elder John H. Groberg, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and chairman of the event’s executive committee, said:

“So often we think of our responsibility to do something for those who have gone before. We need to understand that probably one of the most important benefits of preserving our heritage is what it does for us today. If we want our problems to be solved, one of the surest ways of doing that is to search for our past, for therein we receive strength, guidance, and understanding. All of you here today are giving an added eternal dimension to your lives as you learn and study the past. We can receive strength and help from those who have gone on before. To raise our families today, we need to do family research and genealogy.”

Elder Groberg then read the prepared remarks of Elder G. Homer Durham of the First Quorum of the Seventy, who was unable to attend because of illness. Elder Durham addressed the conference theme directly:

“How do we preserve our heritage? We begin at home, in the family. We talk to each other. We keep records. We write our personal history, however brief. We take pictures. The activity may be self-serving, in part. So be it. An individual needs some egocentric activity to maintain his emotional health. But it goes beyond that. If this World Conference on Records produces no other effect than to encourage families to build and extend their traditions, it will do much to preserve our heritage.”

Dr. David L. Weitzman, an educator who has worked extensively with young children and family history, expressed his conviction that involving youngsters in family history contributes to a sense of “wholeness” in their lives. “Perhaps we haven’t thought about getting first and second graders involved,” he said, “but it is a good thing to start even before they come to school.” Weitzman and his young students explore the concepts of generations and kinship; they even draw up family history maps tracing family moves through the years. “I’m not so much interested in the physical products (charts, maps, etc.), but in the kind of talking and thinking that goes on while children are doing these things. One thing they do is bring photographs in—and that’s just magic.”

Making the “magic” last through difficult teenage years can be an interesting challenge, according to Dr. Alvin H. Price, professor of child development and family relations at Brigham Young University. His solution is to help youth understand the purposes and rewards of keeping a personal history by explaining what it is, giving reasons for keeping it, and instructing them in the mechanics. “Young people,” he emphasized, “often don’t do something because they don’t know what exactly is expected.” The best teacher, he noted, is example: “Let’s do it ourselves. After all, it’s a commandment.”

Many of the conference sessions dealt with the physical, social, and economic conditions of the world in which our ancestors lived, loved, worked, and died. Patterns of migration, employment, courtship, infant mortality, and cultural tradition in virtually every area of the world were examined, and participants were given guidelines for tracing their ancestors from such places as Africa to other places like Salt Lake City. Lecturers described life in the cities of Denmark and Sweden, childhood in rural North America, British family life during the period of industrialization, growing up among the Indians of the American Southwest, a Scandinavian soldier’s life, family life in the Western Reserve of Ohio, life on board a Latter-day Saint emigrant ship, family life in Transylvania, Latter-day Saint family life in nineteenth-century Western America, family life of the American homemaker in the nineteenth century, and many others.

Particularly stressed was oral history. “Every year when the elderly die,” reflected Alex Haley, “another chunk of our family’s and one’s national history dies with them.” Counseled Elaine Cannon, general president of the Young Women: “As quickly as you can, go to the oldest members of your family and ask them to tell you everything their memories hold about their families.” At least nine hour-long sessions of the conference were devoted to exploring the traditions, techniques, and rewards of oral history. Apart from classroom instruction, the Salt Palace Exhibit Hall displayed helps from computer research to book publishing; individual family, ward, and stake booths illustrating innovative and attractive ways to preserve history; and “show-me-how” demonstrations from butter churning to restoring old photographs. No area of family history, it seemed, was overlooked.

According to Thomas E. Daniels, a member of the executive committee, response to the conference was “overwhelmingly enthusiastic. There was a great spirit of love and unity.”

Printed proceedings of the World Conference on Records will be available as a complete set ($80.00), by individual volume (thirteen volumes at $7.00 each), or by single lecture paper ($1.00 each). Selected cassette recordings will also be available for purchase. An order form listing these items may be obtained by writing to World Conference on Records, 50 East North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150. The deadline for ordering is October 31.

Some 11,500 visitors from 51 nations throng Salt Palace sessions. (Photography by Jed A. Clark.)

Author Alex Haley: “There is a hunger to know our heritage.” (Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten.)

Displays acquainted visitors with many cultures. (Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten.)