FamilySearch Chief Genealogical Officer, David Rencher
By Diane Sagers
It was like I had just dumped the box on the table of the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. I was drawn into it and couldn’t quit.
David Rencher is FamilySearch International's chief genealogical officer. In his downtown office overlooking the meticulous flower gardens of the Mormon Church’s corporate headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, Rencher has lost none of the passion for family history that started his career nearly four decades ago as a young Irish research reference consultant at the Family History Library just a block away. He is a diehard advocate for the family researcher, and avid proponent for the continual development of tools and tech advancements that raise the tide of quality genealogical research skills employed by the growing wave of family history beginners worldwide.
He loves his work.
“I cannot describe my job—I do something different every day,” Rencher said. “I have the job I absolutely love. When I used to think about ‘what do you want to be in life?’—this was the job. I just didn’t know what it was,” he says.
WHAT IS A CGO?
The main purpose of his team’s work is to reach out to genealogical societies and family organizations to help them remain vibrant over time. He persuades them to help grow FamilySearch’s online universal Family Tree with well-documented or sourced data. He also encourages them to contribute their expertise to community help forums online and the wiki—a free reference tool updated by research specialists. Family historians use it to help find possible sources of information to discover additional ancestors.
In his spare time, Rencher seeks to help organizations know what to do with artifacts and other objects of historical or genealogical value that they have. He’s a constant champion for broader access to genealogical societies, their local records, and the know-how to use them. These societies may have other goals, but he tries to help amplify their reach online so more researchers worldwide can access the societies' good works. His team also works to make sure that whatever FamilySearch produces is genealogically correct.
A GIANT JIGSAW PUZZLE
His lifelong passion did not begin as a child, however. Rencher recalls as a young boy creating a pedigree chart for a class project but found no exceptional interest.
It wasn’t until he went to college at Brigham Young University that his interest was kindled. During his studies, he held a part-time job answering nighttime telephone calls at a mortuary. A young couple who worked there had an apartment in the back, and the night crew gathered there in the mornings after their shift. The couple was working on genealogy. Some sheets on their table one morning caught Rencher’s attention. He began working on his own family genealogy.
He did “a little dabbling,” and looked at records from an English parish register seeking the children of a specific couple. He found one child and then another. He was hooked.
“It was like I had just dumped the box on the table of the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. I was drawn into it and couldn’t quit,” he explained.
At BYU, he took a genealogy class to fill a required credit, then took another and another, although the additional courses didn’t fill requirements toward graduation in his major. At the end of a semester, one of his genealogy professors told him of a two-week opportunity to work as a researcher for a professional genealogist in Salt Lake City. Rencher was planning to work in construction that summer, but he agreed to the opportunity. At the end of the project, the genealogist offered to pay him the wages he would earn in construction if he would stay on. He thought, “That’s a no brainer. I get to stay inside for the summer. I get to do genealogy work. That’s a pretty cool gig.”
PATHWAY TO CGO
By summer’s end, he decided to become a professional genealogist. He switched majors from business to family history. He got the degree, went on to pass the accreditation test, then took a job at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City as a reference consultant. Assignments evolved through the years. He served as the supervisor of family history center operations worldwide. As a user system specialist, he helped technical people understand the genealogical applications and soundness of the products and services they developed.
A people person with a good memory for detail and names, Rencher very naturally developed a network of contacts over the decades. He could help FamilySearch get things done because he knew the people to work with. He became the director of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and then director of records and information to oversee worldwide record preservation.
“From there, I went on to the job I have now—FamilySearch Chief Genealogical Officer. I’ve loved the whole career.”
During his 37-year tenure, he has seen the genealogy industry revolutionize. “There is no way when I started that I could have ever conceived of what has happened. FamilySearch was the biggest game in town for many, many years. Now we have [commercial] companies investing billions of dollars helping people in family history. We never had anything close to that [then]. It’s inconceivable to have this kind of money and progress come into this industry almost overnight,” he said.
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK
One might ask, what does a chief genealogical officer care about from day to day?
Billions of historical records are now readily accessible online, but that’s not sufficient for Rencher—and many more like him—who share a passion for making family discoveries from historical records worldwide. Rencher appreciates the diligence and expertise that is required to corroborate with archives and other companies in the family history market to create and provide online access to vast record sets. The ability not only to share FamilySearch’s growing collections but also to link to additional information on other sites meets FamilySearch’s purpose—to provide more historic records access to help more people connect with their families’ ancestors.
With the rapid changes in technology, Rencher and his associates must think beyond their usual parameters and recognize future trends—both beneficial and threatening to the industry. It is a monumental task. To stay abreast, they attend industry conferences, serve on executive boards, champion initiatives, author articles, and build strategic relationships.
Rencher directs projects and progress both within and outside the organization based partly on consumer demand. One satisfying aspect of his job involves connecting the needs of researchers with historical record collections. For example, FamilySearch recorded some Native American oral histories during the 1960s and ’70s. Recently, tribe members wanted to access the FamilySearch copies, but couldn’t locate the recordings. Rencher’s team located these irreplaceable records which will soon be converted to a searchable, digital format online so people can reconstitute their genealogies.
Rencher considers such things “daily miracles.” He consciously tries to recognize them, so he will never take anything for granted. He cites technical advances and new ways to collect records—including oral genealogies in countries without written documents, films, photos, new opportunities to gather records, meeting the needs of the public, and more.
He personally stays involved with the research process to keep a current perspective of customer experiences. He has done extensive research on his family lines well back into Ireland—his genealogical specialty. Beginning with the earliest ancestor he found in his Irish line, he has researched descendant lines which emigrated throughout the world. “It is fascinating to learn about these people,” he says.
WHEN GENEALOGY IS YOUR LIFE PASSION
People might guess that when Rencher leaves his office at the end of the day that he seeks an entirely different activity, but that is not true. “What I really enjoy doing outside of work is genealogy. Any time I can do research, I am over the moon,” he said. He plans to continue research after retirement.
“I never in a million years thought I’d live long enough to see [Irish] Catholic records go up online,” he said. “But they have [at findmypast.com], and they are available for searches.”
“What do I love about my work? Absolutely everything,” he said. “People think I am lying when they say, ‘How are you today?’ and I say, ‘I am thrilled to be here.’ But I am. This work is everything as far as I’m concerned. It has meaning. It has purpose.”
Where Does My Irish Surname Come From? Video advice from David Rencher
About the Author
Diane Sagers has worked as a freelance writer for about 30 years writing two to four newspaper columns weekly and did regular feature work for the Tooele Transcript for 27 of those years. She has proofread and provided articles for magazines, chapters of several published books, and served as editor for the Utah Community Forest Council's quarterly magazine for the past 27 years. She loves to cook, sew, garden, write stories and spend time with her six children and 25 terrific grandchildren.
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FamilySearch International is the largest genealogy organization in the world. FamilySearch is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Millions of people use FamilySearch records, resources, and services to learn more about their family history. To help in this great pursuit, FamilySearch and its predecessors have been actively gathering, preserving, and sharing genealogical records worldwide for over 100 years. Patrons may access FamilySearch services and resources free online at FamilySearch.org or through over 5,000 family history centers in 129 countries, including the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.