Where Do They Find All Those Old Records? Interview With FamilySearch Content Strategist Suzanne Russo Adams

By Allison Dolan

For the January/February 2016 Family Tree Magazine, contributor Sunny Jane Morton asked Suzanne Russo Adams, content strategist for FamilySearch (and formerly for about the cool old records she discovers traveling around the world for her work. Here’s the full Q&A:

FTM: Tell us about the content strategy team you work on at FamilySearch.

: We’re a team of nine, and we refer to each other internally as the “Raiders of the Lost Archives.” One of our engineers made us a poster about that, and I see ourselves that way. We travel the world, go into archives and discover lost treasures of historic records.

FTM: What parts of the world are assigned to you?

: I cover parts of the United States and the federal strategy (what we get from the National Archives and Records Adminstration), southern South America, Italy, Portugal and the Adriatic Sea, as well as help with New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Isles.

FTM: Do you see distinct attitudes about old records in different countries?

: Yes. The areas I work with in Europe tend to be more open and want their records to be freely accessible to the world.

Portugal is amazing. It’s neat to see how much they care about their records and want people to have access. We’ve been able to digitize all the Catholic church records in Portugal because they were held by a government archive. Italy is the same way about records access. They have a website called “Portal for your Ancestors” where they’re working with us to publish their civil registration records. They see it as a way of giving people back their heritage.

FTM: Any particular country you’ve fallen in love with?

: Half my heritage is from Italy, and that’s my research specialty. I love Italy. But I fell in love with Brazil’s people, culture and records. And the food is so good. I think what put me over the edge in Brazil was the archivist at the Archdiocese of São Paolo who pulled out all the old church court records. He kept showing me all these cool cases. He was so excited!

FTM: Share a cool discovery you’ve made.

: We got a lead on these cool civil ID cards in Brazil. That’s not a record that we have (or any company has, really) traditionally acquired. They have tons of information and include pictures. We’ve found them all over—mostly I’ve seen them in South America. Depending on the country, they go back to the late 1800s, early 1900s.

FTM: What’s different about working for FamilySearch rather than Ancestry?

: As a nonprofit organization, FamilySearch has the luxury of being patient when working with archives, which requires considerable time to contact, establish rapport and orchestrate records access agreements. When it came to digitizing the civil registrations in Italy, I saw Ancestry pull out and FamilySearch win the contract. But it took seven years.

But what really lured me to FamilySearch was because our scope is so international, not just those cultures and countries that may be commercially viable. In just five years, I’ve been to Brazil, Peru, Switzerland, Germany, Italy (twice!), Portugal and around the United States.

FTM: Do you coordinate efforts with your counterparts at other genealogy organizations?

SRA: Yes. We try to work very closely with the three major commercial partners, Ancestry, Findmypast and MyHeritage. We try hard to work together on targeted records collections when it makes sense. But some of the companies aren’t interested in the areas we are interested in, and there we go it alone. Like, FamilySearch places more emphasis on South America whereas our partners don’t. We also work with growing numbers of nonprofit genealogical and historical societies and churches to help digitally preserve and index records of mutual interest.

FTM: What do you learn when working with all these international records?

: I learn a lot about migrations and the multicultural heritage of a lot of these countries. There are connections between South American countries like Argentina and several European nations, not just Spain.

For me personally, this has expanded my love of a lot of different cultures. Looking at the records of people who lived long ago, I see a commonality. We all have shared experiences: throughout history we’re all just people trying to live our lives, all over the world.