Historical Record Guru Mike Mansfield Shares His Story

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Have you ever wondered how MyHeritage SuperSearch™ finds the right record you need from among the 9.7+ billion historical records in our archives? Or maybe you’ve pondered the magic behind a Record or Smart Match™. Look no further than the MyHeritage Content team. The team publishes new historical record collections and manages the existing collections to enhance the user experience. We had the opportunity to sit down with our very own Mike Mansfield, Director of Content at MyHeritage, and ask him about the MyHeritage record collections and how his passion for genealogy impacts his day-to-day life.

Q: Tell us more about the Content team. How does content get published?

A: The Content team is comprised of three different branches of activities. First, there’s Russ, the Chief Content Officer. Russ reaches out to archives, institutions, and partner organizations worldwide to discuss acquisitions and collaborative projects.

I am the Director of Content Operations. Once Russ has a contract in place, I work with Russ and the team in Utah to create an operation plan and decide all the levels of content processing. Sometimes I visualize the content processing like an oil refinery. We let the content through different pipes and at each juncture different treatments are applied. In my last 20 years in the field, it has never been my experience that any content has a cookie-cutter process to it. Sometimes we’ll get content that might be nearly ready for publication. Other types of content can take years, perhaps even a decade, to publish.

Tal is the Product Manager and is heavily engaged in roadmap planning of all the infrastructure projects, as well as the search and content system projects.

From left, Tal Erlichman, Mike Mansfield and Russ Wilding
From left, Tal Erlichman, Mike Mansfield and Russ Wilding

What’s wonderful about the MyHeritage Content team is the way in which we utilize family tree data to assist with our content processing. We create algorithms that mine our family tree data to assist with all types of data purposes. For example, in many of our data collections, gender isn’t stated, but it is extremely helpful information to include in SuperSearch™. Gender data also really helps with determining the notion of household data and making delineations in families. MyHeritage decided to create an algorithm we call our gender deducer. Based on the data from 45 million family trees, we can deduce a gender from an index based on their name, country, and culture. The gender deducer, however, does not recommend a gender for first names that have an ambiguous gender.

Q: What led you to work at MyHeritage?

A: As far back as high school I already had two competing interests, computer science and technology, as well as history and genealogy. That continued at Brigham Young University, where I took many classes on genealogy, and even briefly considered becoming a professional genealogist. In the end, I decided to go the technology route and graduated with a degree in Computer Science.

Brigham Young University Campus, 2007
Brigham Young University Campus, 2007

Straight out of college, my first job was writing software for a CD-ROM publication. It was 1994, and the internet was still barely understood by the broader world. Most companies relied on CD’s to publish their data. A lot of our customers were large law firms and large corporate entities that needed to publish large quantities of data.

I was then able to take on a search and content role at another genealogy site, where I was able to apply my knowledge of search systems to data such as historical records. In the late 90’s, as online subscriptions became more prevalent, we started to think about taking the collections online.

I remember sitting in a meeting where we were cooking up this idea of trying to put the U.S. Federal Census images online and subsequently creating indexes so that people could search the indexes and then find the images. There had been some earlier indexing work done, but no one had ever brought the two together, much less done it at the scale that was being considered for that project. I look back now on how that was an important industry development. It really set the groundwork for what has become a standard in our industry of having online access with indexes linking users directly back to the digital images.

Q: How far back have you found relatives, and how far back is your family tree?

A: I’ve been doing most of mine on my surname line — the Mansfield line — which comes from Surrey, England, and I can trace my ancestors back to the 1600’s.

My most distinctive relative, however, is my mother’s father, Thomas Joseph Griffiths, who was born in Wales.

Thomas Joseph Griffiths, Mike's grandfather
Thomas Joseph Griffiths, Mike’s maternal grandfather

His father was a coal miner, and he was already working as a miner himself. But at the age of 20, he decided to leave his family and emigrate to the United States.

I can’t say what the conditions were like there as opposed to what he hoped to find in the United States, but I admire how he traveled alone as a young man, leaving his family and everything he knew for the unknown. I was able to locate more details, for example, the ship was named the Aquitania, and he arrived at Ellis Island January 26, 1928.

The RMS Aquitania
The RMS Aquitania

On the arrival record, it shows that he was headed to Provo, Utah to join his brother who was already living there at the time.

Arrival Record of Thomas Griffith, from the Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists, 1820- 1957
Arrival record of Thomas Griffith, from the Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists, 1820- 1957

These immigrants really had a lot of guts to leave their homes. Even if he was able to communicate via letters, I don’t think he ever saw his parents again.

Q: What stands out about working at MyHeritage?

A: This is something I speak about often — the broad international audience. Unlike other genealogy platforms and services that are predominantly focused on North America, at MyHeritage the vast majority of users are from outside North America.

Furthermore, the number of languages that our sites and services support is incredible. Unlike other genealogy platforms, our website is available in 42 different languages. Most other platforms have less than 10. Knowing that we have such a broad international reach has been incredibly rewarding.

It has also really been fun for me personally. I have a lot of Scandinavian heritage from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Being able to discover Smart Matches™ and now DNA Matches with distant cousins who live there is wonderful. You wouldn’t get that same experience on any other platform.

MyHeritage DNA, despite being around for just a few years, has experienced tremendous growth and now offers an incredibly sophisticated DNA Matching technology and Chromosome Browser. Showing how you connect with your distant relative who lives in Norway can be both a fun and helpful way to expand your family tree and provide you with more genealogical information. When I get a connection through a DNA Match, there is a different level of excitement and feeling of direct kinship. The DNA piece takes the relationship from a theoretical to an absolute.

Q: Is there a particular content collection that you are most proud of?

A: I am most proud of the Sweden Household Examination Books. It’s a project that’s actually been attempted by other genealogy companies but without success.

When we get image collections they need to be indexed or transcribed. For this particular project, we worked with Swedish genealogists who were specially trained in Swedish paleography to offer significant training to a team of over 700 people who helped us index these records.

We’d like to thank Mike for his time in explaining to us all the great work of the content team, as well as sharing a taste of his passion for genealogy and family history. Searching the MyHeritage content collections for historical records with SuperSearch™ is the best way to unlock more information on your ancestors and family history. Try your luck in searching through the collections and let us know in the comments below what you uncover!

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