Genealogy research is one of the most popular uses of the Internet, and the LDS Church has the world's largest archive of genealogy records.
Combine the interest with the archive and the result is a free, high-horsepower Web product the church formally launched Monday after seven weeks of public testing."In recent years, computer technology has made it possible to transfer genealogical records to large databases and to publish the information online or on compact discs. Today, however, we take the long-awaited step of allowing home access via the Internet to some of the most significant materials in the Family History Library," said President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
President Hinckley made the announcement from the church's Family History Library, where anyone is welcome to conduct family research.
"From the very beginnings of this church, its members have been under religious obligation to identify their ancestors," President Hinckley said.
As a result, the church has built the world's largest archive of genealogical information. The church is initially placing nearly 400 million names of deceased people on the Internet, with the promise of more to come, at http://www.FamilySearch.org.
In addition to the database of names now accessible from home computers, the service includes:
A new search engine that hunts for specific names and relationships throughout the church's online database. It also functions as a portal to other Web sites by allowing surname searches among thousands of smaller genealogical Web sites that have been evaluated and indexed by church volunteers.
A family history library catalog -- the only source on the Internet where the catalog of the church Family History Library's vast holdings can be accessed.
Advanced search capability, designed to search specifically for defined family relationships.
Records preservation, where people can post their family history data for storage on the church's computer servers.
Online collaboration, where users can exchange their family history information or other genealogy-related subjects via e-mail.
A listing of other family history resources, such as books and software, that are produced by the church and available for purchase.
The church said FamilySearch.org saw 7 million hits per day during the test and 200 million hits overall.
IBM received the church contract to build the computer hardware to run the site. Lee Caldwell, IBM director of Internet technology strategy, said he warned the church up front its top concern should not be failure but rather success.
"Genealogy success and the brand name of the church for providing extraordinarily well-organized information is the key to (the site's) success," he said. "We are using some of the key technology we developed for the Nagano Olympics and Deep Blue (chess) tournaments, where you have tremendous amounts of traffic hitting a site at one time."
Caldwell said the hardware running the site will easily handle 25 million hits per day. "We know easily how to take it into the hundreds of millions of hits."
Over the weekend preceding the announcement, the site was logging 30 million hits each day.
Unlike other high-profile Web sites like Yahoo! where visitors come by the millions but do not stay long, "People tend to stay around here much, much longer," Caldwell said of the traffic seen during the test period.
"Most are on more than an hour. A high percentage are around six hours," said IBM spokeswoman Jan Walbridge.
The numbers are enough to make would-be advertisers weep, but FamilySearch contains no advertising, and the church charges no fees to use it. "If it were commercial, the church could make a fortune off this. It's an advertisers' dream. It is an incredible gift to the human race," Caldwell said.
Church spokesman Michael Otterson said the church does not use the site as a proselyting tool. The home page has a link to the church's home page, if visitors want more information about the church. Otherwise, content at FamilySearch is strictly genealogy.
Paul Allen is the general manager of Orem-based genealogy Web service Ancestry.com. The service has almost 1,600 databases containing 250,000 names and sees close to 1 million unique visitors per month and has 75,000 paying subscribers.
"I think it is one of the great things that has ever happened in genealogy," Allen said. "They've been gathering information for 100 years or more, and have a lot of it in digital format, so they are really going to benefit people all over the world."
Allen said family history research is like putting together a puzzle. "We have pieces of the puzzle, but people need multiple sources to fill out their whole family tree. We think what they are doing is significant enough that it will just increase interest in the (genealogy) category, and that should benefit everybody."
In making the announcement Monday, the church held a concurrent press conference in Washington, D.C., at the National Press Club to announce the new Internet service, and President Hinckley's comments were televised live to the press there by satellite.
Elder Russell M. Nelson of the church's Quorum of the Twelve was in Washington and told reporters there, "This is an historic day for the families of the world and for people who are interested in identifying their origins, their roots and their ancestors.
"It's an historic day and privilege for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to host this significant contribution to the genealogical effort of the world."
Deseret News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson contributed to this story.