clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Technology helps FamilySearch hit major milestone

FamilySearch volunteers expect to have transcribed more than 325

million names by the end of 2009, just three years after the

organization began its online indexing program.

The milestone was a number once thought impossible to reach in such

a short period of time. In 2006, a few thousand volunteers indexed only

11 million names. But thanks to continuing advances in technology and a

growing number of volunteers — more than 100,000 across five

continents — an estimated half-million individual names are indexed

each day.

At that rate, Paul Nauta, FamilySearch public affairs manager,

expects that 500 million names will be transcribed by the end of 2010.

And yet all this work barely makes a dent in the vast stores of

historical records throughout the world, which grow by more than 100

million records (each with multiple names) every year.

\"We are not catching up,\" Nauta said. \"In preserving

records alone, there are more records created in one year than we could

ever film in years with current technology.\"

To hasten the work of making important historical records available

online, FamilySearch is continually trying to improve upon current

technologies and find additional dedicated volunteers.

Over time, the LDS Church's Family History Department has developed new

ways to preserve records not only as quickly as possible but at the

highest quality possible. This has resulted in specially designed

digital cameras, innovative scanning technology, and new computer


\"It is not necessarily that we want to be pioneers in this field

and this technology,\" Nauta said. \"But we are compelled to do


Capturing the records

Digital cameras that have been adapted to the work are at the

center of each operation. They are the tool used to capture images of

the original documents once a project is identified and permission


Employees of the church's Family History Department oversee the

effort to acquire records, beginning with the decision about what

records they would like to acquire and from where.

\"It's about how it helps us connect the family of man,\" said Duane

Barson, one of three area managers for the Family History Department,

who manages the family history work in the Americas. \"There's a well-thought-out process to help us allocate our very limited human

resources to gather those records.\"

Once records are identified, Family History

Department employees work with various churches, municipalities, archives and

governments to acquire or create copies. Most institutions welcome Mormon efforts.

\"We have a good reputation as an organization that cares about the

records as much as the archivists do,\" said Steven L. Waters, strategic

relations manager for Europe. \"In general, they are thankful to have an

organization like ours that puts so many resources into preserving


After the negotiations are finalized, an area is set up on-site

where the cameras are used to create digital images of the historical

documents. The process can take from a few weeks to several years,

depending on the size of the collection, the type of documents being

copied and the workers' experience levels.

With cameras similar to those used by NASA and in other industrial

settings, workers produce an image at a high resolution of 50

megapixels, or 50 million pixels. Adjustments to the cameras'

technology, made by church camera specialists, increase their


\"Some of the best high-quality cameras would take 300,000 pictures

and die,\" said Larry Telford, camera operations manager for the Family

History Department. \"A typical camera operator might take half a

million images in one year, and we expect ours to last four or five

years or more.\"

In addition to the camera, each unit requires a computer, a camera stand and special software.

\"(The software) dCamX was designed by in-house engineers to do the

hard work while the operators do the easy work,\" Telford said.

It makes operating the cameras easier for the church employees,

missionaries and contractors who handle them. Step by step, it guides

operators through calibrating the camera. Through a computer

connection, the image is processed and displayed on the monitor, so the

operators can ensure that the image is of the highest quality.

Every image that is captured undergoes an in-depth audit involving

cropping the image, recording metadata, quality control and other

improvement processes to ensure quality images.

Once a project is complete, up to a terabyte of images and

information is transferred onto an external hard drive and mailed to

Salt Lake City, where the images will be processed, preserved, copied

and distributed.

The availability of the images depends on the contract

specifications of each project. Many images are published on, some are published on commercial genealogical Web

sites, sometimes the archive itself publishes the work, and sometimes

the work is published but with restrictions as to who may access it.

\"In the end, we may or may not get to personally publish the

records — there all are sorts of barriers,\" Waters said. \"But

it's about making as many records as possible available to as many

people as possible.\"

A different kind of conversion

One of the most significant advancements for FamilySearch in recent

years was put into place in 2005, when 15 high-speed scanners were

developed to convert images previously contained on microfilm into

digital images to allow them to be viewed on a computer. These scanners

are converting 2.5 million rolls of microfilm from the church's Granite

Mountain Records Vault into tens of millions of ready-to-index digital


These rolls of microfilm include images of important historical

documents gathered from all over the world — birth and death records,

hospital records, family histories, immigration forms, historical

books and more.

\"To our knowledge, there is no company that does the level of vital-records preservation that FamilySearch does,\" said Nauta. \"The

records FamilySearch contains currently, when digitized, would equal

132 Libraries of Congress or 18 petabytes of data — and that doesn't

include our ongoing acquisition efforts.\"

The scanners are like a camera: As the microfilm unwinds, the

images on the microfilm are converted into a long ribbon of

high-quality digital images. A computer program quality-checks the

ribbon and uses special algorithms to break it up into individual


Scanning the original pictures from the microfilm, preparing the

images to be viewed with an online image viewer, and quality-checking

them may take only 18 minutes per roll.

Taking it to the world is just one of a number of new Web-based programs that have been developed to advance family history endeavors.

FamilySearch Labs (

showcases new family history technologies that are still undergoing

development. Users test them, and their feedback allows the developers

to refine the technology. For more than two years, Labs has developed

multiple innovative programs to aid in family history work.

The Research Wiki (

is an open, online community where research experts and genealogists

share information on how to research sources for family history work.

Record Search gives access to millions of historical records — a

culmination of all the digitizing of records that is being done. Users

can see what records exist for a specific geographic area or enter what

they know about an ancestor to see matching records — all online.

(Access Record Search by visiting Click Search

Records, then click Record Search pilot.)


thousands of users of varying levels of expertise can collaborate in an

online discussion to find answers to questions about product features,

research techniques, hints and tips, or even about specific families in

specific locations.

These and many other projects are making family history come alive

more than ever, said Paul D. Starkey, digital information process

manager in the Family History Department. \"That evolution of technology

has been remarkable in getting everyone involved everywhere\" he added.

\"The Internet has been an amazing technology to help this kind of


Of course, one of the most successful programs developed by the

Family History Department can be found at At

any given time, the indexing program has 35 or more projects in

different areas of the world. People can download images of historical

documents to a computer and transcribe the information to create a

searchable online database of names, dates, locations and other

information — free for all to view online at

Anyone can participate in indexing. If a home computer doesn't meet

the requirements to run the indexing application (available for

download at, the application can be found on

computers at any one of the 4,600 family history centers around the


Already available in English, French, German and Spanish,

FamilySearch indexing added three new languages in early

April — Italian, Portuguese and Russian — and Swedish in August.

Three volunteers from Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras

helped index the milestone 250 millionth record in Spanish as part of

the Nicaragua Civil Registration indexing project.

\"We've come from transcribing by hand to delivering digital images

on CDs through the mail to Web-based applications where virtually

anyone can be involved,\" Nauta said. \"We are quantum leaps from

where we began. It's just faster and more reliable and efficient.\"

With the technological advances and the ever-increasing number of

indexing volunteers, the Ellis Island historical records — which a

decade ago took 12,000 volunteers 12 years to complete — would take

three weeks to index today.

Beyond the technology

Beyond the innovations in technology, at the heart of the hastening of the work are people.

At any given moment, thousands of volunteers from around the world

are working with FamilySearch Indexing. A growing number of them are

not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They contribute an increasing volume of the

indexing being done.

For some, preserving historical records is a commission to preserve

the identity and heritage of a nation, organization or community. For

others, it lends a deepened sense of personal identity.

\"They confirm that they are part of a larger family fabric that has

a rich history,\" Nauta said. \"We quickly learn that life as we

know it isn't just about us in the here and now. Knowing the richer

context of our family history gives us and our posterity something more

to live up to — a legacy to fulfill and pass on after doing our part.\"

For Mormons, the real value and legacy in family history

lies in the saving ordinances of the temple. For example, Nauta

said that the greatest rewards come in doing temple work for his own

family that he has discovered thanks to the indexes produced by Family

Search volunteers. \"There is a distinct difference ... in doing the

work for family I know or did the research for,\" he said. \"I kind of

know them because I've spent time with them, researching them, learning

about who they were.\"

But for members of the church and those who aren't, the growing interest in family history work was foretold.

\"It's in the scriptures,\" Nauta said, quoting Doctrine & Covenants 2:1-2. \"Elijah 'will plant

in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the

hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.'\"

The Spirit of Elijah is described by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve as \"a manifestation of the Holy Ghost bearing

witness of the divine nature of the family.\"

See the story in its original presentation on