LDS to put microfilm in vaults on Internet

Huge effort planned to index family history data

Published: Friday, Sept. 9 2005 9:16 a.m. MDT

Ever wonder what's inside those secured vaults, owned by the LDS Church, positioned high inside the granite walls of Little Cottonwood Canyon?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is working toward allowing anyone with Internet access to learn more than they've ever known before about the information contained on 2 million-plus rolls of microfilm housed there. Currently, the church is compiling searchable indexes to that information and will eventually make it available for free through an automated database on the Internet.

The church excavated the vaults containing those records on property it purchased in the 1960s, providing a safe repository during the height of the Cold War for birth, marriage, death and census information it considers essential for the salvation of mankind after death. Now church leaders seek to make the information more readily available to the world.

"The goal is to create (Internet-accessible) indexes to all the films we have in the vault. That's a long-term process and that's a lot of films," according to Paul Nauta, manager of public affairs for church's FamilySearch.org Web site. "We've not announced when people will begin to start seeing" the indexes.

Those attending the annual Federation of Genealogical Societies' conference this week at the Salt Palace will get a "sneak preview" of the church's plans. As the project progresses over time, indexes to records from 110 nations previously stored on microfilm will become accessible to virtually anyone,

anywhere, through the Internet via the touch of a few keystrokes.

"We're showing people how we'll be creating indexes from those films. Sometime in the future we'll ask people to help us create the indexes and make them publicly available, and little by little we'll start to index the films from the vault like we did with the 1880 (U.S.) Census.

"The challenge now is it takes a lot of people and a lot of time" to create such an index. "Currently, you have to look at images on paper or burn them on a CD and distribute those to index the data. We're moving the whole process to the Internet and this is a prototype of what that might look like. . . . That's what the biggest buzz is at the conference."

Conference attendees are using a lab at the Salt Palace equipped with a number of computers to demonstrate the new automated database. The microfilm information includes birth, marriage, death and census records.

New advances in indexing software utilities and applications mean the LDS Church "now has the ability to produce lots of indexes faster," than it did with previous databases it has digitized, including the 1880 U.S. Census. Making that database available online was a 12-year project, using tens of thousands of volunteers.

In the future, the new technology "will provide automated indexing" for an ever-increasing number of microfilms "so people can readily search it from their homes."

As the number of family history researchers continues to grow — one study showed 40 percent of Americans have done research on their family history and another said 90 percent have expressed interest — demand for online indexes that simplify searching for ancestors has soared, he said.

How much time will it take to digitize all the films in the vault?

"Let's put it this way, it will depend on how much volunteer help we get," Nauta said. "I think we can digitize the films to be indexed to stay up with demand, but much will depend on how many volunteers we can generate worldwide to index their records of interest. If, in a couple of years, we could get a million indexers worldwide, we could put a big dent" in the massive undertaking.

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