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Another revolution in genealogy

Published: Tuesday, March 27 2007 1:38 p.m. MDT

Technician Angie Weight monitors the digitizing process on a station at Granite Mountain Vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

John Hart

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When Derek Dobson speaks to LDS seminary classes, he talks revolution.

Dobson is the family-search indexing-product manager for the LDS Church's Family History Department. He tells the teens about the invention of the printing press and how that revolution made the Bible available to the world.

He tells them about the invention of microfilm and how the 1930s saw the beginning of their church's archival collection in the Granite Mountain Vault.

And finally, Dobson announces, excitedly, "We are about to go through another revolution." Using the Internet, from their homes or laptops, people around the world are about to have access to more documents than they ever dreamed possible.

Before the end of the year, the church's free genealogy Web site, familysearch.org, will have a new look. That's how users will know when the revolution Dobson speaks of has begun.

Rich Running, also a project manager for the church's Family History Department, is responsible for seeing that the church's genealogy records — more than 5 billion documents on 2 1/2 million rolls of microfilm and 1 1/2 million microfiche — are scanned.

Not everything in the Granite Mountain vaults in Little Cottonwood Canyon can be scanned. The LDS Church got these records from a variety of sources, some of which are archival companies that don't want their records published. Still, the vast majority of the church's documents are reproducible, and right now the church's software experts need to scan quickly, because they have a lot to scan. Dobson explains that the U.S. Library of Congress contains 29 million books, and the LDS Church's records hold 132 times that much data. Dobson doesn't want to guess how many billions of names are on those 5 billion documents.

Of course, "searching through 5 billion images on your computer would not be an ideal experience," Dobson points out. The records must be indexed so that when a user types in a name, that name will pop up. This is where an army of volunteers comes in.

More than 25,000 volunteers are currently at work indexing the records. Running predicts there will be 100,000 volunteers by the end of this year and many hundreds of thousands in the years to come.

Dobson can demonstrate, online, just how easy it is to volunteer. Last week, in his office in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Dobson, on his laptop, went to www.familysearchindexing.org and called up a registry. There were a half-dozen registries listed on the Web site — including Georgia death certificates from 1919-1927 and a federal census from New York State from 1900. (As each of these registries is transcribed, new registries will appear on the Web site.)

Dobson clicked on a registry and a handwritten census record popped onto his screen, along with a blank form on which he was to type the handwritten names and dates.

The handwritten record on his screen featured a family named Johnson, and the mother's first name seemed to be spelled "Allice," and her son's name looked to be "Clarience." Because these are not traditional spellings for "Alice" and "Clarence," when Dobson typed in those names, they came up with a note indicating he needed to double-check the handwritten records. This he did. To him, the names still looked like "Allice" and "Clarience," so that's how he left them when he finished transcribing the document.

Dobson explains that there is an invisible double-check built into the system. Each handwritten record will come up twice, at random, and be typed in twice, by two different volunteers. Any discrepancies between the two forms will alert a third person, an arbitrator, who is a more experienced genealogist. The arbitrator looks at the original record and makes a final decision on the name or date or geographical location in question.

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