South Jordan parents Kelly and Amy Bird were trying to find worthwhile activities for their six children ages 3 to 15 last summer.
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the couple heard about a FamilySearch worldwide indexing event and decided to give it a try, hoping it would both challenge and have a spiritual impact on the family.
Together with some friends, they challenged themselves to either engage in indexing or temple work every week.
Although cursive handwriting was sometimes difficult for their children to decipher, they liked learning about people's lives through marriage and military documents, their occupation or how they died. All of the older children indexed daily for most of the summer, Kelly Bird said.
"Carter, our 15-year-old, said the most fascinating thing were the death certificates from the insane asylum," Kelly Bird said. "We are often taught to get involved in family history and the importance of it, and this is just one way that we have been able to fulfill that request. It's something we can all talk about and enjoy doing together."
The Birds are just one family among more than 1.2 million volunteers who have contributed to the digitization of over 1.5 billion images of historic records for FamilySearch International since 2006. The volunteer efforts have made it possible for people to quickly search and conveniently find their family records online.
FamilySearch celebrated the 10th anniversary of its web-based, volunteer-driven indexing initiative in December.
"The migration from the previous CD-ROM-based format to the web has been nothing short of amazing, and the rest has been record-making history — literally," Paul Nauta, FamilySearch public affairs manager, said of the 10-year milestone in a FamilySearch press release. "The indexing initiative is the largest undertaking of its kind and is unparalleled in its achievements."
FamilySearch employees Michael Judson, product manager, and Collin Smith, marketing manager, recently spoke with the Deseret News about FamilySearch's indexing accomplishments, challenges, the experiences of various volunteers and plans for the future.
Anybody who has ever found an ancestor on FamilySearch.org (and millions have) can likely thank an indexer for making it possible, Judson said.
The indexers create a digital list of names from images of historic records that later become part of a searchable database. They sign up through FamilySearch.org and can select a batch from a list of available collections.
"Indexing has revolutionized family history research," he said. "Finding one ancestor is all it takes for someone to have a deeply emotional experience that will stay with them for a lifetime. And all it took for that name to become searchable is for one other person to decide to take a few minutes to index it. One name, one batch, one volunteer — it all adds up — and when we start combining our efforts over an extended period, the results are staggering."
For Smith, the most impressive aspect of indexing over the past decade has been the change in the lives of volunteers, from busy mothers to curious and digitally talented youths to whole congregations in South American countries.
"In 10 years, volunteers have flocked to this work," Smith said. "There have been people contributing to this searchable records project from 200 countries."
Perhaps the greatest challenge in the indexing movement is finding people who either have skills in a second language or who are willing to learn enough to index records in a second language. People coming to FamilySearch.org are more likely to find their ancestors if records are in English, Judson said.
"Consequently, there is an enormous need for volunteers who can index in a non-English language," he said. "Training is available for people who are willing to learn basic terms in languages such as Spanish, Italian and French."
Judson told of a 60-year-old man who used the Finnish he learned as a Mormon missionary 40 years earlier for an indexing project. In the process, the man found the same ancestral name of a person he had baptized and "felt a sweet peace knowing he was helping people he had served years ago," Judson said.
Katie Andersen, 26, recently completed her second master’s degree, works part time as a virtual math teacher, is a busy wife and mom with two girls, ages 1 and 3, and serves as a leader in her LDS congregation.
Even so, she has found that indexing on a regular basis provides a feeling of peace in her busy life.
"My life is incredibly demanding, but 15 minutes is possible to find in a day," Andersen said. "You have to turn off your phone or whatever you do with your free minutes and sacrifice a little time to find people who are praying to be found."
Las Vegas Latter-day Saint Jerry Williamson discovered a passion for indexing later in life when various health struggles made it difficult for him to serve in other church callings. According to his family, Williamson indexed more than 952,000 names before his death last November. He accomplished this by setting smaller goals such as 1,000 to 5,000 names at a time. His family plans to carry on his legacy by indexing the number required to reach 1 million, his granddaughter Kistie Adams said.
"He had such a strong testimony of eternal families, and it was important to him to help other families find their ancestors and do their work," Adams said. "That example has helped us (his family) learn indexing and family history research are equally important in the work of salvation as what the missionaries are doing in the field."
Like Andersen and Williamson, others have related their rewarding indexing experiences to Judson and others at FamilySearch. He interacted with one woman who said indexing in prison was the catalyst for turning her life around. Another woman described indexing as one of the most deeply spiritual experiences of her life. Another man said indexing was his antidote for a lifelong pornography addiction, Judson said.
There have been elderly indexers who have faithfully worked right up until the end of their lives; quadriplegic indexers who can only type one character at a time using a stylus they hold with their teeth or a popsicle stick taped to their hand; indexers who are legally blind who use special monitors that allow them to magnify the information; and young indexers who partner with older indexers, with one as the expert on the computer and other more capable of reading the old, handwritten records, who make great teams, Judson said.
"For these and so many others, indexing is a gift that gives them fulfillment, providing more in return than what they give through their service," Judson said.
As impressive as numbers are, what's equally impressive for Judson and Smith is that people continue to do indexing.
"Because indexing gives volunteers something in return," Judson said. "Often it’s a happy feeling of knowing they have done something good for someone else, even if it’s someone they likely will never meet."
Indexing gives people productive ways to spend their time; it challenges the mind and teaches new skills and new insights; it gives a sense of accomplishment, and offers the thrill of discovering the stories of real people from long ago; it allows many people who lack physical ability to feel a sense of purpose and worth and provides them a way to serve; it gives prisoners a way to give back while still serving behind bars; and it lends nicely to social interaction among friends and family, according to Judson and Smith.
"For me, FamilySearch indexing is a classic 'win-win-win' proposition that is easy to understand and get behind," Judson said.
Making the work of indexing more accessible online is another challenge.
FamilySearch is developing a new version of indexing available through a web browser that would save people the trouble of downloading documents, Smith said.
There is also the challenge of finding and preparing more records for people to index, Smith said.
"Many documents are in critical condition around the world and need to be photographed so they can be indexed," Smith said. "Through critical partnerships with other family history companies, we are able to capture at-risk documents so they can be indexed and saved forever."
For more information on indexing or projects, visit FamilySearch.org. There will also be sessions and classes at RootsTech, Feb. 8-11 at the Salt Palace Convention Center, that will cover FamilySearch indexing.