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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
RootsTech attendees examine the many vendors at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — In the summer of 1987, the LDS Church's genealogical library quietly celebrated the conversion of its last catalog card to a computer file.

Thirty years later, that little milestone seems like a footnote compared to more significant technological advancements in family history work, such as the launching of websites with databases that contain billions of searchable records.

Truly, technology has taken ancestral research to unimaginable heights, "completely erasing and redrawing the map," according to David E. Rencher, chief genealogical officer for FamilySearch International.

"None of us could have envisioned what we see today," Rencher said. "Who would have thought that a few decades later you would have multibillion-dollar companies in the genealogical space with untold resources. Almost overnight we have seen it balloon from where it was, and all we have tried to do is hang on, partner and work with everybody we can, and be a steadying force in the genealogical community."

Rencher saw the progress firsthand, having worked in various genealogical positions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since the mid-1980s.

Richard E. Turley Jr., a former managing director of the LDS Family History Department, was also a witness to some memorable moments. In recent interviews with the Deseret News, both men reviewed some of the noteworthy advancements in family history technology for the church, including one game-changing event in the late 1990s. Family history work has never been so fun or spiritually fulfilling, they agreed.

"Looking at this from the standpoint of a person of faith, our belief is that God placed computer technology on Earth for a good purpose, and this is a good purpose," Turley said. "It would be difficult to handle the vast amounts of data we have to handle without computer technology. If we had to do all this by hand it would be extremely difficult."

The timeline

The LDS Church started with pencil and paper as President Wilford Woodruff established the Genealogical Society of Utah in 1894.

By 1922, the church was beginning to struggle with duplication of temple work. This led to an indexing initiative using 3-by-5 index cards, Rencher said.

In 1938, the church got into microfilm preservation.

In 1963, the Granite Mountain Record Vault was completed for storage of the church's vast collection of historic records.

Genealogical libraries and family history centers came about in the mid-1980s.

In the 1990s, as people began to have computers in the home, the church introduced computer software on CDs, making its records more accessible than ever before. Each technological advancement has brought family history data closer to the home, Rencher said.

With the innovation of digital cameras, the church started to digitize records in 1998.

Launching FamilySearch.org

According to both men, the most significant event in the technology timeline came with the launch of FamilySearch.org in 1999.

"When we launched it, it made quite a splash," said Turley, who is now the managing director of LDS Church public affairs.

Before an official announcement, Turley said the URL had been leaked during a beta test and the website was receiving more than 5 million hits a day.

"We thought, 'How big is this going to be?'" Turley said. "We tried to think big, but not too big. We engineered it to handle 25 million hits a day."

President Gordon B. Hinckley made the announcement from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. His comments were televised live to a concurrent press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Turley were present.

The following morning, Turley was invited to appear on the "Today Show" with Katie Couric and discuss FamilySearch.org. The publicity almost crashed the new website, Turley said.

"On the day I appeared with Katie on national television, we estimated the website got 100 million hits," Turley said. "We were able to keep it from crashing by assigning visitors a quarter-hour. But that was a really big deal."

Turley praised the work of a behind-the-scenes technical crew, led by Jay Butler and Jay Verkler, for working out the FamilySearch.org bugs and helping the church transition into the digital age.

As of the end of 2016, FamilySearch has more than 5.5 billion searchable records online.

The launching of websites like FamilySearch.org revolutionized family history work, Rencher said.

"In 1999, one of my foremost thoughts was 'I hope I get to live long enough to play in this sandbox.' I have seen that reality in the last few weeks by working on my family tree," Rencher said. "I’ve done online research in Australia, India, Canada and Jamaica, as well as England and Ireland. I never could have anticipated in 1985 being at home at 1 a.m. solving major genealogical problems. It was inconceivable."

Other key developments

Besides launching FamilySearch.org, Turley named three other key developments in family history technology.

One was learning to efficiently digitize microfilm and stream it to users. The church has only digitized about 50 percent of its records in the Granite Mountain Records Vault, Rencher said.

Another was online indexing. In 2007, FamilySearch pioneered a web platform where hundreds of thousands of online volunteers could look at digital images of historic records and capture the information for a searchable database.

The other point involved making it simple for people to find and prepare temple names online. He recalled giving a presentation to temple presidents and matrons and realizing the process was too complicated, Turley said.

"I looked out at the audience and people's eyes seemed to roll back into their heads," Turley said. "If we can't explain this simply to temple presidents and matrons, we have a real problem. Our technical people went to work and figured out how to reduce the steps."

Rencher also discussed the "genius of Family Tree," and innovative applications that enhance its data. For example, Billiongraves.com has used smartphones to capture an image of a gravesite, mark it with a GPS pin and connect it with Family Tree, enabling a person to find the location of a relative more easily.

"The app leverages the work of the tree for the benefit of genealogy," Rencher said. "The tree gives you the ability to take an idea … and create some really cool things."

The next decade

What will the next decade bring? Rencher joked that his crystal ball isn't clear, but still offered a few interesting thoughts.

FamilySearch will keep working to provide the best possible experience for users because users will go wherever they can find the information they need, Rencher said.

Beyond that, Rencher had questions: Can technology finally solve the handwriting indexing issue? How does technology begin to capture oral histories on a massive scale?

"If I could just capture living memory, what you know about your family," Rencher said. "How do we come up with a compelling offering that would entice people to willingly contribute that information because they want it preserved?"

When asked about DNA technology, Rencher said FamilySearch believes in and supports it as an effective genealogical tool, but it doesn't replace fundamental research principles. FamilySearch must also be conservative with its open-edit tree format, Rencher said.

As for the future of genealogy, Rencher voiced a few concerns. Fewer people are keeping handwritten journals, although a low percentage may keep a journal on their phone or device. Emails have almost completely replaced old-fashioned letter writing, and emails won't be preserved. Communities no longer publish phone books or directories, resources that have aided genealogists in the past. More and more records are being classified as private to avoid identity theft. The day may come when the government deems the cost of the U.S. census to be too great. The changing dynamic of the complexion of the family unit will have a significant impact on family history, Rencher said.

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"I think the day will come when today's generation is going to be the most difficult to research, which is incredible when you think about all the automated technology," Rencher said. "You can see the impact that technology is having, and some of these genealogical tools that we have used for decades are going away. … We’ve got to get better at it. We need visionaries, people who can understand the changing face of the information landscape well enough to say this is a good thing, this is a bad thing."

Turley described the accomplishments of family history and technology over the last 30 years as "miraculous."

"What's next?" Turley mused. "It’s going to be beyond our imagination."