Thousands of Latter-day Saints in town for the church's 176th Semi-annual General Conference, which begins at 10 a.m. today, know something about their ancestry because they've long been taught to know who their progenitors are.
But relatively few know all of what's now available to help fill out their family tree, including archives that chronicle the early history of the LDS Church in exacting and often personal detail.
And with a complete overhaul of the church's FamilySearch.org Web site planned for the months ahead, even those who have no experience researching family history will be able to "do something meaningful without having to learn anything prior," according to Steve W. Anderson, online marketing manager for the church's Family History department.
New online tools will allow novices to log on and with a few mouse clicks pull up their family tree, with details about ancestors, of any faith or none, that are part of the database. "You'll be able to attach images or photos to it, or something like a timeline of events. It will have all kind of things to make it a much richer resource."
Users will have their own login, allowing them to add information about living people to their family tree if they so choose, though that information will not be available for others to view in order to maintain privacy. Anderson said there is some concern about the accuracy of allowing people to simply add information, but "if someone disagrees with your account of it, there will be an opportunity to put additional information or opinion there."
In addition to the redesigned Web site, the church is pushing forward with a digitizing project that will eventually allow the images of such information as census records, birth, death, marriage, tax and land records now contained on its 2.4 million rolls of microfilm to not only be placed online, but to be indexed in order to allow nearly instant access.
The project is estimated to take from five to 15 years to complete. After that anyone looking for access to literally billions of individual documents will be able to search for them in minutes online. In the past, the only way to access those records was to order a copy of the microfilm through the mail.
"We're trying to make the information much more accessible and also much more meaningful," Anderson said. "The Web has made us all a little attention-challenged, yet we all flock to it. All that we're doing here with online programs and databases puts us right at the doorstep of a mountain of significant change."
The church is currently working with thousands of volunteers worldwide to help index the digitized records many of them through state and local genealogical societies. Public access to selected records that have been both digitized and indexed is anticipated "fairly soon definitely by next year," he said.
Family History communications and planning manager Paul Nauta said the indexing technology is "coming along nicely" at this point, and managers will begin testing the indexing internally through church groups and with selected genealogical societies nationally who have volunteers now working to index records that their memberships find valuable.
The project, dubbed "FamilySearch Indexing," is drawing growing interest from volunteers in a variety of areas. A demonstration of the new technology will be featured at the Ogden Regional Family History Conference Oct. 6-7 at the Eccles Conference Center during a presentation called "Opening the Granite Mountain Vault." (For information, see www.myancestorsfound.com/NorthUtah/highlights.htm)
Curt Witcher with the Indiana Genealogical Society is one of two people overseeing volunteers who are indexing all Indiana marriage records from 1820 to 1957 for the digitized images the LDS Church has. He heard about the indexing project at a national conference and asked his society to participate.
Volunteers range from beginners to experienced researchers, he said, because the workload has been processed into manageable bits meaning volunteers can spend only 30 minutes at any one time and feel a sense of accomplishment.
He said it's difficult to estimate how long it will take to index millions of records covering a 150 year span, but he's estimating it will be 36 months. As enthusiasm builds, "it wouldn't surprise me if it took less than half that time," he said.
Errors are bound to occur, but should be caught because the system is designed so every record is in entered twice by two different people working independently of each other. If one record disagrees with the other, an arbitrator will decide which one is correct.
Amy Johnson Crowe with the Ohio Genealogical Society said the church approached her group more than two years ago about volunteering, even before the project began. They've been working on an index for Ohio tax records already digitized by the church since December. She dubbed the project "mind-boggling," saying when people hear about it, "they usually want to get involved. It's so incredible from what we thought was possible only a couple of years ago. ... There is a lot of excitement about this."
As online access grows exponentially, information about early Latter-day Saints and details of their lives that may otherwise have been lost is readily available, some of it online.
For example, the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database can be found at lds.org under the "church history" tab, and provides names, dates and even journal entries about Latter-day Saints who came by wagon team or handcart to the Salt Lake Valley, as well as a complete list of sources some of them full-text.
While the church's Family History Library is known worldwide, the less-frequently-used Church History Library, now housed inside the east wing on the main floor of the Church Office Building, offers information not available elsewhere.
Holdings in the Church History Library have grown so large that a 250,000-square-foot building is now under construction east of the Conference Center to house them all, along with administrative offices.
Brent Thompson, director of records preservation, said most of the site excavation for the structure is complete, and concrete was poured earlier this week for the initial part of the foundation. Workers have also tunneled under North Temple to provide eventual access to the Church Office Building. Construction is on target to be completed next year, but Thompson said it likely won't be ready for public use until 2008.
Anderson said the combined initiative to expand public access to ancestral information is "huge. Together they represent probably the most significant changes in family history work ever undertaken."
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