Technology helps FamilySearch hit major milestone

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 6:39 a.m. MDT

FamilySearch volunteers expect to have transcribed more than 325 million names by the end of 2009, just three years after the organization began its online indexing program.

The milestone was a number once thought impossible to reach in such a short period of time. In 2006, a few thousand volunteers indexed only 11 million names. But thanks to continuing advances in technology and a growing number of volunteers — more than 100,000 across five continents — an estimated half-million individual names are indexed each day.

At that rate, Paul Nauta, FamilySearch public affairs manager, expects that 500 million names will be transcribed by the end of 2010.

And yet all this work barely makes a dent in the vast stores of historical records throughout the world, which grow by more than 100 million records (each with multiple names) every year.

\"We are not catching up,\" Nauta said. \"In preserving records alone, there are more records created in one year than we could ever film in years with current technology.\"

To hasten the work of making important historical records available online, FamilySearch is continually trying to improve upon current technologies and find additional dedicated volunteers.

Over time, the LDS Church's Family History Department has developed new ways to preserve records not only as quickly as possible but at the highest quality possible. This has resulted in specially designed digital cameras, innovative scanning technology, and new computer software.

\"It is not necessarily that we want to be pioneers in this field and this technology,\" Nauta said. \"But we are compelled to do it.\"

Capturing the records

Digital cameras that have been adapted to the work are at the center of each operation. They are the tool used to capture images of the original documents once a project is identified and permission gained.

Employees of the church's Family History Department oversee the effort to acquire records, beginning with the decision about what records they would like to acquire and from where.

\"It's about how it helps us connect the family of man,\" said Duane Barson, one of three area managers for the Family History Department, who manages the family history work in the Americas. \"There's a well-thought-out process to help us allocate our very limited human resources to gather those records.\"

Once records are identified, Family History Department employees work with various churches, municipalities, archives and governments to acquire or create copies. Most institutions welcome Mormon efforts.

\"We have a good reputation as an organization that cares about the records as much as the archivists do,\" said Steven L. Waters, strategic relations manager for Europe. \"In general, they are thankful to have an organization like ours that puts so many resources into preserving history.\"

After the negotiations are finalized, an area is set up on-site where the cameras are used to create digital images of the historical documents. The process can take from a few weeks to several years, depending on the size of the collection, the type of documents being copied and the workers' experience levels.

With cameras similar to those used by NASA and in other industrial settings, workers produce an image at a high resolution of 50 megapixels, or 50 million pixels. Adjustments to the cameras' technology, made by church camera specialists, increase their durability.

\"Some of the best high-quality cameras would take 300,000 pictures and die,\" said Larry Telford, camera operations manager for the Family History Department. \"A typical camera operator might take half a million images in one year, and we expect ours to last four or five years or more.\"

In addition to the camera, each unit requires a computer, a camera stand and special software.

\"(The software) dCamX was designed by in-house engineers to do the hard work while the operators do the easy work,\" Telford said. It makes operating the cameras easier for the church employees, missionaries and contractors who handle them. Step by step, it guides operators through calibrating the camera. Through a computer connection, the image is processed and displayed on the monitor, so the operators can ensure that the image is of the highest quality.

Every image that is captured undergoes an in-depth audit involving cropping the image, recording metadata, quality control and other improvement processes to ensure quality images.

Once a project is complete, up to a terabyte of images and information is transferred onto an external hard drive and mailed to Salt Lake City, where the images will be processed, preserved, copied and distributed.

The availability of the images depends on the contract specifications of each project. Many images are published on familysearch.org, some are published on commercial genealogical Web sites, sometimes the archive itself publishes the work, and sometimes the work is published but with restrictions as to who may access it.

\"In the end, we may or may not get to personally publish the records — there all are sorts of barriers,\" Waters said. \"But it's about making as many records as possible available to as many people as possible.\"

A different kind of conversion

One of the most significant advancements for FamilySearch in recent years was put into place in 2005, when 15 high-speed scanners were developed to convert images previously contained on microfilm into digital images to allow them to be viewed on a computer. These scanners are converting 2.5 million rolls of microfilm from the church's Granite Mountain Records Vault into tens of millions of ready-to-index digital images.

These rolls of microfilm include images of important historical documents gathered from all over the world — birth and death records, hospital records, family histories, immigration forms, historical books and more.

\"To our knowledge, there is no company that does the level of vital-records preservation that FamilySearch does,\" said Nauta. \"The records FamilySearch contains currently, when digitized, would equal 132 Libraries of Congress or 18 petabytes of data — and that doesn't include our ongoing acquisition efforts.\"

The scanners are like a camera: As the microfilm unwinds, the images on the microfilm are converted into a long ribbon of high-quality digital images. A computer program quality-checks the ribbon and uses special algorithms to break it up into individual images.

Scanning the original pictures from the microfilm, preparing the images to be viewed with an online image viewer, and quality-checking them may take only 18 minutes per roll.

Taking it to the world

FamilySearchIndexing.org is just one of a number of new Web-based programs that have been developed to advance family history endeavors.

FamilySearch Labs (labs.FamilySearch.org) showcases new family history technologies that are still undergoing development. Users test them, and their feedback allows the developers to refine the technology. For more than two years, Labs has developed multiple innovative programs to aid in family history work.

The Research Wiki (wiki.familysearch.org) is an open, online community where research experts and genealogists share information on how to research sources for family history work.

Record Search gives access to millions of historical records — a culmination of all the digitizing of records that is being done. Users can see what records exist for a specific geographic area or enter what they know about an ancestor to see matching records — all online. (Access Record Search by visiting FamilySearch.org. Click Search Records, then click Record Search pilot.)

At forums.FamilySearch.org, thousands of users of varying levels of expertise can collaborate in an online discussion to find answers to questions about product features, research techniques, hints and tips, or even about specific families in specific locations.

These and many other projects are making family history come alive more than ever, said Paul D. Starkey, digital information process manager in the Family History Department. \"That evolution of technology has been remarkable in getting everyone involved everywhere\" he added. \"The Internet has been an amazing technology to help this kind of work.\"

Of course, one of the most successful programs developed by the Family History Department can be found at FamilySearchIndexing.org. At any given time, the indexing program has 35 or more projects in different areas of the world. People can download images of historical documents to a computer and transcribe the information to create a searchable online database of names, dates, locations and other information — free for all to view online at FamilySearch.org.

Anyone can participate in indexing. If a home computer doesn't meet the requirements to run the indexing application (available for download at FamilySearchIndexing.org), the application can be found on computers at any one of the 4,600 family history centers around the world.

Already available in English, French, German and Spanish, FamilySearch indexing added three new languages in early April — Italian, Portuguese and Russian — and Swedish in August.

Three volunteers from Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras helped index the milestone 250 millionth record in Spanish as part of the Nicaragua Civil Registration indexing project.

\"We've come from transcribing by hand to delivering digital images on CDs through the mail to Web-based applications where virtually anyone can be involved,\" Nauta said. \"We are quantum leaps from where we began. It's just faster and more reliable and efficient.\"

With the technological advances and the ever-increasing number of indexing volunteers, the Ellis Island historical records — which a decade ago took 12,000 volunteers 12 years to complete — would take three weeks to index today.

Beyond the technology

Beyond the innovations in technology, at the heart of the hastening of the work are people.

At any given moment, thousands of volunteers from around the world are working with FamilySearch Indexing. A growing number of them are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They contribute an increasing volume of the indexing being done.

For some, preserving historical records is a commission to preserve the identity and heritage of a nation, organization or community. For others, it lends a deepened sense of personal identity.

\"They confirm that they are part of a larger family fabric that has a rich history,\" Nauta said. \"We quickly learn that life as we know it isn't just about us in the here and now. Knowing the richer context of our family history gives us and our posterity something more to live up to — a legacy to fulfill and pass on after doing our part.\"

For Mormons, the real value and legacy in family history lies in the saving ordinances of the temple. For example, Nauta said that the greatest rewards come in doing temple work for his own family that he has discovered thanks to the indexes produced by Family Search volunteers. \"There is a distinct difference ... in doing the work for family I know or did the research for,\" he said. \"I kind of know them because I've spent time with them, researching them, learning about who they were.\"

But for members of the church and those who aren't, the growing interest in family history work was foretold.

\"It's in the scriptures,\" Nauta said, quoting Doctrine & Covenants 2:1-2. \"Elijah 'will plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.'\"

The Spirit of Elijah is described by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve as \"a manifestation of the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the divine nature of the family.\"

See the story in its original presentation on LDS.org.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company