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Billions of world's family history records need preserving and digitizing

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 3:45 p.m. MDT

FamilySearch International is leading the way in digitizing and providing access to billions of historical records by collaborating with commercial family history companies and the online community. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) FamilySearch International is leading the way in digitizing and providing access to billions of historical records by collaborating with commercial family history companies and the online community. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

As more than 6,700 genealogy enthusiasts gather at the Salt Palace this week for the fourth annual RootsTech family history conference, the sponsoring organization, FamilySearch International, is leading the way in digitizing and providing access to billions of historical records by collaborating with commercial family history companies and the online community.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns FamilySearch and its related website, www.familysearch.org, has long been involved in preserving and digitizing the world’s family history records. But with the best efforts of its own members and volunteers, the church still can’t do the job alone. The task is too immense.

An alliance forged over the past few months with some of the premiere commercial genealogical organizations in the world — including Ancestry.com, FindMyPast.com and MyHeritage — offers hope for cutting the job down to size. Perhaps it can even been done within a generation or two for the massive collection of records already on film or in digital form, FamilySearch officials say.

FamilySearch International is leading the way in digitizing and providing access to billions of historical records by collaborating with commercial family history companies and the online community. () FamilySearch International is leading the way in digitizing and providing access to billions of historical records by collaborating with commercial family history companies and the online community. ()

Over the past 80 years or so, some 5 billion genealogical records have been captured by teams from the church using microfilm and, more recently, digital scanning of documents. These records have come mostly from North and South America and Western Europe. Even so, an estimated 10 billion more records remain to be captured from those regions of the world, said Paul G. Nauta, FamilySearch marketing manager.

And much of the world remains unaccessed for records. In total, some 60 billion records remain to be digitally captured from all regions of the world, Nauta said.

An army of volunteers around the world is working to digitally index online the 5 billion records already in the church’s possession. At the current pace, it will take 200-300 years to index those already-captured records. And that does not include the 100 million new digital images of historic records added each year from the efforts of the church’s 250 camera teams worldwide.

An employee of the Protestant parish in Besigheim points to an entry in the parish register in Besigheim, near Stuttgart, southern Germany on Thursday, June 4, 2009. (Daniel Maurer, Associated Press) An employee of the Protestant parish in Besigheim points to an entry in the parish register in Besigheim, near Stuttgart, southern Germany on Thursday, June 4, 2009. (Daniel Maurer, Associated Press)

“That means your posterity through the next eight generations might never benefit from accessing all of the records that have already been gathered, because they will not have been indexed online,” Nauta explained.

“If we work with other organizations and increase community involvement, we can drop that time frame to 20-30 years by making use of the resources they bring to the table.”

Those resources are important to help people identify their ancestors and link them together in collaborative, online family trees like the one featured at FamilySearch.org.

“Record keeping didn’t start until the 1500s,” Nauta said. “About 28 billion people have lived on the earth from A.D. 1500 to now.”

Hundreds of drawers are filled with microfilm at the Riverton FamilySearch Library in Riverton. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Hundreds of drawers are filled with microfilm at the Riverton FamilySearch Library in Riverton. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Of those, only about 4 billion have been linked and preserved in family trees accessible on the Internet, leaving about 24 billion people who still need to be identified and linked online to complete the family tree of mankind.

“That’s kind of shocking,” Nauta said. “In the grand scope of things, we’re only scratching the surface.”

But collaborating with the commercial genealogy organizations will help. They stand to create broader online access to much of the church’s genealogical records through their websites to more people globally, and their contributions will create better experiences for FamilySearch.org patrons and help expedite the monumental effort to index and digitally preserve the world’s historic records.

For example FindMyPast, based in Venice, Calif., has about 1.6 billion records globally, with about 850 million from the United States, and has 18 million subscribers around the world.

MyHeritage, based in Or Yehuda, near Tel Aviv, Israel, has more than 75 million users worldwide, has more than 4 billion records in its database and more than 27 million family trees and 163 million photos on its website.

Ancestry.com, according to a recent news release announcing its collaboration with FamilySearch, is the world's largest online family history resource, with approximately 2.7 million paying subscribers across all its websites. More than 12 billion records have been added to the Ancestry.com sites, and users have created more than 55 million family trees containing more than 5 billion profiles.

RootsTech 2014, the largest family history conference in North America, gets under way Wednesday with a technically oriented “Innovator Summit” and continues Thursday through Saturday with a wide array of daily sessions for beginners to avid genealogists.

For those who cannot attend the conference in person, 15 sessions on Thursday will be streamed live and complimentary over the Internet on the conference website, RootsTech.org. The streamed sessions will include a sampling of technology and family history presentations.

On Saturday, a selection of classes from the LDS-oriented Family Discovery Day will be streamed online for church members on the church’s website, lds.org.

rscott@deseretnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company