Digitizing the 1880 U.S. Census into a format searchable on computer took 18 years, completed in 1998. Digitizing the 1900 census, a project now under way, is expected to take 18 months.
Significant advancements in computer equipment and volunteers who would rather process a "batch" of records on their laptop while traveling instead of watching an in-flight movie are credited with cutting the time it takes to make records available and searchable online.
"On any given day, FamilySearch has more than 200 (digital) camera teams in more than 45 countries filming vital records," said Paul Nauta, public affairs manager for FamilySearch, a nonprofit organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But the information contained in those images and other records of historical value still has to be entered separately into a database to make the records searchable. That is where the work of a growing body of volunteers is helping speed the indexing work.
FamilySearch indexing manager Todd Jensen described that effort at the fall convention of the Utah Genealogical Association conference at the downtown Plaza Hotel.
"Almost half of the people have never participated in an indexing project before, which is an astonishing statistic," Jensen told the Deseret Morning News. "Some of those people are (LDS Church) members, others are members of genealogical societies across the U.S. and increasingly across the world, as well as people who are just starting to become interested."
With very little solicitation, FamilySearch has 82,000 registered volunteer indexers. "It's the largest initiative of its kind in the world," Nauta said.
Digitally photographed records are grouped in batches that take about an hour to sift through. Indexers enter written data from the digital images into a computer program that feeds into a records database. The images and searchable data are then linked together for researchers to find online.
"We have people downloading download batches into their laptops. While on a plane or in an airport, they can help somebody find their ancestors," Jensen said.
Volunteers register online at familysearchindexing.org. "People can look at current and upcoming projects. We have tripled our name indexing production since just January," Jensen said.
FamilySearch is also offering to help county governments, historical societies and other "records custodians" with the work of scanning and indexing their records and is offering indexing services for other records custodians.
FamilySearch is also working to digitize the 2.5 million rolls of microfilm the LDS Church has stored in the granite vaults in Little Cottonwood Canyon. "We're going to harness volunteers to index those. That's going to take a long while to do," Nauta said.
An intermediary step is a digital "microfilm reader" so researchers can conveniently search digitized images that have not yet been indexed. A beta version of that digital microfilm reader is online at search.labs.familysearch.org/recordsearch.The conference continues through today.