Heath Nielson

The Family History Department faced a herculean task five years ago.

Heath Nielson provided the answer.

The challenge was digitizing the genealogical records kept in the Granite Mountain Records Vault, a process that would have taken more than a century. But Nielson, a FamilySearch software engineer, helped develop a technology that makes it possible to complete the project in about a decade.

"Under the old technology, we did not expect to see it in our lifetime," said Paul Nauta, manager of public affairs for FamilySearch. "The time required to digitize the 2.4 million records that we have rights to digitize is (now) eight to 10 years."

Before Nielson's solution, the process was complicated, with steps and substeps required just to start scanning. Each of the 1,200 images on an average roll were captured one at a time by a camera. The flood of images would then flash on a monitor, where the operator checked for errors. These errors easily sneaked past them.

"You might blink, yawn, close your eyes and might miss the document that wasn't correctly scanned," Nielson said.

The operator, moreover, would never know if an image was not captured.

"To me that is an unacceptable situation, in particular when it comes to family history," Nielson said. "The missing image could be your family member."

With the new technology, scanning starts without delay at the click of a button. The microfilm scanner captures the whole roll of film, resulting in one long image that looks like a ribbon; hence, the pioneering technology implemented by Nielson is dubbed "ribbon scanning."

The digitized images will ultimately be accessible online, which will help push family history research forward.

"This makes it possible to reach out and touch our ancestors," Nielson said.

Nielson's interest in family history started at an unconventional age. As a sixth-grader, he visited a local family history library one day. In the library, elderly people filled out long, family-group sheets in pencil. Nielson had no clue what to do, but he was happy to be there.

"The Spirit of Elijah is strong in this one," his mother, Alana Nielson, said to a family history librarian.

Nielson also grew an appetite for computers. In fifth grade, he participated in an early-morning computer lab, learning basic programming. One morning, Nielson was sick and throwing up. The thought of missing the lab, however, made him sicker than his flu. Nielson staggered to his class, typing on a keyboard with the school's bathroom nearby.

Later, Nielson served in the Spain Malaga mission, learning persistence from "knocking, talking and not getting anywhere."

After serving the mission in Spain, Nielson went on to earn a bachelor's degree in computer science from Brigham Young University. While his peers were surfing the dot-com wave, he opted to pursue a master's degree and did not graduate until 4 1/2 years later.

He forged ahead through financial challenges and a grueling school workload that was more apt for a Ph.D. dissertation. All the while, he headed a budding family that grew to six, including three daughters and a son.

"There were moments to a young married father, I felt the weight of providing for my family very keenly," Nielson said. "I'd wonder what the next move was."

Nielson's research area was in computer vision under his adviser, William A. Barrett, former BYU computer science professor and current president of the Wisconsin Milwaukee Mission. Nielson's thesis was on "zoning," which is a technique to get a computer, among other things, to identify the layout of a document. Through other course work, Nielson also looked at ways to enhance a scanned historical record. He said his adviser thought big, especially when it came to originating the idea of ribbon scanning.

"Barrett would say, 'Boy, wouldn't it be nice if we could,'" Nielson said. "I never thought I'd be the one implementing it."

Near the completion of his studies in 2003, Nielson took the only job offer he had — at the LDS Church's Family History Department.

"After talking with my wife, we felt there was something for me to do here," Nielson said,

He, indeed, had something to contribute.

From the onset of the task, Nielson envisioned microfilms being scanned one after another, similar to the roll-off manner of a production line. He and a team of engineers, however, faced several limitations. One of them was the scanner's light bulb, which emits light through a lens, projecting the image onto the camera. The question facing the team was how to get the light bulb to adjust its light throughout the roll of film, accounting for differences in opacity.

A series of tests failed and moods dampened.

Nielson continued focusing on the goal. One day, he abandoned his assigned work to follow "a gut feeling." He burrowed himself in a lab, where he set the light at a middle value. This produced a medium-quality ribbon, a digitized film. Nielson and his team then developed software to enhance the ribbon, using the techniques he learned from his time in Barrett's lab.

It's all added up to a life-changing opportunity for Nielson.

"If I had graduated just several months earlier, there would have been no openings for me at the church," he said. "I was led where I'm at today, working in the church, tying together two loves that I've had: computers and family history."


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