How FamilySearch is Using Technology to Publish Record Images Faster

Contributed By Sydney Walker, Church News reporter

  • 26 March 2020

A couple enters information about their family into Family Search with the assistance of a family history consultant.

Article Highlights

  • With the Explore Historical Images feature, users can browse images easily.
  • The challenge has been making those records available quickly.
  • Users can now find images and information they couldn't before.

Last year, adding a new digital record image to the FamilySearch website took about six to nine months. Today, it can be done in 24 hours using computer technology. 

This means FamilySearch’s collection of now more than 4 billion historical images will continue to grow rapidly. And with FamilySearch’s new Explore Historical Images feature, users can browse these images easier than ever before. 

“Explore Historical Images is a search system where those doing their family history can search every digital image that FamilySearch has,” said John Alexander, records experience manager at FamilySearch. 

Launched in February and now available in 10 languages, Alexander said Explore Historical Images can be a beneficial tool in helping people worldwide discover their ancestors more quickly. 

More Images Available, Faster

Many individuals who participate in family history are familiar with searching indexed records for an ancestor’s name. But indexed records represent only 20 percent of FamilySearch’s online historical records—which means information someone may not be able to find in an indexed record is likely in a digital image that hasn’t been indexed yet.   

FamilySearch has published billions of unindexed digital record images from archives around the world. As the number of published images has increased over the past decade, Alexander said the challenge has been making those records available quickly.

One of the reasons FamilySearch built Explore Historical Images was to dramatically reduce the time between capturing an image and making it available on the website for people to use (a months-long process which involved employees or volunteers auditing an image, creating metadata, curation work, and uploading). 

“In the end, our goal was 24 hours,” Alexander said. “We want images from the time they are captured in the field to the time they’re on our website available in 24 hours. And we want it done so no person has to look at it or do anything. That’s what Explore Historical Images is.”

And the impact on the size of FamilySearch’s images collection is remarkable. “Between the ongoing work to scan our microfilm and the 300-plus digital cameras that are capturing records around the world every day, we can add 1 and 2 million images in a 24-hour period,” he said. 

FamilySearch’s digital cameras are typically found in archives, museums or government buildings where original records are stored. 

Screenshot of the Explore Historical Images search bar on March 24, 2020.

A Simplified Search Experience

Although users aren’t able to search Explore Historical Images for a specific name, they can narrow their search by place, date, and other information captured when the image was taken. 

One individual who has benefited from this feature is Esperanza Eggett. Eggett was born and raised in Ecuador and has lived in Utah since 2001. She has been actively participating in family history since age 16. 

Ecuador doesn’t have many indexed records, she explained, so she mostly relies on browsing images to find information about her family. 

Recently, while browsing records using FamilySearch’s new images feature, Eggett discovered new images she had never seen from her great-grandmother’s town in Ecuador. “I was surprised to see my great-grandmother’s mother and siblings that we didn’t have any records of.”

“And that happened with other branches in my family,” she continued. “We thought that there was nothing about it, but in reality, there is. … I have found tons of names just looking at images.”

Esperanza Eggett, third from left on the couch, is pictured with her family in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Esperanza Eggett.

These records were likely hidden because the search data previously wasn’t descriptive enough, she said. Many communities and Catholic parishes in Ecuador had different names than they do now.

Because the search function is more specific, Eggett said the new tool has drastically reduced the number of images she has to search. 

“Instead of looking through thousands and thousands of images, now you look through only hundreds, which means you can use your time better,” she said. 

Eggett, who now works as a business analyst for FamilySearch, said many people from countries that don’t have many indexed records think they can’t do their family history. “But if you put in a little bit more effort, you can use the images and find what you’re looking for,” she said. 

For step-by-step instructions on how to use Explore Historical Images, visit FamilySearch.org/blog/en/explore-historical-images.

The total number of digitized images published on FamilySearch.org since 2007. Information provided by John Alexander, FamilySearch.