“Automated Recording in Salt Lake Temple Begins,” Ensign, May 1981, 99–102
The first automated temple recording system went into effect in February in the Salt Lake Temple. It began recording baptisms on the second and was finally integrated into the entire temple system by February 24.
The system has not affected session content or length; in fact, most of the action takes place behind the scenes. A patron coming for an endowment session would notice a difference at only three points: the recommend desk, receiving the name of the person for whom the ordinance will be performed, and at the conclusion of the ordinance.
What this system does is eliminate almost all of the arduous typing, proofreading, checking, filing, and reporting that had taken much of the temple workers’ time and increased shipping and storage costs.
According to Parley K. Fullmer, manager of training and systems development for the Temple Department, the results were immediate and dramatic: “All of a sudden, the offices became very quiet. Endowment sessions no longer required the services of the four typists and four stake checkers we used to need. The arduous name-by-name proofreading that used to last many hours is now not necessary. The work in the baptismal office that used to take six hours or so and require the labor of several full-time workers is now reduced to ten or fifteen minutes per baptismal session. Compiling reports on the number of ordinances done monthly by members of each stake in a temple district can be done in five minutes rather than three or four hours. Now temple workers need not concentrate on volumes of paper work and as a result their recording function has taken more of a background role.”
The Temple Department, organized in 1979, coordinates functions that used to be performed in a variety of locations. Elder W. Grant Bangerter is executive director of the Temple Department and chairman of the Temple Executive Committee on which sit Elders Derek A. Cuthbert and G. Homer Durham of the First Quorum of the Seventy, managing directors of the Temple Department, and Derek F. Metcalfe, managing director of administration of temples and the former Salt Lake Temple recorder.
The department’s staff of twenty-four employees and volunteers is responsible for temple maintenance, temple systems, training the presidents and recorders, helping the presidents train the workers, cooperating with the Real Estate and Building departments in the construction of new temples, reviewing plans for new temples, handling special records such as adoptions and cancellations of sealings, working with audiovisual and translation services in the temple.
The project officially began in 1977 as the cooperative effort of three Church Departments: the Genealogical Department (responsible for providing the names for temple work), the Temple Department (whom the system was developed for), and the Information Systems Department (which provided the technical expertise and equipment to make the project work).
The project began by looking for some way of relieving the temples of the enormous quantities of paper work being done. A computer system was logical, but the requirements seemed overwhelming. Because of the temple’s sacredness, the computers must be very inconspicuous and quiet. The system must be fail-safe, for ordinance work could not stop to accommodate a temperamental computer. The system must be so simple that even part-time temple workers, many of whom are elderly, could operate it with a minimum of training. It also needed to be flexible since it would need to record ordinances of endowment, baptism, initiatory work, family name file, and sealings simultaneously. And it needed to have enough power that ordinance workers would not have to experience long lags between entering information and getting the necessary response.
Computer programming began on 1 April 1979 under project leader Randy J. Bliss of Information Systems, with programmers David G. Summers, Leonard K. Shoell, W. Kirk Love, and N. Thomas Creighton. Interestingly, the system of microcomputers—“cards” about 9 by 11 inches—that the temple recording system uses did not become ready until about the time the project began—“so when we needed it the industry met us at the crossroads,” says Brother Bliss.
Brother Bliss continues, “The requirements of a temple recording system are very demanding. Giving temple workers a reliable and easy system requires a very complex and sophisticated equipment and program behind the scenes. Many aspects of our system programming are among the best achievements in the computer industry.”
It is because of such breakthrough devices that the programmers have already received encouragement to publish articles on the system—including an offer to coauthor an article with the computer manufacturer. It is no exaggeration, says Brother Fullmer, to call the temple system “revolutionary” in the computer industry.
The system uses a central microcomputer, a back-up or spare, and five ordinance area microcomputers for recording baptisms, sealings, family names, endowments, and initiatory ordinances. More than forty terminals feed into this system, giving the network of interconnected computers a flexibility unusual in the industry. From his office, the recorder can receive minute-by-minute information on the progress of the ordinances—approximately ten thousand daily—being performed in the temple. His terminal will collect the information for men and women separately from each terminal and provide totals in less than two seconds. Acceptable industry standard is, in many cases, five or ten seconds.
The reliability of the system is extremely high. The technicians predict that each computer may malfunction once or twice a year, either through electronic failure or through, say, a bit of dust getting under one of the recording heads. And this is with twenty-four-hour operation! There is a statistical possibility that every five to ten years two computers may be down simultaneously. In that case, the recorder can switch the functions of a heavily used computer—such as that recording endowments—to a lesser-used computer, such as a baptismal system which is not used continually.
A description of the system is astounding, but even more astounding is that the system was installed and began its work with a trouble-free record that is literally unheard of in the computer business. “Every project that I’ve ever heard of—especially a new project,” emphasized Brother Bliss, “has an inevitable shakedown period where you just plan to spend a lot of time getting the bugs out.” The temple’s “shakedown” problems were very minor and caused no slowdown in temple work.
Why was the changeover to the computer system so easy? Those working with it suggest three reasons: First, “it’s the temple.” And that’s really the basis of the other two reasons. The planning was creative, careful, and thorough, but “at least a dozen times, programming problems surfaced under unusual circumstances, circumstances that normally would not occur until the system was in place and functioning,” says Brother Bliss. “Had they stayed in the system until we got to the temple, they could have hurt us, maybe even stopped us; and as a computer programmer, I know that the chances are about a million to one of those circumstances showing up during testing.”
And the third reason is the “complete willingness” of all of the temple workers to learn how to use the system. Jed R. Allen, development team supervisor, notes, “Many people are threatened by automation, resent it, and mistrust it. Whenever you install a ‘pilot system’ that depends so heavily upon untrained people for its success, there are always some risks. They may not give all it takes to make the system work. This was not the case with the temple recording system. Everyone was willing to cooperate, to learn, and to give it a fair try. Some of the people who were initially skeptical have since become its strongest proponents.” And when one considers the challenge of training 3,100 workers, some of whom would use the system only once a week, the success is even more remarkable.
Brother Bliss reports other experiences that confirm his feelings of receiving “special assistance” on this project. “On one occasion, I’d been trying to solve a programming problem for three days. Team morale was sinking because the problem was holding everybody up. I went home discouraged on Friday and moped around the house. And then when I was sitting with my family in sacrament meeting, the solution came to me, complete and unmistakable. I went in on Monday morning, solved the problem, and we were on our way again.”
Special safeguards are built into the system. “It’s virtually impossible for a name to get processed without having all of the ordinances performed,” explains Brother Bliss. For instance, the temple recorder sets up a system of passwords that temple officials must know to activate the system, thus preventing the accidental recording of an ordinance.
The computer also safeguards the privacy of the ordinances. Although reports can be made on the number of ordinances performed by the members of a stake, no breakdown by individuals or by wards is made.
Would a power failure cause any problems? No. Brother Fullmer explains that no new sessions would be started but that all those in process would be completed. As each baptism and confirmation is performed, it is recorded by depressing a single key. The automated recording system is not used during the performance of marriages and the sealings of living family members, but the computer records each ordinance after the completion of the marriage or sealing ceremony. Proxy sealings of couples and families are recorded by the officiator name by name as completed by the depression of a single key.
In the future, each year a few of the larger United States temples will be converted to this system, according to Brother Metcalfe. The Jordan River Temple, expected to begin operations in late 1981 or early 1982, will be the first temple to have this system “built in.”