Me, a Records Extractor?
September 1983

“Me, a Records Extractor?” Ensign, Sept. 1983, 51–53

Me, a Records Extractor?


When my husband and I were called to do “extraction” work, my first thought was of dentistry. But I soon learned the term had a different, more important meaning. Genealogical extraction is copying selected vital statistics from microfilmed records so that temple work may be performed vicariously on behalf of the dead.

Within a few weeks after our call, I was seated in front of a microfilm reader, trying to thread the film into the machine. I took a deep breath. This time, I told myself, I will get the film in right, focus the picture clearly, and not blow a fuse. After threading the film through the rollers, I twisted the proper knob, and the picture—a column of birth records handwritten in old German script—sprang into abrupt clarity!

Panic swept over me. In spite of studying German for two years at college and being reintroduced to the language at a stake preparation class, I could read none of the German script. I swallowed hard and remembered President Spencer W. Kimball’s motto: Do it! “All right,” I muttered, “I’ll do it!”

I’m sure the Spirit guided me as I began a close scrutiny of the film: Geboren—of course, born. And Vater is father; Mutter, mother. Suddenly the essential information almost leapt from the glowing screen of the microfilm reader.

With my pen in hand, I picked up the first computer card and extracted the child’s name, birth date, and parents’ names.

Checking the card against the film for accuracy, I felt a glow of joy and satisfaction. I could do it! And from this information copied from her birth record, Petronella Dorothea could be baptized, endowed, and sealed to her parents. What a marvelous thought! I felt enormously humble. My somewhat timidly printed card could provide eternal blessings for someone who may have waited over three hundred years to receive these ordinances.

That was the first of thousands of cards I would print, the first of hundreds of frames of microfilm I would read during the twenty-three months I served as a records extractor. I soon learned to thread the machine smoothly and correctly—the first time—and to print accurately so that when the cards went to the Genealogical Department to be processed, workers there could easily read them.

Not many weeks passed until the records on my microfilm changed from birth to marriage, and I extracted the names of the groom, the bride, and their wedding date.

From only these few words a couple could be sealed together for eternity!

Frequently the birth and marriage records from one locality would be on the same film, and the names of couples who had been married would appear several times as the names of their children were written in the birth records. Some birth records indicated that the child died while still young—sometimes within days after birth. I was sad to note that the Heiligtags, mentioned above, had four children who died soon after birth. How much did the parents sorrow at losing so many children? Or was infant mortality so common that it was accepted as inevitable? Did the family, living two hundred years before the restoration of the gospel, have any real hope of seeing their four little ones again?

While I wrote the death date in the proper space on the card, I pondered how that mother felt—for I, too, had lost a child within a year of her birth. However, I have the comfort of knowing my infant daughter can always be part of our family as we live worthy of our temple marriage promises. And now, thanks to this inspired records extraction program, Christian Martin and Johanna Sophia Heiligtag could be sealed together and have their four children throughout eternity, too. For a few minutes I knew—exactly—the consolation and hope Johanna Sophia would someday feel. I smiled, adjusted the microfilm focus, and began a new card.

My next film presented a new language challenge: French from records of the Rheinland-Pfalz area along the German-French border. I had never studied French and knew absolutely nothing about the language—so I thought. But the Spirit and a good dictionary taught me, and soon I recognized several French-English cognates: naissance—birth (remember nativity?); mariage—marriage; mere and pere—mother and father; parentes—parents! My knowledge of French is still meager, but I was able to plow through French records to obtain the information for the cards.

About halfway through my months as a records extractor, another language appeared on the screen: Latin. These records were from Catholic parishes, recorded in Latin by a priest. Quickly I searched my slender Latin vocabulary: Magna cum laude, et cetera, and e pluribus unum were all I could recall. I worried about that film. But in the prayers that started each shift at our stake center, we asked the Lord for his help to do His work—and He generously blessed us. Sure enough, there on the screen I recognized enough Latin to extract successfully: Natus—born; and baptizatus—baptized, of course. We used christening (baptism) dates when no birth date was given, since infants were christened very soon after their births. Matrimonium, nuptias, and conjugum referred to marriage. As with French, parentes meant parents. After working with Latin records for a while, I was surprised to realize how many current English terms were derived from that “dead” language.

Records extractors throughout the Church work with several languages, with Spanish and German the most common. As time progresses, all major languages where records have been filmed may appear. Some of the extractors in our stake’s German project were of German lineage. Some—like my husband and me—had studied the language in school. Others had no German background whatsoever. (The most important requirement for being a records extractor is a desire to serve.)

After we were called, we all attended intensive classes in our stake center, where we learned enough of the language to extract the information, how to read the various handwritings, and how to run the machines.

Originally, we were called for eighteen months. But most of us wanted “to finish my film,” or “go a couple more months,” and even to “do another year or so.” Our bishops released us from major ward responsibilities so we could devote our spare time—twelve to twenty hours a week—to search the records. Many records extractors are retired people, but others hold full-time jobs and have families at home.

Our extraction schedules were very flexible. Most of the time I worked a morning or afternoon shift. When I was there in the afternoons, I liked to take a break occasionally to watch my daughter play on the ward’s Laurel basketball team—our extraction room and her games were both at the stake center. We prominently displayed the telephone number of the extraction room on our family bulletin board at home so our children could call us when my husband and I worked together in the evening.

There were difficulties, of course. No worthwhile endeavor is without its challenges. One day in my absence, my six-year-old son at home told some friends, “Mom’s at distraction at the church.” He was right; that day had been a distracting, discouraging one. But the goal of our work encouraged us and kept us going.

The rewards of serving as a records extractor far outweighed the difficulties. There is personal satisfaction in following President Kimball’s admonition to serve in this capacity if called. (See Ensign, May 1978, p. 5.) This service, along with personal and family record keeping, completing our four-generation family group sheets, doing extended family research, and attending the temple helps us fulfill our genealogical obligations.

There is deep spiritual satisfaction in being part of the great plan to provide saving ordinances for our brothers and sisters. Whether or not we are related to them in mortality, we are still children of the same Father who desires exaltation for all of us.

The names we saw on the films soon developed personalities. We looked forward to seeing the same surnames again and again as we worked through a film and often rejoiced when we seemed to sense the joy of the people we met in the records at having their ordinances performed for them in the near future. The spirituality of the work was intensely sacred to us and was the greatest blessing of participation.

One woman told how she was working an evening shift and intended to leave about 10 P.M. as she usually did. When 10:00 rolled around, she felt impressed to work a little longer and sensed someone standing by her side, although she saw no one. She felt it was important to keep going on that film. After she copied a birth entry for a little girl, the presence standing by her side seemed to leave, and the extractor felt free to go home. “I believe there was someone who wanted me to stay until I found the name,” the sister said.

There is an intellectual satisfaction in being able to read difficult writing in a foreign language or to select the correct essentials from a complicated entry. This stimulating “detective work” appeals to many.

We extractors soon developed many friendships—a camaraderie—comparing notes and helping each other puzzle through particularly difficult entries. We laughed over some problems: “If we are to record exactly what we see, what do I do with this entry that says April 31 when April has only 30 days?” Even though we would record only a person’s first two given names, we enjoyed all of “Heinrich Johann Wilhelm August Karl Friedrich.” We scolded scribes with especially complicated handwriting. I still remember the first time I saw “George” written in early seventeenth century script. “Why would anyone name a son Gravy?” I asked before I clearly understood the penmanship!

What great joy we all felt as we helped extend salvation to the dead, our brothers and sisters, who—like us—are also the children of our Heavenly Father.

Ready to begin? The full spool of microfilm fits on the left of the machine. Thread the film between the two rollers and over the top of the empty spool …

Extraction? Do it!

  • Elizabeth Olson Wach, a free-lance writer and mother of four children, is Primary music leader in her Salt Lake City ward.

Photography by Jed A. Clark