A Conversation with Elder J. Richard Clarke about FamilySearch

“A Conversation with Elder J. Richard Clarke about FamilySearch,” Ensign, Nov. 1990, 110–12

A Conversation with Elder J. Richard Clarke about FamilySearch

New technology now makes it possible for stake and multiregional family history centers to have information in a computer format that has previously been available only on microfilm. The First Presidency recently announced one such advancement—a new computer software called FamilySearch™ that runs on personal computers equipped with compact disc players. FamilySearch is a major step in simplifying family history research and making work that has formerly been done by hand much easier to do. (See address by Elder Richard G. Scott, p. 5.)

To understand more about FamilySearch, the Ensign spoke with Elder J. Richard Clarke, Executive Director of the Family History Department.

Q: Would you begin by giving an explanation of what FamilySearch is and how it works?

A: FamilySearch is a computer system that includes both (1) a set of powerful search and retrieval programs designed to work on personal computers and (2) large computer files of family history information. FamilySearch is part of an information revolution using compact-disc technology. Today’s youth think compact discs—CDs—were invented for music, but we think the Lord had something more important in mind. Vast amounts of information can now be stored on CDs. To give you some idea of their capacity, each CD can hold approximately 320,000 pages of information. The FamilySearch software, coupled with the processing power of the computer, allows you to scan the disc in seconds to find a fact that could otherwise take hours to locate.

Q: How will FamilySearch affect individual Church members?

A: FamilySearch is like going from a wagon to an airplane. Both are means of transportation, but the latter dramatically changes the transportation possibilities. Never before have results been so easy to obtain. Work that was once tedious is now exciting and dramatic. These tools help us keep the solemn covenants we have made to use every means available to bring the blessings of the gospel to all of our Heavenly Father’s children—both here and in the spirit world—and the Lord has prepared the way.

To explain what I mean, let me start by pointing out that the increased number of temples being built throughout the world is no coincidence. The work of the Lord is accelerating: more missionaries are in the field today than at any time in history, more people are joining the Church, more names are being submitted for temple work, and more temples have been built. As members of the Church, we need to see the big picture, to see what family history really is. Each of us must recognize our need to take part in that great effort to exalt the human family, and FamilySearch makes the process exciting and “doable” for each member of the Church.

FamilySearch affects members of the Church in many vitally important ways. Let me mention just three. First, no experience is needed for members to use FamilySearch. It has been designed to serve people with little or no computer experience. One finger is all that is needed to guide the user to files that are as vast as libraries but as simple to use as a touch-tone telephone.

Second, for those who are already doing family history work and are involved with research and doing temple work for their kindred dead, this decreases the time demand immensely. No trips to Salt Lake City—the personal computer in the local family history center is both convenient and comprehensive, eliminating many of the obstacles of the past. For those who have not yet tasted the sweet experience of discovering a family name in a record or taking it to the temple, FamilySearch can help make that possibility a reality.

Third, this new tool places more responsibility on members to verify the information they are using to do temple ordinances for their ancestors. The person doing the research will now be doing what the Church used to do—verifying whether or not a person’s work has been done. In fact, what we are doing with FamilySearch is closely linked with another computer system announced by the First Presidency in April 1990, one that automates names clearance—a same-day processing of names.

Today, with FamilySearch, you can identify an ancestor. But sometime late next year, we will have ready a computer program that will enable you also to use a computer in your meetinghouse to do everything needed to ready that ancestor’s name for temple work—a task that currently takes months to do here at Church headquarters. Using this new computer program, you will be able to put the information needed by the temple on a floppy disk, which you can then take to the temple for temple ordinance work at your convenience—the same day, if you wish.

These are historic changes. We’re in the midst of a revolution, an information explosion that is benefiting family history the world over. The changes are affecting not only how family history is being done, but also who is participating.

Q: Is the new technology attracting greater interest in family history among people who have not traditionally participated in it?

A: Has it ever! The new technology has increased interest in family history as never before. But there are several other factors.

Since the 1970s, when Alex Haley’s Roots popularized the notion of family history, there has been an upswing in response to the Spirit of Elijah—even though people may not know that’s what they’re responding to. We all want to know about our roots. The family is the center of the gospel, and therefore our link with our family is a deep spiritual need within everyone who has ever lived.

I know a woman, a counselor, who took foster children into her home. These two children had experienced powerful feelings of rejection from their parents. But the woman was wise enough to know of children’s need for roots. She made a pedigree chart to link those children with a knowledge of their grandparents. Though they had been abandoned by their parents, they were able to discover that just one generation back were fine people who loved them and cared about them. This good sister told me that the children gained a real pride in being part of that family tree. Their sense of self-worth grew greatly from the experience. I think that’s a fine instance of how lineage can be valuable to us and how people who are not usually genealogists are benefiting from family histories.

The desire to learn about one’s roots is growing. I understand that genealogy, or family history, is one of the fastest growing hobbies. Certainly, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City has seen a tremendous increase in patronage—especially after this period. Early versions of FamilySearch were put to use two years ago. From the beginning, every computer has been busy all day, requiring the library to add computers and schedule their use. More than fifty computers are used in the library today, and more are planned. FamilySearch has helped spur this increase in library use because it has made things simpler. We are finding the same phenomenon as FamilySearch becomes available at family history centers.

These new developments have helped to bring new life to the search for names. Even young people are taking an interest in pursuing histories. In fact, this generation growing up now will be our first computer-literate generation, and the contribution they will make to this work and the use of technology will astound us.

But what’s truly exciting to me is that even those of us who grew up without computers are finding this system surprisingly fun and easy.

Q: Is it possible to purchase a copy of FamilySearch for use on my personal computer?

A: Not yet. We have a number of reasons for this. Our first priority has been to put FamilySearch in our family history centers—we have almost 1,100 in the U.S. and Canada—where it can reach the greatest number of members, regardless of whether they have a computer of their own. In family history centers, members can become acquainted with FamilySearch in a setting where they have the right kind of service and support available to them. In addition, we are working through some legal and security issues that must be resolved before FamilySearch can be available for sale. In time, as FamilySearch becomes more widely available in family history centers and as we develop the level of support and service needed, we can safely move toward making the program available for purchase.

Q: Can those with personal computers tie into FamilySearch by telephone?

A: No. For now, cost and security factors have made this method of access impractical.

Q: How soon can people expect to see FamilySearch in their local family history centers, and what is the first step a person should take to be able to benefit from it?

A: By the middle of September 1990, there were nearly five hundred systems installed in family history centers in the United States and Canada. Local leaders need to request FamilySearch for their family history centers. As they do, systems are sent as soon as possible. During the coming year, the shipments are likely to increase as demand goes up. At present, we are evaluating use of the system outside the U.S. and Canada. There are a host of questions, such as computer availability and legal issues, that need to be resolved before the system can be distributed internationally.

Our main concern now will be meeting the demand. Constant improvements are being made to the software, and that will be ongoing, but we hope to have FamilySearch in all family history centers in the U.S. and Canada by 1993. At the same time, we will be exploring ways to make this great resource available to priesthood leaders outside the U.S. and Canada.

To get started, members should get a copy of Come unto Christ through Temple Ordinances and Covenants, which explains the simple, easy steps to getting started in family history work. It doesn’t take much to start: members simply write their names on a pedigree chart, together with their birth dates and other key dates and places. Then they write the same information for their parents, grandparents—as much as they know. Most wards also have ward family history consultants who can help members do everything needed to provide temple ordinances for ancestors in the first few generations. The process has been greatly simplified in recent years.

FamilySearch can also help members start compiling their family histories. Members can either gather information as I just described and go to FamilySearch to cross-check what information is there already, or they can start with FamilySearch and see what information is already recorded there and begin following their line.

Q: How does Ancestral File™ relate to FamilySearch?

A: Ancestral File is one of the files that is part of FamilySearch. In many ways it is the most important of the files. In Ancestral File, you can find family-linked information. You type the name of an ancestor on the computer keyboard, and if the system finds it, you can see information not only for that ancestor, but also for his parents, grandparents, and on back as well. And you can make a computer printout of that information right there at the computer, or you can copy it onto a computer disk and take it home with you.

Ancestral File is based on family history information members of the Church have contributed since 1979. It doesn’t include information that was submitted to the Church before that time. The version shipped to family history centers last fall included information for about 7.6 million people. That’s a far cry from the 147 million names in the International Genealogical Index, but this information, as I said before, is linked. And it will grow.

Q: How will Ancestral File grow?

A: We all have an important part to play in the growth of Ancestral File. This file is a user file. We will not be making large contributions of information to it from Church headquarters. The file’s growth depends on contributions of family history information from you, from me, from family organizations, from members of other faiths, and from genealogical societies. As more and more of us contribute, imagine how the file will grow!

Ancestral File is really a community effort—one that takes in the whole community of mankind, spanning countries, languages, cultures, and time. People the world over are responding today to the Spirit of Elijah, identifying their ancestors and gathering their names together—many without really knowing why. This quest for names draws each of us closer not only to our ancestors, but also to others involved in the same quest. Ancestral File provides a way for us to share our discoveries, a way to help others ford the same streams we have crossed and find the family ties that bind us together in the family of man.

To find out how to contribute to Ancestral File, members can go to the Family History Library or their local family history centers.

It’s possible that more lives than ever before are being influenced—both members of the Church and our neighbors throughout the world—by this revolutionary development in information technology. For too long, genealogy and family history have been associated with antiquity, dusty old museums, large volumes, and tedious research techniques. To the extent that these have characterized family history’s past, its future is electronic, compact, and on the cutting-edge of man’s ingenuity.

Like Daniel’s prophecy of the Lord’s church being a stone cut out of the mountain without hands and rolling forth till it fills the earth, so has this small, slow-moving stone of family history gained such momentum that it, too, will fill the earth, bringing the blessings of the Atonement to our Father’s children in preparation for the Lord’s return.

The FamilySearch software for personal computers gives members access to vast amounts of data stored on compact discs like the one held by Elder J. Richard Clarke. (Photos by Welden Andersen.)