Technology Helps FamilySearch Volunteers Hit Major Milestone

“Technology Helps FamilySearch Volunteers Hit Major Milestone,” Ensign, Dec. 2009, 76–78

Technology Helps FamilySearch Volunteers Hit Major Milestone

FamilySearch volunteers expect to have transcribed more than 325 million names by the end of 2009, just three years after the organization began its online indexing program.

The milestone was a number once thought impossible to reach in such a short period of time. In 2006, a few thousand volunteers indexed only 11 million names. But thanks to continuing advances in technology and a growing number of volunteers—more than 100,000 across five continents—an estimated half million individual names are indexed each day.

At that rate, Paul Nauta, FamilySearch public affairs manager, expects that 500 million names will have been indexed by the end of 2010.

And yet all this work barely makes a dent in the vast stores of historical records throughout the world, which grow by more than 100 million records (each with multiple names) every year.

“We are not catching up,” Brother Nauta said. “In preserving records alone, there are more records created in one year than we could ever film in decades with current technology.”

To hasten the work of making important historical records available online, the Church’s Family History Department is continually working to develop new ways to preserve records not only as quickly as possible but at the highest quality possible. This has resulted in specially designed digital cameras, innovative scanning technology, and new software and applications.

“It is not necessarily that we want to be pioneers in this field and this technology,” Brother Nauta said. “But we are compelled to do it.”

Capturing the Records

Representatives of the Church’s Family History Department oversee the effort to acquire records, beginning with prioritizing what records would be most valuable to the public and matching limited human resources to gather them.

Employees of the Family History Department then work with various churches, municipalities, archives, and governments to acquire or create copies of those records. Most institutions welcome the Church’s efforts. “We have a good reputation as an organization that cares about the records as much as the archivists do,” said Steven L. Waters, strategic relations manager for Europe. “In general, they are thankful to have an organization like ours that puts so many resources into preserving history.”

In capturing records, an area is set up on-site where special cameras are used to create digital images of the historical documents. The process can take from a few weeks to several years depending on the size of the collection, the type of documents being copied, and the workers’ experience levels.

With cameras similar to those used by NASA and in other industrial settings, workers produce an image at a high resolution of 50 megapixels, using special software designed by FamilySearch engineers. Adjustments to the cameras, made by Church camera specialists, increase their lifespan from about 300,000 pictures to 500,000 per year for four years or more.

Once a project is complete, up to a terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) of images and information is sent to Salt Lake City, where the images will be processed, preserved, copied, and distributed based on the contract specifications. Many images are published on; some are published on commercial genealogical Web sites; sometimes the archive itself publishes the work.

“In the end, we may or may not get to personally publish the records,” Brother Waters said. “But it’s about making as many records as possible available to as many people as possible.”

A Different Kind of Conversion

One of the most significant advancements for FamilySearch in recent years was put into place in 2005, when 15 high-speed scanners were developed to convert images previously contained on microfilm into digital images. These scanners are converting 2.5 million rolls of microfilm from the Church’s Granite Mountain Records Vault into tens of millions of ready-to-index digital images.

The scanners are like a camera: as the microfilm unwinds, the images on the microfilm are converted into a long ribbon of high-quality digital images. A computer program quality-checks the ribbon and uses special algorithms to break it up into individual images.

These rolls of microfilm include images of important historical documents gathered from all over the world—birth and death records, hospital records, family histories, immigration forms, historical books, and more.

“To our knowledge, there is no company that does the level of vital records preservation that FamilySearch does,” said Brother Nauta. “The records FamilySearch contains currently, when digitized, would equal 132 Libraries of Congress or 18 petabytes (1,000 terabytes) of data—and that doesn’t include our ongoing acquisition efforts.”

Taking It to the World

To make all of these digitized records available to the public, the Family History Department developed There, anyone can download images of historical documents to a computer and transcribe the information to help create a database of names, dates, locations, and other information—free for all to search online at

Anyone can participate in indexing. If a home computer doesn’t meet the requirements to run the indexing application (available for download at, the application can be found on computers at any one of the 4,600 family history centers around the world.

Already available in English, French, German, and Spanish, indexing added four more languages in 2009—Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Swedish.

“We’ve come from transcribing by hand to delivering digital images on CDs through the mail to Web-based applications where virtually anyone can be involved,” Brother Nauta said. “We are quantum leaps from where we began. It’s faster, more reliable, and more efficient.”

With the technological advances and the ever-increasing number of indexing volunteers, the Ellis Island historical records—which a decade ago took 12,000 volunteers 12 years to complete—would take three weeks to index today.

“That evolution of technology has been remarkable in getting everyone involved everywhere,” said Paul D. Starkey, digital information process manager in the Family History Department. “The Internet has been an amazing technology to help this kind of work.”

Beyond the Technology

Beyond the innovations in technology, at the heart of the hastening of the work are people.

At any given moment, thousands of volunteers from around the world are working with FamilySearch Indexing. A growing number of them are not members of the Church.

For some, preserving historical records is a commission to preserve the identity and heritage of a nation, organization, or community. For others, it lends a deepened sense of personal identity.

“They confirm that they are part of a larger family fabric that has a rich history,” Brother Nauta said. “We quickly learn that life as we know it isn’t just about us in the here and now. Knowing the richer context of our family history gives us and our posterity something more to live up to—a legacy to fulfill and pass on after doing our part.”

For Church members, there is added value in being able to perform saving ordinances for ancestors in the temple. But for all, this growing interest in family history work was foretold.

“It’s in the scriptures,” Brother Nauta said. “‘The hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers’” (see D&C 2:1–2).

FamilySearch is using technology in new ways to both preserve family history and make it available to others.

Photograph by Matthew Reier