Friday, May 18, 2007

80 billion family files to go online

Deseret Morning News, Thursday, May 17, 2007

LDS Church plans to be history 'clearinghouse'

By Carrie A. Moore
Deseret Morning News

In what officials say will be a quantum leap forward in providing family history information online, the LDS Church has announced a plan designed to eventually help provide access to as many as 80 billion family records on the Web, in addition to the tens of billions of records it is currently indexing out of its own Granite Vault microfilm archives.

The new Records Access program is being announced this week at the annual meeting of the National Genealogical Society (NGS) in Richmond, Va. The announcement details specifics of how the church is creating partnerships with various archives and other records depositories in a move to become the world's premier international "clearinghouse" for family history.

The first cooperative project under the new program will be to digitize and index U.S. Revolutionary War Pension records with the National Archives in Washington, meaning anyone with ancestors who served in that war will soon be able to access details about that family member online.

Steve W. Anderson, manager of marketing for the church's FamilySearch.org, said the church is working to arrange agreements with commercial Web sites and genealogical organizations worldwide to provide digitizing, indexing and online posting for billions of records, many of which have never been indexed at all, let alone been available online.

"Archives all have two things in mind: preservation and making records available," he said. "When push comes to shove, they would rather preserve them than share them, but most would like to do both."

The church is forming agreements with organizations to help film or digitally image their collections, which can be posted on an organization's Web site, as well as on FamilySearch.org. In some cases, FamilySearch will simply provide a link to a specific organization's Web site, where a small fee for access will be charged to view the records.

The program "recruits volunteers from around the world to index a batch of records at a time. They transcribe those pieces of information — names, dates, locations, marriage, death and birth dates — and make an index that allows the record to be searched by name or place or event," Anderson said.

The project not only will provide "vital statistics," but by imaging the documents, users will be able to pull up a digitized image of the actual record itself. "That's a whole different experience, to see an image of the original document," he said.

The program provides the flexibility necessary to work with small archives as well as giant repositories, he said. It helps those without any resources to complete the entire imaging, indexing and online posting process, and those with more resources who may simply need help posting information online or driving traffic to their Web site.

Once the church has signed an agreement to work with a specific organization, personnel there "typically want to recruit their own patrons to help them index. But with imaging the documents — taking digital photos of them — we do that for them in almost all cases. ... They want preservation-quality digital images, and we do that better than anybody. We've been doing it for decades," to produce the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm that now reside in the church's Granite Mountain near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Anderson said.

FamilySearch can also put indexing projects in progress on its Web site, where volunteers can help index public collections of records. The Revolutionary War records are a "perfect example. We're doing the imaging, posting on our site and will recruit volunteers to help index." An online family history Web site called Footnote.com will create electronic indexes of the records and host the actual images there for public access.

The indexes and images of those records will also be viewable at LDS Family History Centers, as well as at FamilySearch.org.

Anderson said "numerous other national and international projects" of a similar nature are now under development and will be announced as agreements are signed or data is published.

As a result of the "affiliate arrangement," Anderson said FamilySearch.org will "have all the indexes for everything. You can think of it more or less like a Google — you go there to find the source of information you're looking for. Sometimes we're the source, and sometimes a third party is the source."

At least one or two similar agreements are expected to be announced this week in Virginia, Anderson said, noting several of the church's family history specialists are presenting at the conference this week.

While some Web sites may eventually use their information as a money-making enterprise, as commercial family history companies now do, Anderson said the church is not charging partners to help them make their records available.

Church officials have been looking to form such partnerships "for some time now," Anderson said, but have had to push forward the development of technology that would allow it to happen with "the way we scan, photo, transfer and archive. Because some of the necessary technology wasn't available, we had to develop it ourselves."

Working with a scanner producer, the church helped develop high-speed scanners that can scan a roll of microfilm in "a couple of minutes," as opposed to an hour or more that traditional scanners required.

New software developed to process that information into images and make it ready for processing, as well as to manage the warehousing of such huge information banks, also had to be created, Anderson said. "Almost every step of the way, there were significant engineering projects or hardware that needed to be developed."

Now that the technology is in place, the Records Access project will mean "at least 20 billion unique new names that will be in those records (to be posted online), but I'm not uncomfortable saying it could be 80 billion." That's compared with a total of about 5 billion names now online, he said.

The new technology and resulting "affiliate" agreements through FamilySearch will "fundamentally change people's ability to find their ancestors and connect with their families online. It's just going to be a real watershed event," Anderson said.

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