Monday, July 14, 2008

Family History Library Catalog 2.0

Remarks by Paul Allen (The Lesser) by paulballen
This morning at a very small press conference in Kansas City at the National Genealogical Society annual conference we made a very large announcement.

In fact, we announced something that I have personally hoped for and dreamed of for more than a decade.

Today we announced a partnership between FamilySearch and to publish the Family History Library Catalog -- the largest single database of genealogy sources in the world -- in Web 2.0 fashion.

This means that individual genealogists, librarians, archivists, and others from around the world will be able, when the Catalog 2.0 comes online in the coming months, to enhance and extend the value of the catalog. Users will be able to add new sources that are currently in the library catalog, and thus extend its scope of coverage. They will be able to improve the source descriptions, and even rate and review sources as to their usefulness.

Whenever a source listed in the catalog has been digitized, and exists somewhere online, there will be links created to the digital version by users or through automation technology that will utilize.

The catalog lists millions of sources from more than a hundred countries, including more than 2 million rolls of microfilm. genealogy guide Kimberly Powell calls it the "gem of the Family History Library," and "the best resource on the FamilySearch web site."

The Genealogical Society of Utah has been microfilming valuable records from all over the world since 1939. The catalog lists all of these films, and organizes them by locality and record type. Some of the records that have been filmed have since been destroyed by war or accident, and so the films become the only surviving copy of the valuable records. And the films themselves are preserved in the famous Granite Mountain Vault. The catalog also lists books, periodicals, maps, and all kinds of other holdings in the world's largest family history library (in Salt Lake City) that would otherwise be unknown and unused.

As I said earlier, I have wanted to work with the catalog for more than a decade. I think it is one of the most valuable tools in the world for family history, and I think it can become more accessible and more useful to millions of people worldwide, who don't yet know that it exists or how to best use it.

When we founded in 1996-97, our vision was to digitize the genealogical records in all nations and make them available online. We saw the catalog playing a key role in that vision.

I had started a Masters Degree program at BYU in Library Science back in 1990 (although I had to drop out early to focus on my electronic pubishing business.) I have a great respect for libraries and library science. After all, the accessibility to most of the world's information, prior to the internet, came because of the organizational skills and care of libraries and archives around the world.

I had also watched as the founders of Yahoo began to turn an online classification system for web sites into a multi-billion dollar company. Until Google came along, Yahoo was the most valuable of all web sites. Why? Because it catalogued all the rest. It could be the starting point for all queries, even before search had been perfected, when browsing was one of the dominant activities on the web.

We made several attempts over the years to see if we might be able to license and publish the catalog. But the timing must not have been right. Until Web 2.0 and social networking came on the scene, I'm not sure what value we would have been able to add to it, so our attempts were not successful.

But today, I'm overjoyed that my new company,, will have the privilege of working with this precious asset in partnership with FamilySearch, to develop the next generation version of the catalog, that will become more comprehensive, more open, more accurate, and provide more intelligent, algorithmic guidance to sources for family historians worldwide.

Since only a tiny fraction of the known genealogical content in the world is in digital format today, the catalog serves an incredibly valuable purpose, directing researchers to offline sources including microfims that contain the answers they are looking for. (And those microfilms can be accessed from over 4,500 family history centers around the world, for a very small fee.)

As more and more sources become transcribed or digitized, the catalog will directly link to the online version, whether they exist on,,,,, or on Google Books, Microsoft Live Books, USGenWeb, WorldGenWeb, or other web sites, saving researchers countless time.

The new catalog, which will be available via both and in the future, may become the single best starting point for family history searches, the way Yahoo used to be the best place to find any web site, and may help any researcher quickly see which sources will help the most, and which other researchers have used those sources previously.

This project will bring the "wisdom of the crowds" to genealogy in a way that has never been possible before, showing which of the sources for any locality in the world ought to be consulted, and in what order.

I want to thank everyone who made this announcement possible, including those who have worked on the catalog for many years to make it the wonderful resource that it already is, and those who have been designing the next version of it, as well as the decision makers at FamilySearch who believe with us in what is possible for this catalog.

In addition to what has been described above, how would you like to see the catalog enhanced? What would make it most useful to you personally, or to your institution?

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