Taking Initiative

Taking Initiative

FamilySearch leads an advance in online roots research.

After several years of progressing at a sedate pace – during which data providers focused more on expanding record collections than improving usability – the online genealogy industry is waking up. Who’s doing the prodding? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), with initiatives that promise researchers convenient, low- or no-cost access to ancestral information.

A tornado of press releases, many issued during May’s National Genealogical Society Conference in Richmond, Va., announced these developments. We’ll calm that news whirlwind with an in-depth look at the online initiatives and how they’ll affect your research.

Yes, we scan

Now, you have to cool your heels for four or more weeks while the LDS church’s Salt Lake City-based Family History Library fulfills your requests to borrow microfilm. Digitized records, though, could be posted online or e-mailed, slashing your wait.

Back in September 2005, the church announced FamilySearch Scanning, its project to digitize the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm stored in the temperature- and humidity-controlled Granite Mountain records vault. But new, high-tech scanning equipment has drastically cut the time frame. “Current projections are under 10 years to scan the films we have rights to do – and that’s the bulk of the collection,” says FamilySearch spokesperson Paul Nauta. “We’re also close to having replaced our 200-plus cameras in the field from [micro] film to digital. That means we’ll be acquiring future documents ‘digitally at birth.’” After scanning the films, digitizers burn the digitized record images onto DVDs. The microfilm – made of polyester, a relatively stable material – will remain in the vault.

Group effort

Of course, all those record images won’t be much good if you can’t search them. The LDS church recognized the volunteer potential in millions of genealogists hungry for online information, and developed Web-based software that lets users index digitized records with minimal training and time investment.

FamilySearch Indexing is the largest volunteer effort of its kind already,” says Nauta, who reported 50,000 volunteers in July with a goal of 100,000 at year’s end. Projects include the 1900 US census and marriages in several states. “Our focus will be on high-return record sets such as censuses, civil registrations and other vital records,” Nauta adds.

To minimize errors, two volunteers index each record. If their transcriptions don’t match, an “arbitrator” with expertise in that record set makes the final call. You’ll be able to search the indexes free online at FamilySearch <www.familysearch.org>; a test search is available at FamilySearch Labs <labs.familysearch.org>. (Register with the site to be notified when indexes are added.) Interested in volunteering? See <www.familysearchindexing.org>.

Easy access

Last spring, the LDS church expanded its scanning and indexing efforts to other repositories with FamilySearch Records Access. FamilySearch Records Services, formerly the Genealogical Society of Utah, digitizes an archive’s records, and the archive (or a third party) indexes them – in most cases, using the FamilySearch Indexing system.

The archive publishes the indexes and images online, with an option to charge a small fee for the latter. Indexes will be free on FamilySearch; both indexes and images will be free at most of the LDS church’s 4,500 worldwide Family History Centers. (Church press releases have begun referring to the centers as FamilySearch facilities, but an official name change hasn’t been announced.)

The commercial database Footnote <footnote.com> jumped on board right away to preserve the National Archives and Records Administration’s <archives.gov> Revolutionary War pension records. The Ohio Genealogical Society <www.ogs.org> is rallying members to index 19th-century Ohio tax records. “Historical and genealogical societies are awesome to work with because they’re particularly meticulous about preservation value,” Nauta says. He also praises their desire to index a broad spectrum of information in source documents.

With its scanning, indexing and access initiatives, FamilySearch is both setting the pace for online research growth and enabling commercial and nonprofit genealogy organizations to keep up. Your family tree will grow, too.

Not Too Taxing

About 300 volunteers in Ohio are only too happy to work on taxes – from the 1800s, that is. The Ohio Genealogical Society is heading up a FamilySearch Indexing project for tax records from seven counties dating as far back as 1825.

“When FamilySearch approached us about taking this on, we saw it as a way to participate in something exciting and visible,” says project coordinator Amy Johnson Crow. “And it gives our members a way to be involved in the society.”

Volunteers use their own computers to index digitized records in batches, each of which takes about 30 minutes. “They can do it at 6:30 in the morning or 11 at night; they can do one or a hundred batches,” Crow says. They’ve found using the indexing system easy, she adds, though making out the old handwriting can be a challenge. “Sometimes you’ll come across a tax collector who wrote in chicken scratch.” That’s where the arbitrator comes in.

The index, which will be on FamilySearch and the OGS Web site, will show names and places from personal and real property tax records. The original records may also list acreage, tax rate, location, and property such as cows and horses.

From the November 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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