Friday, January 30, 2009

At-Home Indexing Rapidly Increasing Genealogical Records Access

“In 30 minutes you can help people find their ancestors.” That’s the promise prominently displayed on the front page of the Web site. Since the indexing program began, over 150,000 people have volunteered to help make genealogical research easier for others and thousands more are volunteering each month.

Family history indexing is the simple process of extracting names from digital images of historical documents and creating online searchable indexes from the previously gathered information. FamilySearch has provided a way for anyone with an Internet connection to assist in the monumental task of indexing genealogical records. The initiative is working, and rapidly expanding the number of records easily accessible.

The bulk of two and a half million of rolls of microfilm, all housed in the Granite Mountain Record Vault near Salt Lake City, are scanned and converted to digital images by high speed processors, and then indexed by volunteers on home computers to eventually provide easy access online. “At the current rate of scanning,” reports Paul Nauta, FamilySearch Manager of Public Affairs, “it will take between eight and ten years to complete the microfilm scanning.” The records collection contains significant historical records such as numerous censuses and birth, christening, marriage and death records from more than 110 countries; the records are then organized in meaningful lots that will serve as one indexing project, such as the 1900 U. S. Census.

According to Nauta, more than 150,000 volunteers, of all ages with access to any online connection, download a selected project or batch and transcribe each entry to an index. The work is resulting in hundreds of millions of names being added to genealogical databases—about a million per day. The online application is also available in Spanish.

A million names in a year, all indexed in the processing system, seems like a realistic goal for Leslie Dicou of Salem, Utah, who has the assignment in her local congregation at Brigham Young University to encourage fellows members to do genealogical work. Implementing a FamilySearch indexing project seemed timely for Dicou.

“We needed a direction in family history for our students,” Dicou recalled in describing her plan. “Indexing is the perfect answer for making a genealogy impact on our students. The students come and go quickly; some stay with us only a few months and others for two to three years. I thought if we taught them indexing, they could get involved in family history work quickly; it only takes a few minutes to learn the computer process and the actual work can also be done in small increments of time.”

Kimberly Seegmiller, Provo, Utah, accepted Dicou’s challenge; she indexes every day during her baby’s nap. “However long she sleeps, that’s how long I index. When I prioritize like this, it’s amazing how much I can accomplish during a day,” the young mother reported. Daniel Stewart, another member of the student congregation, often holds his toddler as he works on the data processing. “My son’s learned how to press the ‘enter’ key,” Stewart said, “so we’re teaching him family history as well. My wife, Rosemarie, and I are hooked on indexing—you can immediately see the results of the work you did. That doesn’t always happen with other genealogical research.”

Other advantages to the indexing work surface. Nauta noted that volunteers become better overall researchers as they become more familiar with the historical documents available and with the type of information each contains. Seegmiller admits that her indexing resembles a treasure hunt as she unravels the unusual handwriting or the unique locations described in a document. Stewart, who’s worked on records from a particular Mexican state, now knows the geography of the area as well as cultural mores defining how specific names are entered on a record or how a family group is organized. “These details form a pattern, and once you uncover that pattern, you are much more efficient at the indexing,” he explained.

Dicou emphasizes the ease of the whole indexing process. “To participate as a volunteer, you simply sign up at, click through a tutorial provided in both English and Spanish and then select the project you want to work on. There’s an online help desk if you have questions, or you could go to a local family history center and get individual instruction. Once you are online, you recognize that the work of one person makes a contribution, no matter how much time they have to give.”

“If a hundred thousand people indexed only five names—which would only take a few minutes,” Nauta said, “that’s 500,000 names we didn’t have before – and that’s a chunk of progress in processing those millions of microfilms!”

From early in its history, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged its members to research their family history. In 1894 the Genealogical Society of Utah (now FamilySearch International) was established for that purpose. Recognizing that millions of people throughout the world have their own reasons to be interested in family history, the Church makes its collections of microfilmed and digitized records freely available to everyone.

No comments: