Since 1894, the Church has been compiling, preserving and providing access to the world’s genealogy records, pioneering the use of microfilm as a records preservation tool beginning in 1938 and amassing over the years a collection of billions of images of historic records.
As microfilm was superseded by digital photography, the Church’s FamilySearch genealogical service has been at the forefront in use of that technological tool as well.
Now FamilySearch is observing a milestone: Early this week it announced the online publication of its 1 billionth image of historic records, a feat that took only seven years to achieve.
Paul Nauta, public affairs manager at FamilySearch, puts it in a historic context.
“It took us 46 years to publish our first billion images on microfilm,” he noted, “and 12 years to publish our second billion images on microfilm. We began in 2007 to put digital images online, and it took us seven years to publish our first billion images digitally. We suspect it will probably take just around half that time to do the next billion images.”
No other organization — including the Library of Congress or the National Archives — comes even close to having a billion historical records online, he said, though social media sites like Facebook and Flickr can boast of having over a billion photos contributed by users.
“A single digital image can have several historic records on it,” explained Rod DeGiulio, director of FamilySearch Records Division, “which means there are actually billions of records in our image collections online for people to discover and volunteers to index.”
Of the images preserved digitally so far, approximately 70 percent have been converted from microfilm stored over the past half century at the Church’s Granite Mountain Record Vault, a remarkable facility excavated from solid rock near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon southeast of Salt Lake City. Another 25 percent of the images have been captured by camera crews sent out by the Church to various locales around the world. And 5 percent come from partnerships formed between FamilySearch and various national, state, municipal and religious archives.
In fact, the 1 billionth image came from such a partnership, with an archive in Peru that houses civil registration documents.
The partnerships are a growing trend, where archives are becoming more interested in opening their collections to preservation by FamilySearch.
“They’re seeking us out now, instead of us seeking them out,” said Jennifer Davis of the FamilySearch Records Division. “They want a low-cost or no-cost option to their records preservation.”
“So it’s a win-win for them,” Brother Nauta added. “They get to preserve their records digitally as a safeguard in case of damage or destruction because of natural disaster, civil conflict or whatever it might be.”
Moreover, the archives see the partnership with FamilySearch as a cost-saving innovation, as the archive can make the records available to patrons online, often referring them to the FamilySearch.org website.
To date, FamilySearch has worked with more than 10,000 archives in more than 100 countries.
The work of digital records preservation is being hastened by a dramatic reduction in the cost to store digital content and by the speed at which digital images can be downloaded to computer databases, Brother Nauta noted. Ten years ago, he said, it cost $1.24 to store digital images on a single gigabyte of memory; today, the cost is less than 3 cents.
FamilySearch currently has 10 petabytes of storage. A single petabyte amounts to a million gigabytes of memory, which would be about what it would take to store the holdings of the Library of Congress.
“So we could put the equivalent of 10 Libraries of Congress in our online collection,” he said.
He added that it takes 23 hundredths of a second to upload an image to a computer today; 10 years ago, it would have taken 32 seconds.
Of digital images preserved by FamilySearch, the bulk are civil registration records — birth, marriage and death records — kept by governments for taxing purposes, Sister Davis explained. Other types of records that comprise major portions of the collection are church, military, probate, census and immigration records.
“It used to take us 18 months to two years from the time that we went into an archive, took a microfilm capture of an image and then went through the whole process to make a copy of it, check it for quality, catalog it and get it into our system for distribution to local family history centers,” Brother Nauta said. “With digital preservation, we can be in a remote archive today and possibly in two weeks have that image published online.”
Still, it is a complicated process. “There is a need for volunteers locally — those capable of traveling or working online from home — who are willing to help FamilySearch fulfill its agreements with archives to preserve the world’s historic records and make them freely searchable online,” Brother Nauta said.
“It’s kind of fun to think that all these records that were once hidden to the world are now being revealed,” he said.
“And the benefit of that to everybody,” Sister Davis said, “is that they don’t have to go to a foreign land to research them. They can do it sitting at their computer at home, at any hour of the day or night. That’s why we do what we can, beefing up our technology to make these records readily available — to make things easier, faster, better for the people that use our website.”
Family-history enthusiasts can benefit from the work by going online to FamilySearch.org, registering for a free account and using the “Search” feature to explore indexed records and the “Browse All Collections” feature to search for digital images of ancestral records. Website visitors are then encouraged to add their records to the FamilySearch Family Tree online.