Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

RootsTech, FamilySearch, where are we today?

Who benefits the most from the dramatic changes at FamilySearch and in the upcoming RootsTech Conference? That's easy, those who are aware of what is going on. FamilySearch is not a side-show, it is the show right now. The changes at FamilySearch combine a number of factors that work together to make FamilySearch the most valuable online resource available today. Too much attention is being focused on comparing FamilySearch to existing databases and not enough to looking at the whole picture of the value of FamilySearch to the genealogical community.

From day to day, you might read reports about the huge numbers of digitized records going into the Historical Record Collections, but you seldom read about the infrastructure that supports all those records and the other changes being made to make the records not just "online" but accessible. So here's a shot at an overview of how all this works.

First, the parts that go into making up the FamilySearch genealogical resources. The core product is the collection of 2.4+ million rolls of microfilm stored in the Granite Vault outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. Next is the project to digitize all those records. The digitized records then go online in the Historical Record Collections. A number of Bloggers, including me, announce the additions to these collections as the millions upon millions of records go online. But remember, all of these records have already been available through microfilm rental. Don't get me wrong, the availability of these records online and for free is revolutionary to the genealogical community, but most of these records have already been "available" for years. What is the key to this whole process of moving records online is a system of describing the records in a way that makes them even more "available." That process is being handled by the FamilySearch Research Wiki. By the time you read this, there will be over 62,000 articles in the Research Wiki about genealogical resources, how-to do genealogy, where to go for help and other topics. But the core value of the Research Wiki lies in the fact that it is a meta-catalog for all the online Historical Record Collections.

Every time a Collection is added to's Historical Record Collections, there is a page/article created in the Research Wiki describing the collection in detail. The descriptions contain all or some of the following information, where available:
  • Collection Time Period
  • Record Description
  • Notes About the Collection
  • Record Content
  • How to Use the Record
  • Record History
  • Why this Record Was Created
  • Record Reliability
  • Related Websites
  • Related Wiki Articles
  • Contributions to This Article
  • Citing FamilySearch Historical Collections
  • Sources of Information for This Collection
As the Research Wiki grows, each of the Collections will be integrated into all of the other related online sources with explanations about how the different sources are interrelated. Historical Record Collections are not just a huge pile of data but an integrated, planned, effort to organize all of the records in an accessible way.

But there is much, much more. For many years, the collection efforts of FamilySearch have been utilizing digital capture high resolution cameras. So instead of making more microfilm, the images being gathered throughout the world produce digital images. Millions of those images are making their way directly to in addition to the digitization of the previously available images from microfilm. These records are also integrated into the Wiki and thus the whole system.

The key to the older images, in the past, has always been the Family History Library Catalog, the main catalog to all the microfilms. The Family History Library Catalog is also online. The catalog lists the microfilm records yet to be digitized as well as those that are already online. But the catalog entries have never contained the detail of information made available in the Research Wiki about the films i.e. Collections of records now going online. But the Catalog is still a hugely valuable online resource, not usually used to its full value.

The huge Indexing project conducted by FamilySearch is providing accurate indexes to the Historical Record Collections. Unfortunately, the Indexing project although huge, will take many years to completely index all of the records. I say unfortunately, because of the value of the indexes. As the number of volunteers doing Indexing increases, the value of the indexes will also increase.

If all that were not enough, FamilySearch and BYU are digitizing family history related books from their collection as well as from other libraries. These books show up in the Family History Library Catalog as available online.

This massive effort to make the microfilms, digitized records and books available takes huge amounts of support. In addition, there are issues with individual family trees. To address part of that problem, FamilySearch made a first attempt at integrating many of its existing user contributed family tree collections in to a massive billion name+ database called This product has dropped off the media radar lately, but is still growing and developing. Earlier this year, FamilySearch indicated that a substantial re-write of the program was in progress. I would expect that re-write to radically alter the way the records are presented and allow user corrections to existing records. At some point, the New FamilySearch product will be integrated into

Support for all of this work is being developed in the FamilySearch Forums, the Help Center and at the local Family History Centers. For example, the Family History Centers have all been asked to have a local Wiki trainer, to instruct the public and volunteers about the Wiki.

That brings us to RootsTech. The idea here is to attract innovation and improvements to the whole system. So in a sense, the motor that drives all of the changes gets charged and fueled by the participation of the genealogical and technical communities.

Just thought you might want to know what was going on. There is a lot more detail, of course. There are projects like TechTips that have so far had little exposure. Community Trees is another project that bears notice and use. Just keep watching, FamilySearch will change faster than you can believe.

1 comment:

  1. James, thanks for the behind the scenes update and an overview of what is happening with FamilySearch.

    See you at Rootstech!