Genealogical Society: A century of steady growth and development

Here are some facts pertaining to the Genealogical Society of Utah. They are taken mostly from a lecture delivered Nov. 11 in Salt Lake City by Kahlile B. Mehr as part of the genealogical society's Centennial Lecture Series. He is a supervisor in the Church Family History Department and co-author of a book soon to be available, Hearts Turned to the Fathers: a History of the Genealogical Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1894-1994.

The Genealogical Society of Utah and the Family History Department of the Church are one and the same. The society was organized in 1894 as a separate institution from the Church. In 1944 the Genealogical Society of Utah became more closely affiliated with the Church as the Genealogical Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1975 it became the Genealogical Department of the Church and has since been renamed the Family History Department.The Church retained rights to the name Genealogical Society of Utah and does family-history-related business under that name with major genealogical and family history societies, government agencies and archives.

Susa Young Gates, a daughter of Brigham Young, initiated the first family history class work in the Church. In September 1906, she lectured at the Lion House on family history. With Elizabeth McCune she toured the Church in Canada and Utah urging the Saints to become genealogically involved. In 1912, she compiled the first family history text in the Church, Lessons in Genealogy. The first edition sold out within a year.

An oratorio, Salvation for the Dead, prepared by Elder John Widtsoe and B. Cecil Gates, was sung by the Tabernacle Choir in 1923.

In 1936 the society produced a special pageant honoring the centennial of Elijah's visit to the Kirtland Temple.

The first large microfilming project outside of Utah began in Tennessee in October 1939, under the direction of L. Garrett Myers and Ernst Koehler. Their filming center and library was a hotel room. Fearing camera problems because of vibrations from a big fan in the hotel's kitchen, Brother Koehler filmed between 10 at night and early morning. The bathtub became the processor and a clothesline the film dryer.

Today, there are over 200 microfilm cameras in the world acquiring approximately 100 million exposures, or about 60,000 new rolls of microfilm annually. The total collection is about 1.9 million rolls and over 2 billion exposures.

Original microfilm exposures - from which copies are made and distributed to the Family History Library and family history centers - are stored in the Granite Mountain Records Vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon in southeast Salt Lake County, the same canyon from which stone was quarried for the Salt Lake Temple.

There are approximately 2,200 family history centers worldwide, augmenting the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The backbone of the system is volunteer service.

The first name-extraction program originated in August 1961 out of the need to find and process enough names to keep the temples operational. Originally called the Record Tabulation Program (R-TAB), it consisted of society employees transcribing names from English parish registers. They extracted 4 million names from 1,500 registers in the first five years of the program.

In 1969, the Society introduced a comprehensive computer system called Genealogical Information and Names Tabulation (GIANT) to automate all names submission. It was designed to detect duplicates and confirm unique information with little human intervention. For the next 20 years, it functioned as the primary names processing system and led to creation of the world's largest name database, the International Genealogical Index.

In 1978, the work of record extraction was given to the stakes after a pilot program functioned successfully in the St. George Utah and St. George Utah East stakes in 1977. Initially Church members working under Stake Record Extraction only did the manual portion of filling out cards, but as personal computers became more available, the function of data entry was also given to the stakes.

The Ancestral File was announced in 1979 with a request that Church members submit family group sheets back at least four generations to feed a central computer file of genealogical research. By the target date in 1981, 100,000 submissions had been received.

Through the 1980s, the Ancestral File was programmed and in 1990, finally distributed Churchwide as part of FamilySearch, a package of computerized research tools. Since then, the file has grown from 7 million to 21 million names. It is the beginning point for anyone interested in knowing what research has been done on ancestral lines so as to avoid retracing what is already known.

The Family Record Extraction Program, beginning in 1988, involved anyone with a desire to serve. Volunteers, in the comfort of their homes, copied information from pre-1970 temple records for automation. (Post-1970 records were already available on the GIANT system.) By 1993, the project was virtually completed, with the automation of about 30 million ordinance records. The program has since been merged with stake record extraction, and continues to index many other valuable family history sources.

TempleReady, a means whereby researched names can be instantly cleared for temple work by using computers at local points, was approved by the First Presidency in May 1989, piloted beginning in July 1990, and given to all English-language stakes in the Church in November 1993.


Nov. 13 was the centennial of the founding of the Genealogical Society of Utah, known today as the Church Family History Department. A commemorative program, presented in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, was covered in last week's Church News, with reports of addresses by each member of the First Presidency and by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve.

This week, additional information with photos is presented pertaining to the centennial of family history research, which has resulted in increased temple work, a latter-day fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi. 4:5-6.

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