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Golden anniversary of microfilming

"I see the records of the dead and their histories gathered from every nation under heaven to one great central library in Zion - the largest and best equipped for its particular work in the world." - Nephi Anderson

This statement, when it was first uttered in 1911, must have seemed like a passage from an H.G. Wells novel.It would be almost three decades before the advent of microfilming, the technological advancement that would make possible the fulfillment of the prediction by Anderson, former assistant secretary of the Genealogical Society of Utah (now the Church Family History Department).

With today's perspective, the prediction makes sense, especially to anyone who has visited the Church Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the largest repository of genealogical information in the world, or any of the hundreds of family history centers throughout the world supported by the library's collection.

Today, more than 2 billion names of deceased people from some 150 countries are contained on microfilm stored at the Church's Granite Mountain Records Vault, east of Salt Lake Valley, reported Richard W. Ebert Jr., Acquisitions Division director in the Family History Department. The records form the basis of research that supplies the Church's 41 operating temples with names of people for whom vicarious temple ordinances are performed, giving those who have died the opportunity for eternal exaltation.

The impact of microfilming on the work of redeeming the dead was stated simply, yet directly, by Thomas E. Daniels, public relations manager for the Family History Department: "If it were not for microfilming, we wouldn't be where we are today. We wouldn't be able to meet the needs of temple workT without the advent of microfilming and its growth."

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Church's microfilming efforts. To mark the occasion, some of the original microfilming equipment is on display at the Family History Library, along with historical photos.

Also in observance of the golden anniversary, personnel in the Family History and Temple departments gathered for a meeting in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square Nov. 16, where they witnessed an audio-visual presentation covering the history of microfilming in the Church and heard talks from President Howard W. Hunter and Elders Boyd K. Packer, James E. Faust and Dallin H. Oaks of the Council of the Twelve.

In the 1930s, the Genealogical Society of Utah had already begun to maintain a library of genealogical records. But acquisition was painfully slow, depending chiefly on correspondence with archives in foreign countries to obtain extracts from records.

The technology of microfilming was in its infancy, its primary application being the preservation of financial records in business and the transportation of scholarly documents overseas, according to Kahlile Mehr, cataloging supervisor with the Family History Department and author of a master's thesis, Preserving the Source - Early Microfilming Efforts of the Genealogical Society of Utah.

Ernst Koehler, a convert to the Church from Germany, a researcher with the society, and a photographer by trade, became intensely interested in the possibilities of microfilming. He experimented with the medium and kept the society leadership - including Elders John A. Widtsoe and Joseph Fielding Smith of the Council of the Twelve - informed about its advancements.

"The real catalyst to launching a microfilming program was a visit by James Kirkham, a member of the society's board, to Europe in 1938," Mehr said in a Church News interview. "He visited most of the major archives. There was one program he observed that the society had been aware of. The German government had been microfilming church parish registers since 1935. Their microfilming program was principally to create another paper copy, simply a way to reproduce the records for the central library.

"After Kirkham came back from Europe there was serious discussion about the society beginning its own microfilming program."

Although undertaken for an ungodly and racist purpose determination of pure "Aryan" ancestry of government officials the Nazi government's microfilming program would unintentionally facilitate post-war acquisition of records by the Church. After World War II, Genealogical Society representatives, notably Paul Langheinrich, found many records hidden in abandoned mines and old castles. With tenuous approval from Russian occupation forces, the records were gathered and microfilmed by representatives of the society.

Impeded at first by World War II and a lack of funding, the society's microfilming efforts blossomed after the war, Mehr wrote in his thesis. "In whirlwind visits to the eastern United States and Europe, Archibald F. Bennett [general secretary of the societyT negotiated for decades of filming. Archivists helped to overcome religious opposition to a theologically motivated work for the sake of preserving the records; and the cameras were set in place, one by one, state by state, country by country."

Summarizing the factors leading to success of the microfilming program, Mehr wrote: "The timing was perfect. World War II spurred the development of microfilm technology, demonstrated the need to protect records, and wiped out the monetary resources of European archives. The society brought the technology, offered to do what the archives wanted to have done, and offered to do it at no cost to them.

"The financial support of the First Presidency was crucial to the ability of the society to make such financially unprofitable deals. Hesitant at first to fund a program whose cost appeared astronomical, the First Presidency backed it with unexpected beneficence when they saw its worth to the spiritual purposes of the Church. Religious opposition might have abruptly terminated filming in many places, but the civil control of many religious records was providential, and permission was granted contrary to ecclesiastical objections. As important as these circumstances were, the catalyst to the success of the program was the vision and determination of men such as Koehler, Bennett, [L. GarrettT Myers, [JamesT Black and many other committed individuals who worked more for a purpose than for a salary. Underpinning the whole was the religious goal shared by those involved in the work to aid the salvation of those whose names could be found in the records."

The 1950s and 1960s saw astronomical advances in the microfilming activity of the Church. It became the premiere such program in the world. Filming spread from England, Scandinavia and Germany to other countries in Europe, as well as to Mexico, South America and elsewhere.

At the same time, usage of the films increased as improved facilities and the introduction of a system of branch libraries (now called family history centers) made film copies more accessible to Church members researching their genealogy.

In 1962, employees began to extract names directly from microfilmed records for temple ordinance work to alleviate a critical shortage in available names. That effort was the forerunner of today's stake record extraction programs.

A landmark event was completion in 1964 of the Granite Mountain Records Vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon, east of Salt Lake City. Excavated from a solid rock slab in the mountain, the vault helps secure the records from the ravages of disasters such as earthquakes, fires and war.

Filming has ebbed and flowed over the years (See graph on this page.), influenced by such factors as funding and events such as the world conferences on records in 1969 and 1980.

"One factor is that the General Authorities feel inspired from time to time to send our people into one country or another to gather the records while they're still available," Daniels pointed out. "In some areas, circumstances present a clear and present danger to the records. As long as we have resources available, those resources are assigned to the maximum."

"Right now, the Lord is blessing us with tremendous success," said Ebert, director of the Acquisitions Division. "We are now in a position to reap the benefits of 50 years worth of cultivation. We presently have about 200 projects of filming in more than 40 countries. In the last few years, production has gone from 37 million exposures in 1985 to this year's projection of 80 million to 90 million exposures."

Recent successes include the beginning in 1983 of microfilming in the People's Republic of China, and joint ventures with some of the major Catholic dioceses in Poland, Ebert said.

He estimated that one-third of the pre-1900 records that have been identified by the department have been gathered. Acquisition is occurring much more rapidly now, he said, and it will probably take 20-30 years to gather the other two-thirds. Within the next 12-20 years there will probably be as many additional records acquired as in the first 50 years, he added. "We have seen the usage of our films increase dramatically," he commented. "We now print about 7,000 miles of film per year that goes out to the main library and to family history centers."

For the time being, microfilm remains the most economical medium for record preservation, Ebert said. But there may come a day when such technological wizardry as lasers and digital computers are used. Computer-aided image enhancement of existing records may make them much more accessible for research and temple ordinance work.

Ebert said the single greatest factor, both in filming of the records and in usage of the films, is that the Lord seems to be turning the hearts of people to their fathers.

"We can put out all kinds of excellent finding aids and indexes as well as provide all kinds of records, but unless the hearts of the members are touched, it will not make a lot of difference. The key to success is the hearts of the members."

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