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A century of progress in family history work

When President Gordon B. Hinckley stood in the international media spotlight last month and announced the new FamilySearch Internet Genealogy Service, the occasion culminated an epic string of events, not just in this century but this gospel dispensation.

The new service makes the cumulative results of more than 100 years of genealogical research in the world accessible to anyone with a computer and modem.

It seems fitting that an event of such magnitude would occur near the end of the 20th Century. For the grand movement to gather the records of the world's dead in order to provide the ordinances of salvation for them did not commence in earnest until just before the dawn of this century.

"It is likely that more has been accomplished in the last 100 years to effect the redemption of the dead than in all the prior centuries of the earth's history," said Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Presidency of the Seventy.

"It has been a glorious advance, yet it is only a beginning, and the need to hasten and expand the reach of this redemptive work is every day more apparent," added Elder Christofferson, executive director of the Family History Department. The doctrinal stage for this work was set in the 19th Century, beginning with divine revelations and visitations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith early in the Restoration.

"Come ye . . . and build a house to my name, for the Most High to dwell therein," the Lord commanded on Jan. 19, 1841. "For a baptismal font there is not upon the earth, that they, my saints, may be baptized for those who are dead." (D&C 124: 26-27, 29.)

Fifty-three years later, President Wilford Woodruff received a revelation affirming the importance of sealing family members together under priesthood authority and the duty of the Saints to trace their lineages for this purpose.

Accordingly, the Church founded the Genealogical Society of Utah on Nov. 13, 1894.

If there were ever any lack of clarity about the vision and objective of the society, it would have been dispelled by a statement that Nephi Anderson, one of the founders, made in January 1912:

"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 in the nations, but in Zion will be the records of the last resort and authority. Trained genealogists will find constant work in all nations having unpublished records, searching among the archives for families and family connections. Then, as temples multiply, and the work enlarges to its ultimate proportions, this Society, or some organization growing out of this Society, will have in its care some elaborate, but perfect system of exact registration and checking, so that the work in the temples may be conducted without confusion or duplication. And so throughout the years, reaching into the Millennium of peace, this work of salvation will go on, until every worthy soul that can be found from early records will have been searched out and officiated for; and then the unseen world will come to our aid, the broken links will be joined, the tangled threads will be placed in order, and the purposes of God in placing salvation within the reach of all will have been consummated." ("Genealogy's Place in the Plan Salvation," Utah Genealogical and Historical Quarterly, January 1912, pp. 21-22.)

History since then has borne out Brother Anderson's predictions.

From information provided to the Church News by Kahlile B. Mehr under the direction of the Family History Department, summarized from the book Hearts Turned to the Fathers, a History of the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1894-1994, it is clear that the Genealogical Society of Utah and its successor organizations have, in this century, facilitated the redemption of the dead in three major ways:

1. Promoting research and providing access to sources.

At its foundation the society established a library to assist those who could come to Salt Lake City to do research. The library today, in a building dedicated in 1985 specifically for that purpose, houses the premier collection of family history records in the world, consisting of almost 300,000 books and more than 2 million rolls of microfilmed materials from virtually all nations.

Microfilming technology was first applied to the acquisition and storage of genealogical records. Revolutionary to say the least, it is used today more extensively than ever. Records on microfilm compiled over the decades were the basis for subsequent record extraction programs and for the computer database indexes administered today by the Family History Department. Microfilm copies provide worldwide access to the Family History Library's main collection in Salt Lake City via 3,400 family history centers in 65 countries and territories.

By the 1930s, the society had already begun a library of genealogical records, but acquisition was painfully slow. Ernst Kohler, a convert to the Church from Germany, a researcher with the society and a photographer by trade, experimented with the microfilm, keeping society officers — including Elders John A. Widtsoe and Joseph Fielding Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve — apprised of his efforts.

Brother Kohler developed the procedures and quality control that set the standard of excellence for the society's microfilming. He developed a magazine that could handle unperforated film, leaving more space for a copy image and making it possible to photograph both pages of an open book at once. He fashioned a book cradle that eliminated shadows and evened out the surface of a bound volume to assure a better focus on all portions of the exposure while minimizing damage to the book spine. Most significantly of all, he developed processing solutions that increased the permanence of the film image, adjudged by Eastman Kodak scientists at the time as the best system of processing available.

The first large microfilming project outside of Utah was undertaken in Tennessee in October 1939 under the direction of Brother Kohler and L. Garrett Myers. Their hotel room was their filming center and laboratory. To avoid camera problems caused by vibrations from a big fan in the hotel kitchen, Brother Kohler filmed between 10 p.m. and early morning. The hotel room bathtub was the processor, and a clothesline was the film dryer.

Early filming efforts were impeded by the onset of World War II and the resultant shortage of silver for film. But after the war, the efforts blossomed, as Archibald F. Bennett, secretary and head librarian of the society from 1928-61, negotiated for decades of filming in Europe and the eastern United States. Thus began a pattern of win-win agreements, in which government archivists, eager to have their records permanently preserved free of charge, cooperated with the society.

(A prolific author and educator, Brother Bennett developed the Pedigree Chart and Family Group Record used today by nearly all American genealogists. He was elected to the National Genealogy Hall of Fame in 1994.)

One of the more dramatic stories in this saga concerns post-war microfilming efforts. Paul Langheinrich, a counselor in the East German Mission presidency, sought and received tenuous approval from Russian occupation forces to retrieve genealogical records hidden by the Nazi regime in abandoned castles and salt mines. While microfilming in Wolfsgruen, Saxony, Germany, Brother Langheinrich and his family were not permitted to obtain ration cards because their permanent residence was in Berlin. They depended upon weekly food shipments from Latter-day Saints in Berlin. After some of the shipments were stolen, they were obliged to travel an extra distance up the rail line at an earlier station to ensure that they could obtain the packages.

From those early beginnings, the effort has proliferated to the point that there are more than 200 cameras at any given time in the world adding approximately 100 million exposures — about 60,000 new rolls of microfilm — to the collection annually. This amounts to a cumulative total over the past 60 years of more than 2 million rolls of microfilmed genealogical records in addition to 711,000 microfiche and 278,000 books in the main library collection.

To house the collection, the Granite Mountain Records Vault was completed after three years of construction. It is a massive excavation into the mountainside in Little Cottonwood Canyon east of Salt Lake Valley, the same site from which stone was quarried for the Salt Lake Temple. Here, more than 2 million rolls of microfilm camera masters (films from which copies can be made) are stored under tightly controlled environmental conditions. Copies are produced for use worldwide.

Even before the establishment of microfilming, the society offered a research service beginning in 1924. By 1965, this became infeasible because of the growth in Church membership. But the society has continued to provide research guidance. The most comprehensive effort is SourceGuide, a compact disc published in 1998 and available through FamilySearch Internet.

Over the years, the Church through the society has encouraged research through stake and mission leaders. For example, in 1930 the Church approved a plan for junior genealogy classes for Aaronic Priesthood and YWMIA meetings. A legacy of this program is the use of the Book of Remembrance as a core record for family history in each family, containing key genealogical records and other documents such as birth, blessing and baptism certificates.

In 1966, the Four-Generation program, the brainchild of Elder Theodore M. Burton, then society vice president, was introduced and identified as one of the primary responsibilities of all Church members. Each family was encouraged to compile family group sheets for ancestors back to the great-grandparents and submit them to Church headquarters. Because many families shared ancestors, multiple versions of group sheets were submitted with many discrepancies. This resulted in 1979 in an alteration and renewal of the emphasis, with a fresh call for submissions to be compiled by families cooperating to produce an accurate set of sheets. The new submissions were the foundation of Ancestral File, the computer database of lineage-linked genealogy from which anyone can draw information or contribute the results of his or her research.

2. Supporting submission and clearance of names for temple ordinances.

Because many Church members share common ancestry, the society has always tried to help members avoid duplicating ordinance work. In the early 1900s research by individual members was restricted to only four ancestral lines. This restriction was lifted by 1927, when the Temple Records Index Bureau was introduced. The bureau administered a card file of names for which ordinance work had been completed. From then on, new submissions were checked against it. This resulted in an undesirable wait for clearance of names for temple work, but it did eliminate wasted effort in repeating temple work that had been done.

In 1942, the society introduced the family group sheet as the means of submitting names for temple ordinances. It was an effective collection point for the temple work completed for a given family, but the drawback was it took a long time to process. By 1960, the society had accumulated a backlog of 150,000 family group sheets.

In 1961, the Church was facing a critical shortage in the number of names provided for temple ordinance work. It reached the stage where names had to be taken to the Salt Lake Temple daily to keep it functioning. This was alleviated by the Records Tabulation Program (R-Tab) in which society employees were engaged to extract names directly from English parish registers that could be immediately processed for temple work. For nearly two decades this program continued. In 1978, it was turned over to volunteers in the stakes.

In 1993, the Family History Department returned the names clearance process to Church members through the TempleReady computer program.

In their local meetinghouses, members were given computer tools and files to clear their own names against the file of temple work already performed. TempleReady eliminated the long delay inherent in having the names cleared centrally to the relief of both the person who waited and the headquarters staff strained to process promptly a never-ending mass of incoming name submissions. A new era of temple work had dawned. As a result, the family files in many temples have seen a dramatic increase in members doing temple work for names they have submitted.

3. Simplifying family history work through extraction, indexing and automation.

With the advent of computers, it was predictable that they would be used in the daunting task of indexing millions of genealogical records. This effort began in 1969 with the introduction of a comprehensive system to automate all submission of names for temple ordinance work. Known as Genealogical Information and Names Tabulation (GIANT), it indexed all the names that society employees had extracted under the R-TAB program as well as all names submitted for temple work from that time forward, until it was replaced by TempleReady in 1993. It also led to the creation of the world's largest name data base, the International Genealogical Index.

Meanwhile, the process of extracting names from genealogical records was boosted in 1978 with the Stake Record Extraction Program, in which Church members volunteered to assume the work that had been done by Church employees up to then. In 1988, the Family Record Extraction Program, in which members could work from their own homes, was implemented. Their efforts provided the basis for automating all pre-1970 temple records, which had not been done under R-Tab. Eventually the two programs were merged into one. The united program continues to index many other valuable family history sources, such as vital records, immigration records and military service records.

The call for Church members to submit four generations of genealogy, first in 1966, then in 1979, led to the creation of Ancestral File, discussed above. Between 1990 and 1999, Ancestral File grew from 7 million to 35.6 million names.

Ancestral File has become the beginning point for anyone interested in knowing what has been done, so as to investigate new lines rather than retrace what is already known.

Personal Ancestral File, one of the first software programs for managing one's own genealogical records on personal computers, was introduced by the Church in 1984. Its Genealogical Data Communications (GEDCOM) format remains the industry standard for the sharing of genealogical information between computers.

The highlights mentioned do not tell the whole story. Much of it is in the dogged, prayerful efforts of millions of Church members to search out the records of their kindred dead, against seemingly impossible odds in some cases. First-person accounts of some of these experiences are published every fourth week or so under the "Family History Moments" column on page 16 of the Church News. President Hinckley summed up the motivation behind the grand effort of the past century, when, at the news conference introducing the Internet service, he said: "For Latter-day Saints, families do not end at death. They are the basis of society even in the world to come. With that understanding, members of the Church regard it as both a privilege and an obligation to seek out their forebears."

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