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Digital indexing — New age of research

Digitizing microfilm opens doors to alphabetizing names online

Jill Warnock, 17, leans slightly forward as she studies the handwriting on the 100-year-old document that shows dark and large on her computer screen. Her finger inadvertently touches a name written in swirling cursive: "What is that letter?" she wonders aloud. Then, her decision made, she types the name on a line underneath the document and moves quickly to the next name.

A recent graduate of Riverton (Utah) High School who found time to index amid advanced placement courses and school activities, she is among some 50,000 index volunteers of the new, digital age of family history work. Using an Internet-based program found at www.FamilySearchIndexing.org, these volunteers register online and, in their spare moments, index such mammoth databases as the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, as Jill and her friends are doing.

This database and many others are now available digitally as the result of new technology at the Church's Granite Mountain Records Vault. At this storage facility that has 2.5 million rolls of microfilm and more than 8 billion names, microfilm is being digitized at an ever faster pace. And as the numbers of newly digitized images burgeon, so does the need for volunteer indexers. In fact, the Church hopes to double the number of indexing volunteers to 100,000 by year's end, and go on from there.

When Jill was approached by her bishop, David Rencher of the Stone Ridge Ward, Riverton Utah Summerhill Stake, she thought the notion of her indexing old records "was a little crazy."

"I knew I could do it," she said. "I just thought about the time." The busy student found she did have time, half an hour here and half an hour there. Soon, she wasn't just typing names, she said, but learning about real people.

"I would hope that (indexing) would help people with their family history so these people will not be forgotten," she said.

Helping people with their family history is the underlying goal of indexing, and of digitizing the millions of rolls of microfilm, said Paul Nauta, manager of public affairs of the Family and Church History Department, and a volunteer indexer.

The volunteer indexers, he said "are LDS, non-LDS — people of all ages who have an interest in family history, people who feel the spirit of the initiative, youth in service projects and businessmen." He explained that a person on a business trip could download a couple of half-hour batches while waiting in an airport on the West Coast, index while flying and upload the completed batches after arriving on the East Coast. "They feel great," he said. "They feel like they are doing something worthwhile." A batch, typically, is one page of a historical record, such as a sheet of a census record. Indexing consists of typing the handwritten names as they appear on the indexer's computer screen so they can be found by a search engine.

New projects are being added monthly or even weekly. A new search engine is being tested by FamilySearch that will allow researchers to search and view digital images of records not yet indexed, as well as indexes linked to the original images through the FamilySearch Indexing program. The new search engine is at labs.familysearch.org.

To volunteer as an indexer, a person should go the bottom of the FamilySearchIndexing.org home page, and click on a button, "Volunteer." Fill in the required information and download the software. In five minutes, a person can be indexing, said Brother Nauta. It is an engaging, wholesome and fulfilling pursuit for those who spend time on the Internet. As in other indexing-related projects, each page, or batch, is done separately by two people. Any discrepancies between them are resolved by a third, skilled arbitrator.

While the majority of newly digitized records being indexed are coming from the vault, others will be coming directly from the field as digital cameras replace microfilm cameras, he said.

Stephen J. Valentine, manager of FamilySearch Indexing, said the vision of the project is to "create a worldwide community of volunteer indexers, creating the largest database of free indexes linked to digital images."

The next step, he said, is to expand FamilySearch Indexing to international projects, to the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Belgium in 2008.

Even as Jill and her co-volunteers busily index pages, many more digital pages to index are piling up. Microfilm records are being digitized faster and faster. Most of the work is being done at the Church's Granite Mountain Vault. About a year ago, new software was developed to digitize microfilm more rapidly. That process continues to improve.

Heath E. Nielson, one of the developers of the software, said that while the core software of this process remains about the same, performance has been enhanced.

"We had some bottlenecks that...no longer are bottlenecks." In addition, the company that makes the scanners has a new model that cuts scanning time in half. "I am looking forward to the day when we can make more records accessible to the average person," he said. "That is one of my main motivations for being here and helping."

Eight scanners are presently producing about 200,000 digital pages a day, said Joseph P. Monsen, manager of the Granite Mountain Records Vault. He said the number of scanners will likely be increased, with the goal of completing the work there in less than 15 years. With more new, faster scanners, the work has potential to expand to 800,000 pages a day that can be indexed.

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