How these FamilySearch curators from around the world are helping to ‘hasten the work’

FamilySearch curation managers talk about how they have seen the hand of God as they oversee a process of digitizing million of records from across the globe

Around the time 12-year-old Venezuela native Marlene Hernandez converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she lost her mother. Soon, she developed a passion for researching her genealogy; after conducting interviews with family members, she compiled in a book.

But when she moved to the United States as an adult, she lost the book and thought she might never recover the information. One day, working as a computer scientist, she decided to take two weeks off and see what she could find at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Unexpectedly, Hernandez found all the information she had previously lost and more.

The records Hernandez found are among the more than 5 billion digital record images published on FamilySearch since its inception in 1999.

Behind that number, a team of curators in Salt Lake City — hailing from places as far as Korea and Kazakhstan and now joined by Hernandez — oversee record digitization worldwide, a process in which they say they have seen “God’s hand” work miracles as they try to “hasten the work.”

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Hastening the work

A flowchart showing the digital curation management process.
FamilySearch curators manage the record digitization process from beginning to end — from overseeing acquisitions to improving published collections. Six curators spoke on the latest collections uploaded to FamilySearch during RootsTech in Salt Lake City on Feb. 29, 2024. | FamilySearch

At Rootstech on Feb. 29, curators from FamilySearch — Hernandez, Sean Canny, Hyewon Lee, Megan McClanahan, Irina Anderson and Katie Poppleton — presented over 30 new and upcoming record collections. These collections of digital images and searchable names come from over a dozen countries. In 2023, FamilySearch’s free database of searchable names and images in historical records grew to 18.36 billion, up from 16.88 billion in 2022.

“We are trying to hasten the work. We want everyone in the world to have access to these records,” said Canny, global accounts manager at FamilySearch.

Canny credits computer-assisted indexing as a major contributor to the steady rise in searchable names. The 1931 Canada Census released in 2023 was indexed entirely with artificial intelligence applied by, with FamilySearch validating the data.

While the majority of indexing is still done through humans, FamilySearch’s goal is to eventually send all images through computer-assisted indexing (CAI).

But AI can only replace part of the process. The pipeline to publication starts with on-the-ground accounts managers and field relations managers, overseen by the curation managers in Salt Lake City, who locate records of interest and initiate contact with archivists.

“They will go to archives, and they will say, ‘Hey, we would love to digitize your collections, and we would love to make them visible on our website for free,’” Canny said.

FamilySearch accommodates organizations that would prefer to keep their records on their own platforms, with the non-profit often agreeing to point readers to other platforms with a link.

“We may have times where it can be shown on FamilySearch after a certain period of time, or that we will share it,” said McClanahan, a digital collections curation manager, “but we just want that information to be out so that people can find and build their family trees.”

The hand of the Lord

A woman smiling at the camera.
Megan McClanahan, digital collections curation manager at FamilySearch, sits for an interview for the Church News at RootsTech on March 1, 2024, in Salt Lake City. | Mario Miguel, Church News

McClanahan spends much of her time helping negotiate contracts with corporate partners. Employees at FamilySearch are encouraged to pray over their projects, and she says that has been key to overcoming seemingly insurmountable roadblocks that occasionally occur in negotiations.

“I absolutely know that it’s the hand of the Lord,” McClanahan said, “I’ve had meetings with people where one night we leave the meeting and … it seems like we’re never going to get the records, and we reconvene the next morning, and they’ve had a change of heart.”

The curators’ goal, said Canny, is to increase record coverage for areas where new temples are under development, which “lights a fire under (them).”

“We want them to feel the spirit of Elijah” and take their own family names to the temple, he said.

Nineteen temples are announced or under construction for Africa and the Middle East, places for which he considers any record publication a miracle, though recent promising developments encourage him.

FamilySearch recently released late 19th century and early 20th century population registers from Nablus in the present-day West Bank.

In the next few years, they expect to release records from Ottoman Palestine, Catholic Church records from Syria, Egypt and Tunisia, Jewish community records from Israel, Chaldean church records, Lebanese Maronite records and Kurdish oral histories.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, FamilySearch workers completed the digitization of national identification cards from as early as 1884 just a week before a flood ravaged the archive.

“Those are miracles to me,” said Canny, adding, “It’s my belief that the Holy Ghost is our colleague in this work. … And it’s my belief that the names that we are digitizing, the lives of these people, they mattered. And every one of them has the right to be remembered.”


Old documents piled and scattered inside a storage facility, damaged from water.
National identification cards damaged by a flood in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sean Canny, at RootsTech in Salt Lake City on Feb. 29, 2024, said that a week prior to the flood, FamilySearch completed the digitization of these records. | Thomas Nelson, FamilySearch

The destruction of physical records worldwide — either due to natural disaster, poor maintenance or office managers wanting to free up space — is a major worry for curators.

McClanahan remembers seeing a photo of an archive in Italy, where the records were stacked on top of toilets. And while many past records were imaged using microfilm, details are lost in the black and white images, especially when copies are made.

The urgency motivates them to digitize records, even when they cannot immediately publish them.

In many Asian nations, data privacy laws make it difficult to publish records.

Lee, a curator over Asia, said that in those countries, they now digitize many of the records and store the files there, protecting the data from information loss while they await permission to make the documents public.

A native of South Korea, Lee began studying her family history at a young age using Korean genealogy books called jokbo. She began her career at the Church archives before landing her current position four years ago.

Led into their roles

A mashup of two portraits of Anderson and Lee.
Irina Anderson and Hyewon Lee presented at RootsTech in Salt Lake City on Feb. 29, 2024. Anderson, formerly working in finance, was introduced to her current career in family history by her friend and now colleague Hyewon Lee. | Mario Miguel, Church News

In 2023, Lee told her friend, Irina Anderson, that she would be helping out at RootsTech. A part of the finance team at the global service department of the Church, Anderson’s curiosity about the event soon turned into a prompting that FamilySearch is where she should be, joining in August and now a curator over Central and Northern Europe. The longer she stays in that role, she says, the more she feels God wants her there.

Anderson was born in Kazakhstan but raised for 10 years in Ukraine, where her family joined the Church when she was 5 years old. Years later, her father felt prompted to move the family back to Kazakhstan to help build the Church there. When they settled in the capital city of Astana, they became the first native member family in the country. While no records are currently published from Kazakhstan, Anderson is hopeful that will change one day.

“I’m hoping that in some way, maybe me being from that part of the world will help us get hands on those records, because I would love to build my family (tree),” Anderson said.

She is encouraged by successes she has witnessed in other parts of the former Soviet Union. FamilySearch recently released Ukraine filtration records, registers of suspected disloyal Ukrainians imprisoned by the former Soviet Union between 1943 and 1952. These are some of the only published records from Ukraine containing living people, Anderson said, since a record has to be at least 75 years old to be published according to the country’s laws.

“I feel like Heavenly Father is preparing the way” for releasing records in Kazakhstan, she said.

Canny also feels that he was divinely led to his job, through which he has come to see family history as “the greatest work we have on the earth.”

“Doctrine and Covenants (128:24) says that we need to present to Christ, when he comes, a record of our dead that is worthy of all acceptation.”

He said that the team often refers back to 1 Nephi 21:8-9, which talks about God setting those in spirit prison free and granting them an inheritance.

“It’s our focus, and I definitely see God’s hand in this work.”

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