FamilySearch’s 2.4 million rolls of microfilm are now digitized. Here’s what this milestone means

A global effort to digitize FamilySearch’s collection of millions of rolls of microfilm is now complete — a milestone 83 years in the making, the Church announced Tuesday, Sept. 21

The archive containing information on more than 11.5 billion individuals is available to the public on FamilySearch.org. Over 200 countries and principalities and more than 100 languages are represented in the digitized documents. 

The digitization project has been directed by the Church historian and recorder and executed by preservation professionals in the Church History Department. Records have been released online as they were digitized, and FamilySearch employees and volunteers will continue to index and process the remaining images for online access.

Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., a General Authority Seventy serving as the Church historian and recorder, said the project shows the Church’s commitment to sharing and using its preserved records. 

“The Church has been dedicated to the proper preservation of records from the beginning, and we learn from Alma that we preserve records so that God’s children can see God’s hand in the lives of His children and covenant to accept and follow the Savior,” said Elder Curtis, referencing Alma 37:17-19, 46.

In addition to preservation professionals in the Church History Department, the effort also involved Church staff and senior missionaries who visited many religious and government archives worldwide over the past eight decades. 

“We hope that all those who contributed to this milestone in the last 80 years feel a sense of humble accomplishment today,” Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch International, said in a FamilySearch release

“And we hope the millions of individuals who will discover, gather and connect generation upon generation of their family members for years to come because of these efforts will have a deep sense of gratitude for the many unheralded contributors who made those discoveries possible.”

What is microfilm?

For more than 100 years, FamilySearch and its predecessors have been collecting, preserving and providing access to genealogically significant historical records — such as birth, death, marriage, census, military service and immigration documents.

The Genealogical Society of Utah — known today as FamilySearch — began microfilming records in 1938. Microfilm is an exposure of a document, image or file that is reduced down to a smaller format on a reel of 16mm or 35mm film and can be viewed using a machine that magnifies the image on a screen. 

A young woman looks on a microfilm reader while doing family history research.
A young woman looks on a microfilm reader while doing family history research. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

FamilySearch’s microfilm collection eventually grew to more than 2.4 million rolls. 

For several decades, duplicates of the original rolls could be ordered and viewed at one of FamilySearch’s more than 5,000 family history centers worldwide. FamilySearch ended its microfilm distribution to family history centers in 2017 as it began its transition to an all-digital approach and information could be viewed and searched online.  

The microfilm will continue to be stored and preserved in the Church’s physically secured and climate-controlled archives, according to the news release.

Digitization process

FamilySearch purchased its first microfilm scanners in 1998 and began digitizing its microfilm collection. 

Initially, the scanners would detect the front edge of an image frame by frame, explained David Rencher, FamilySearch’s chief genealogical officer. But if it failed to detect the front edge of that frame, it skipped that image and went to the next — resulting in many lost images.

Software was developed by FamilySearch in 2006 in conjunction with the Church History Department and the Church’s Information and Communication Services Department to improve and accelerate processes. 

“Our guys went through and figured out a technology to capture the entire roll of film as a single image and then divide the entire frame into single images, which had not been done before,” Rencher said. “And that way, we ensured that we didn’t drop or lose any images. So that was unprecedented.”

A roll of microfilm. The Genealogical Society of Utah, now known as FamilySearch, began microfilming in 1938.
A roll of microfilm. The Genealogical Society of Utah, now known as FamilySearch, began microfilming in 1938. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The scanning began with about five employees. As the process was further developed, up to 30 employees using 26 scanners were working on the project, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The last roll of film added to the collection was captured by FamilySearch’s in-field cameras in 2018, and the last of the microfilm scanning was completed last month.

Why it matters

Elder Curtis said the microfilm digitization effort reflects “the turning of our hearts to our fathers” as part of the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, which Moroni related to Joseph Smith in September 1823 (see Joseph Smith—History 1:36-39). 

“This work has always been about more than just moving source documents from paper to microfilm to digital,” he said. “It is an effort to accelerate the work of salvation on the earth; an effort to save the earth and its inhabitants from being utterly wasted; an effort to turn children’s hearts to their fathers as they are touched by priesthood power and accept the Abrahamic covenant — the promise made to the fathers — in their hearts.”

FamilySearch is also in the process of digitizing its large microfiche collection, which should be completed in the next several years, according to the news release. Microfiche stores exposures of documents on flat sheets of images rather than reels.

To explore FamilySearch’s collections of indexed records and images, go to FamilySearch.org and search both “Records” and “Images”. The Images feature enables users to peruse digitized images from the microfilm collection and more.

FamilySearch microfilm digitization timeline
FamilySearch microfilm digitization timeline Credit: Church News graphic