Don Grant Lecture 2014: Jenny Harkness on FamilySearch
Speaker(s): Jenny Harkness
Date recorded: 25 Aug 2014
Thankyou Jan. It's lovely to be here today and especially I feel it a great privilege and honour to have been asked to present the lecture today in memory of Don Grant. I knew Don Grant for many years and had the opportunity to work on committees with him over a number of years and I have a great deal of admiration and respect for him. He really was a walking encyclopaedia.
Today the topic that I'm talking about is FamilySearch and I've entitled my talk FamilySearch, a world of family history possibilities and my topic fits in so beautifully with our multicultural theme today. And I hope, as I move through what I want to share with you today, that you will be able to get an understanding of just the vast nature and how diverse the records available on the FamilySearch are.
So first of all, an explanation for what FamilySearch is. FamilySearch International is a not-for-profit organisation. It's sponsored and funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now its predecessor, the Genealogical Society of Utah, or GSU, was formed in 1894. So for 120 years now FamilySearch has been collecting and preserving and sharing family-history records. And to give you a bit of an understanding of the breadth of the collection, I wanted just to give you a little bit of background history. I won't take too long with this, but unless I do that, you just won't have a full appreciation of the sorts of records that are available.
I mentioned that FamilySearch began in 1894 and so they began to collect records. In 1938, FamilySearch pioneered the use of microfilm as a records-preservation tool. And over the years they've amassed an enormous collection, which is in the billions of images of historic records. So initially, microfilming was undertaken in North America, Britain, Scandinavia and Europe, where the majority of the church members at the time could trace their ancestry.
Now, in 1952 they began to microfilm in South America, and here in the South Pacific they began microfilming records in 1959. And it's very interesting that the very first camera operator that was employed was a man by the name of Ronald Pollard and I had the opportunity to talk…I know Ron quite well…and I had the opportunity to talk to him recently. And at the time, he started to do the Assisted Shipping records into Victoria. These are records that are now held at the Public Records Office, but at the time they were held at the State Library. It was known as the Public Library then. And so the first task he undertook was to film these records. And he said that he was given a small room off the main reading room. It was just next to Harry Nunn, the State Archivist’s room. And he said before he could begin to film them—the records, they'd been folded, tied with red tape, they were very dusty and dirty—he hired five university students to wash the records before they could actually begin to film them. And during that time, he spent a number of years traveling around Australia filming records and many opportunities arose for him to access other records. He mentioned that he became aware of some funeral directors’ records.
An early Melbourne funeral director J.D. Lewis, which had a branch in Carlton. He was able to access the books and he filmed them and he said that in going through his images he realised that he had some that needed to be redone, they were a little bit blurred. So he returned to the funeral directors to collect these records, the registers, and he was told ‘Ooh you've just arrived in time, they're downstairs in the laundry by the furnace, they're about to be destroyed’. And so he of course reclaimed them, brought them back, refilmed the faulty images and they were then donated to the State Library.
So lots of interesting stories along the way about accessing records and making them available.
Now during the 1970s there was a departure from the previous policy, where microfilming projects began to move into areas where records where most at risk. So filming began in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. And earlier, Diane was talking about records in Egypt, and she happened to mention to me that the Armenian records in Egypt had been microfilmed by FamilySearch. Filming continued through Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka. You can see this, this was the beginning date of many different filming projects.
Now in 1983, a major breakthrough occurred when a commission was granted for FamilySearch to go into the archives and to begin to film records there. This was the first time that foreigners had even been permitted to set foot into these facilities.
In 1991, after 22 years of unsuccessful negotiations, FamilySearch was able to begin, to commence filming in areas behind the Iron Curtain. At this time there was the fall of the Communist regime, and so they began to film records in Slovakia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Russia and other former Soviet states. Prior to this time, they had been in behind the Iron Curtain, they had filmed records in Hungary and Poland.
So back in 1975, there was about 80 different film-crews operating. By 1990, this number had grown to 200. And in the year 2000, there were more than 300 camera-crews operating worldwide with projects in more than a hundred countries throughout the world.
Now today, we're not using microfilming technology anymore. We’ve switched over to digital capture. And so when we are accessing records, we do it on digital cameras.
Now the purpose of this vast microfilming project and now digital capture project is two-fold. Firstly, to collect the information that will assist family-history researchers in doing their research. And secondly, to preserve this information for future generations. And there were two key selling points to this particular project. Firstly, the filming is done at no cost to the institution that holds the records, and for many this provides the only means for these records to be preserved. And secondly, a free print film copy is given to the institution, so that the original records are preserved, and instead of using the original records people wanting to access them can then use a microfilm copy.
Now an example that shows the significance of this particular project occurred in the Cook Islands in May 1992 when an arsonist set fire to one of their government buildings, which housed their civil-registration records and most of these records were destroyed. As these records had previously been filmed, within weeks of the fire 51 replacement films were made and dispatched to Rarotonga with no cost to the government. And I can list a number of other instances where records have been destroyed, but they were previously microfilmed so replacement copies have been able to be provided and a copy of those original records has been preserved as a consequence.
Now, it's wonderful to have this amazing collection, but how do you access it? Well, with this growing collection, it was found necessary to build a facility that would house it. So, in 1966, the Granite Mountain Records Vault was opened and this was an especially purpose-built facility that's located in the mountains about 20 miles outside of Salt Lake. It's in the foothills of the Wasetch Mountains. And it's a series of six vaults that are built deep in the mountainside. They're about six or seven hundred feet under solid granite and they have huge steel…it's nice to see what the facility looks like…they have huge steel bank-vault doors weighing from 9 to 14 tonnes each that protect the entrances and the conditions are perfect for storage. Now, it's always been my ambition to go on a tour of the vault and I did think at one stage that maybe with some connections I might get to visit. But for security reasons, there is no public access to the vaults, but you can take a virtual tour online. So all you need to do is Google and you can see a very interesting tour behind the scenes at the Granite Mountain Record Vault.
Now this huge collection of records, to make them accessible to people worldwide, a network of family history centres has been built. They started rolling them out in 1964 and today there's over 4,700 of these. They're generally located in church meeting houses and they’re all staffed by volunteers. I've been a volunteer at the Cathie’s Lane Wantirna one for about 25 years now. Also, many libraries and family history societies have a film distribution license, so they're able to access the microfilm records that FamilySearch holds. The GSV here in Victoria have a film distribution license and I noticed when I was looking online that we have a number of others. Cobrum Family History group is a licensed film-distribution centre. So there's lots of smaller groups too that are not close to another centre and that you can order films through them. That’s all available that information on the FamilySearch website.
We also have a wonderful library in Salt Lake, the Family History Library, and I've had the opportunity to visit there a number of times to access the records and many of the microfilms are just on the shelf. You can help yourself to them. The thing that I found when I was there last, the most beneficial, was you could book free of charge a consultation with one of their professional genealogists. And I was interested in some of my London ancestors that I've hit brick walls with and just spent about three-quarters of an hour just getting the most amazing advice.
Now, one of the most significant advancements for FamilySearch in recent years occurred in 2005. They've actually developed high-speed scanners where they're able to convert microfilm into digital format so that they can be viewed on a computer. Now these scanners are converting 2.5 million rolls of microfilm from the Granite Mountain Records Vault into tens-of-millions of ready to index digital images. And the scanners are a bit like a camera. As the microfilm form unwinds, the images on the microfilm are converted into a long ribbon of high-quality digital images and a computer program quality checks the ribbon and uses special algorithms to break it up into individual images, and this entire process takes about 20 minutes per roll of film. So, another milestone. This is an ongoing process and because of this huge number of records that are stored in the vault it's going to take a while for this to happen.
Now another really important milestone occurred this year, in June, when FamilySearch announced that it had published its 1 billionth digital image online and this particular record came from a quite small archive in Peru. So when you think about a billion images, it's very difficult to imagine just how vast that is. So to give you some idea, some perspective, if you were to look at each one of those images just for one second each continually it would take you 32 years to view them. Or, if each one was equivalent to an A4 page of information, if you laid them end-to-end, they would stretch for 3,004 kilometres. Now this is only a very small…this isn't all the records…about 70% of this information has come from microfilm conversion. Some has come from new acquisitions that are coming in digital format and a small amount has come from partnerships.
Now when we think about this, literally what it's doing is bringing records from obscure archives into your home. Records that you may not even know about. As Diane talked today about her quest to find information about her husband's family and how difficult it was to visit each of these individual archives and to gain access. Most of us aren't in a position. We don't have the financial means. We don't have the time. But through the resources of FamilySearch, it's bringing those records into the homes of everyday people. And this particular slide just shows us the makeup of the records. And we can see that there's a very large proportion of those records are from Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Philippines, Belgium, Spain. So it’s a very multicultural mix of records. And this has occurred in the last seven years and the rate at which the information is being uploaded is accelerating. So it's taken seven years to get this first billion records online. It's been estimated that it's going to take only three and a half years to get the next billion records online. And this is only about a quarter of what is held in the Granite Mountain Record Vault. And of course new records are being acquired on a daily basis. So this amount of information is growing continually.
Now there's a number of cultures where they don't have written records recording their family history. In some nations information is passed down through the generations orally and FamilySearch has been involved in gathering oral histories. Beginning in Samoa in 1968, FamilySearch began to collect oral genealogy to preserve ancestral information in countries where there were no written records. So interviews have now been recorded in Tahiti, American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tonga, New Zealand, Taiwan and Indonesia. And the concept was quite simple. It was recording information on tape and it's the spoken memory of those that are still living.
For the last five years, the church has been very busy in Sub-Saharan Africa, where they've employed local young men as contractors to gather these oral histories and they go out with audio recorders and digital cameras. And there's a great urgency to collect in this information because family historians are ageing and they're dying before these histories can be recorded. I've heard it said that when a person dies a library of information is lost. So far they've recorded 10,000 oral histories but there's so many more to collect.
Now these are available under Community Trees on the FamilySearch website. So if you go to the wiki and look for that. I was really interested. I have a son-in-law who's Samoan and my family have actually just travelled to Samoa and I'm going in a day or two and I'm going to record. We're going for a family wedding, but I'm going to record oral histories from his living elderly relatives, so I'm quite excited about the opportunity. But looking on the website, I looked under his family name and saw that there were already a number of recorded oral histories for this family.
Now, how do you access the records? Through the website www.familysearch.org. Now as Jan mentioned, it was launched in May 1999. And at the time it was launched it was the largest genealogical database ever to be made available on the Internet and it attracted worldwide attention. On the first day of operation, it attracted over 100 million hits and that was as many as the next most popular genealogy website was getting in a month at the time. Cindy Howell, of Cindy's Lists, stated ‘It's a real boon to genealogy. It's like bringing Disneyland to your home’.
So, today I'm going to give you a just a brief overview of the FamilySearch website and what you can find there, because many people have used it, they've done some searches, but they don't fully utilise all the resources that are available.
In the top right-hand corner is a little ‘Get Help’ button. This will take you into the Contact and Help drop-down box. So FamilySearch provides 24/7 phone (toll-free phone) or email support. Now, if you phone their number, you're not going to get somebody in a call centre, you're going to get a volunteer like me. So it could be someone from anywhere in the world. Or you can email if you have a query that you need help with.
In the Learning Centre, there is a huge array of online family-history courses that range from beginners to advanced. You can access them under Topics. You can access them under Geographic Area. It shows the most popular courses. It'll show you the new courses. And there's also a lot of just short five-minute videos for those that are beginning that are just teaching one little research technique…it might have ‘What is the Census’, ‘How to record your sources’. So these are a great learning tool for those that are new to family history, but even experienced family historians can gain a lot of information. And the annual Rootstech conferences, there's a number of wonderful presentations from them that are available online.
Now, what most people are interested in is actually searching the records and possibly this is what you've done in the past. So using the Search button you can get to the Search Template. Now you can begin just to search straightaway just typing in names, and I'm not going to talk about the different aspects of actually searching, but you can actually go to the regions. On the right, there is a map and it identifies particular regions. I've just selected one here to show you the types of records. You can see here in this Asian region, there's records for China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, The Philippines and Sri Lanka. Now I've just typed in a surname and it comes up with a number of results. So if we click on that particular person, we'll see that there's additional information. Now, very importantly, at the bottom of the record it gives us a citation for the source of this record.
Family history without sources is mythology. You really need to record where your information has come from. And for every record that you access on the FamilySearch website, it gives you a citation that you can copy and paste into the notes of your family-history program.
Now if you come back with a huge number of results, you can actually divide or filter your results into the collection it came from. Up next to the Records tab on the top left hand side you'll see the Collections button. If you click on that, it will then divide all your results up according to the particular collection they've come from. And you can then decide which collections you want to look at.
Now, I've chosen this one. If I move down to the bottom of the page. Ok, I've just done a search on a surname. A more unusual surname from my family tree, Helshum, and I've specified Australia and it's come back with a number of results. I've chosen this particular one, John Phillip Helshum, because it's actually come from the Indexes to Rules and Probates from the Public Records office.
And I just wanted to talk about this particular project for a minute. Liz talked about this today in her presentation. The digitising of…just clicking through the record…and it tells me that I can view the document. On the right-hand side it has a digital camera and that will take me to a digital image of the entry in the indexes and because these have been digitised we can go to the State Library website and actually look at the will.
Now, the wills and probates that are held at the Public Records Office, in November 2004 FamilySearch began digitising these particular records, from 1844 to 1925. Since then, they've done the inquest deposition files and they’re now back doing the wills and probates from 1925 onwards.
Now the very first camera team that was there—I know a little bit about that because I was involved in the initial negotiations for FamilySearch to come in and to begin to do this particular project—and the first couple that arrived, the Lombardis, they were a retired couple from the United States. This work is all done free of charge, to Prov, and it's actually done by, on the majority, it's done by volunteers. So, in this case, it was a retired couple that came out at their own expense and spent initially 18 months and they just worked. They worked from 7.30 in the morning to 4pm, five days a week, just digitising those records. There was two camera crew and a number of other volunteers that also assisted with record preparation.
I was interested to see recently on the FamilySearch website they were calling for volunteers who would come and do this sort of work and there was a testimonial from the Lombardis and they mentioned about how they did their first record-preservation mission in Melbourne and how much they enjoyed it. Since then, in 2004, they're now on their fifth record-preservation assignment. So for a retired couple that are now ten years older, they're still working five days a week. I think that's a tremendous effort and they obviously love it. We have six out at Public Records office now working. I think there's two cameras that are currently working on the next run.
And here's the actual will. And it's interesting. This particular man died during the First World War. His son died at Gallipoli only a week before and he mentions that his sons are only to inherit his estate if they don't marry Catholics or Germans. So it's very typical if you read any of the wills at this time, this is very common at the time, mainly the Germans, not the Catholics.
Ok. Now we've had a quick look at the records. When you search, the records have been divided up according to historical records. So these have actually come from a historical record and you can actually search the genealogies. Now, these have been submitted by people over the years and when you find a result here you will find additional family connections. So this particular one, you can see that you're seeing part of a pedigree, you're seeing his descendants, his spouse, parents, grandparents, and there's an arrow indicating that it goes on for further generations.
Now the catalogue. This is the way you access information to see the holdings, the microfilm holdings and other records that are available. So, because we're talking about different countries today, I've just typed in Bengal, India, to give you an idea of the sorts of records. And we can see that there's a number of different sorts of records, directories, history, court-records, merchant-marine probate, there's also church records and as you can see there's parish-register transcripts and there's also Roman Catholic returns for births, deaths and marriages. So, you’d always look at the film notes. There's actually 526 microfilm reels in this collection and you'd need to look down and move through those to see which particular ones would be of benefit to you.
Now another under-utilised source on FamilySearch is the wiki. The wiki doesn't actually have information, biographical information about people, but it tells you how to find that information. The very popular Research Outlines, which were a print of volumes available previously, all that information has been absorbed into the wiki. So there's nearly 80,000 articles relating to 245 countries. And if you're looking for information the wiki's a very good place to start and it does have links to digitised records.
Here's just another slide on the wiki, Background Information. And if you were to type in Victoria research, here's our very own State Library, links to the Public Records Office Victoria, the AIGS, the GSV and links to their websites. So, if you didn't know how to do research here in Victoria, it's giving you a list of the places that you would go to access that information.
Another very interesting page I found on the wiki was helpful international websites, and this went through country by country and gave a fabulous collection of websites for each particular country that would help you in your family-history research.
Now, another newer resource on FamilySearch is the new Family Tree. It's usually not such a funny shape. When you're using the FamilySearch website and you're searching you don't need to log on or register, you can just get on and search the records. But if you want to use the family tree you will need to register. The resources from FamilySearch is totally free to use. In registering, you're just giving a username, putting in a password and a contactable email address. And when you do that, you'll begin to form a family tree.
There were some concerns about privacy with a family tree. Anyone that is living, their information is masked. Only the person that contributes that information. Now, on this particular slide, I've logged on. This is my family tree. I've masked my own information with a smiley face. Anyone else looking at that would not be able to see that information because I am living and they did not submit that information, but they would be able to see information relating to my other family members.
Now you can view the information on Family Tree in a number of different formats. This is the portrait version. So this shows my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Or you can look at it in a conventional family tree format. And unfortunately with just a screenshot like that, it doesn't show you how you can click and drag and move through the generations. When you locate information, you can bring up a person, you can bring up their individual information, their biographical information. It shows them with a spouse and children and also as a child with their parents.
Now another new feature with Family Tree is the ability to be able to add photos, stories and documents. As a family historian, we can usually gather biographical information, but to be able to access photos of ancestors and family members and also to hear stories about their lives, this is what enriches and brings people to life. So I've been very excited when I heard about this new feature and I've been quite busy uploading photos to FamilySearch.
So this is my third great-grandmother and I've uploaded a number of photos. When you look at her individual record it shows there's six photos. There's a couple of stories. That's part of the story and the people that are mentioned in her, that particular story, there's links to them also. They're identified on the family tree.
The people that I have put photos in for, I can look at them in alphabetical order. And this is just some of my photos. It's very simple to upload. You just click the upload button and then go to wherever you have them stored. You'll need to have scanned them on your computer and then you can just upload them and then type a description and link them to the family tree.
This is just an example of a particular photo. I've given it a title and I've also put some detail about it and then identified each of the people in the photo and linked them to their record on the family tree.
You can also use it to search for records. And this is my maiden name and it's an unusual name. And I typed it in. Now these particular, the top three on the left hand side, I haven't submitted these. Somebody else has submitted them. I know the names. I know where they fit on the family tree. They're not closely related, but I had never seen photos of these particular people, so it was very exciting for me to find these photos online.
Now, FamilySearch indexing. Using…we all want to be able to access records as easily as possible. And so being able to use an index enables us to find records that we may not even know exist. So FamilySearch has a capability to index records. And, I recently started to volunteer as a FamilySearch indexer. It's quite a simple process. There's about 200,000 plus indexers that are registered and it's just a case of downloading the program, which takes a minute, and then selecting a particular project that you want to work on.
So, this particular batch that I'm interested in doing at the moment, are actually Australian records. They’re burial and cremation orders from Tasmania. As you can see, the digital copy of the original record shows at the top of the screen and then underneath there are the fields that I key. And each key, each field, has a little description on the right that gives me information about what it is I'm typing. Now, it takes me, these batches have 15 entries in them, and it takes me about 15 minutes to complete a batch. So it's quite a simple thing. You don't have to be online to do the work, you just need to download a batch and then to upload it.
Now earlier on this year, over the weekend of July the 20th and 21st, there was a special invitation for FamilySearch indexers to all get online and index a batch over that particular weekend. And what they were trying to do was to beat a previous record of having more than 50,000 indexes all online on the same day or two to index a batch. And they actually achieved well beyond that. They achieved 66,511. So it was very exciting when a day or two later when I got some feedback, ‘Thankyou for participating and for being involved’.
Now FamilySearch indexing is only a partial answer to providing online indexed records. In February of this year FamilySearch announced a series of agreements with Ancestry.com, Find My Past and MyHeritage to accelerate the delivery of freely-searchable genealogical records to family history researches. These agreements are in line with the FamilySearch mission to publish online as many freely-available searchable genealogical records as possible. Working together, FamilySearch and its partners will bring billions of currently unsearchable and unavailable records to patrons, decades before these records would otherwise become available.
Now, just two other exciting…I've lost two slides, oh dear! Ok, I'm just going to have to describe them. FamilySearch recently announced that there were two new mobile Apps that can be downloaded. They're free of charge. One is FamilySearch Tree and the other is FamilySearch Memories. And you can put these on your iPad or your iPhone. And they actually connect to the Family Tree. So, if you've submitted information to Family Tree, you can view your family tree online complete with your photos. So I can now carry around with me, on my mobile phone, my family history information. So when I travel to an archive or a repository, I can just pull out my mobile phone and look up the information.
With FamilySearch memories I can view all the photos I've uploaded. I can share them with relatives. I can actually, if I was visiting an elderly relative and I wanted to record an oral interview, I can upload it directly. So it's a wonderful resource and research tool.
In conclusion, many of you will have used FamilySearch in the past and you may not have found exactly what you're looking for. Because of the vastness of the collection and the rate at which it grows, if you looked yesterday you may not have found what you're looking for. But, everyday FamilySearch adds 1.6 million searchable records. So, if you didn't find what you were looking for yesterday, check again today. There's a whole world of family history possibilities available to you on FamilySearch.
'For 120 years now, FamilySearch has been collecting, preserving and sharing family history records.'
- Jenny Harkness
About this video
Watch the annual Don Grant Lecture presented by Jenny Harkness, Vice President of the Victorian Association of Family History Organisations, at Family History Feast 2014.
In her talk, Jenny shares background history and information on FamilySearch, including the kinds of records that are available through this genealogy organisation operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Hear more from Family History Feast 2014
- Liz Denny on researching the records of Chinese miners on the Ballarat goldfields (audio)
- Andrew Griffin on Australia's non-British migrants (audio)
- Diana Hookham on multicultural family research (audio)
- Dr Moya McFadzean on collecting migrant stories at Museum Victoria (audio)
- Walter Struve on on German family history resources (audio)
Jenny Harkness is Vice President of the Victorian Association of Family History Organisations (VAFH). Since 1997, VAFHO has hosted the Don Grant Family History Lecture to promote family history education and provide discussion on a variety of family history topics. The lecture is named in honour of the late Don Grant, formerly of State Library Victoria, PROV and the VAFHO committee.