Billions of historical family history records are available to the public with the completion of a microfilm digitization initiative by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“This is a really incredible milestone,” said Joseph Monsen, director of preservation services for the Church History Department. “For 83 years, the Church has been collecting and using microfilm records to support genealogical research. … 2.4 million rolls of microfilm are all digitally saved now and available.”
“These family history records are now available to anyone who has a computer, anyone who has an Internet connection, and you can find documents and records now anywhere in the world that relate to your family,” explained Kris Whitehead, a manager for FamilySearch International, based in Salt Lake City.
"Nearly every day we work with someone who finds an ancestor online and or even at home,” said Fritz Juengling, a research specialist in the Family History Library, located on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.“Even people who have full trees really don't. So, if the low-hanging fruit is already picked, you just need to climb further up your tree."
It's a game-changer said said Becky Adamson, a research specialist at the Family History Library.
“So, instead of having to come to the library, people can start accessing these records from home,” she said. “You click with a mouse instead of scrolling and winding and reading and reading and being confused at some of the handwriting,” said Adamson.
Microfilm can sometimes be a challenge to view, she said.
“You can blow it up bigger, and you're not getting your shadow in the way of the light,” Adamson said.
“It means things are going to get a lot easier,” added Christopher Utley, a family historian, who works with many people seeking their ancestors. “It means that I can be more proficient in my research.”
The Church has been releasing millions of records online for years as they were digitized. Now that the project has been completed, the records of more than 11.5 billion people from around the world are accessible for millions of family history enthusiasts.
“[The records] are not all available today,” said Monsen, who explained that it will take time to index and publish the digital images. “A large percentage of these are available today on FamilySearch.org and the rest of them are in process to end up there as well.”
Over 200 countries and principalities and more than 100 languages are represented in the documents. Completion of the project also makes it easier for Latter-day Saints and others to increase family discoveries.
“All of God's children benefit from these images. These are family history records that in some cases don't exist anymore through fires, floods [or] natural disasters,” said Whitehead.
The Church has been collecting, preserving and providing access to genealogically significant historical records for more than 100 years. The records include birth, death, marriage, census, military service, immigration and other documents.
The Genealogical Society of Utah, now known as FamilySearch International, began microfilming in 1938 — 83 years ago. The Church was one of the first major organizations to embrace the use of microfilm imaging in a grand vision to gather all the world’s family history information in one location and then make it available to everyone. The global effort involved Church staff and senior missionaries who visited countless religious and government archives in numerous locations over the past eight decades.
“Over the 83 years since we started microfilming, there have been thousands and thousands and thousands of volunteers who have helped to microfilm, who have helped to preserve, to scan these records,” said Whitehead, who said his own family history work has benefitted by the documents.
He continued, “Personally, I have used these records to find family members in eastern Canada. I had not been able to find anything about this particular branch of the family. … I found my family and found over 200 relatives that came from that. I wouldn't have been able to find these without the microfilming work that we had done over the number of decades.”
“A long time ago, we used to have to use only film, which was great at its time, but we've moved on to other media,” said Juengling.
FamilySearch developed a network of Family History Centers worldwide to share the information with patrons, along with a process for duplicating and distributing microfilm copies to these centers. Microfilm distribution to the Church’s Family History Centers ended in September 2017 when the Church announced it would transition to an all-digital operation by the end of 2021.
“All of our cameras today are digital,” said Whitehead. “So, we are continuing to grow our collection of images. We're just not growing it by microfilm. It's growing straight digital now.”
The microfilm will continue to be stored and preserved in the Church’s physically secured and climate-controlled archives, to ensure the world’s family history data is available for future generations.
Digitization of the rolls of film began more than 20 years ago, when the Church purchased its first microfilm scanners in 1999. The project was expected to take over 50 years to complete but advances in technology allowed the Church to finish scanning the microfilm this year. The 23-year project took a leap forward in 2006 when software and processes were developed by the Church History Department, FamilySearch and Information and Communication Services Department (ICS) employees.
“It was the ability to capture the role quickly as one image and then use post-processing computer power to find all of the images. And it worked and it worked well,” said Monsen. “This is one of the times that you just really saw the Lord's hand in this work.”
The scanning began with about five employees early on. As the process was developed, up to 30 employees using 26 scanners were working on the project, primarily in quality control to ensure that the images were clear and readable, as the data on the microfilm was digitized. New procedures were adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep the project on track.
The digitization effort is directed by the Church Historian and Recorder and executed by preservation professionals in the Church History Department. The last roll of film added to the collection was captured by FamilySearch’s in-field cameras in 2018.
FamilySearch is committed to collecting, preserving and providing access to the world’s genealogical records to help individuals and families worldwide discover and connect with their family histories. The organization plans to increase the digitization of new records worldwide from its digital camera operations. It is also in the process of digitizing its microfiche collection, which should be completed in the next several years.
"Microfilm was innovative in 1930. This has been innovative today. What will we have in the future? I can't wait to see," concluded Monsen.
“It's something that I never thought that I would see in my lifetime with the projections that we had. I thought my kids, or my grandkids would see this. So, for me to see the conclusion of this scanning effort, it's a dream come true,” said Whitehead.